A Monster Truck Christmas

The last post in the series… now back to my regularly scheduled life.

* * *

Around Thanksgiving, I placed a toy truck in my Amazon shopping cart, waiting for the day when I would deem my order complete. Long story short, I had to ask my Wonderful Sister-in-Law to order said truck Amazon Prime style since we’re not prime members, and the truck mysteriously went on sale for prime members only! once it was in my cart…go figure. (We’ll talk conspiracy theory another time.)

When I went to my sister-in-law’s house to pick up the truck, I was expecting a certain size box. The box that awaited me was quite a bit larger than the box I had anticipated. I figured it was just extra packaging. However, once I unwrapped the truck completely at home, I realized the truck is nothing other than HUGE, not what I had expected.

(I asked Daniel if I should return the truck for a smaller one. He said, “No way. It’s awesome.” My apologies to the recipient’s parents who will need to add on to their house for this monstrosity.)

The little boy who receives this truck is going to be pretty happy (I hope). However, I also know this is a time of year when not everyone is happy with what they have received, and I’m not talking about oversized Christmas gifts either.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the many people dear to my heart who are dealing with the unexpected this Christmas… health problems, broken relationships, uncertain futures, loved ones moving, missing deceased loved ones. And those are just a few.

Amazon sent you a monster truck when you really only wanted a matchbox. Or better yet, you want to send that truck back to Amazon and forget it ever arrived at your door.

The changes in your lives have left you shocked and hurting. This was not what you wanted. This was not what you expected. While I do not claim to know each and every one of your feelings, I grieve with you and think I might be able to say I too have experienced the unwelcomed unexpected.

I see you. I hear you. Your road is long, and it is overwhelming. Your pain is not forgotten.

But even in the unexpected, we are invited to take a risk. To fix our eyes on the Reason for the Season and not just to hope, but also to dare to expect the impossible.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

From our Family Coloring Book to you…

Merry Christmas!

Expect the Unexpected

Both Alice and I have joined the craze of adult coloring books. Alice is quite a bit more dedicated to it than I am. I took two coloring pages along on our cross country trip and didn’t crack open a single marker during those six weeks.

Alice, on the other hand, used an entire! pencil box filled to the brim with colored pencils and spent large portions of many days happily coloring. Fueled by receiving a plethora of coloring paraphernalia for her birthday in August, this passion continued once we returned home. More coloring supplies are at the top of her Christmas list as four months later she is once again running low on pens and pencils.

I think Alice is an amazing color-er; she takes her time and picks out colors that compliment each other well. She has an eye for it. So as a way to connect with her, I decided to buy an Advent coloring book for us to share. I planned to call it the “Family Coloring Book.” However, Ian and Daniel don’t usually bother with coloring, so “Family” was just an alias to cover up my motive.

Instead, I pictured Alice and myself tag-teaming our way through the book, with me coloring early in the day and Alice adding to it when she got home from school or on weekends. The end product would be a beautiful shared experience that we would treasure for years. It would be ours, just hers and mine, mother and daughter.

On my deathbed, she will probably whisper to me, “Remember the Christmas we spent coloring our Advent book? It was one of the best things we ever did together.”

On Tuesday, December first, I spent some of the morning happily coloring a portion of the first page while I pondered the idea of “waiting well.” I was completely satisfied with my own color choices, which rarely happens, and was eager for Alice to add to it.

It was the next morning before I had the chance to share the book with Alice. Ian happened to be in hearing range as I explained the Family Coloring Book. Much to my surprise, Ian wanted to color too.

What?

Wait.

Really? (said with a twang of whining disbelief)

Now Ian is not quite as patient with staying in the lines or as adept at choosing complimentary colors as Alice is. He also likes to take quite a bit of artistic freedom while he colors. So my knee-jerk response to his excitement was to tell him that I needed to amend my earlier statement of “Family Coloring Book” to “Mother-Daughter Coloring Book;” my mother-daughter keepsake did not include Ian.

But I kept my mouth shut, even as I watched the kids color through almost three pages over the course of the morning; Ian sporting varying degrees of care and artistic flare. Or as he forcefully stated to one of my objections in his choice of additions to a picture, “Let me color my imagination.”

Seriously? Who can argue with that?

Still, it took me the entire three pages to adjust to my idea of a beautiful work of art becoming… a different beautiful work of art, but one that I will treasure just the same.

Change.

