Last night I received a text from my granddaughter, Nana Kim. I got your note. The note she referred to was my thank-you for her Christmas gift. She, her brother and her dad gave me some wonderful-smelling, hand-milled soaps, and a leather-tooled journal. Thoughtful, beautiful things. The names of the soaps were places or experiences like, Winter’s First Snow, that they thought I could write about. (Mountain Sister Poets – this will be a prompt for our next retreat!)

Thank you notes were written on the 26th, one each to my son, my granddaughter and my grandson. Even though my grandson is only almost 5 and can’t read yet. My granddaughter is almost 8 and is reading. It makes me happy she noticed the connection between her thoughtfulness and my appreciation. If I were doing the Blessing Jar Challenge again this year, her text would be written on a slip of paper and dropped into the jar.

By now everyone has probably seen the Blessing Jar Challenge. At the beginning of the year, take an empty jar and throughout the year fill it with slips of paper on which you’ve written things you’re thankful for. On New Year’s Eve read the slips of paper.

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I actually did this back in 2014. This is a picture of the actual jar, a large 40 oz. pretzel jar. The Blessing Jar Challenge was one of those activities like many New Year’s resolutions that started out with good intentions and energy, but somewhere along the line both waned. By April I noticed I’d not been adding much to the jar and decided to renew my efforts. Before I went to bed, I’d write at least one thing I was thankful for during the day. Some days it was easy, others the only thing I was thankful for was that the day was over. And that I had a bed to sleep in. And a roof over my head. And the slips seemed to write themselves after that. Even on my worst days there seemed to be a small list of things I was grateful for.

That was one of the lessons I learned. Another was how 99.9% of those slips of paper were simple things – phone/text conversations with Dad, my children, a friend; the dogs howling with the train whistle, birds chirping, hummingbirds buzzing the feeder; the treadmill – honestly! – yoga; rain, flowers, my woods; writing, reading, faith. There were some big things, but the prevailing list reminded me that blessings aren’t in the big things, but in the little things that mean much and last long. And that I often take for granted.

Once I renewed my efforts, it also heightened my awareness of those people and things I appreciate. Because I had this ‘assignment’ to write at least one slip at the end of the day, I kept my eyes open for those blessings. It’s amazing how that changed perspective. And slowed me down – in a good way! – because it also meant writing thank you notes, sending emails, sending texts, spending time.

2016 has been a rough year in many ways for many people. Unfortunately some of that will carry over into the New Year. Maybe a heightened sense of gratitude will help ease that. Maybe it’s time I got the jar back out. The first slip will read, Nana Kim. I got your note.

Wishing all of you a Blessed New Year

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Of Bows and All Things Wrapped and Unwrapped

single-plastic-coin-purseThis was my Christmas present from my Grandparents many years ago. Well, not this exact one, but a plastic coin purse like this. Several were hanging on their Christmas tree, like ornaments, one for each grandchild. We got to choose the color we wanted. Inside was either a fifty-cent piece or a silver dollar. It’s sad I don’t remember which, but I’m leaning toward the fifty-cent piece. I wasn’t very old – five? – so not old enough to understand the value of the large coin, but old enough to be a little disappointed in both the gift and that it wasn’t wrapped like I expected.

Later, Grandma’s gift wrapping became legendary. dsc03017

This is her gift-wrapping booklet I found – and took – after she died. Her gifts looked like pieces of art. She could twist flat ribbon into points so tight they looked dangerous. Paper and ribbon coordinated to make the prettiest packages, many of the bows having tiny decorations in their center. I tried to keep them intact while I opened the gifts, but it rarely worked.

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I did learn to appreciate the monetary value of that first gift, as well as the creative way Grandma gave it. Over the years the gifts improved, usually something handmade, yet they remained simple. Then the one gift we received each year was an ornament for our tree. We never received a big gift from our grandparents, but the time and patience Grandma took to make her simple gifts look beautiful weren’t lost on me.

While I don’t think I could get away with giving just a plastic coin purse to my almost 8-year-old granddaughter, I do look to my grandparents’ example of Christmas gift-giving. Our youngest grandson is a long-awaited, adorable 4-month-old. A friend asked if I went crazy buying for him. That would’ve been easy to do for all the grands. She was a bit surprised when I said no. We did the 4 gift thing – something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. Even those were kept simple.

That decision took off so much pressure. It reined in the temptation to buy just one more thing, and some of the impulse buying – there were stockings after all. Fewer gifts meant less shopping. When we did shop, those four categories kept us focused and gave us freedom. I mean, a necklace is something to wear, right? Who says it has to be clothes?

