Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reading and Watching This Christmas

We brought three Christmas decorations with us:  the stockings, the Advent wreath, and Toby's nativity scene.  It was a good plan--we have no storage here, and I am not missing all the effort of decorating (and undecorating).  That also means that the seasonal books were left behind, so our seasonal reading and viewing and watching has all been via the library and Netflix.  Here's a bit of what we're enjoying this year--mostly for my reference so that I can buy/rent/find some of these again next year.

  • Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh and J.otto Seibold - Cute pictures, fun read.
  • Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett- I'm just getting to know Jan Brett, and loving everything I've found.  Her text is sometimes a bit much for my 3-year-old, but this one repeats a rhyme throughout, and he likes that a lot.  Like the Gingerbread Baby, Toby is always trying to make friends, too, so he always seems so genuinely happy at the end when the Baby finds his Friends.
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss - we're all big Seuss fans around here lately.
  • The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg - I might be the only one, but I didn't really get into this when I was a kid.  But it has a train, so Toby is hooked.  And he's been sleeping with a little jingle bell he got at preschool ever since we started reading it.
  • The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Rachel Isadora - the classic text, updated with bright collages of Christmas in Africa.  Just plain fun to look through.
Christmas Specials
  • Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas - my husband's childhood favorite.  Totally worth it just for the "River Meets the Sea" song (that also appears on the Muppet Christmas Album with John Denver).
  • Nutcracker: The Motion Picture - We watched this version (because it was on the Netflix instant) after seeing a live puppet show version.  Toby stuck with it nearly all the way through, almost as intrigued by the dancers as by the puppets.  This version features Maurice Sendack's designs, many of the set pieces are his drawings, and his style works perfectly with the trippy-trip-to-candyland-ness of the story.  Oh, and there is a book, too--although it's out of print and evidently very pricey.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas - every time I see this, I am amazed this was made as a children's show, and that it played (plays) on network television.  Love it.
  • Elf - maybe more for mama and papa than for Toby.  But there's enough slap stick to keep him entertained.  Now if I can just teach him to answer the phone "Buddy Elf, what's your favorite color?"
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas - the old one, of course.  Maybe I'm not being fair, because I've never see the whole thing, but every clip I see from the new one just feels icky.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol - I had forgotten, until we watched this again, that it's one of the Muppets' better shows.  And that is saying something.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Merry Christmas

Living far from family switches up the rhythm of the holiday season.  And this year, living in a new place has thrown us off our traditions even more.  My family has a very full set of traditions that are followed every year.  And I mostly love it--we've stuck with the things that make our Christmases memorable and meaningful and fun.  This is the first year that we won't all be together on Christmas morning, and yes, well into my 30's, the first time I haven't been able to rely on my mom to play Santa.

So today, a few days before we set off on our travels, we welcomed in our own little Christmas.  Last night we ended the evening together, snuggled up in PJ's, watching The Grinch and then setting out cookies.  This morning we peeked in our stockings together.  I passed on our traditional large breakfast, but made sure we had a favorite treat from a local bakery.  We opened presents, and then played with our new toys both separately and together.  And then we headed off to our church (meeting, untraditionally, in the afternoon because it is temporarily sharing space with another church) to watch and almost, almost participate in the Christmas pageant.

We were a week early, and a few people short, but I think we hit most of the traditions that matter the most to me.  We had some time together as a family, sitting around in our PJ's instead of rushing around.  We had food just festive enough to set the day apart.  We enjoyed the magical abundance of a pile of presents.  And we stepped out into our community to remember the story of Christ coming into the world.