Change is hard for me. Very hard. Sometimes it takes years for me to adjust to a new idea or a changing tradition. I wish I were more adaptable. It’s something I’m becoming more aware of and thus am hoping I am on the road to less inflexibility.

But I don’t think I’m the only one who has trouble with change. The Jews in Jesus’s time were expecting a king, one seriously rich and fierce dude who would conquer the Roman Empire and rule the earth. Instead, they got a poor, helpless baby, a cosmic Christmas shift. Just like many of that time, I’m sure I would not have been the first one to jump on the This-Baby-is-the-Foretold-Messiah boat.

What else do I miss because of my rigid expectations? Because I am expecting one thing and miss the joy and awe of the unexpected.

The beauty of blue birds, watching my son and daughter accomplish projects independently, the simplicity of less shopping, the creation of a new work of art, the wonder of God’s plan… all totally different from my own expectations.

Maybe it’s time to expect the unexpected.

Shifting Expectations

So…maybe it’s becoming clear. This week there is a theme which formed during six hours of a writing flurry. I’m sure this will not be repeated often, so don’t expect it next week…or probably ever again.

* * *

Christmas is a season heavily laced with expectation. I expect to Christmas shop around late November (all online), spend the first weekend in December singing with a community choir, and get a tree the following weekend.

There will be chocolate covered peanut butter Ritz, and the kids will beg relentlessly until we bake and decorate cut-out cookies, which will be at least! a three day process. (This year was a new record. It took seven days from start to finish. Ugh!)

We will open the 24 doors on the same Advent calendar each year, go see Messick’s light show, and Christmas Eve will be spent with Daniel’s family. My family gathering is the wild card due to farm work, but even that is expected.

The Hallelujah Chorus will be sung at some point during the week of Christmas, even if it is a choir of one soprano (me) in my kitchen.

Finally, my kids expect three gifts to open on Christmas morning along with their stockings, just like I received three gifts as a child and “supposedly” so did toddler Jesus. Also, I expect to do the majority of the shopping for those gifts, since Daniel doesn’t enjoy shopping.

Messing with any one of these expectations for our children is like introducing some type of cosmic Christmas chaos in their little realm of the universe… or possibly my realm of the universe.

This year, instead of buying the kids their three gifts, Daniel and I agreed to buy one large family gift. Daniel spent some time on e-bay and found the item.

Since I am usually the gift buyer, I figured if we had one large family gift, there could easily be one small gift per child without feeling like we’d gone overboard. Plus I needed to shop like I do every year.

Would it still feel like Christmas if there was only one box to unwrap? Not to me, it wouldn’t. I didn’t even bother to mention my thoughts to Daniel, thinking he too would agree that one small gift per child isn’t outrageous.

Then one evening, Daniel stated he would like to put a small part of the family gift into each stocking instead of me buying small things for stockings. I hesitated.

I had already been planning the stockings, buying the cutesy little stuff that the kids beg me to buy, but I never give in, making me Mean-Cheap-Mom. Stockings are my chance to redeem my Mean-Cheap-Mom status.

But Fine! I’ll be Mean-Cheap-Mom for another year and forego the stocking stuffers; at least I can still give the small individual gift.

One evening at supper, we told the kids about the large family gift and that it meant they weren’t getting three gifts. They took the news well and have been enthusiastically trying to figure out what the large gift is ever since.

Christmas lists were made for grandparents, with me picking what I wanted to claim as the one small gift from Mean-Cheap-Mom (and Not-Mean-Cheap-Dad). I was adjusting decently.

Until one evening, Daniel and I were talking about the kids’ lists, and I revealed what I was planning to buy each child for the one small gift. To my great surprise, Daniel didn’t endorse my one-small-gift-per-child plan.

I felt a Christmas cosmic shift occur as I mentally emptied my Amazon cart. I couldn’t buy my children “anything” for Christmas? Never mind that they are getting a gift that costs more than we usually spend on them. That’s obviously not the point!

The point is that three gifts have been a Christmas standard for 30+ years of my life. What Christmas blasphemy is this?

Tradition: when the same events occur in the same manner for the same occasion over a long period of time (my own highly sophisticated and scholarly definition).

I get so stuck in tradition that it’s hard to adjust to something different, even something new that produces no negative side effects. Expecting things to stay the same keeps me anchored, which is positive, but can also be extremely negative.

When I can’t accept minor neutral changes, it’s time to re-examine. Where does my joy come from? Where am I placing my trust and hope? It shouldn’t be from my expectations about Christmas or the annual trip to the beach or my weekly schedule.

