Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Lovely Image to Hold

It has been a full week-- guests, trips, family, presents, treats. Filled with things I have enjoyed way down to the core of my spirit. We have sat late into the night with kindred spirits and beloved friends, shared yummy foods at our table, joined hands in prayer. Things that to me, grown up Adele, are absolutely the deepest joys of life. Things that make my cup overflow.

But, apparently, all these are things that throw off our family rhythm in a serious sort of way. Spontaneous rescheduling, a flow of people through our front door, different events each night of the week, don't mix very well with a sweet little toddler soul in our home-- perhaps with most toddler souls out there. Enough is enough, and I think we've maxed out around here. There has been tension, frustration, crying. You know when you sometimes just throw up your hands and just say, "Okay, God, I'm realizing that I can't do this alone." Well, it has been one of those experiences.

This morning when the baby was napping, my beloved toddler and I set up a tea party-- and for the first time ever, we used real water. It was amazing to watch how this captured her imagination. We spent half an hour together on our new picnic blanket, in near total silence (except her occasional utterance of something like, "Oh, mommy needs more tea.") It was beautiful, sweet. Sometimes I think that we parents are the greatest visionaries of all. Because in moments when things are going crazy, when we question our choices, our children, we learn to hold on to these lovely little moments. Moments of peace, hope, vision. We hold them with us when we pray, when we dream of our child's future. And it is this imnage-- my two year old carefully, oh so carefully pouring "tea"-- that I am going to sleep with tonight.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Picnic Blanket Success

Some projects just work, while others, needless to say, do not. So I am happy to report that the little crafty Christmas overflow that occupied my free moments yesterday was a success. In fact, all of the creatures loved the picnic blanket from the moments that I started the project-- it seemed to be a full time project to keep all members of the family, four-legged included, off of the project. And who could blame them? What's more comfy than some soft sheets sewn together, padded with some batting, and spread on the floor? It took all my self restraint to keep myself off of the blanket.

Here's the basic gist of it: grab some old sheets or pick some up at a thrift store (they recommend 8 types of fabric... I only had four, which was fine), a slightly more sturdy piece of material for the backing and some light batting for the fill. Once you've gathered the materials, you're just a few steps away from a comfy blanket heavy enough not to blow away in the breeze (and if you add the rock pockets, you can really make sure it stays down). Lovely!

And who cares that it's not exactly picnic weather outside today? We have already had one indoor tea party picnic this morning... and hopefully more to come. And the blanket was ready just in time for someone special's birthday-- and matches wonderfully with his present; two lawn tickets to see a Prairie Home Companion this spring. I can already taste the wine, picnic food, and warm breeze.

* This post links to the 30-minute blog challenge-- check it out!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Birthday Boy

I tried to find a picture of just Ben for this birthday post, but couldn't. Which is fitting, because Ben really does live his life devoted to us lucky members of his family-- it would be rare to catch him without a child in hand, a wife under his arm, or a dog at the end of a leash. And all this with such joy and humor.

We went out for pizza on Saturday night, and spontaneously, in the middle of dinner, Zosia looked across the table at Ben and said, with adoration, "I love you, Daddy. I have the funniest daddy. I love it when you tell stories." It has been the greatest of gifts to watch our two little girls fall as deeply in love with him as I have been for all of these years.

And with that I'm off to the grocery store to buy some supplies for his one humble birthday wish: some meat lasagna.

Happy Birthday, Papa Bear!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Crafty Momentum

I'm not a true crafter-- not like some amazing men and women I have met who cannot live without some sort of craft to be working on. But I must say, this holiday season in particular has cultivated a love for making things: the patient and slow progress of knitting, gratifyingly quick little sewing projects. And even though my Christmas crafting is completed, I still have this lingering itch to be working on something.

Today's beautiful sunny day (much more like spring, not winter at all) has propelled me to work on this sweet picnic blanket. Something for which I have been gathering bedsheets at the thrift store for months now, and something that makes me remember the joy of being outside when the ground dries up a bit.

There seems to be so much crafting energy out there, doesn't there? What has inspired you? What are you working on?

And for those who need some inspiration, here are links to some of my favorite Christmas projects (whose progress you may have tracked):
* The Milo vest that I made for Zosia, Lily, and another little girl I love (sorry... you need to set up a ravelry account... which, as I remember, isn't too tricky)
* A country angel that won my mother's heart-- this pattern is free and quite easy to make.
* A button tree quite similar to this one, whose picture I forgot to snap before it's voyage to it's new home.

