Monday, November 29, 2010

A Lesson in Simplicity... from a Tree

This weekend was a milestone in my 30 years of Christmas tree experiences. For the first time, our tree was not cut down from a tree farm, where trees are groomed, given ample sunlight, and noble firs (my tree of choice) abound.
This year we thoroughly debated what to do about our tree. (I'm embarrassed to admit how much thought went into this seemingly unimportant decision - but that's how I am with Christmas) We didn't feel right spending $50 on a tree that we would only experience for little over a month. We debated investing in a fake tree, but felt like we wanted to encourage in our children a love of nature, and bringing the natural world into our home. And because we get the tree up by Thanksgiving weekend & keep it up until Ephiphany in January, a pre-cut tree was out of the question because it just wouldn't last without dropping needles everywhere. So, we decided to try venturing out in nature, armed with our $10 forest service road pass and cut down a tree a'natural.

Given the early snow levels this year on Snoqualmie Pass, we decided just to go as far as we could and be flexible. We soon discovered, however, that once you get going up forest service roads, there's no turning around. So higher and higher we climbed, all the while getting into deep stuff that we knew our all-wheel drive could have difficulty with. When we finally got to a "Y" in the road to turn around, we got stuck in a snowdrift and had to have help being pushed out. Then, on the way down, we moved over to the side of the 1-lane road (with a cliff on one side & a ditch on the other) and our tires were forced by the snow drift into the ditch. Needless to say, we were "those people"- requiring the help of 3 guys over 30 minutes and finally some tow straps to get back on the road.

By this time, (although Leta was so patient for our almost hour combined time stuck in the snow) all we cared about was getting us off this mountain road. My quest for the perfect tree seemed suddenly petty compared to my desire to avoid getting stranded in the woods or worse-(ok, my mind always jumps to the worst possibility when faced with snowy roads flanked by a cliff with no guardrail).

So, having safely arrived back to the bottom of the hill, we let Leta finally get out and play in the snow. And we searched among sparse, sagging cedars for anything "Christmas-tree-like." We chose 1 of the 2 fir-type trees and cut it down, soon realizing that the base was close to 10 feet wide and there seemed to be a total of about 6 branches on it. But, we were alive and headed home with a tree!
And although this tree is not nearly as perfectly shaped as we usually get, I love it! For the first time in 6 years of marriage, I let Matt help me with the lights and let our 3 year old help with the ornaments. And for the first time, the ornaments do not all match- I let Leta put on whatever ornaments she wanted to. It was a family effort- just as it always should have been.

So, each time I look at this tree, it stands as a reminder to loosen up, to slow down, to remember priorities and not strive for perfection. If we can't fit in every social event or Christmas tradition this year- that's ok. If I can't bake everything I usually do at Christmastime- that's ok. If gifts are less than perfect and the to-do list just doesn't get done- that's ok. What matters is slowing down to enjoy the anticipation of advent - that magical spirit of waiting & excitement that we experienced as children, when we could hardly sleep on the nights leading up to Christmas day. That's how I want to experience the advent season - excitedly awaiting the day when we celebrate the source of love, generosity, & peace stepping into our world.
...And all I have to do is look at our sparse, mis-matched tree with weak drooping branches to be reminded of my priorities and ditch the perfectionism this season.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

It's Thanksgiving week and the entire city of Seattle has been covered in snow for 3 days. Our little family baked a bunch, had an impromptu movie night, played together & were even productive around the house. We've ventured out into the freezing temperatures for small stints of time, only to run back into our well-heated, comfortable home, sip hot drinks and bundle up in blankets next to our heat vents.

But all I've been able to think about the past few days is the fact that there are so many in our city who don't have that luxury. I know the city opens more shelters when bad weather hits, but where do the homeless go during the day to get out of the cold? I discovered that even our neighborhood public library (a public respite from the cold) was closed yesterday. And I've realized that I am so thankful this Thanksgiving week for God's undeserved gift of provision! We have a warm home that I'm actually a bit in love with (flaws & all). We're able to pay for oil to keep it warm and comfortable. We have plenty of good food to eat and enough warm snow clothes to stay warm while playing.