When it comes to doing school work, one of my children is very tradition driven. Subjects must happen in a specific order each day. Schedule, knowing what to expect, gives this child a sense of security, and if things are out of order, I will know about it through means of whining or possibly tantrums. Being the very mature adult that I am, I get extremely frustrated by this.

But maybe it’s time to examine my own life and remember that security does not come from tradition. Three gifts on Christmas morning is a nice sentiment, but it’s certainly not a reason to throw a mental tantrum. Instead of clinging to my traditions and expectations, I hope to make room for the real Reason for the Season.

Great Expectations Gone Wrong

Fifth grade has been a huge! adjustment for Alice and, if I’m honest, for myself as well. We were told at the beginning of the year that the teachers were going to expect a new level of responsibility from the kids, and they do. Both Alice and I are still adjusting to the implications of “a new level of responsibility.”

Daniel will tell you my stress level has been maxed out since the end of August. Pretty much every Tuesday and Thursday evening, which are the nights before an at-home school day for Alice, when I go through Alice’s backpack and the lesson plans for the next day, Daniel can anticipate some type of stress related breakdown on my end.

Such breakdowns involve ranting or furiously emailing teachers and/or fellow parents, etc. or tears or just sitting and staring because I am now beyond exhausted by it all. Or even more recently, I could be found laughing like a lunatic because, even though I am certifiably half-crazed, laughing still seems slightly more appealing than poking my eye out with a fork, which is probably my next move.

I am at my wits end. End of story.

In general, my meltdowns aren’t pretty, and after three months of them, Daniel was tired of them.

One day while the kids were at school, he took me aside. After an hour of interrogation long line of carefully crafted questions, he asked me if some minuscule portion of the problem could possibly be me?

ME???? How dare he suggest such complete and total…. rubbish!

Think. Think. Think.

Then again…

Without tooting my horn too much, I was a student who enjoyed working hard to earn good grades and thus did well academically through all my schooling. Failure, or anything remotely (or even not-so-remotely) close to it, was not an option in any subject, not even in gym, which I hated with every fiber of my intensely uncoordinated body.

I was the student doing the extra credit project even though my current “A” did not need any boosting what-so-evah. I was the college kid laboring on school work for 21 hours a day for 4 weeks straight in my second year of college. I might be considered a bit of an overachiever.

Maybe I am my own problem? Maybe my expectations for fifth grade are a little too high?

* * *

Recently, Ian had to make a construction paper Christmas ball at home to take to school where it would hang above his desk for the remainder of December. He brought home eight carefully chosen Christmas cards to cut up and glue to the ball for decoration. He was very excited about this project.

He traced a large circle template on eight pieces of construction paper and asked me to cut the circles because he’s not the best scissor-er yet (possibly because his delinquent mother still hasn’t gotten him a left-handed scissors, shame on her!). I cut the circles because I knew they needed to be uniform in order to form the sphere easily.

Using a triangle template placed in the center of each circle, Ian tried to fold the circle around the triangle, leaving a triangular imprint in the middle where he would glue words or images cut from the cards. The folding proved to be a bit more than Ian could do easily, and once again, he asked for help.

The next job was cutting the cards. Ian started cutting, hacking away quite haphazardly at the cards. He would cut out the image he wanted from the card, and if it didn’t fit in the triangular space, he would quickly hack large pieces of the picture off, chopping at the picture here and there, until it raggedly fit into the space.

One such picture he had basically hacked to bits, and the image still wasn’t fitting in the triangle. I helped him re-orient the image, showed him where to to cut, and then glued on other pieces he had already cut off which now fit because we had maximized the space. The end product pleased me even if I had had to perform minor surgery in order to get everything to fit beautifully.

For the next picture, we talked about layout and came up with a plan before he started hacking. That panel looked great too.

Then Ian picked up a card with a large star on it, and he started hacking away again. “Wait. Don’t trim so much. You can do it this way or this way and fit more of the picture in your space,” I told him showing him some ideas I had.

He threw down the card and the scissors. “Fine! You do it your way!” he yelled and walked away.

I immediately realized my error. I waited a couple minutes while he scootered out his frustration in the basement and then apologized. “We’ll do it your way,” I told him.

There may have been quite a bit more coaxing to get him back to the project since he was still a bit apprehensive of his meddling mother, but in the end, he finished the ball.