Now what has inspired you?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Pocket of Stillness

Ben and I both come from families that have strong Christmas traditions. Mine: an elaborate feast of fish on Christmas Eve. His: an elaborate feast of cookies on Christmas Eve. There are little traditions woven in: an extra place set at the table for the unexpected guest (mine), the reading of the Christmas story from Luke (his), breaking bread together and offering a blessing for the coming year (mine), a small meal of German sandwiches late in the evening (his). And since we live within a short drive of both sets of families, blending traditions is tricky-- it's not like we travel to one family for one holiday, the other for the next. And then we want to develop our own special family traditions-- things our children will cherish and remember that are uniquely our style (read: a little more laid back).

Since we're still a young family, we're in the process of figuring it all out. How can we honor our own family traditions while developing our own? How can we spend time with all those we love while making room for some stillness to honor the coming of the Son of God? And we're just fumbling through all this, really.

This year, there was some chaos: we had the traditional Polish celebration for brunch, came home so the babies could nap, and then had the traditional German celebration for dinner. We came home, exhausted, laid groggy babies to sleep, only to start our own preparations for the next morning. I cleaned the house, we hung stockings, I redecorated the tree (those with small children know that unless roped off, that beautiful tree will have no ornaments on the bottom half come Christmas day), and collapsed into bed.

But there was also peace, calmness. We woke up on Christmas morning, all the coming and going and visiting behind us and just had some stillness. We started a fire, read all of our Christmas books (three times at least), had some oatmeal, played together. It was a slow lazy day, and in that stillness I could feel the sweet echo: God is with us.

There's nothing more unique to each family than holiday celebrations-- there are special, silly traditions, negotiations, relationships to maintain. But I hope that you found a little pocket of stillness somewhere within all of that, whether it was in a quiet home on Christmas eve, in a church celebration, or with your families. The beauty and sweetness of stillness.

Friday, December 25, 2009

God Among Us

Somehow I realized that songs, music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying 'yes' to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying 'yes' to a hope based on God's initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God's work and not mine. Things will never look just right or feel just right. If they did, someone would be lying...But it is into this broken world that a child is born who is called Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, Savior.

-Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak

We gather with friends and family, exchange presents, eat special food, all to try to grapple at our deepest joy-- God has come to be with us. Is with us. Here, in this imperfection, something magical has happen, something shocking and wonderful. So today I wish you all a beautiful, sacred, day, filled with that hope. That truth. Merry Christmas! And may your celebrations be joyful, beautiful, and made complete by God among us.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Not Ready

It's fitting that there is a birth approaching (commemoration of a birth... don't want to make everyone think I'm pregnant twice in a week), because there is some scrambling going on. Forget about my promises of getting everything done before Advent. Yes, yes, the shopping may have been done-- but there's so much more than shopping, isn't there?

No matter how hard I have tried to get everything ready, set aside and prepared for both of my own births, there has been some last minute work to get everything ready. And the truth is, you're never really ready, are you? The Biblical birth story makes my last homebirth look like a cakewalk-- Mary and Joseph certainly didn't have a birth checklist, let alone a sanitary birth bed. God With Us broke into humanity in a moment of unreadiness-- I can almost hear Joseph and Mary asking, "You did call ahead to make sure there was room in the inn, didn't you?" to one another. God works despite our own best efforts not because of them.

So here I am. The birth is taking place tomorrow night--albeit in a distant stable in Bethlehem-- and I'm scrambling. Some things are coming together. I finished a doll for Zosia, Lily has a vest and if my fingers can knit as fast as they type I have hope of finishing a vest for Zosia too. But the truth is, I'm not really ready-- and I'm learning that that's okay.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Enriching Darkness

The darkest day of the year is upon us. Upon whose arrival I would usually groan, or long for warmer days, or fast forward to tomorrow, the first lengthening day of the year. But I am lucky enough to be a part of a group of wise women-- women whose presence in my life deepens, expands, enriches. And upon our winter meeting this year, one of these wise women shared some words about this darkness that is upon us. Words that shifted my imagination, opened my spirit to receiving the blessing of this day, the winter solstice:

Kinds of Enriching Darkness
nurturing darkness
comforting darkness
sheltering darkness
restful darkness
restorative darkness
protective darkness
supporting darkness
love-making darkness
tender darkness
soft, gentle darkness
clarifying darkness
emancipating darkness
transforming darkness