Rhythm is such a catch word in dealing with young children--it certainly is around the blogs I follow.  And I buy it, mostly.  But it's also very much a part of our world to be disconnected from family and traditions.  That's not necessarily good or bad, it just is the reality of the way many of us live.  Traditions aren't so much about repetition, they are touchstones as we cycle through familiar seasons and stories.  They aren't the same every year, no matter how much we cling to them, because every year is different--our situations are different, we are different.  There's a special comfort (and, yes, pride) in finding the heart of a tradition and passing that along in a way that celebrates the new challenges each year brings.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas is for Trains

Having a little boy means that I have spent more hours looking at train displays this season that I had in my previous thirty-some years.  And when I get tired of watching the trains go round, I start people watching.  There are a lot of little boys, and a lot of grown men, who love trains.  And then I start plotting my dissertation regarding the gendered love of locomotives.  Because, really, I'll amuse myself with anything to keep me patient while Toby watches the train for just One-More-Minute.

Except at the United States Botanic Garden, however, where the display held just as much magic for me as for my little train-lover.

The backdrop to this train display were dozens of fanciful houses--all made from plant material.  And shoot, they didn't list the artist on their website, which is disappointing, because these creations deserve to be credited.

Many of the houses were animal themed.  The top one is for a porcupine, above you'll see an opossum dwelling (upside down & hanging from a limb, ha!) and below are huts for zebras and giraffes.  Fun stuff.

I loved the details.  Check out the little kitchen garden on the side of this house.  With pumpkins!

Or the walnut cross section and grape vines that adorn this doorway.

Or the little walnut hanging cradle.  On the table there's an acorn full of seeds, set out like a bowl of fruit.

If it wasn't so darn wet outside, this would inspire me to get outside and make some fairy houses.  Until then I'll settle for taking another visit.  The train-boy wants to go back, and I'll be happy to take him.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Flying Wise Men

Toby has a lovely nativity scene.

And right now it looks something like this:

The wise men, all three of them, were jumping on the top of the stable.  It's a good thing the shepherd was busy eating a pretend bagel in the kitchen, because I'm sure his staff would have broken in the excitement as well.

This little set is the center of Toby's 3-year-old understanding of the Christmas story.  He asks me to act out the story with the people, he hunts me down to ask for clarification on their names, and then, when he is alone with the set, he incorporates the story into his own play.  Sometimes I hear snippets of the familiar story.  He looks at Joseph and Mary and tells them, "There is no room for you."  Or he parades the pieces in one at a time and has them say "Hi Jesus!" to the baby.  But just as often he goes off on his own tangents, and sometimes that means that the wise men start jumping on the stable, and somebody loses a foot.
I remember, as a child, tipping my own nativity scene over sideways, calling it a boat, and loading the holy family and all their friends in it for adventures.  This sort of play is the beginning of claiming the story as our own.  When children play stories, the stories are no longer the property of a written page or of an adult.  Their play is less linear, less logical, than our adult questions--but it gives them the authority to ask the questions that might seem more at home in a Bible study classroom.  How did young Mary experience that night?  Who gets shut out of the Inn today?  What gift do you bring to welcome the Christ child?  These sorts of questions require us to play our way into the story, to see where our lives intersect the old texts.

And the crazy thing in play, whether through a child bouncing their toys or an adult wondering outloud, is that sometimes the answers we play into are different from what we've heard before.  Play is a place of creativity and possibility.  Sometimes in our play someone gets hurt, somebody loses a foot.  Or sometimes a new idea is created that allows an old story to make sense in a new life.  As a parent, it means taking a break from passing along my beliefs and leaving space for Toby to experiment with his own.  Turns out that's a skill that starts when he's young, too.