If I can be candid: this past week has been one that financially could have become a stressful burden: The loss of 3 day's pay due to the weather, an expensive repair on Matt's car that became urgent given this cold weather, new dietary restrictions for me that I'm discovering are not as cheap as I'm used to, and the first of our adoption bills due. Not to mention Christmas looming.

But God continues to provide and I can honestly say that I'm not stressed at all. We're blessed to have enough put aside for emergencies such as these. We're blessed to have a home that we love. We're blessed to not have any unment needs. And we've been so blessed by the 30 Days of Giving Challenge this past month. It's completely reiterated to me the truth that we are simply God's middlemen. If we allow, He just funnels His provision through us, even when we can't see how.

I've humbly learned of great giving opportunities this past month (we haven't done all of these things listed or anything, they are just good ideas). If you're looking for ways to give this Christmas season, here are a few great ideas people have given me:
  • Kiva Giftcards make a perfect Christmas gift. Everything I read about ending poverty champions the use of microloans in helping the poor from 3rd world countries get on their feet. Kiva is an exceptional organization in doing this.
  • Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts. I recognize that a shoebox of toys isn't a cure for poverty in other countries. But I love this opportunity because it's something that my daughter can do- pick out the toys, color pictures, etc... This year we had (what's now become an annual) Operation Christmas Child party & between all of us- were able to send 11 boxes! Although it's now too late to send more shoeboxes, you can still go to their website to pack a "virtual box."
  • Adopt a family. There are many families that just can't afford Christmas presents this year. Churches might have some info about families that could use some help with presents for their kids this year.
  • Handwarmers. Given our cold winter already, wouldn't handwarmers be the best thing to hand out to people on the street? Stock up at Costco & keep them in your car & few in your purse.
  • The gift of freetime for mothers. I was so blessed by a required hour of quiet time at a staff retreat the other week. I had no idea how much I needed that time to refocus on priorities, pray, and assess where I was at. And yet, I would have felt guilty asking for that time. Every mother NEEDS time alone to refocus. What a gift it would be to babysit & provide that time guilt-free!
  • Visiting the Elderly. Our church has many older people who can't get out of their homes and therefore has a visitation team. Imagine how lonely it would be to be home by yourself every day. Now, imagine how much joy a visit (especially with little kids in tow) can bring to the homebound.
I'm sure there are so many other ideas! What ideas do you have for generosity during this holiday season? Let's truly seek to "live simply so others can simply live." Have a wonderful, love-filled Thanksgiving, friends.