We covered ourselves with dark shawls--and felt the warmth, comfort, shelter that such darkness creates. And today, on this dark day of winter, I wish you such blessings and many more.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Did I mention that my energy seems to turn inward when it snows? Into my home, into my family, into my heart. And this blizzard is no exception. Even as the storm was moving in, I was in a flurry of activity-- cleaning my house from top to bottom after dark on Friday night as my family, poor things, watched in wide-eyed surprise. And yesterday my energy seemed to grow as I worked in little projects here and there. And as the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, comes upon us tomorrow, the energy around these sacred interior workings seems to be even stronger, carving out a space in my life where there is creativity, activity, motion, even in these homebound days of winter.

So here are my projects, in the order pictured:
* A coffee cozy for a woman that I love more than words. It's supposed to be for take out cups from the coffee shop, but works just as well with an old fashioned mug. Thanks for the inspiration, Kyrie-- as always, a project that is fun, cute, and doable.
* My third vest taking shape and nearing completion hopefully in time for Christmas morning. I must say, my fingers have become accustomed to the motion of knitting. Addictive, to say the least.
* And Annie, font of creative ideas, can my birdie please join your flock? Although, I must ask-- how did you do the bottom of your owls? I gave up on the cardboard stand and just hemmed mine together, but I imagine there must be a way to make it look a little more "done."

And there's still energy for shoveling snow, which, did I mention, there seems to be a lot of? A true snowfall in Virginia. My Boston-longing heart is happy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

When the weather outside is frightful...

We seem to turn our hearts and minds inwards. Today's special treat is baking a whole little army of Cranberry Breads to distribute to neighbors. Traditionally a Thanksgiving treat in the Collins household, this recipe has been made for thirty five years or so. And while we usually make it in large pans, I found that a double recipe yields ten little holiday pans perfectly. Enjoy!

Recipe makes two (9x5) loaves or ten small loaves.

2 cups flour
1 c sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
½ c butter
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp grated orange peel
¾ c orange juice
1 ½ c golden raisins
1 ½ fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped

Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Cut in butter until crumbly. Add egg, OJ, and orange peel. Stir until evenly moist. Fold in fruit items. Grease a piece of brown paper and place in the bottom of the greased pan. Bake for 1 hour 20 minutes at 350°F for the large loaf pans, 45 minutes for the small pans. Cover with foil for the last 15 minutes. Cool 10-15 minutes before removing from pan.

And with that I'm getting myself, a husband, and two little girls bundled up and out into the snow. Looks like close to a foot so far, and counting! How do you like to spend your snow days?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's Not About Giving

We all know the feeling. A friend drops in, maybe an acquaintance, a neighbor. Someone we don't know that well, someone that we certainly didn't put on our Christmas list. Goodness, we didn't even send them a card. And here they are at our door with a beautiful platter of assorted homemade cookies. Or a lovely ornament tied with a ribbon. Or some other thoughtful, beautiful, perfect gift. And we stand there, eyes wide, arms spread, speechless. Because we don't have a gift in return. Maybe we scurry into the back of the house and wrap something up. But the feeling is still there: discomfort, embarrassment, indebtedness. Powerlessness. It is awkward to be the receiver of a gift. And from now on we might avoid that person's street when we're out on a walk, or at least until we've come up with some equally lovely gift to give in return.

So here we are in the Christmas season. The "season of giving," as we've coined it. But really, is this the season of giving? We certainly love to give. Why? Because it makes us feel good. It puts us in control. It gives us a pat on the back, helps those in need, seems to be a win-win. But the truth in the underbelly of all of this is that it is excruciatingly difficult to be the recipient of a gift-- especially a wonderful unmerited gift. Which is exactly what the Christmas story-- that story set in a stable in Bethlehem-- is all about. Receiving an unmerited gift.

William Willimon writes,
"The Christmas story implies that what God wants to do for us is so strange, so beyond the bounds of human effort and striving, that God must resort to utterly unnatural, supernatural means. It tells of an unimaginable gift from a stranger, a God whom we hardly even knew. This strange story tells us how to be receivers."

