Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christmas Countdown

Due to popular demand (okay, just two of you asked - but I'm hoping more of you will appreciate it too!), I am going to post the Christmas Countdown activities that I wrote about in this post. I printed each of these activities and slipped them into envelopes in this Christmas Countdown book.

Here's my hope: I'll post the activities below so you can have the master list to print out. Then each day of December I will post about how our family shared the activity. I might post just a few words about it or a photo, but I'll try to post something. Then will you do your part and leave me a comment about what you did that day too?

Here's the countdown list (edited to add links to the tasks as they were completed). Feel free to change the order to suit your family's needs. Start on December 1st and continue until Christmas Day. Merry Christmas!
  1. Take a family photo to mark the beginning of the season. It can be as candid or as posed as you like.
  2. Buy candy canes to pass out to people all month long. Pass them out to bus drivers, fast food workers, other shoppers, kids at school, teachers, Wal-Mart greeters, neighbors, relatives, doctors.
  3. Hang mistletoe, a kissing ball or some other object that you designate for kissing. Go stand under it often, and wait for someone to kiss you.
  4. Read the Christmas story in the Bible.
  5. Take a walk, even if it’s cold outside. If there is snow on the ground already, have a snowball throwing contest.
  6. Dance to your favorite Christmas song. Turn it up loud and sing to your heart’s content. Sing along to Handel’s Messiah. The words are easy!
  7. Memorize this Scripture verse: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)
  8. Make Christmas ornaments. Some ideas: thread a jingle bell on a ribbon, twist pipe cleaners into candy cane shapes, cut out star shapes and let the kids color them.
  9. Secretly do something nice for a friend or neighbor. Then surprise the mailman by leaving him a gift in your mailbox (even if it’s just a granola bar and a card drawn by your kids.) Then do something nice for a stranger by donating food to a local shelter.
  10. Wear a Santa hat all day.
  11. Wear as much red or green as possible today. Go even further by painting everyone’s toenails in Christmas colors.
  12. Compliment three people.
  13. Call a family member to say hello. Bonus points if it’s someone you haven’t talked to in a while!
  14. Lay under your Christmas tree and look up through the branches at the light. Gain a new perspective. Remember that Jesus is the "light of the world." (John 8:12)
  15. Pray for those away from loved ones: soldiers, workers on overnight shifts, those who are traveling away from family, or those who are spending their first holiday without their loved one this year.
  16. Be a drive-through angel. Pay for the car behind you, and tell the cashier to have a Merry Christmas.
  17. Make paper snowflakes. Use coffee filters for a round shape.
  18. Make snowman pizzas. Get pizza crusts, add white sauce and mozzarella cheese. Use olives for the mouth, pepperoni for the nose and green peppers for the eyes (or whatever ingredients your kids will eat).
  19. Feed the birds. Throw some of your stale bread in your yard, or take a walk to a nearby pond to feed the geese.
  20. Take a drive to look at Christmas lights.
  21. Make a “best light display” award and put it in someone’s mailbox.
  22. Clean out the kids’ toys and donate the neglected or outgrown ones.
  23. Write a recap of this year. Remember the struggles and triumphs, and set a goal for next year. Ask God to lead the way.
  24. Sing Happy Birthday to Jesus before you open any Christmas presents.
  25. Stop. Take a moment to look around at the blessings in your life. Take a deep breath and focus on the true celebration of Christmas. Even if you had nothing, would you still be happy?
Go here to read as we start the countdown with #1!

    Thursday, November 26, 2009

    One in Ten

    I want to be one in ten, just like Angie Smith writes about here. She references Luke 17:19 and the ten lepers that Jesus healed. Only one of them came back to thank Him. Only one.

    Do I live my life like that? Do I say thank you enough?

    Monday night, I came home at 11:15 after getting the last ingredients for my Thanksgiving dish (my mom's fabulous sweet potato casserole). Before I unloaded the trunk, I stood on the driveway in the quiet. The air was cool but not cold, and the wind blew over me. I heard the tree branches rustle, and I saw my neighbors' dark houses, closed up tight. I stood there and let the breeze be a stand in for God's fingers, caressing me and soothing me. I lifted my face, closed my eyes, and let my heart sing for all the ways He fills it. Even though I was tired. And Dan already had two hours' of sleep on me. And the kids would be up early. And I worry. And I never have enough time. And I feel overwhelmed. And my heart grieves. Still.