And now I am off to find some wood glue.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Second Sunday in Advent

"Comfort, O comfort my people."
-Isaiah 40:1

I am squeezing in this post just one day before these readings will be shared in worship--not my goal exactly, but I'm still figuring out how to fit blogging in to my days.  With the encouragement of my Lectionary Story Bible, I've been sitting with the Isaiah texts for Advent quite a bit.  I doubt I'll hear much about Isaiah in worship this month--there's so much narrative to get through this time of year (this week we're meeting John the Baptist, the one Christians believe is the fulfillment of Isaiah's words in this passage).  But right now I'm thinking about the situation that prompted Isaiah to write, and what his hopes and fears looked like long before   Advent, in this passage, isn't about waiting for the familiar stories of shepherds and wise men, or for the excitement of Christmas day.  It's about a hope that hasn't yet been fulfilled but that can still be as powerful and certain as if the end had been written.  This suffering isn't all God has in store, Isaiah promises.  God will comfort you, God will feed us and hold us like the shepherd cares for the lamb.

I'm just going to assume that you and your family find ways to give back during the holidays.  And I'm also going to assume that you are pretty comfortable talking with your children about the merits of sharing and giving.  Shoot, I know we have the "sharing" conversation every hour on the hour around here.  My challenge this week is that you'll find a way to connect your acts this season with the idea of preparation.  We help out where we can because we have a hope, however undefined, that this world isn't always fair and we can live out a better way.

We give small comforts because You bring big comforts.  We share what we have because You give us everything.  We are getting ready.  We show each other how to love, so that we recognize Your love at work in the world.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Where I've Been

Will I post when I am out of town?  Evidently, no.  So much for NaBloPoMo.  So I skipped almost a week of blogging.  I was busy being not busy, visiting with family, and watching Toby enjoy his grandparents and aunts and uncles.  And getting my dose of Christmas in Kansas City--because I have yet to find a city that does Christmas half as well.  My sister encouraged us all to go down to the Plaza lighting ceremony, it was the first time I'd watched it from the street.  So, of course, I had to take the I-was-there-camera-phone-shot.

As we head into December I'll be posting a bit less, but I'm hoping to add some posts that are a bit more planned out as we work our way through Advent.  In that spirit, I also added an Advent Calendar to the sidebar.  Because the devotionals have been good so far, and we all need some little windows to open during Advent.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Quick Post

A quick photo today, after a long day of traveling by train, plane and car.  Last week we made some stained glass windows with our Art Friends.  Idea from Play At Home Mom.

Monday, November 21, 2011

First Sunday in Advent

"Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand."
-Isaiah 64:8

We got out our Christmas decorations today.  This is the time to start getting excited about Christmas.  (Insert joke about Target opening at midnight here.)  I'll admit, I'm listening to the music already, and half of my shopping is done.  But in these first weeks of the church year the lectionary isn't ready to talk about shepherds and wise men yet.  It jumps into Isaiah's dense and angry and hopeful prophesy.

Most children's Bibles don't bother with the prophets, so I'm impressed by the way Ralph Milton handles these verses in his Lectionary Story Bible.  Instead of paraphrasing the prophecy, Milton takes us back and tells the story of the prophet as his work is forming.  And to see inside Isaiah's head, Milton also introduces us to Rebekah, a child who talks with the old prophet.  The pairing of old and young, male and female, respected prophet and simple child--it's all obvious, but it works.  Through their conversation children are given an accessible entryway into Isaiah's words.  And we are all reminded that the Big Words of the Bible weren't dictated from On High, and they weren't the ramblings of a few lone priests and prophets.  These words were formed in community--written down and preserved by real people.

So Isaiah tells young Rebekah of his frustration with the people, and how he (notice this in the Bible passage as well, the anger does not come from God) wishes God would send an angry punishment.  And Rebekah calms him, reminding him that God loves like a Mother.

And all of this--from a Christian perspective--is part of the preparation for Christmas.  We've messed up.  Righteous people have a reason to be angry.  God has an excuse to be angry.  And yet God isn't angry, God loves us as a Mother; molds us as an Artist.  Through that love a new possibility is forming in these verses. 

