Having Myself a Martha Little Christmas

Let It Snow quote

I’ve been putting off writing this particular post for a couple weeks. I even decided, just a few minutes before I read the above quote, that I wouldn’t write it. After all, it was going to be a post about how busy I’ve been, and writing a new post would just add to that busyness.

But then I did happen to read that line from Jubilee, and it sort of seemed to be speaking to me.

If you know me well, you know that I’m organized to the nth degree. I’m disciplined, an overachiever – okay, maybe I’m slightly OCD, which can be a problem – but the point is that I’m always busy doing something. The week of Christmas is no exception.

Somehow, it crept up on me this year. It was a couple weeks ago that I realized that the last week of school was approaching, and if I was going to do my usual make-some-goodies-for-my-coworkers thing, I’d have to get my act together, like now. And I didn’t even know what kinds of goodies I was going to make.

Christmas Tree Fruit

Christmas Tree Fruit

Years ago, I used to bake like a crazy person in the lead-up to Christmas. It got so stressful – putting the pressure on myself to make cookies for any- and everyone I might possibly see – that my husband asked me to please slow down. Even then, it took a couple years for me to actually follow through. I still make goodies (this year dark chocolate truffles, English toffee, muffins, cookies, and even Christmas tree fruit platters – cute, right?), but not nearly to the degree that I used to.

I could, of course, go to one of the many excellent chocolatiers in town and just buy treats that I know my friends will love, but that gets expensive, and here’s the thing: even though I don’t particularly love baking, I love giving what I bake.

I am the classic Martha – you know, from the story of the sisters Mary and Martha in the Bible? In case you’re not familiar, Martha is so busy serving Jesus that she doesn’t have time to listen to Him. Meanwhile, her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, and when Martha asks for Mary’s help, she gets rebuked by Jesus.

Okay, now I’m not trying to insert myself into a Bible story, but women often get categorized as Marys or Marthas, and I’m a Martha if ever there was one – except.

Except that I like being busy. There are very few times that I become Mary – sit and enjoy. My husband half-jokes, half-jabs at me that I can’t watch TV without reading a book at the same time. Multi-tasking is, of course, necessary if you’re going to work full-time, get the laundry done, fix lunches, and do all the other mom stuff.

But that doesn’t mean that I resent Mary. Right now, the Marys in my life are my two kids (who are boys, by the way, so this isn’t a perfect analogy). They’re busy, too – my elder son does karate, takes piano lessons, plays baseball, and has his school responsibilities. But right now, he has a two-week break from school, and he pretty much gets to be a kid.

While my four-year-old napped this afternoon, my eight-year-old bounced on our new trampoline. Meanwhile, I was cleaning the kitchen, preparing for guests on Christmas morning. He asked me to jump with him, and while I had plenty of good excuses not to, I decided to be Mary for a little while.

A few hours later, both kids spread out paper and markers on the floor and started making Christmas books. (Said Christmas books had pictures of Christmas trees, rattlesnakes, and worms – hey, they’re boys.) I was touched, not just because I’m a writer, but because they worked so well together, and they were totally into their project. And they wanted me to help, too. Again, I had any number of other things that I could have done, but these books, while not Caldecott candidates, are very important to them. So I let them trace my hand, and I added a choo-choo train to the snake-and-worm collage.

Because I spent time with my kids, I was left with plenty of things to do: dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and presents to wrap. I even had this post to write. But to be a Martha – a true Martha – I believe there comes a point when you have to understand why you’re so busy. Yes, I have to wash clothes so we’ll have clean things to wear. But why keep the house clean, why make goodies for my friends, why post this blog if it doesn’t in some way fulfill both me and the person or people for whom I’m doing each particular thing? And the answer is that if I’m being busy just to be busy, I’m doing it for the wrong reason.

Now that I’ve come to terms with this truth about myself, I hope I can live up to the good side of my inner Martha. And no matter which sister describes you, my readers, I hope that you all will tap the positive aspects of your personalities and fully enjoy this holiday season.