    And yet, the joy crowds out the emptiness.

    I am grateful for the pain and loss and sadness. It has taught me to relish the blessings. And, oh! There are so many:

    Dan. Katie. Jackson. Mary. My brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. My nieces and nephew. A roof over our heads. Food in our pantry. Best friends. Hot water. Chick-fil-A. Laughter. Satin pillowcases. Warm clothes. Literacy. Beauty. Healing. Nail polish. Turkey. Sacrifice. Favorite movies. Craftiness. Christmas cards. Computers. Music. Jesus. Building forts. Wrestling and tickling the kids. Loyal people. Passion. Windsor Crossing. Becoming adopted kids and grandkids of extended family. Amazing memories. Being able to get out of bed much easier this Thanksgiving than last year. Knowledge. Creativity. Mercy and grace.

    I am one in ten. He has made me well!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

    "The God of Christianity never claims to be fair. He goes beyond fair. The Bible teaches that he decided not to give us what we deserve -- that's mercy. In addition, God decided to give us exactly what we don't deserve -- we call that grace." (Andy Stanley, How Good is Good Enough?)

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Advent Conspiracy

    I love Thanksgiving for the built-in four days of family time. And I love it because it helps center me before the Christmas frenzy begins.

    But this year, I'm starting early and trying to write a different story for our Christmas. My church, Windsor Crossing, is one of four churches that founded the Advent Conspiracy movement a few years ago (before we ever started attending there). Here's a short video that helps explain it:

    (I get goose bumps every time I see that!)

    Last year was the first time I heard of AC, and I loved the premise. Spend less time buying less gifts, and donate the money you DON'T spend to someone who needs it desperately. Put the focus on Jesus and spending time with those you love, instead of time at the store.

    Now, of course, that doesn't mean we're not buying anything this year. It just means that we're not going hog wild. Yes, I will be shopping on Black Friday. Yes, Santa will still be coming to our house. But things will be different.

    For one thing, both my extended family and Dan's extended family have agreed to buy gifts only for the kids. That cuts my shopping list down a lot.

    Secondly, we've talked with Katie about receiving fewer gifts from us and Santa. She thinks one from Santa and three from us is enough. Those three will represent the three gifts given to Jesus (gold, frankincense and myrrh).

    Thirdly, we are hosting an Advent Conspiracy small group in our house every week leading up to Christmas. We are reading the book that our pastor co-wrote, and watching a DVD to help guide the group.

    Fourth, we are donating to Advent Conspiracy through our church. This summer, Katie and her friends had a lemonade stand and collected money to donate to Living Water and Advent Conspiracy. Katie has been saving that money in her room for six months, waiting for the Christmas services at church. That's when all the offerings collected will go straight to Living Water.

    Katie and her friends also made some bracelets and ornaments to sell during the Christmas season. They cost a quarter each and the money will be donated to Advent Conspiracy. Our friend Sheryl took some to her office to sell today, and she was almost sold out before lunch. We'll also be taking some to our family Thanksgiving gathering to sell.

    To help us get in the spirit, I also made Katie an Advent Conspiracy shirt. The movement's four cornerstones are listed on the shirt: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All.

    Lastly, I put together an envelope book (I got the idea here) to help us count down to Christmas. In each envelope, there is an activity for us to do to celebrate the season. I tried to make them either free activities or very cheap, so the focus was on spending time and not money. (I posted the list of activities here.)

    All of these things are in addition to our regular holiday traditions - things like lighting the candles in the Advent wreath each night, reading Christmas stories, lighting luminaries on Christmas Eve, and our annual Journey to Bethlehem.

    All of a sudden... my heart is stirring. Looking back at some of those links above to last year's Christmas and the Journey to Bethlehem has gotten me excited. I am actually looking forward to the month of December this year. Wow! That's hard to imagine, since I sort of dreaded it in years past. I can't wait to see the joy we share this December, and can't wait to start living the components of Advent Conspiracy.

    Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    In a Nutshell

    Wondering why it's so quiet here on my blog? Yeah, me too. I was going to wait to post once I Have The Time, but that might not happen. So I'm taking a 15 minute break during Jackson's naptime to post a little list of what life has been like the last week or 10 days.

    Helping the kids bead bracelets for Advent Conspiracy and Living Water.
    Juggling craft projects: an Advent book, homemade ornaments, Katie Kay Tees, teacher gifts, story dice.
    Planning for Black Friday.
    Checking and re-checking Christmas lists.
    Tea parties.

    Writing a book.
    Researching new car seats.
    Firehouse tours.

    Buying ingredients for a new Thanksgiving recipe.
    Shopping at Wal-Mart at 11pm.
    Taking photos.
    Finishing a class at church.
    Preparing to host a small group from church in our home.
    Reveling in the high I get from being loved well.
    Assembling storage containers.
    Reading books to the kids.
    Practicing spelling words.
    Having courage to confront conflict head-on.
    Writing Christmas cards.
    Thanking God.


    Trying to slow down!

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Which Do You Like Better?

    The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is having a travel photo contest. I want to enter one of my photos from our trip to Jamaica, but I have a problem: I can enter only ONE photo. I need help deciding which one to enter. Leave me a comment and let me know which one you like best. The deadline for the contest is next Friday.

    #1 Sunset Saxophone

    #2 Crooked Palm

    #3 Cliff Gazebo

    #4 Shady Spot

    #5 Cotton Tree

    #6 Sunset Sailboat

    #7 Framed Sunset

    Friday, November 13, 2009

    Hannah's Turn

    My 14-year-old niece, Hannah, wrote a school assignment that her teacher submitted to their local paper. I'm so proud of her and the lessons she is learning in life. This is a photo of us together at our family reunion back in July.

    I'd love for you to read her story. Just click here and you'll be taken to it. Then come back and leave a comment on this blog, telling her your thoughts.

    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    Spreading Sunshine

    Tomorrow will be a difficult day for some women I know. One friend is having surgery for her breast cancer. Another friend is saying a final goodbye to her pal who has been with her for more than a decade. And yet another friend is facing controversy at her son's wedding.

    It makes me realize there are people in my life who put a brave smile on their face, even when they are hiding despairing, fragmented hearts. There's more to the story - every story - than what I take at face value.

    In my small attempt to lighten their loads, I bought a $3.99 bouquet of flowers at the grocery store tonight. I intended to give them to my friend who is coming to stay with us this weekend, and then started splitting it off into 13 different bouquets. I found the little bottles at my favorite junk store (Leftovers), and the larger bunches are sitting in toothbrush holders. (A fun little trick my stepmother taught me.) I feel so frugal!

    It made me happy to see these little bottles of sunshine, and I started brainstorming ways I can brighten 13 different days.

    One bouquet is going on the bedside table in my guest room. For Susan. Another is going to my friend in the hospital tomorrow, to smile at her as she wakes from anesthesia. I'm going to sneak another one into Katie's room tonight, so she'll see it upon waking tomorrow morning and know that she is loved. I'm sending one to work with my husband, to give to the office secretary. And Katie can give one to her bus driver. Maybe I'll surprise some neighbors, and who knows where the others will go?

    I can't erase the cancer. Or the ailing friend. Or the emotional minefield at the wedding. But I can bring a tiny bulb of beauty into someone's life tomorrow.

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    Homemade Books

    I went to my very favorite Parents As Teachers class on Monday. In a nutshell, Parents As Teachers is a national program that helps parents in their role as teachers in their children's lives. Our school district's PAT program includes home visits with a Parent Educator, who will come a few times a year and assess your child and also give you tips and information on what stage the child is in and where he's headed next. The program has been invaluable to me, especially when I was a new mom with Katie and had NO clue what I was doing. I mean, no one ever sat me down and told me when to expect a baby to roll over or start talking or walking. I learned some pretty basic things through my Parent Educator, and also some accelerated things to help advance my kids' learning.