I'm not entirely sure what I want to do with this space as I read through the lectionary this year.  But I would like to give back some resources to aid you in reading these verses with your families.  Do you have an Advent wreath?  If not, grab some clay or playdough and make some simple holders for candles.  Traditionally there are four outer candles to be lit the four Sundays before Christmas, and one in the center to be lit on Christmas.  Advent starts on Sunday, so you've got a few days to remember what drawer those candles are hiding in.  As you squish your clay, read from Isaiah 64:1-9, and then share the prayer below:

Steady God, when we mess up, you are our Mother, rocking us close.  When our hearts burn with anger, you are the Potter, molding us for the work that comes next.  Right now we are lumps of clay, still forming, uncertain of what we will be next.  Be with us in the waiting, as we wonder what we will become.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Capitol Gatherings

I'm curious about the protest scene here in DC.  Certainly, there are protests often, but most of them are rather small.  And because they're so commonplace, they don't seem to make much impact.  And until today I hadn't really joined any of the crowds--although we had taken walks by the Occupy campsites and listened in on a few other small rallies.

Last February, we ended up as protest tourists in Madison, Wisconsin.  We were stopping through for an event at my old church, and it just happened to be the first weekend of the massive protests at the capitol building.  The energy there was amazing.  There was so much joy and hope.  But there was also a real sense of what was at stake.  At church the next day I listened in as groups of teachers, working in several area districts, worried about whether their Unions would go on strike, whether they would follow, and how much they were willing to risk.  There was real fear there, too.  Folks were noticing that things were changing for the middle class.

I have yet to see that energy at any of the protests we've stopped by around Washington.  This afternoon we walked, with our church, over to the White House for an interfaith (turned out to be Muslim, Jewish and Christian) prayer vigil regarding the budget super committee's upcoming deadline.  This is big stuff--the cuts made by the committee this week will likely not only take away assistance from needy families right now, in the middle of a recession, but will also change how our country views its relationship to sustaining it's most vulnerable.  The vigil was sponsored by the Faithful Budget Campaign, and these folks have been hard at work all summer and fall.  Several of the leaders even ended up in jail for taking their prayers inside of the Capitol.  Every speaker at the vigil was connected with a national organization that is working for poverty justice.  Shoot, that picture up there?  That's Dr. Bernice Reagan, of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who stopped by to sing her two cents.  Wow.  But the crowd was a moderate size--under 200 probably.  There were twice as many tourists across the street snapping photos of the White House.

I'm glad we went, but I'm not sure I left with any more hope for the future.  I suppose I brought home a reminder of the place of prayer in all of this.  Prayer is for the times when the future is uncertain and the world seems set against justice.  Prayer helps me remember that no matter the size of the rally, God does notice when people slip through the cracks--and when others work to make the cracks larger.  And why bother going to a small vigil?  Because knowing that there are a few others out there tonight praying helps, too.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blessed and Lucky

I spent last night talking with a friend about her trip to Haiti.  And tonight I watched my bus empty when we stopped outside one of the city's largest homeless shelters.  So I'm having one of those evenings where I hug my son a little tighter, and feel thankful for leftovers & warm blankets.

Thankful.  Or just relieved.  This is the season of Thanksgiving, the time to count our blessings.  I stay away from the language of blessing most of the time.  I hear the word used as a synonym for "lucky" far to often, and I'm usually too cautious to use the word outloud.  Because if what I have is a blessing, a gift from God, then why is God refusing to bless someone else?  Why would I be thankful for a God that worked so unfairly?  And where does that put God on the days when the blessings don't come through for me?

And yet we've been lighting candles at dinner lately and saying what we are thankful for.  And it makes my heart melt a little to hear my son say thank you for trains and marbles and mommy and papa.  My heart is very full--from the joy in our little family, from the friends far away who are keeping in touch on this year away, from excitement as we get ready to visit family over the holidays.  I am thankful, but I'm not sure how to express that thanks, or how to encourage thankfulness in my son without teaching him that God picks and chooses who gets the good blessings and who doesn't.

There's more than luck in the relationships that sustain me.  But there's less than divine will.  I'm still looking for the word that fits inbetween.  Any ideas?

