We go to a pretty non-liturgical church, but the appeal of seasonality in faith is pretty hard to resist, and after several good years with Lent-like observations before Easter we're dipping our toes into Advent-analogues. It's great!
Advent is an awesome thing to do at home with your kids, because who doesn't like counting down to Christmas?! It doesn't have to be complicated: you can slip all sorts of spiritual content in there without the kids thinking it's too heavy. Our Advent calendar is just a (totally amazing) felt-board Bible story, and the kids are thrilled every morning to pull out a piece and hear the story—even without chocolate!
It's nice at church too (even if we can't do the really good Advent hymns...). This year Leah is upping the excitement level by running a "Pop-Up Cafe" to serve coffee drinks and homemade baked goods. Harvey was proudly involved in all aspects of the first day of operation, from planning to counting the money. Lijah... didn't really help.
I plan to make a pecan pie for this Sunday.
Of course, being a non-liturgical church we don't really get the whole point of Advent. In the marketing material our "Light in the Darkness" Sundays are referred to as "the Christmas season", and there's no way we can resist societal pressure to decorate early. Not to say it's not pretty!
We're holding out against the pressure here at home, despite frequent expressions of curiosity from the boys about the timing of our procuring a tree. All their friends' trees are already up! When their complaints get too desperate we'll distract them with the Advent calendar... only four more days until they get to take out the owl!
A moment from the week.
One of the nicest things about homeschooling is the freedom we have in the morning to take things at a relaxed pace. Sunday mornings, when we do have to get everyone dressed and fed and out the door at a prescribed time, are always pretty stressful. Imagine if we had to get Harvey on the bus every morning! Since we don't, though, why can you find us out at the bus stop at least a couple mornings a week?
Well, to begin with it's a lot easier to make it out the door when we don't have to—the stakes are low. And of course we don't need to worry about packing up for a whole day away; we're just going to head back to the house in a couple minutes to do school or (much more likely) play. Plus our kids get up early anyways. So it's not such a challenge.
And not only is there not anything stopping us, the rewards for showing up are pretty high. We're building some homeschooling community—it's a work in progress—but our friends who homeschool are scattered all over the Greater Boston area. The folks who live near us send their kids to school and head off to work themselves, so if we want to connect with them the bus stop is the place to do it.
I particularly enjoy it because I'm not so good at being neighborly, naturally. I find it easier to assume that everyone else is busy and probably doesn't want to talk to me, so I don't make much of an effort to reach out to them. When everybody is standing around with nothing to do but yell at the kids not to run in front of cars, I figure it's safe to chat. Going to the bus we've met a new neighbor, and been able to learn a little more about our old ones. I do care about other people; it's nice to have a little bit of a chance to show it.
Plus it's good for the kids. Not only do they enjoy running with their friends playing tag or "Fishy Fishy Cross My Ocean" or "Jackpot" (we used call it "300"), it also gets em out of their PJs and outside in the fresh air. Then when all the other kids get on the bus, our day is well and truly started... and nobody has to waste seven hours of it at school!
This past weekend I took the boys on an outing to East Lexington, drawn by the promise of a Holiday Fair at the Waldorf School. We love fairs, and we're reasonably positive on Waldorf education, so it seemed like a sure bet. But when we were already in the doors, I was stopped in my tracks by a table positioned across the hallway and a sign announcing a $4 per person cover charge.
Sure, there was also a $15 cap per family, which as Harvey pointed out meant we would save a dollar; but since I only had $24 in my pocket and things inside the fair would cost additional money, I suddenly had serious doubts about the wisdom of proceeding. Zion wanted to go in; Lijah didn't particularly care; and Harvey wanted to make the right decision. So did I: the right decision that didn't involve us possible wasting a lot of money. I took them across the street to Wilson Farm instead and bought them each a treat, and then we visited Grandma and Grandpa and walked through walls in their delightfully under-renovation house. So it all ended happily.