In the Christmas story, we are receivers before we are givers. In our best efforts we have managed to get it all wrong, because the true Christmas spirit is not about giving. It is about receiving this stranger, this acquaintance whom we hardly even know, bearing lavish gifts of grace and unmerited love, with open arms, humility, and welcome.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Very Pregnant in Advent

We're in the third trimester here. That time that things get uncomfortable-- hips sore, body heavy, bathroom breaks a little too frequent. I love pregnancy artwork-- paintings, sculptures, photographs. But it is interesting to note that very rarely does this artwork depict a woman truly on the cusp of birth. I would say that months four, maybe five, are the months that are deemed art-worthy. Month nine is large, comical. People who haven't been around pregnant women lately will exclaim "I've never seen a pregnant woman that big!" (and by this I mean my dad). And strangers will ask if it's twins. But no, the truth is, that's just what a really pregnant woman looks like. She looks imposing, clumsy, slow.

And this is just where we find ourselves in the Advent season. Mary is pregnant, very pregnant. All of humanity is pregnant in expectation, hope, uncertainty. The birth is coming. The surges have started softening the cervix. There may be moments that it feels like this is it, this is the birth. And then the moment passes, sleep eases the feeling, and it's back to just being unseemingly pregnant.

And pregnant with what? A child-- an unexpected child. A child that we feel has hope, that we just know has some sort of special purpose. The Son of God? He remains cloaked in the darkness of the womb. It is an uncertain time, a time of longing to see the outcome, to be able to see this child when he is crawling, see him when he is talking, imagine what he will become. Even to see his groggy eyes gaze up into ours when still covered in amniotic fluid.

But for now, we remain pregnant. Large. Uncomfortable. Uncertain, curious. And longing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Morning Muffins

One summer when I was working in the city, I used to stop off in a local bakery every morning and pick up a cup of coffee and a "morning muffin," which was a delicious carrot-raisin muffin that made me not mind being up at an early hour in the least (and this in college, mind you!). And they were substantive enough to keep my filled up until lunch, and healthy enough to not make me feel too guilty.

Yesterday morning I readied a few ingredients so that Z and her aunt could have a cooking adventure-- shredded carrots, shredded apples, flax seed and oat bran among several others-- and these "company muffins" match and even exceed my memories of morning muffins. I grow more and more impressed with my go-to cookbook each time I try a new recipe. So here it is for you to enjoy!

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup oat bran or rolled oats
3/4 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a large bowl combine and stir well.

2 tart apples (peeled, cored, and shredded)
1 1/2 cups carrots (finely shredded)
1 cup flax seed meal (or walnuts)
1/2 cup raisins
Add and stir to coat. Make well in center.

2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
In a separate bowl mix together. Pour into flour mixture. Stir just until moistened. Fill muffin tins about 3/4 full. Bake in preheated oven at 375 for 18-20 minutes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Some Guests on our Shelf

A lovely little package arrived from Israel the other day... which is just so perfect, since it's Jesus and family! I always loved having a nativity set growing up, and knew I wanted something special that would be touchable, playable, but still not your average "toy." This mama, papa, and baby set stuck out, and are just perfect on a shelf that's eye-level for Zosia. And I loved the fact that Mary had long black hair and Joseph is depicted as an old man-- both unusual depictions of Mary and Joseph, but most likely correct!

I wasn't sure whether Advent talk/celebrations were getting through to Zosia-- she's just so tiny, and if you think about it, the whole idea of Christmas is very complex. A birthday for someone far away, long ago. Someone that we "see" at church, but who isn't here in body.

But the other day she emerged from her room with a baby blanket over her head, and when I asked what she was playing, she said, in that "how can you not know, Mama!" sort of way, "I'm Mary!" And then she pulled out a baby doll and started bossing Jesus around. I love that kid.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

When All Wrong is Alright

It's been one of those days-- well, a couple of days, really. The handle to our car door broke. We moved mountains to borrow a car, scrambled to get out the door this morning to our doctor's appointment (to that wonderful pediatrician all the way across town), to drop off that trusty old car of ours. One thing after another: a lost wallet, a dirty diaper, a muddy dog. And then when we had finally let out a sigh of relief, when we had imagined that we were in the clear, the final blow: that appointment that we had thought was today was tomorrow at 9:15. It was just becoming comical-- a comedy of errors.

As our morning routine had been going so wrong, Ben and I had started listing things we were thankful for, things that were going right-- the change in attitude kept us going, seemed to override all these little blips. But then on the silent ride home from the doctor's office, the practice of gratitude became slightly more difficult.