Simplicity is a gift I hope to keep unwrapping in the coming year. Less running around, but more running outside. Well, maybe not actually running, but at least walking! Fewer appointments on the calendar, but more unscheduled time with family and friends.

Oh, I did try to make some of my grands’ gifts look pretty. I have the curling ribbon thing down fairly well, but have a long way to go before my flat ribbons twist into dangerous points. Maybe next year. I have Grandma’s booklet.

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Nana Kim’s Epic Gingerbread House Fail . . . or maybe it was a hurricane

dsc02993I baked with my two older grandchildren before Christmas. Because that’s what Grandmas in my family do. It’s tradition – those activities that bind us as family, and connect us to our past, to a place or to a people. I baked Christmas cookies with my Grandma Schmitt. She had a complete set of nativity cutters and every year I tried to paint them all with her egg yolk paints. This past year for our Polish Wigilia, dessert was light fare, everyone brought cookies. Much of our dinner conversation centered around memories of my children baking cookies and making hard tack candy with my Mom, their Grandma Gret. My daughter brought four flavors of hard tack she made, and gingersnaps.

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Which brings me to Nana Kim’s epic gingerbread house fail. I have this great clay mold from Longaberger Baskets, the Ohio-based company famous for their baskets and basket-shaped corporate office. The mold holds various shapes, the main ones are the three for the house: a front/back panel, gabled side, and roof. Two cookies of each glued together with icing, form the house.

The plan was to bake and assemble the houses the day before the grands came, so they’d be set and ready to decorate. Everything was going great at midnight when I was baking them. Even a last minute addition of a third decorator, a friend’s granddaughter, didn’t pose a problem. I squeezed three houses out of one batch of dough. The next morning the sides went together beautifully . . . with minimal mess. It was later when I went to add the roof pieces that I realized I’d once again SCREWED THEM UP!

The gabled ends are supposed to be on the inside of the front and back pieces. I’d abutted them to the outer edge. That left a 1/2 inch gap where the roof had nowhere to attach. I laid one roof tile across each house, making a flat roof and leaving the gabled ends sticking up, looking goofy. My grands took one look and said, ‘Maybe a hurricane came and knocked the roof down. Now it’s an extra sitting place.’ And that was that. They proceeded to decorate the new sitting place with gumdrop benches and M&M radios.

dsc02971That’s another thing about traditions. Sometimes they have to be adjusted. That can be especially hard with holidays.

A couple years ago we had to decide what to do with the Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, with specific customs and foods. Something hubby had participated in since he was a boy. While his mom was still alive, we traveled to Cleveland some years to celebrate with his family. When we didn’t travel we made the meal at home. But it wasn’t the same. One son worked retail and was never home. Other commitments kept others away. As sons married and other traditions blended with ours, celebrating became tougher. Instead of abandoning it altogether, we looked at what elements were important and how best to keep them. Those elements were the sharing of opatki, a wafer that is broken and shared while exchanging blessings, the foods, and having as many there as possible. Having the feast on Christmas Eve wasn’t the main thing. Now we have it the Saturday before Christmas.

And we may be adding a new tradition. Last year I told my grands the story of the Christmas Spider – not the one from the post about the lights, an actual folktale about why there’s tinsel on the Christmas tree. We made spiders from jingle bells as decorations for the table and after dinner hung them on the tinsel-less tree. The next morning I heard their running, sudden stop when they saw the now glistening tree, and then the soft intake of breath, ‘Oh!’ It was one of those hushed moments of wow. Then, ‘Nana Kim! Come see!!’

This year the first thing they did was rush to the tree to see if the spiders had come.

In the coming year, may all our traditions – old and new, holiday and non – work their magic. Bind us as family, connect us to the people and places we love.

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Hushed Moments of Wow

There’s nothing like mass on Christmas Eve. Luckily they’re not all like the year the organ was smokin’, and it wasn’t because Sister Bernadine’s fingers were really fast and the music was hot. After the organ was unplugged and the windows opened, we sang carols acappella.

Most are like this past Christmas Eve. Midnight mass is the beautiful, sensory culmination of the four weeks of Advent. This year, in addition to the organ there was a brass section so priests, deacons and altar servers entered to O Come All Ye Faithful amid the blasts of trumpets and trombone. Instead of soft pink or subdued purple vestments, gold sparkled under the lights. Red and white poinsettias filled the space in front of the altar, and at specific times incense filled our nostrils. As always, I was awed to tears. For me, midnight mass is that moment of transition between anticipation and joy.