But I can't help but think my extreme hesitation in the face of that cover charge might be a sign of a weakness in my personality. A holiday fair full of beautiful homespun Waldorfy crafts and games: it could have been totally awesome! But I just couldn't do it. And it's part of a pattern: while we explore lots of exciting places, I'm regularly turned away by spending money to get in anywhere. In the last month we've not gone in to an art sale and Buckman Tavern in Lexington, and those are just the ones I remember.
On the other hand, I did pay lots for apples that one time, and I let them ride the 50¢ merry-go-round at Market Basket. And I heard from other folks that I made the right call, and this particular fair probably wasn't worth it. But I didn't know that at the time!
What do you think... am I unfairly depriving my family of the possibility of joyous experiences because of my cheapness? Should I just loosen up and live a little?!
To redeem myself from my failure earlier in the day, Saturday evening I walked the boys up to the center of town to take in the tree-lighting festivities. There was a lot of advertising leading up to the event, which may have resulted in larger-than-usual crowds; I don't know, since I'd never been before. It was certainly joyfully well-attended!
In all that dark throng I was a little nervous about losing one of the boys as we waited for the lights to come on, but we managed to stay together; huddling on the church steps (huddling against the crowds, not the weather—it was quite warm) we sipped free hot chocolate and listened to snatches of music coming through the very insufficient sound system. At some point Citizen-of-the-Year Peter Grey must have arrived to push the button, since without warning all the trees were illuminated. I think everyone was surprised, but cheerfully so!
Moments later Santa pulled up riding a fire truck, and spotting him early we were able to position ourselves perfectly for an up-close look as he disembarked. Even better, as the crowd streamed away after him we were able to enjoy an even closer look at the fire truck, which frankly had more appeal to the boys than a guy in a red suit. (We didn't yet know that his elves—surprisingly tall elves—were giving out candy-canes.)
Somehow we managed to run across some friends, and together we explored a few of the local businesses that were opened for the festivities. Suzanne and Co. had a man in a Frosty the Snowman suit (which captivated and terrified Lijah in equal measure) and a lovely bubble-snow machine (since when do we need simulated snow in New England?!); the Old Town Hall offered chili from the new restaurant in town and balloons and worksheets from the tutoring place. There were other vendors there too, but all boring stuff, and the boys and I agreed that it was a pretty poor show. At least there was room to run around and play with their balloons; and after a little while a quartet arrived and started to sing in the stairwell.
Maybe a strange spot, but the acoustics were lovely and we very much enjoyed several Christmas tunes with not a syllable of English between them.
True happiness escaped us, however—escaped Zion especially—because many other people had candy-canes and we did not. I told the boys that candy-canes are plentiful this time of year, but they wouldn't be satisfied with anything but a candy-cane right then, from Santa. Julen had one. Then as we were crossing back to the common we saw him: nearly all alone in the darkness, accompanied only by his elves and a man with a dog. After the dog got his picture taken on Santa's lap it was our turn, and I'm sure the peppermint was all the sweeter for the wait.
Of course the boys didn't want anything at all to do with Santa once they had their candy, but Julen is made of sterner stuff and actually sat on the bearded one's lap. Unfortunately, it was quite dark, and I wasn't prepared, so the photo I took... isn't really that good.
But we were there! We did the thing. And back home, as Leah was going to bed, Lijah needed to spend quite a while telling Mama about his experiences. "Santa? Santa? Snowman?" It was pretty intense for the little guy.
The lights look very nice; we admired them again this evening. It's definitely starting to feel Christmas-y around here... maybe I should start thinking about what I'm going to do for presents?
Yesterday evening an owl landed in a tree right above me, and hung out for a few minutes—long enough for me to get the boys out to see it. Late this afternoon a swan flew right overhead with wings creaking mightily. It's the first time I've seen either from the yard; maybe it's just that I've been spending more time that usual out there standing around, or maybe the wilding of the suburbs is continuing apace... either way, I'm delighted.
A moment from the week.
With out business and the warm weather it hasn't felt much like Christmas, and no one feels the lack more than Harvey. So he was delighted yesterday morning when I promised him a Christmas-y afternoon after we got home from church. Our Christmas card photoshoot led off the schedule, and then it was time for the main event: finally getting our Christmas tree. Off we went to Chip-In Farm.