His way, minus my expectations.

Expectations

To say I was a tad nervous is an understatement. My daughter was centerstage, in front of 40+ people, who knew me relatively well. Our church was enjoying a congregational evening of playing the game Family Feud, and Alice was facing off with another child.

The Feud had apparently surveyed 100 children, asking them the number one thing their mothers were most likely to be heard yelling at their children. Alice was about pronounce what she thought was the number one answer, based on her experience with her own mother of course.

Scenes from the day flashed before my eyes (and ears) as I could hear myself scolding Alice, just before we left for church, for not brushing her hair, for lounging in the bathtub too long, and for misplacing an item we needed to take to church. Which one would she pick as the number one reprimand?

Or would she go back earlier in the day and choose other phrases that regularly come from my mouth on at-home school days, phrases such as “What are you supposed to be doing, Alice?” or “Where should you put that? * big sigh *” or “Focus, Alice,” all usually uttered in frustration.

Worse yet, what awful words did I once speak rashly, words that scarred her for life and should never be repeated, but are so deeply entrenched in her little, sensitive mind that that is the only thing she could think of under pressure and will now reveal to my fellow church-goers. (My guess is those words probably aren’t church-rated.)

I waited with a pounding heart and instantly sweaty palms. Which of my expectations weighed on my daughter the most?

* * *

Recently, Ian spent some time in our garage, engaged in his newest past time of hammering and sawing on bits and pieces of scrap wood. He brought his finished project upstairs for all to admire; it was a bird feeder.

It’s hard to admire a bird feeder that isn’t going to feed any birds. Daniel and I didn’t say anything, but we didn’t expect any birds to visit the feeder which was a piece of wood with a hanger going up through the middle.

The feeder would blow around in the wind if it stayed attached to a branch. But even more problematic, it would be pillaged by squirrels long before any bird set foot on it.

To be honest, it was a project I was hoping Ian would forget about. Out of sight, out of mind, so I moved it to the basement where I hoped it would camouflage well with several other half finished projects that reside there.

Not only didn’t Ian forget, he insisted I buy bird seed. I didn’t want to buy seed, so I told him he needed sides on the feeder to protect the seeds from the wind…and the squirrels, who would tip the end of the feeder into their mouths and watch all those tasty seeds slide right into their cheek pouches.

Ian was not deterred. After some more time in the garage….Ta-da!

He was even more proud of his bird feeder with newly installed ledges. I didn’t have the heart to tell him to keep his expectations low.

After several trips to the store and “forgetting” to buy bird seed, I finally bought a bag of cheap sunflower seeds, which claimed to attract cardinals. I’ve seen cardinals around our house, but I was still sure even the most deluxe bird seed wouldn’t coax the cardinals to Ian’s feeder, at least not before the squirrels ate everything.

Did I mention squirrels?

The first day Ian put out seed, Daniel and I watched as a squirrel hung onto a branch with its back legs and then stretched out onto the feeder, using his front legs to help himself to a large lunch of sunflower seeds, his body suspended between branch and feeder.

Well, I for one was not about to feed squirrels all winter long. But for now, we had a bag of seed that would otherwise sit in the garage for years to come, so Ian kept putting it out.

On the third day, I happened to glance out the window as I’d been somewhat keeping watch on the feeder happenings. If nothing else, it is entertaining to watch the squirrels suspend themselves between the tree and the feeder for a quick snack.

But this time, it wasn’t a squirrel I saw. Something blue caught my eye, and I did a double take. I realized a male blue bird was sitting in the tree.

I’ve never seen blue birds around our house, so I was very excited. I think they are positively beautiful birds. After a bit, a female joined him. In a few minutes, another male came.

At one point, we had five!! yes, five! blue birds in the tree. Ten years of living at this location, and we’ve never seen one blue bird, much less five at the same time!

Who knows if they actually came because of the feeder. Or if the feeder was merely the tool that caused me to watch closely, allowing me this glimpse of a rare bluebird reunion. Either way, every time I think of Ian’s bird feeder, I will be filled with awe at the beauty of such a lovely bird.

So much for low expectations.

* * *

So back to Family Feud. What did my daughter proclaim as the number one thing mothers are known to yell at their kids? What does Alice feel is my number one expectation of her?

Suuurvey says!

I’m so very sad to say that I will never know. She didn’t get to answer. Her opponent buzzed in first with the number one answer (clean up/pick up your things), and Alice went back to her seat without saying a word.