{this moment}

Waiting for the bus.  You know the drill.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Short Post

Did you know that Bonsai trees also change color in the fall?

Clearly, from the number of pictures in the past few days, blogging isn't really my thing this week.  I'll write something of substance soon.  Maybe.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Getting Outdoors

I'm not feeling all that chatty tonight, so here's a roundup of pictures from a recent trip to the outdoor playspace at the Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton, Maryland.  To keep me dreaming up plans for when we have a yard again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

All of the Above

Over the weekend we got out to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to see A Bright New Boise.  And while I don't think I want to turn this into a blog of theater criticism, there were some fun arts and crafts projects happening in the lobby before we entered the theater.
The play is set in the break room at a Hobby Lobby in Boise, where the peace is broken when the employees start talking about their beliefs.  And so, the conversations starters in the lobby incorporated pony beads, rubber stamps, popsicle sticks and styrofoam wreaths.  We attended during the last week of the run, so the little questionnaires were well covered with their crafty answers.

Of course, I'm filing these ideas away for use in a Sunday school class.

As for the play--it was incredibly well done, and raised enough questions to make for good after-viewing discussion.  But, like the questions posed in the lobby, it assumed that each person has just one answer to these questions.  One character was ready for the apocalypse, one believed in art, one believed in the marketplace.  I don't think that's how most of us operate--certainly not anyone I'm interested in talking with.  So I enjoyed putting a white, green, yellow, and red bead into the canister above. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not Quite a Habit Yet

Well, I made it one third of the way through the month, and then I skipped yesterday.  I was going to post after the little guy's bedtime, and then I fell asleep myself.  Inspired somewhat by NaBloPoMo I've been trying to blog every day.  I don't think I'll be keeping up at this pace after the month finishes, but it seemed like a good enough challenge to get me into blog-writing-mode.

And despite taking a day off, I don't have much to say today, either.  It was a full weekend of starting projects--some of them will show up here in the coming weeks.  But nothing's quite at the take-a-picture stage.  So here's a picture of the arches out front of Union Station.  I kind of love all the details of a city that you walk by every day, and I'm proud of myself when I remember to stop and take a picture.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bits of Goodness Fairytale Swap

We got some goodies in the mail last week, and I finally found some light for photographing them:

I've been lurking on a Yahoo group called Bits of Goodness for, oh, nearly a year now, and I finally took the plunge and started playing along.  The group hosts regular swaps of handmade goodies, and everything must be made from natural materials.  For this swap the theme was storytelling and fairytales--so my partner and I pretty quickly decided that our boys would enjoy some costumes for acting out their own stories.  I sent off a bit of knitted chainmail, and in return Toby transformed into royalty.

He having great fun with the crown and cape (and the sword, which wasn't from the swap)--insisting that he is not a king or a prince but a knight. 

This was a well-timed swap, as Toby is just starting to figure out how costumes figure in to pretend play--and other than a few too-small Halloween costumes, his dress up box is pretty bare.  I'm hoping to work on that some more for Christmas, but this was a huge head start.

One more closeup of the dragon on the back.  The crown & the dragon on the back of the cape are made from the softest felt in a cozy green.  Love it!  Thanks so much Marjorie!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Christmas Candles with Decorating Wax

Toby is getting started on his Christmas crafting, too.

It's hard to find craft projects that are kid-driven and still end up with a product that is gift-worthy.  Not that the grandparents wouldn't be happy with any old construction paper doodle--but it's fun for Toby to create something that he knows is special enough to give away.

So I picked up some Ikea pillar candles and I ordered up some Stockmar Decorating Wax (the picture below is of another brand, but same idea).  Unlike modeling wax, decorating wax comes in thin sheets.  It's easy to cut, and because it's thin it's easier for small hands to warm and mold than the larger chunks of modeling wax.