Our delay wasn't laziness or business, but tradition: we're old fashioned and don't want to front-load the Christmas season too much. But everybody else does, so when we pulled into the farm we saw there were only six trees left, and when we inquired we heard that they didn't plan to get any more. With only a single tree in our price range, our selection was easy! We asked them to take a foot off the bottom so it would fit in our house, then watched with delight as it was loaded onto the car.
Once home we had to set it up right away—quietly, since Leah and Lijah were sick in bed. Both boys were great helpers in all phases of the project. Their extreme eagerness to get to the ornaments lent them energy for other, preparatory work, and they were appropriately delighted when the time came for their reward.
As we decorated we talked over the origins of the ornaments; a goodly number of them are handmade in living memory of Harvey, at least. Harvey was thrilled the whole time: "Now it's really starting to feel like Christmas," he said about halfway through. But my favorite moment came when Zion spotted a tapered red glass bauble. "Look," he cried, "a blood icicle! A bloodcicle!"
The morning it felt like Christmas morning as the boys came downstairs, full of delight and ready to hang out with the tree. After I left for work they made a little home beneath it and even even asked if they could sleep there. We said yes; even though they decided not to in the end it demonstrates the depths of their affection.
Now all we need are some presents to go under it!
Circumstances have recently led to an end, temporary or more, of my substituting career. I closed out my year in the public schools on Monday, and I was looking forward to getting one last chance to spend time with a school population that I know pretty well: I've spent at least a couple days a week working in the one particular school for six years. On Monday I was in the library.
While I did get to say hi to lots of kids in the halls, and share books with three first grade classes and a kindergarten, for the most part my services were needed to keep the work of the library going. The not-being-with-kids kind of work, like changing books' spine labels and pulling collections of Caldecott winners. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I showed up to be confronted with a list of seven or eight significant tasks... "and if you finish those, there's always shelf reading!"
I knew I wouldn't finish (though I think I acquitted myself pretty well for a non-professional!). In that, it was a lot like the rest of my life: both at home and in my new role at the church I feel like every day brings a near-endless array of things to accomplish. I've even taken to keeping to-do lists—by no means typical behavior for me! On the positive side, it's nice not to be bored or to be casting around for something to work on; but on the other hand, having all but the most transitory sense of accomplishment denied me is a little frustrating.
But that's the way of things these days. Almost-Christmas time. And while I was a little disappointed not to get more kid time Monday—I like subbing because I like teaching kids—there are lots of advantages to our new schedule too. Like more time with my own boys, and the farm-school co-op! I just need to enroll some more students... know anyone who might be interested.
The other day in the school library I spent half an hour pulling books about winter celebrations. With about 40 books assembled in total, it was interesting to compare the size of the stacks for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and Ramadan (yes, I know Ramadan isn't a winter holiday; I was just following orders). Christmas had the most books, but only by a hair over Hanukkah. Kwanzaa was probably the most over-represented in terms of books per observance; there were four Kwanzaa books, tied with Diwali and one ahead of Ramadan. More telling than the numbers alone, though, was the way the different holidays are presented both in the books themselves and in the layout of the library.
The Ramadan books and three of the Diwali ones are nonfiction titles. The way they all present their subject is totally othering: they're absolutely respectful and even enthusiastic about the holidays, but they're written for a blank-slate audience and so have something of a "look at this crazy thing!" tone about them. And they're shelved in the "Religion" section of the Dewey Decimal classification (the 300s), along with the Greek myths and ancient Egyptian gods. You can also find a few Hanukkah titles in that section, but tellingly nothing about any Christian holidays.
In addition to the "Rookie Read-About Holidays" Hanukkah books, there are lots more titles in the picture book section. A few of them are basic "my first Hanukkah" texts, but lots more of them are real stories written to celebrate Jewish culture. There are more Hanukkah picture books by Eric Kimmel alone than there are books about Diwali and Ramadan combined, and lots of other authors are represented as well. There are also two Kwanzaa picture book stories in the same vein; one more explain-y one and one actual story.