A Lesson in Humanity

Humanity Quote 2

My church employs a chef whose family came to the States from Bosnia in the mid-1990s. When they arrived here, our chef’s husband needed a prosthetic leg, which cost $24,000. Knowing that they could not afford the prosthesis, several families within the church pooled their money to purchase the leg. “That’s not something you forget,” our chef told me earlier this week.

I’d run into her in the church kitchen, where I smelled something wonderful. There wasn’t a church event planned at that time of the week, and I wondered what she was cooking. She told me she was preparing a meal for a widow from our congregation, one of those families who helped purchase the $24,000 leg. This widow has lots of dietary restrictions, yet our chef is glad to prepare tasty meals that follow the dietary code. And she always refuses payment.

“That’s so sweet,” I said.

“It’s not being sweet,” she told me. “‘Hi, how are you?’ That’s sweet. This is just being human.”

I didn’t know what to say. My friend, the Bosnian chef, does not mince words, and she’d put me in my place.

I’ve thought about what she said quite a bit over the past week, being human versus being sweet. And she’s right; there is a difference. I had to think about all the times I’ve thought of someone as sweet, and I haven’t been giving them enough credit. My son is sweet when he gives me a hug, but he’s human when he shows his great capacity for compassion, when he immediately thinks to pray for someone in need.

Many people call this being Christian, and if you call yourself Christian, you certainly should pray for others, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and visit those in prison, just to name a few. But I think it also short-changes those people who don’t share my beliefs, yet are compelled to act in ways that are selfless, in ways that humble themselves while serving others.

Perhaps these people are simply being human. Perhaps it’s the way we’re all born, but then the pressures of life get in the way and cloud this original purpose.

Humanity Quote 1I often see the ugly side of people, the kind that gets reported in the news: mindless mobs, riots, senseless violence. But even though they are humans committing these acts, I don’t think its our humanity that is to blame. Think of how we are born: innocent. It’s not until we grow older, when we can choose how we act, that the problems arise.

Our brains set humans apart from the rest of the animals. But not only that. While some animals are able to feel compassion – think of service dogs or perhaps the gorillas that have learned sign language – it is our humanity that leads us to reach out to other people in need and help them. Our humanity is our goodness, not the ugliness. It leads us to give when we expect nothing in return, to show our gratitude in the best ways that we are able.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that this simple message came to me at the start of my favorite season – but also the season when so many people become cynical. Consumerism is about to rear its ugly head in many ways in the next couple months. People will have their feelings hurt when they don’t receive what they expect they deserve for Christmas, or they’ll spend all their energy trying to give the perfect gift, plan the perfect event. But all of us – all of us, no matter what we believe or celebrate – have the capacity to be human with one another. In today’s society, it may even take a little rebellion to get back to our humanity, but I’m willing to try. And I think it’s something we should practice all the time.

No Back to School Blues This Year

Two years ago, I posted a blog about the stress that surrounds the end of summer break and going back to school – and I wasn’t even the one going to school. Still, as a parent of a then-five-year-old, I was fully responsible for getting him there on time every day and felt that pressure. I don’t even remember if I had the same feeling last year – I was probably too busy to notice.

This summer, I’ve done more summery things than probably any other summer of my life, including a two-week vacation with my family. It would seem that a summer like this would stir that familiar anticipation, that early-morning-wake-up dread. But for once, I look forward to the days ahead, when I will have a set routine (even if it means a 4:15 alarm). Funny how things change.

Although I am a little anxious about what the fall will bring, with my little guy transitioning from loosely structured days with me or other family members, I’m thrilled that he’ll finally be in the classroom his brother first entered four years ago. I’ve spent much of the summer preparing my three-year-old by teaching him the songs he’ll sing in pre-school, as well as the concept that it’s not cool to walk out of the bathroom sans pants. It’s a work in progress, but he’s actually getting it. For the past month, he’s told me almost on a daily basis that he wants to go to school – and it’s not just Peter’s school anymore but Ian’s, too. And Peter, who will be entering the second grade, is excited to meet his teacher and see what friends will be in his class.