    The PAT program also offers classes for parents. The class topics range from discipline to homemade baby food to infant massage to potty training, or just hour-long playgroups. But my very favorite class of all is the one on homemade books. The presentation focuses on how kids learn about the printed word, and then how they are even more intrigued to learn when a book is on something they like, or even when a book is about them. The presenter shows different types of books that you can make at home, like Ziploc bag books or accordion books or pocket books or shower ring books. And then she talks about different topics you can write inside the book: the alphabet or counting or first words or search and find. The topics are endless. And the best part of the class? The presenter brings ALL the supplies to make your own book to take home: a comb-binding machine, contact paper, Ziploc baggies, markers, tape, book rings, etc. For me, going to this class is like winning the lottery.

    So, being a bit of an overachiever, I took these ideas and ran with them. I think I attended this class for the first time back in 2004, and I've been going back every year since. I love getting new ideas that pertain to my kids' current comprehension levels, and I like using the program's equipment too. (Especially that comb binder!)

    I've also started bringing the collection of books I've made with me to the class every year, so I can show the presenter what an impact the class has had on my parenting. This past Monday, the presenter joked that she should let me run the class now.

    Since then, I came home and made four more books. I wanted to show some of them (and some of my older ones) to you here. I know I've already posted about some of my homemade books. You can find the fabric sample photo book here. That link will also show you the book I made about Jackson's favorites and also his first words. And you can see the photo ring/book I made with laminate samples here.

    Last night, I made a texture book for Jackson.

    At the class, I made a shape book too. It was made out of Ziploc bags and the zippers can be opened to change the book topic.

    I also made an envelope book. I found the directions here, and it was so easy and fun to make. I turned it into a photo album to showcase the fun summer we had.

    Lastly, I converted an Altoid mint tin into a dress up magnet game. This isn't technically a book because there are no words, but the kids enjoy it anyway. I made one for Katie a few years back. I took a photo of her in a diaper and printed it on a sheet of name badge labels. Then I printed photos of her favorite outfits on sticker paper and stuck them onto magnets that we got in the mail (like the kind for business cards). Then I trimmed around the outfits and put them inside the tin. The magnets stick to the outside and she plays dress up. Same concept for Jackson, and this time I included photos of some big boy underwear. Maybe it'll entice him to want to wear them in real life!

    Oh, and before I forget... here's the final Story Dice set that I made for Katie. (Here's the link from when I first wrote about it, and it also has links to other versions of it.) I think I might change the name to Story Starters. It turned into a folder with all the dice, an eraser and pencils in a pouch. The paper that fills the folder is lined and has a print out of all the photos on the wooden dice. She can roll the dice, circle the topics that land face-up, and then get to work on a story.

    I love using my creativity to make things that will help my kids grow and learn.

    Thankful Tree 2009

    We're six days into our annual November tradition and having fun with it so far.

    Starting on November first and ending on Thanksgiving Day, Katie writes something she is thankful for on a paper leaf and then posts it on a wooden tree. At the end of the month, I save those leaves and put them in the year's scrapbook. It's been fun to look at the things she is thankful for, and also compare her developing writing and spelling skills over the last year or two.

    So far this year, she is thankful for these things:
    1. my mom and dad
    2. anmals [animals]
    3. firinds [friends]
    4. my bruthr [brother]
    5. pepole! [people]
    6. clothes [she asked for help spelling that one]

    Jackson has moved down in Katie's world. Last year, he was #2 behind "helping." This year, he has dipped to #4. But Mommy and Daddy have moved up this year! Daddy debuted at #13 last year and Mommy debuted at #15. Yay for us!

    (Go here to see the list from last year.)

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    He Lives On

    I wrote last week about the 13th anniversary of my brother Jackson's death. October is always a sad month for me because it marks his birthday and "angelversary."

    But this year, I wrote a new plot for the story of my grief. (Thanks, Donald Miller!)

    I talker to my sister and decided to start a group for remembering my brother on Facebook. I felt kind of dorky about doing it at first, wondering if I would be seen as wallowing in my grief when the rest of the world has moved on. I couldn't have been more wrong. It has been one of the most moving and cathartic events in the process of grieving Jackson's death.