In most of the Christmas books, on the other hand, Christmas is pretty much just a background. With so many of the cultural features of the holiday part of the reader's assumed knowledge, authors write stories where characters have interesting experiences and learn valuable lessons at Christmas time, but rarely engage with the holiday in any real way. To go by nearly all of the library titles, Christmas is about exchanging presents and finding ways to be happy with your existence.
Of course, part of the reason for that is the public schools' careful avoidance of any appearance of Christian proselytizing. The Hanukkah and Kwanzaa books get spine labels with the name of the holiday and culturally-relevant pictures; Christmas books' tags say "Holiday". The library will stock books explaining the origins of Diwali in Rama and Sita's return from exile, but you won't find a single mention of Jesus (except maybe from Tommie de Paola). It's meant to be sensitive, but causes it's own problem: it positions Christianity as the unspoken default and marks all other faiths as other.
To an extent, that's fair; there are more nominal Christians in that particular school than followers of any other single religion. But if you ask me, all religions are interesting, including Christianity! I wish we could trust schools and teachers—and libraries—to disseminate information about different faiths in a fair, even-handed manner. But we can't; we can't even manage to talk about science that way. So this is the situation we have. Not a huge problem, just... not quite right.
A moment from the week.
I find myself, this year, not so into doing Christmas. Most years I am the epitome of a Christmas elf. I stay up late every night knitting sweaters for my children and boiling moisturizing concoctions for all the ladies I know. I patiently roll out cookie dough with my children, and don't scream at them when the put a sigle cookie cutter RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of the space, then pull the rest of the dough away in clumps to extract that one, tiny, lumpy star. I go to church and stand up front and scream with all my might, "OH COME OH COME EMANUEL!!!"
This year, whatevs.
I am depressed from sleep deprivation that has long ago passed the "stage" mark and gone into constant chronic immune system suppression. I started a new job and have not yet figured out how to schedule both motherhood and "work." Every time I look at my phone I am reminded that the world is a terrible place, where these concerns of mine are not so much a drop in the bucket, where the net volume of human woe is so so deep, and to many people this year Christmas will arrive and pass and it will not seem at all like Emanuel has come.
I have lost my Christmas hopefulness. Christmases have come and past and Jesus keeps being born and life does not get much easier.
What do you do when you feel this way? When all you want for Christmas is a nap? All advice welcome, practical, spiritual, or jokes.
Ollie's birthday was yesterday, and for his party Saturday he invited us to join him for bowling. The boys had never been before, and, while they were excited to be there, they were super nervous at first when it came time to actually roll a ball down the lane. As I expected they would be!
They're generally nervous of new things, both of them, and they may a fear of bowling birthdays in their blood; I still cringe when I remember forgetting, not once but twice, to wait for the machine to clear the pins fully before sending another ball down. I was 10 or 11 and bowling big balls—being away from New England at the time—and it turns out that if the ball hits the sweeping mechanism it stops, and gets stuck down there at the end of the lane. Someone needs to go get it, and the whole thing is very embarrassing.
Of course it's also embarrassing, as a father, to have both your older boys seize up and refuse to take part in a party where they're the only guests. So I encouraged them a little, and I'm proud to report that they both rose nobly to the occasion (much better than I would have done at their age, I'm sure!). Harvey took just one hands-on lesson before he saw that the thing was neither complicated nor particularly scary and he was launched on his own as a competitor in the kids' game. Zion, who as the youngest of the six kids present had to play with the adults, took a little longer to warm up to the proceedings; but after three frames of a substitute bowling for him (twice me and then once Harvey) he had it figured out, and took over for himself. Being Zion, he quickly developed his own way of doing things.