But the kids aren’t the only ones who are excited. A couple months ago, I received the call from one of their school’s administrators, asking if I would be interested in a PreK 4 assistant position. I jumped on it, probably sounding rather giddy. It was one of those pinch-myself kinds of moments. Summer break had just begun, though, so it didn’t sink in fully for a while. Every once in a while, when thinking about the upcoming year, I would have to remind myself that this year will be different. I will have an assigned parking spot. Instead of walking the kids up, they will come with me to my classroom. No more phone calls while I’m in the shower, asking if I can sub. All welcome changes.

Toward the end of July, I did have a little bit of an overwhelmed feeling, knowing that I had a couple weeks of training and pre-planning ahead of me. Before most of my teacher friends were even back, I was at school, learning how to administer and interpret the assessment we use for pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. Then this past week, while many of my friends posted pictures of their end-of-summer vacations on social media, I’ve been hard at work. I have my badge, which makes me official, and people keep welcoming me to the faculty, but I can’t help but feel like I’m still the same old volunteer-slash-substitute mom that I’ve been since 2011. I belong here, I have to remind myself. Not only do my colleagues help cement that feeling, but my delight in my position tells me it’s true. As I confided in another teacher, I’m having more fun than I feel like I should be allowed to have – and someone’s paying me for it!

Regular readers, fear not – I’m still writing. I’m not about to give up on that dream. But now I’m able to help support my family in a way that freelancing didn’t allow, and my kids and I will be at the same place every day (although in different classrooms). I’ve die-cut, laminated, copied, stapled, cut, sorted, and painted my way through a number of projects this week, and while it sometimes felt like the room would never be finished, I’m proud of the results. I’m working with an amazing teacher, and since I subbed a lot in PreK 3 last year, I know eight of our ten kids already.

PreK 4 collage

I’m sure there are days ahead when I will be tired and irritable. There will be kids who grate on my frayed nerves. There will be days and weeks that never seem to end. I’m not deluded about what’s to come. Even so, I am very excited. So much so that I don’t have back to school blues at all. Instead, I feel like I do when a much-anticipated vacation is just around the corner. In fact, I feel much like I did over twenty years ago, when I was a girl attending this very school.

The night before the first day back will likely be a sleepless one. I’m just the kind of person who gets too excited to succumb to unconsciousness. So if you see me Tuesday, I’ll likely be carrying matching grey baggage under my eyes. But don’t worry, this is exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind losing sleep over.

Summer 2015 Reading

Magical books

Magical books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last blog was all about the writing I’ve done this summer (and since then, I’ve achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goal – yay!), but as any worthwhile author will tell you, you can’t write if you’re not reading. So I’ve been doing what a good writer should do, naturally.

The reading list that I set for myself this year is an ambitious one. (Read it here.) On it are 27 books, including several series. Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle has been on my to-read list for three years now, and I finally finished it. But those books are dense and ate up a lot of my reading time. As I approached the halfway point through the year, I wondered how I was doing.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-July, I’ve finished 13 of the 27 books. Maybe Inheritance didn’t set me back too far, after all. Of course, I read a lot during our two-week vacation. I worried I was being overly ambitious when I packed the entire Divergent series, as well as a book that a friend lent to me a few months ago. But I read the whole borrowed book on the plane trip from east coast to west coast (Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss – I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of British humor), and I plowed through all but a couple hundred pages of the Divergent series over the two weeks.

Ahead of me, I still have at least one doozy (Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood – all of the books in her Outlander series are formidable), plus Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. I know I re-read it last year, but I want it to be fresh when the final movie comes out this fall. Also, I’ll start reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my seven-year-old in the next week. I’m excited that he’s finally old enough to comprehend the story – we may have another Potter geek in the making.