We came home, had some coffee, settled the kids into their routines. And flipped open to our daily Advent reading, which somehow has this way of speaking so eloquently to our current dilemmas. Today's words for us:
"Keep your eyes on the prince of peace, the one who doesn't cling to his divine power; the one who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights, and rule with great power...; the one who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind, the one who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement... He is the source of all peace."

And then there was a glimmer of clarity. Because there is beauty, and even sacredness in those moments that are "all wrong." Sometimes when things don't go the way they're supposed to-- when our best efforts result only in mistakes, when our hopes fall like dominoes, one after another, we enter into the realm of the divine. A divinity that came not through power, but meekness, who did not cling to divinity, but chose powerlessness. That divinity is the source of all peace.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who Needs A Doormat Anyway?

Thanks, Selma! Nothing quite like some fresh slush straight off a pair of boots. And here's the queen on her "throne" right by the front door.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hot Chocolate Chip Cookies on Demand

You all probably know this trick, right? When you're making a batch of your favorite Chocolate Chip cookies, only bake as many as you're planning on eating that day. Take the rest of the dough and scoop cookies onto a tray or cookie sheet, freeze for 10 minutes or so, and then place into a ziplock bag. Then, whenever you're in the mood for a hot chocolate chip cookie, bake one up. Delicious. And generally keeps you from eating a whole tray of cookies at once. Generally.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Winter Magic

A snow day in Virginia. We're spending ours huddled by the fire, making a snow man (a tiny, tiny, snowman, but magical none the less I just looked outside after writing this post and my engineer of a husband has actually built up a full-size snowman that is towering over Zosia. I'm impressed) and baking cookies. And drinking coffee.

Wishing you a lovely day filled with winter magic.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Our Simple Advent

We have developed a rhythm for a simple Advent celebration. Every night, after the dishes have been cleared and the tummies filled, we gather around the coffee table in the living room with some sweet treats, a candle, our Advent calendar, and a Christmas book. We light a candle while singing a verse of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and then our sweet little Z opens one of the Advent doors-- which hold a yummy surprise, and another part of the nativity (I must add here that she has learned so much about waiting and patience these days, as the advent calendar is out in plain view all day and she has not yet even attempted to open one of the future doors! More self-restraint than I can boast). We eat a special treat, sing a Christmas song or two, read our book, and then blow out the candle. Only 15 minutes or so, but such a powerful centering part of our day; a beacon of light in the dark evening.

In planning simple sacred celebrations for our young family, it has been a challenge for me to remember that short and simple is important-- the theologian in me always seems to want to include more complex rituals and deep readings. But really, for our family right now, a candle, a treat, and a song seems to work just as well.

What sort of rituals have you developed for Advent?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Filling the Darkness

Every year I am presented with a similar challenge during the winter months: How can I make the long, dark evenings feel as full and vibrant as those of the summer months? Certainly there will be less activity-- more quiet, more introspection, more time huddling indoors. That is the gift of the season: stillness. But too often stillness morphs into emptiness, loneliness, despair. We even give names to this lack of substance: seasonal affective disorder, depression. Names to a very real experience of feeling that something is lacking, that our sunny full days have disappeared into darkness.

I am still trying to cultivate a love for this season, for the simplicity it ushers in, for the way that the cold sends us into our hearths to light a fire. We make more of a "to do" of dinner in these months, spending longer around the table, having an official dessert course. And I make sure to get outside with the girls for as long as possible during the daylight-- one or even two hours-- which makes spending an evening inside feel a little more "right."

I realized that there is a beautiful wisdom to the fact that here in Virginia, the most holiday-filled time of the year falls during the darkest months. We fill the cold emptiness with a silent hope, with quiet preparation and aromatic baking. Those of you who know me well may have noticed that I have been filling my own heart and mind with a craftiness that is uncharacteristic of me. And a certain joyful member of our family has filled her own time to mastering the art of crawling this past week-- certainly a change of seasons in our family life (can you say babyproofing?). We seem to take up more household projects during the winter than in the summer-- I know there is along "to do" list that I am already dreaming of completing. And we are much more likely to have guests over for supper during these months-- small and large alike. But no matter how busily we try to weave a little cocoon for ourselves this season, the facts remain the same; it is cold, it is dark, the trees are empty. Our activities do not change this. And maybe there is a certain beauty and wisdom in such scarcity.

How do you pass your winter months? How do you fill the darkness?