    I formed the group and invited some of my (and his) old friends to join it, and within hours it had exploded. I thought maybe 50 people might join and post a few comments to remember him. But as of right now, there are almost 300 members in the group. I am floored by that. And even better? Some of those people have posted photos and memories of him.

    Do you have any idea what that means to me? To know that someone I love is remembered by so many? To know that he is missed and there are Jackson-shaped holes all over the world where he's missing in people's hearts? In hearts besides mine? And to hear new stories about someone who hasn't been alive to make a new story in 13 years? It's like he's been resurrected for me, even in just tiny ways.

    The most moving comment was one posted by one of his college friends. He who wrote about a conversation with Jackson and Jackson's faith in Jesus. To have that reminder of my brother's faith and to, again, remember that we will be reunited one day brings tears to my eyes.

    In the midst of all this rediscovering, I made a decision. I am going to write a book. Ta da! What's it going to be about, you wonder? As of my last count, there are 14 boys named after my brother. I've had an idea brewing in my mind for a while now (for more than a year, I'd say) to track down all those boys and do something to help them learn more about their namesake. I'm not quite sure how this will all evolve into a book, but I'm hoping it will be a sort of biography of my brother and our family, a memoir of my own life (parts of it), and a photo album/scrapbook of Jackson's life. Then I'd like to include the stories of those 14 little boys.

    I started writing it last weekend, and I've just been poking my nose around the idea a little bit since then. I know I need to just write and explore my memories, and then I can figure out the format and structure later. Meanwhile, I'll be tracking down the 14 (I have almost all of them!) and doing some preliminary interviews. Will you keep me in your prayers as I tackle this awesome task?

    I Need Your Vote, Again!

    Help me, dear friends! I submitted a photo of Katie and some of her Girl Scout Daisy troop members to a Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri photo contest. The photo was selected as one of five finalists. Can you help her troop win the contest?

    Go here to vote. See the green hat with the words “Troop Round-Up Photo Contest” beside it? Click there and go vote for photo #3. It’s a photo of Katie and three other girls singing on stage. Aren’t they cute?

    I have no idea how long the voting will be open, so don't wait too long. Feel free to pass this along to anyone you know and ask them to vote too. Thanks for your help!

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Great News to Start My Day

    I checked email this morning, and read some great news. We are even closer to a new lupus drug! That might not be very exciting to some of you, but that news made a huge smile break out across my face. I wrote about the first clinical trial here, and was thrilled then because there hasn't been a drug released to treat lupus in more than FIFTY years.

    This new drug, called Benlysta, isn't available to the public yet. But now it's one step closer to being available after the completion of a second clinical trial. The next step is for the pharmaceutical companies to submit marketing applications in the U.S., Europe and other locations during early 2010. I have no idea what all that means and even less of an idea how long that might take.

    But the beauty of it all can be summed up in one word: HOPE. To know that there is some sort of relief on the horizon for lupus patients gives my heart tremendous hope. There are 1.5 million Americans with lupus, and 5 million worldwide. I'm one of them. How awesome it would be to have a drug that might slow the disease in my body!

    Macro Monday

    This isn't technically a macro photograph, but I did use my zoom lens and worked hard at setting it up. Humor me.

    We had a full moon on Halloween night, and I wanted to get a close-up of it for my scrapbook pages. So I set the camera on "auto" and took some photos. The result was too solid, meaning I couldn't see the craters on the moon like I could with my naked eye. So I tried again. Same result. I thought I must be wiggling my hands and blurring the moon, so I set up my mini tripod and used my camera remote. Still the same. Blurry:

    Then in occurred to me that the moon was so bright it was blurring itself out. That lost shot was an exposure of 1/4. So I cranked my shutter speed up as fast as it would go to 1/4000, and got this shot, which is unedited, straight out of the camera: (Can you see the dark moon?)

    Then I played around with the shutter and tried all different speeds. This is my favorite shot, at 1/350:

    I learn something new every day. What a great life.


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