Other than my non-fiction books (which I rarely list here, unless it’s what I consider entertaining non-fiction, such as Talk to the Hand), I’ve stuck to my book list pretty well. Early on, I decided to read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone because I’d seen the movie and was interested in seeing what kind of extra character developments happened in the book. I’m glad I did. Woodrell’s use of language is unique, and as a writer, it’s always helpful to mix it up with a different style from time to time.

The only other detour I’ve made was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (also a book-turned-movie). This was a book I had to read. I’m going back to teach full-time in the fall, and the faculty at my school has a summer reading list. Still Alice was the only novel on our list of choices. I’ve jotted down the titles of several non-fiction books that interest me, but I wanted a good story – and I got it. But frequent criers, keep your tissues handy.

I’m sticking to my list and loving it. I hope to finish Lois Lowry’s The Giver series by the time the kids go back to school (I’m halfway through the second book, Gathering Blue), and then I’ll keep plowing ahead.

And never fear – if I actually make it through this whole list, I already have several new books waiting. (She rubs her hands together and cackles with glee.)

Playing Catch Up

During spring break, I was excited about the possibility of being able to cross off many much-neglected items on my to-do list. During that week, however, I was disappointed (as I often am) with the amount I was actually able to accomplish. Sure, I was home more than usual, but then so were the kids, and they had expectations, as well.

Since spring break, life has not become any less hectic. I’m not going to summarize all my busy-ness here – you can read any number of my recent blogs to get the idea. Just suffice it to say that, with the end of the school year drawing near, I was excited to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Last weekend, I planned to partially unplug – which I did! My husband and I spent the night away from home sans kids, TV, and wifi. It was somewhat of a surreal experience, and we couldn’t help but say “The kids would love this” or “We’ll have to bring the boys here” at the beach and the fort and a little fudge shop near our bed and breakfast. But we survived and even managed to enjoy ourselves.

One of the things I’d hoped to do was catch up on my reading. If you follow my yearly list of books that I hope to read, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle has been on there since 2013 – and I’m finally almost done! I had hoped to finish by the time my son finished school on Thursday, but I knew that was a very ambitious goal. Still, I only have a little over 200 pages to go, so I’ll definitely be through in the next couple days.

The reason I am so eager to finish (other than wanting to know what happens – this is a great series!) is because I have so much work that I need to do. While many other moms are posting selfies from the beach and running around like crazy people trying to keep their kids occupied, I plan to spend a lot of time at home. (Don’t worry – I still have plenty of fun activities planned for my kids!) This is partially because I’m tired of my commute, and our gas bill needs a little bit of a break, but it’s also because my to-do list includes clients’ projects, and these clients have been very patient. They know that I substitute teach during the year and, therefore, have an erratic schedule, but now they’re expecting results. I mean, what excuses do I have anymore?

I held off writing this post for a couple days, hoping that I’d be able to report that I spent the first full day of summer break plowing through my jobs and striking off to-do list items left and right. And I did make some progress, but it’s been slow. The children are still underfoot, although they’ve been great so far. My little one even likes my implementation of “work time” (where I have them sit at their table and color, write, or do quiet projects for a few minutes), thus giving them some structure and me some peace while I do my own work.

My goal (you know how I love goals) is to keep forging ahead, even if I only have two or three hours a day to devote to my projects. Although I’m not going to totally unplug during our upcoming family vacation (a girl still has to blog and write fiction when the mood strikes, right?), I don’t want to leave projects hanging over my head – or clients calling, only to be disappointed that I’ve put their work on hold for two weeks.

Okay, goals set. Deep breath. Next week, my to-do list is going to get a lot shorter.

Unplugging (At Least a Little Bit)

I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.

But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.

The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).

But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.

That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)

We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.

Is May the New December?