And not only did they manage to participate, they did surprisingly well! In his first game Zion managed to finish ahead of Bridget—despite rolling his ball so slowly that once it reversed course two thirds of the way down the lane and slowly, slowly made its way back to him (all the other times we saw that when a candlepin ball hits the pins at such a slow speed it bounces sideways among them, potentially doing a great deal of damage). And Harvey won the second of his two games with a score of 92, which was also tied for the highest score of the day by anyone (tied with me, natch; clearly lucky bowling results are also in his blood).
After the bowling and some ice cream we were back at the Stevenses for the birthday dinner, where again the boys impressed. They didn't eat much 45 minutes after giant ice cream cones, but how polite they were!
Bowling was the top moment of the day for Zion when I asked at bedtime. Harvey had different choice: playing King of Tokyo with the kids downstairs after the birthday dinner. But he liked the bowling too, and he's asking when we can go again.
And then yesterday morning was the big Kids Church Christmas performance. I don't have any photos because I was busy being in charge of the whole thing, but I can report that Harvey played a pivotal role. He didn't want to act (nor yet sing, under his father the musical director) but he jumped right into his job as set crew, designing sets and painting backdrops under the direction of non-family adults and then volunteering to be a part of the stage crew proper, bringing props on and off stage (ok, a prop; it was a short play). Yesterday evening the play—specifically, painting stars—was his day's highlight, and as he went to bed he asked—again—when he could do it again.
And it seems unbelievable to me, but for next year he's even thinking about pushing himself a little further. "Maybe I can be an actor next year," he told me. "Because I'll be a year older!"
Absolutely! And he's already braver today then he was two days ago; just imagine what he'll be managing to accomplish in 363 more!
Our Christmas tree has it rough. The bigger boys did a great job decorating it, but even they—to say nothing of Lijah—can hardly resist playing with the more interesting ornaments. So those move around; and then there's all the ones they knock down sword fighting, hiding under the tree, or just walking past on the way out the side door. So our display of ornaments is far from static.
And while we can just put the ornaments back up—again and again—the same can't be said for the needles. At just a week out of the store, the tree is starting to look distinctly mangy around its bottom portions; there are twigs with not a single needle the last inch or two of their length. It gets plenty of water, and it's still soaking it up nicely, it just can't stand the abuse—the loving, adoring, abuse.
Of course, it was a very nice tree to start out with, and from a distance it's still perfectly beautiful. And even up close, the damage just gives it personality. It's like a well-loved stuffed animal with fur missing in a few spots. Its appeal may have been starting to wear off after a week, but today we restored it completely by starting to put presents out under it. Zion could hardly bear to stay at the table to finish his snack this afternoon. "I'm gonna go shake my presents some more!" he called over his shoulder as he ran off.
So the tree, it suffers, but it suffers for love. It only needs to hold on 15 more days... I think we're going to make it.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
A moment from the week.
We had a low-energy Christmas prep season this year, but we were still all of us delighted to make it to Christmas day. And there were some presents.
The boys and I were out until 9:30 at church Christmas Eve, so it was a slow morning for Zion (the only one of us capable of staying asleep as long as he needs to in the morning). Rascal knocked over his stocking to get at the bone within at around 6, but the rest of us managed to wait for Zion before we opened up our stockings. Then, with breakfast awaiting us and Grandma and Grandpa's, it was straight on to the presents under the tree.
I made a sword for Lijah and a new, bigger and better musket for Zion; that present Harvey is opening above is a wooden treasure chest that I fixed and filled with Legos from the attic (Harvey's dream is to bring them all down one day). Leah got a box to hold spices in the cabinet, and a promise of more; she sewed me a CD holder for the car. But the best presents were the ones Harvey and Zion gave Mama.
We got $1 frames at the craft store which they decorated with paint and mod-podge, but the real value of the gift came from the care the boys took in picking out the photos. Harvey had the idea of doing a baby picture, but seeing himself as a baby thought he looked too nondescript, so he upgraded to the one-year-old version. Zion wanted one of himself as a one-year-old camping in Maine. We looked through a lot of pictures together.
Besides the home-made presents and old legos there were also some new lego sets. The boys put them together while snacking on gingerbread and pickles.