It’s like waiting for a bride to appear and watching her walk down the aisle to finally meet her groom. Joy enters in that hushed ‘wow’ moment. It’s not excitement, it’s elevated happiness.

And the year the organ smoked? There was joy that year too. In fact, that little glitch is one of the reasons there was joy. It added just the right amount of levity, once we knew the organ was only smoking and not a full-fledged fire, to remind us no matter how well we plan, things can still go wrong. Mass was still celebrated. Carols still sung. We left the church under a canopy of shining stars. Moments of joy found.

I know that’s not easy for everyone. I have family and friends who would never use joyful to describe themselves. And I know the distinction is starker during the holidays. I wish I could box up a portion and gift it to them, but I can’t.

How some people find it and others can’t always puzzles me. My good friend Sue has lost several family members this year and a beloved pet during the holidays, is holding vigil with her mother-in-law, and watched the Tennessee wildfire flames lick the edges of her holler, packed and ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. And yet, even amid her truly deep sorrow, there is a glint of joy in her emails and Facebook posts. She’s not a Pollyanna. But somehow she’s able to dig deep and find that spark and hold on tight.

For the coming year I hope we all – no matter how easy or difficult – find a nugget of joy to hold on to. Whether joy comes in the beauty of a ceremony or a moment in nature, amid the messiness of imperfection or like this bit of whimsy, may we seek it.

dsc03000This really has nothing to do with the passing of Carrie Fisher. Honestly. Hubby is one of those who has difficulty during the holidays, but when we saw this in a store, Yoda was coming home with us. He greets all our guests at the front door and they can’t help but smile. So since this has nothing to do with Princess Leia, I won’t write what many of you have already said.

But what a force joy can be.

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One Can Never Have Too Many Christmas Lights . . . Inside the House

dsc03013The first Christmas season I was a single-parent, I went to bed one night and found strings of Christmas lights crisscrossing themselves from the headboard to the footboard. It was as if a giant Christmas spider had woven its web across the bed. I had to lie on my back and slide across the mattress in order to go to sleep. I didn’t keep the lights on while I slept, but I did sleep under them for several nights. My youngest son, only five at the time, already knew how important those lights were to me. I’ve made him promise that when I’m old and decrepit and he and his siblings confine me to a nursing home, he will string Christmas lights in my room. He is to ignore any policies that forbid them due to fire or other safety hazards.

I’ve always loved Christmas lights. Like many, I remember riding in the car when I was younger, looking at decorated houses. Of course back then, decorated houses consisted mostly of lights strung along roof lines and maybe on a bush or two. But they were enough to turn winter nights into magic. My children inherited the gene from me and their paternal Grandma Jane, who loved Christmas lights too. My older son and daughter-in-law’s home is one people drive by for children to oooh and aaah over.

Why are Christmas lights special? Part of it for me is their soft glow. Even though I have enough in each room that I can read and write by them – without turning on any other lights – their brilliance is soft. It quiets and takes the edge off the day. The lights remind me of tiny stars against a dark sky. All those things are comforting to me.

Another part, I’m blessed to not suffer from seasonal affective disorder – the condition many people suffer from when sunlight is diminished. I like the shorter days and longer nights. But even so, the lights are a symbol of hope. Whether it’s the hope of the Christ child born into a messy world, or the hope the Winter Solstice brings, each day growing longer by mere minutes, those tiny lights lighten my heart.

And what of hope? I recently watched a video – yes, a real VHS! – of Fr. Michael Himes. Fr. Himes explained the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is when you know things are going to get better. Hope rises when it looks as if nothing will get better; there is no concrete indication that it will. And yet, those lights.

So my lights are usually the first things to go up and the last things to come down. They bring quiet, comfort, and hope in the middle of dark winter evenings. As the days do stretch minute by minute may we all unwrap the hope they represent.

And the little boy who loved lights as much as I do? He grew into a fine young man and this year married a young woman who loves lights as much as he does.

nicholas-and-jubilee-dance-2Love. Another symbol of hope.

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Merry Christmas!

I’ve been saying the words for weeks, but now I can finally say them in the Christmas season . . . and not have my friend Elena cringe, cover her ears and say, “It’s not Christmas. It’s still Advent!”

For those of you who know me, or know Elena, that’s no small difference or matter. It is finally Christmas. And Christmas is more than a day. It’s a full season of its own. And the season didn’t begin on Thanksgiving. It only began yesterday, December 25th.