I’ve noticed a pattern over the past several years, especially since I started substitute teaching: the school year speeds up exponentially after spring break. It’s like a race to the end of the year, to fit in all the end-of-year projects and parties and field trips. Everyone, especially the children, can feel that summer break is fast approaching, and life takes on a frenetic pace.

Maybe that’s why I’ve heard more than one person complain that May is the new December, as if December is a bad month. I quietly took issue with this notion. My favorite time of year is Advent, preparing for the birth of the Christ child. I love the Christmas music, Christmas shopping, wrapping Christmas presents at night while watching Christmas movies, doing the Advent calendar with my kids, and – yes – my seasonal socks. Yet for many people it’s a nightmare of obligations and deadlines and buying presents for people they don’t really like. I get it – December can be stressful. Not to mention that if you’re in college, you have exams, while all you can think about is the long break that’s so close you can almost touch it. I can certainly commiserate because I was a December college graduate. And that year, while I thought it would be such a relief to finally be done with school forever-and-ever-amen, I found myself immersed in not only editing but also typesetting the second volume of Fiction Fix when our previous typesetter bailed. People were counting on me, and I wasn’t able to enjoy December – or even being done with college – like I’d expected.

Maybe this is how my friends feel this month.

For me this year, May is more than teacher’s gifts and good-byes and summer planning. I took the Florida Teacher Certification Examination this past Monday, which meant cramming for almost two weeks. As soon as I got through with that, I took on the end-of-year books for my first grader’s class. These books hold the kids’ projects from August through the end of the year – over 20 pages of 12×18 construction paper – but what I didn’t realize was that about half of these projects still had to be glued to the paper before the books could be assembled. Another mom and I thought we could knock it out on Tuesday, only to find out we were in way over our heads. I’ve taken pages home every night, still have five or six to go, and need to finish by Tuesday.

First Grade Book-in-Progress

So my May has been busy. I’ve put off the usual things that fill up my to-do list, things that are still waiting for my attention, and I can feel them getting ready to pile back on. Like two freelance projects that I hope to finish in the next month, before our family vacation. Like a friend’s novel that I’ve been slowly beta reading since January. Like my own fiction projects, which I blogged about as recently as last week.

But I’ve been living with a kind of giddy feeling, anticipating the (temporary, at least) cessation of certain obligations. This weekend alone, three culminated: yesterday was my son’s last baseball game of the season; this morning was the last Sunday school class I have to teach until September; and this afternoon was my community chorale’s last concert of our spring season. Not to mention that this week will be the last meeting of my third-year Education for Ministry group (which means I’m almost finished with the 1000+-page history book we’ve been discussing since last fall). After Memorial Day weekend, my son has a partial week of school, and then first grade will be over.

What this means is that, even though we have school for a few more days, when we’re home for the evening, we’re home. I’ll have time to cook and actually enjoy supper. By the end of the month, I won’t have to wake up at 4:30 for a blessed two-and-a-half months. This doesn’t mean that I’m just going to sit around and twiddle my thumbs all summer – the kids and I will be plenty busy – but it does mean that I will be able to stop and breathe for a minute.

I love summers because I get a break. I’m grateful for this because so many parents aren’t able to have the time off with their kids. But if I’m not careful, I can allow myself to dread the end of summer break. I have to remind myself that I always love the beginning of a new school year, and I have ever since I was a kid. This year, my little guy will start preschool, so it’s going to be even more exciting. As my kids grow, everything seems to speed up, and I have to be careful not to stress too much over all the activities and responsibilities that go with being a mom-slash-chauffeur. What I do, I do for them and for us as a family. School and tutoring and daily chores are part of our life, but if we begin to allow the fun stuff – the baseball and the play dates and the trips to the park – become obligations instead of fun, it will be time to reassess. I don’t ever want to let a particular month turn into a time of dread, and I hope everyone else embroiled in the busyness of these times will do the same.