I thought that I'd end up cutting out geometric shapes and Toby would do the placement, but he grabbed the scissors away from me right away.  Turns out this stuff is easier to cut than paper, and if you're two and the scissors are getting you down, you can tear it apart easily, too.  So he set to work chopping and sticking.  We set a few ground rules--the top of the candle is for fire so we are not decorating it, and only small pieces stick to the candle (otherwise he would have happily stuck whole sheets to each candle).  And then he got to work.  (I did need to give the pieces an extra squeeze to make sure they were secure after he went to bed.)

While Toby was working, I used the decorating wax to add little holly berries to some beeswax candles (shown here) and used a hole punch to make the berries.  Toby was immediately curious about the new tool.  It worked, for him and for me, but I'm not quite sure I'd recommend it.  It's a bit gummed up now, and I'm not exactly sure how to clean it.  But it does make circles, and it's a new tool to explore--if your hole punch is as old as mine, give it a try.

And then there was the lesson for me in letting go--of my treasured art supplies.  I am definitely a cut-from-the-corner-of-the-fabric kind of girl, and Toby methodically punched a whole right in the middle of every single sheet, and cut or tore many sheets in half just for the fun of it.  Stockmar wax is quality stuff, and you get a lot of candles out of that little box--but it is a bit pricey.  So I needed to remind myself that this was his project and his space to explore--and that the now disheveled box of wax is still 7/8 full and perfectly usable.

He has decorated three candles so far, and we're hoping for eight before Christmas to be able to give to all the adult relatives we'll be visiting.  That's another key to repetitive gift projects with little ones--start early, give them time to work on a few a time, and give them time to have some weeks where they don't work on it at all.  The more he initiates the project, the more he'll feel like these are treasured works that he's proud to share.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Yes, it's official, the Christmas preparations are starting.  And I love all the fun of making little Christmasy crafts and addressing Christmas cards and making gift lists.  I don't so much love trying to buy tickets for holiday travel online, but I love that my son asks every day when we are going to see "grandma and grandpa" and "other grandma and grandpa" next.  (Grandparents, if you're reading, the title "other" switches depending on who he's visited most recently.)  It is time to prepare!

With the holly and the ivy come the familiar stories of preparation.  Read in worship, explored with children in Sunday school, retold at home around our Advent candles and nativity.  And so we come to a new project for me:

Recently I discovered Ralph Milton's The Family Story Bible, and I immediately wondered why I hadn't heard of this collection sooner.  Milton's stories are Bible and storytelling and a dose of child-sized theology all in one.  It's risky, embellishing a children's Bible with a bit of your own storytelling.  I've pushed aside dozens of children's Bibles for just this fault.  And yet Milton's storytelling is engaging, his theology brings out biblical concerns for justice and peace, and his adaptations are not mere sermonizing, they seem to be a successful effort at bringing some dense passages of scripture into a child's focus.  (I'm already loving his creative solution to exploring the not-so-kid-friendly advent passages out of Isaiah.)

Today I sat down with the Lectionary Year B version.  Are you familiar with the Lectionary?  Many churches use some form of a three-year list of readings to guide the passages that will be used in worship each Sunday.  The idea is that if you show up to church for three years you'll hear most of the major stories of the Bible told at times appropriate to the church year. 

The new church year begins on November 27, the first Sunday in Advent.  We're moving into Year B, hence the version I ordered.  And this year I'm going to try to read through the Lectionary Story Bible on my own, on this blog and hopefully with my son.  I don't have too much control over that last one, and I'll admit that these tellings are better suited for elementary school than preschoolers.  I'll let you know how that goes and what adaptations I make as we go along.

But for now, know that I'm slowly planning some ways to add a bit of theology to the craftiness on the blog.  For me they kind of go together--these are the two main ways I express my creativity and passion.  And they're both part of making a home, setting a table, inviting folks to conversation.  I hope you'll pull up a chair and join in.