Then it was on to Lexington, where the ceilings are higher and the tree bigger. I asked Harvey and Zion to sit in front of the tree for a picture; Lijah heard me and joined in.
He's totally old enough to know what's going on this year, and he was enthusiastic about opening presents (and then about opening packaging and so on, until he had everything reduced to its component parts).
The bigger boys enjoyed getting gifts too, but Harvey especially was also excited about the giving side of things. He had an instant vision for Grandpa's present when I first asked him about it a couple weeks ago: he wanted to illustrate a summer day. So he did, and he was justifiably proud of the result.
Besides the beautiful tree and abundant delicious food (which it would have been crass to photograph, and besides I was busy eating) my parents' house is also wonderfully suited to Christmas observances because they have a fireplace. Lijah helped tend the fire.
I must also note that Grandma and Grandpa entertained the boys wonderfully: Leah and I took a long walk together, just the two of us (well, with Rascal) which was a pretty nice present on its own!
After a long day of celebrating everybody was pretty tired, but when Grandpa started playing the Nutcracker on the piano Lijah still had enough energy to dance.
A great end to a delightful Christmas day!
With snow in the forecast—snow to be followed by rain—Harvey and Zion were primed to get out there and enjoy it first thing. And they did, before the sun even rose. After a little delay to sort out equipment, Lijah and I joined them. How we rejoiced!
Lijah isn't a fan of new clothes, or indeed clothes in general, but once I persuaded him to put on his boots and coat he was quite happy to be outside with his brothers.
We played in the street, in the yard, in the woods on the platforms, and on the street again. We even took a walk in the woods (with Lijah in the backpack). It was delightful, though by the time we got home it was pretty much raining and I was glad to get inside (Harvey and Zion stayed out another half an hour to do some shoveling and assorted activities).
We didn't get a lot of snow, really, but at this stage in the season we'll take what we can get. When the plow came by the boys rushed outside to play on the pile it made at the end of the street—probably remembering last year, when we brought our sleds out there. It's not quite as impressive this morning.
Still and all, they were happy to jump off of it, which just goes to show the magic of snow. Here's hoping for lots more!
Now that I'm not on a school schedule I find that I have to work a little between Christmas and New Years, but with the weather finally turned wintery I was happy for my chance at the first ice cycling of the season. I only fell twice!
The path was plowed yesterday but not down to pavement everywhere; and even if it had been it wouldn't have mattered because more freezing drizzle fell overnight, so the whole thing was pretty much a skating rink. In order to stop without falling I had to put a foot down, but even then I slid a good 10 or 20 feet. It was a little surprising the first time, but then I was ready for it.
If the whole surface were flat, I wouldn't have had any problems; once you get used to the disconcerting sensation of the back wheel sliding out from under you you realize you can pull it back in and keep yourself going forward. As I said a couple years ago, ice biking is easy as long as you don't have to speed up, turn, or stop. When the icy ground is uneven, though, things get trickier—and it was just warm enough in the middle of the day yesterday for other cyclists to have left shallow tracks in the ice. It was one of those that brought me down on the way in to work. But the whole thing was so slow—I knew I was pretty much out of control and heading for the side of the path, but I had plenty of time to think about it and my landing was charmingly soft. And all the moments I didn't fall I was reveling in the challenge of the operation.
Unfortunately, I had a deadline to get to work, so in Lexington I abandoned the path in favor of the better-plowed and salted road. And on the way home I was feeling tired and again went most of the way on the streets. But the last little bit was back on the ice, giving me the opportunity to fall one more time just before I got home. Again without damage, so I can look back on the day with nothing but pleasure.
That said, having done it once... I won't complain if conditions are a little better by next week when I have to do it again!
We celebrated New Years Eve with friends, pizza, cookies, donuts, board games, and going to bed early. Well, I suppose the boys stayed up later than usual—almost til 9:00—and I'm still up. But not for much longer. No midnights here: we need to sleep when we can. So we made sure to start our lovely evening with friends at a reasonable hour.
I hope your own celebrations were as delightful, and all of us here at the squibix household wish you all the best for the New Year!