Thursday, December 22, 2011

Handling the Holidays

I woke up from an attempt to put my two year old down for a nap in a panicked haze. I was the only one sleeping. I could hear Twila rattling around in some distant corner of the house. Jada sat playing quietly in the corner of her room where her blocks had been discarded.

“Hi mommy!” Jada greeted me brightly as if she was scrambling eggs, waiting for me to roll out of bed and start the day.

I tried to shake the fog out of my head that’s been so prevalent these past three weeks. Something about the coming holiday, the unpredictable weather, my heaving hormones, and my crazy kids has made this an epically sleepy month. It’s not just a tiredness of the body; it’s a tiredness of the mind that no amount of deep sleep, vigorous exercise or caffeine seems able to chase away.

I lifted Jada into my arms and stumbled into the hallway to find out what kind of trouble Twila had busied herself with. The first thing I noticed was a fresh roll of bright red, candy-cane wrapping paper opened and sliced into any number of varying sizes on the guestroom floor, the scissors used to cut the paper, laying wide open amongst them. I walked a little further.

I bowl of tortilla chips sat on the table (the telltale snack of a child with an unavailable mom). Just as I walked up to see how stale the chips were, Twila came prancing out of the bathroom, a dozen clips in her hair, smelling like she’d rubbed a sea breeze candle all over her body. Turns out that’s exactly what she’d done.

“Hey, mom, how was your nap? Hey guess what?” She went on without pausing.

“Twila what’s with the mess in the guest room?” I interrupted, grumbling because I was overwhelmed with how quickly the house can get messy when I’m not paying attention.

“I’ll clean it up. But guess what, mom?”

But before she could finish, I noticed that the kitchen door was open.

“Guess what mom; a present came for me and Jada!”

“You opened the door?” It was the first coherent sentence I’d been able to form. Since Twila was two and a half and I started napping without her because I was exhausted from pregnancy, the one insistence I’d drilled into her each and every time I’d gone to lay down was of course: DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR—FOR ANYONE!

“It was just the mail man,” Twila seemed exasperated in her mature five year old way, with my missing the grand point that a present had arrived as if from nowhere—on our doorstep.

“Twila we never open the door when mom’s not around,” I said a little more grumpily than was necessary because I wasn’t fully awake from my nap and I was sick of being tired and was thoroughly incapable of meeting Twila at the level of energy she was skating on. She shrunk a little, and turned back to fancying herself in the bathroom.

I stalked around the house for a minute, trying to get my bearings. I walked into the living room where our tree stands tall and slightly imposingly in the corner. Underneath, the girls and I placed a couple of presents we’d wrapped for Ryan and his family the day before. Then I spotted it. There nestled with the blue Noel wrapping, was a big box in bright red candy-cane wrapping. It looked like it had been wrapped in four layers of paper and the tape almost completely covered the surface area. The wrapping was lumpy and wrinkled.

I knelt down by the package and just looked at it for a while. Jada climbed down and ran after Honey.

“Hey T,” I whispered because I knew she wasn’t far away and because I didn’t want to alert Jada who wants to be in the middle of whatever Twila is doing.

Twila came over.

“Did you wrap this present?”

She nodded.

“You are getting amazing at wrapping presents,” I said. And she leaned into my lap and wrapped her arms around my neck.

“Come on mom, I want to show you something—it’ll make you happy. You think it’s nothing special, right? Pretend you can’t see and you have to hold my hand.” Twila in her five year old maturity speaks in endless streams of thought and monologue that seem to require a response at regular intervals but rarely leave gaps long enough in which to respond.

She brought me to the guest room and showed me that all the wrapping had been cleaned up, the scissors put away. Jada came around the corner holding the cat in both arms. Honey’s head poked out as if it might drag against the wall and her haunches hung low. And I realized things are changing.

Things are changing fast. One challenging stage is replaced with another and we find ourselves missing the last one.

The end of this year has reached a gallop as Christmas draws near. In November a good friend gave me the idea to make advent activities for the kids. And since I’ve been looking for ways to deemphasize gift-giving and focus on preparing our hearts and minds for the holiday, this seemed like a great idea. Today there are only three loops left on the advent chain that holds an activity for each day. I can hardly believe we’ve done so many already.

When I tell people what we’re doing this year, they first say how cool that idea is and then they ask what kind of things we’ve been doing. I tell them it varies. One day the girls got to open a present that was a deck of cards, each with a science experiment we could try. One day we baked pumpkin bread loaves for the whole family. One day we made “I Care About You Bags” for the homeless and drove around passing them out. Last week we went down town to see Santa Clause and have breakfast, one day we read the Christmas story and drew the scene we imagined.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas is three days away in Minnesota. Whether it’s the complete lack of snow, or the massive influx of long and untreatable viruses we Minnesotans have been enduring, it just doesn’t feel like a time for peace and celebration. But these activities have helped.

Each day for the last month, the girls and I have had at least one moment in the day when we’ve sat together, talked about the holidays, gotten excited or reflected on the trials of different life situations.

Through some new friends of ours, we’ve taken up a collection of clothes and shoes and toys for seventeen young boys and girls living in Rwanda. This work has given Twila and me time to talk about how children live in other parts of the world, why it is so important to think about them and help support them.

The other day as Twila flitted around the house doing her five year old thing that is almost entirely independent these days, playing, leading Jada, inventing new ideas and games, she came up to me with a small jar she’d found in the cupboard. It had a few coins rattling loudly in it. “Mom, do you have any coins you can give me? I’m collecting money to give to people who don’t have any.” I could have fallen on the floor I ran so quickly to shake out my purse.

And that, I think is what I really want to teach my daughters this time of year. Yes it’s fun to bake cookies and open presents on Christmas morning. Yes, we love to celebrate with our families and cook grand meals and open bottles of wine. But Jesus’ life on earth was only partly about celebrating with friends and family. It was also, and probably more so, about service.

If Christmas is meant to commemorate the life of a person who did radical social works and gave everything he had to the people, it only seems right that our celebration honoring his life would do the same.

And just to see that Twila is getting it, just beginning to get it, but getting it, makes me feel like all the tedium of motherhood can actually be outweighed by the impact we ultimately have. People say that mothering is the most important job, but in reality, it doesn’t always feel that way. Hours of rocking fussy babies in the night, trying to be patient while redressing kids to get out the door and changing diapers that get dirty five minutes after we should have left, helping gather the materials for crafts and then moments later having to “help” clean them up again, negotiating transitions and doing our best to protect their bodies from the cold and sugar and busyness of this time of year. The truth is, sometimes it feels meaningless.

But in moments when you see your child take initiative, whether it’s to wrap a present or start a fund-raising project, a mother can see that her influence and lessons are taking root. And it’s enough to give a weary mother hope in this season of advent.