I know, it’s maybe more of a Catholic thing. But for me, defining those two distinct seasons adds to the celebration of the second, and helps me survive the stress of the first – the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

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Those weeks between Thanksgiving and December 25th are Advent, not Christmas. Advent is a time of preparation, making ready, getting messy. So while the hustle and bustle get overwhelming at times, I remind myself hustle and bustle are important pieces of the whole. Like any big celebration – ever plan a wedding? A graduation? – the prep time is supposed to be a busy time. So I swim along with everything, knowing the peace of Christmas follows.

For four weeks the colors at church are purple with a splash of pink. The only ‘decoration’ is the Advent wreath to mark each week. Overnight, on Christmas Eve, the colors of the vestments turn to gold, and red and white poinsettias fill the church. It’s a dramatic, visual change and an obvious shift from one season to another.

I always feel sad when I see a de-frocked Christmas tree out on the curb on the 26th or 27th. People tell me they’re tired of the hustle and bustle of THE SEASON by the 25th and they are ready to move on into the New Year.

I’m a bit different – or as I’ve long understood, ‘a little left of center.’ While others are dismantling their mantle décor and crossing off their Christmas card sent/receive lists – those who still send them – I’m finally finishing my decorating, (this year the 17th), and writing out my cards (this year tomorrow, the 27th). It often feels like I’ve been invited to a party, spent time getting all prettied up, then arrive on the date only to be told, ‘Um, the party is over.’ when I clearly have the right date and time!  So even though many people are already packing away their shiny baubles and eating the last of the cookies – or throwing them away to start their New Year’s diets – I’m enjoying all the trappings, festivities, foods and joy of the season.

So when does Christmas end? It’s not really clear. Some say the octave, January 1st. Others insist the Epiphany, January 6th. Some take it all the way to the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, Candlemas Day, February 2nd. Personally I keep my tree up until the limbs droop and it looks like I’ve not completely decorated it, and until hubby asks more often, ‘Really? All that stuff is still up?!’

There are intangible gifts that seem most present to me in the quiet of winter. I unwrap them during the 12 Days of Christmas. I’ll share them with you over the next 12 days – just take a peek inside my Writer’s Window.

Merry Christmas

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National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week: Looks Can Be Deceiving ~ You’re Not Jesus

Fifteen years ago the events of 9/11 changed our world forever. One of the travel outcomes was the mandatory use of containers holding no more than 3.4 fluid oz. More than one traveler had their shampoo and body wash confiscated by security before we got used to the new regulation. But now those containers are readily available, and they are the perfect size for the hygiene kits tucked into the backpacks distributed to Lancaster County’s homeless.

dsc02924In addition to shampoo and body wash, the kits include travel-size deodorant, toothpaste, shaving cream, a toothbrush and razor. Everything is packed into a storage baggie to keep dry. When the items are bought in bulk, the cost of assembling the kit is $2.30.

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A second baggie provides nutrition. Each backpack comes with a juice box or bottle of water, tuna salad kit or other canned meat, pudding or fruit, crackers, cereal or granola bar. The food kit cost on average $7.00

Other items Kevin likes to keep in the Mobile Shower Unit are tarps, $4 at Walmart; mats made from plastic bags with pillows, plastic bags free when we purchase our groceries; clean clothes including underwear, socks, pants and shirts.

Years ago I was a Youth Minister and one of our annual events was a 30 Hour Famine. Parents thought I was crazy to lock myself in the church hall for 30 hours with a bunch of hungry teens! But it was great. We talked about being hungry and homeless, how it wouldn’t take much to lose everything and be in that situation. One of our exercises was to go to a local grocery store first thing in the morning, when the bakery was putting out its fresh baked goods, and to survey items on the shelves. The kids found it hard to concentrate on empty stomachs while being assaulted by the wonderful aromas coming from the bakery and deli. They were overwhelmed by our abundance when asked to count the different kinds of water, the number of cereals, the variety of hygiene products. And they were surprised at the cost of things.

It takes less than $10 to provide a basic hygiene kit and a simple meal for the men and women living in the woods, under bridges and in the abandoned buildings that surround us; $4 provides a tarp for a bit of protection from the elements.

A woman once approached Kevin and told him he wasn’t Jesus. He quickly agreed. But who’s to say that one of the men and women he encounters, isn’t. He’s making sure . . . just in case. ‘Whenever you do this for the least of my brothers, you do this for me.’ Kevin and the others don’t preach the scripture, they live it.

Contact Kevin mobileshower16@gmail.com to learn more about the homeless in Lancaster County, more about the Mobile Shower Unit, or to make a donation.

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