My De-Stressing the Holidays List

It's no surprise that it's only midway through November and I'm already consumed with thoughts of the Advent season (which will be upon us before you know it!). As I've said before, finding myself excited for Christmas, really any time of the year, doesn't surprise me at all. What suprises me is how much stress I'm already feeling this year as we approach the holiday season. It might just be that we have an unusually busy November, and so I feel like the full schedule has already begun too soon. It might be because I'm working a lot more than I want to be right now and so the weeks seem to FLY by lately (which I'm not a big fan of). It might be because I really want to build margins into our schedule this Christmas season, so that there will be plenty of hours spent doing nothing more than listening to my favorite Christmas albums on repeat mode, gazing at the lights on our tree, and appreciating all this season means to me - and those margins are going to be hard to preserve this year.
Whatever the reason, I've come up with a few ways to alleviate some of the stress I often submit myself to this Christmas:
  • No big homemade gifts this year. I'm a huge fan of homemade gifts- I love the price tag, the creativity required, the fact that a ton of thought, time & love goes into something homemade. But, because I'm not the best craftsperson and am a total perfectionist, I end up getting so stressed out about finishing in time. So, I'm just not even going to try this year. There will be a few little ones, but nothing stress-inducing.
  • We'll pick our favorite things to do, and then not worry about the rest. Yes to trips downtown to see the lights, ride the carousel, etc... No to stressful Santa pictures that never turn out, are expensive, and can instantly turn me into a much more uptight version of myself. (I'm already enough of a perfectionist. An even more uptight version is probably my husband & daughter's worst nightmare.) Yes, I'd love to be able to look back each year to how our kids have grown- but it's just not worth it for me to have that be on Santa's lap. I want to come up with an easier, less stressful alternative.
  • I'm giving up control of our tree this year. I'm getting rid of some of our breakable glass ornaments and am going to let my daughter help me decorate it. (keep in mind, in our 6 years of marriage, I've never even let Matt help decorate it) And, I'm opening myself up to the possiblity of bringing home a less than perfect tree. That's right- this will be the first year ever in my life that I'm going to try a tree from somewhere other than a perfectly groomed tree farm (it's a big step, people!)
  • My goal is to not make any trips to the mall. Usually I spend the 2 months prior to Christmas constantly going back and forth to stores trying to find the perfect gift for all of our friends and family members on both sides. It's stressful; it's expensive; it's doesn't honor the reason for the season; buying more new things not only isn't necessary it's not the best stewardship of the earth - both the production and future disposal of the item; and in the end- it's rarely something that the recipient really needs. So this year, most everyone on our list is getting 2nd hand gifts (just to warn those of you that I exchange gifts with). It makes so much more sense to me on so many levels and I don't want to get sucked into the "consumeristic Christmas on crack" (as I affectionately call it) that our culture tries to sell us this time of year. Friends & family- feel free to do the same for me. There's really nothing that I need and definitely nothing that I need to be brand new.
  • And I'm building in more time in my schedule for relationships this Christmas. It's what matters so much more than gifts in the long run. I want to spend time with friends and family celebrating the holidays in laid-back ways: baking cookies, having low-key parties, watching "A Christmas Story", sledding if there's snow, visiting friends I don't see as often as I'd like. This is what I'm truly excited about this year.

How about you? Any ideas on where to build margins into your life, what to simply give up, and how to narrow it down to what really matters?

If you're seeking out inspiration in this area, you've got to watch the Advent Conspiracy videos-especially "Enter the Story." I re-watch them every year - such a good reminder of where our priorities should lie.

30 Day Giving Challenge


November 1st marked the first day of the 30 Days of Giving Challenge that you may have seen around the blogosphere. It started last year in November on the blog Kingdom First Mom and I participated then. It was such an eye-opening experience to have to write down at the end of the day, ways in which I was generous (that were above & beyond what I might do normally) and to find myself having gone through an entire day without any sort of generosity.

I don't know about you, but I always feel like there are so many areas I want to work on in myself, that a 30-day period of really focusing on one trait seems to simplify things, and opens my eyes to how much I need to grow.

The other amazing thing from this experience last year, was seeing how faithfully God provided the resources to be generous. I realized that I was merely the middle-man, the steward, of God's generosity. Last year I have no idea how we were able to keep giving without running out of resources, but it was such a testament to God's provision. It reminded me of the miraculous story of Elijah & the widow- who's flour & oil never ran out. God can provide the "flour & oil" for his people in need, He just wants us to be the middle-men - and that's exciting, isn't it?!

So, I'm off on this 30-day journey again this year. Let me know if you want to join me or you can sign up on this year's official 30 Days of Giving Website. I hope to periodically check in, but also to occasionally post creative ways to give and organizations close to my heart that could really use our generosity. Have fun!

A Word on Decluttering from Around the Blogosphere

Yesterday I was standing, hands on my hips in the middle of our playroom when Matt said, "You have that look. You're on a purging kick again, aren't you?" And boy was he right. In the past few months we've probably taken close to 10 loads of clothes and household items to Goodwill. How is it that a couple who's only been married 6 years (in January) has already accumulated so much? When we first moved into our house from our tiny condo I was overjoyed at the amount of storage we gained. Well guess what... in only 3 years we completely filled it! I know that baby equipment and kids clothes take up a majority of it, but still...

So, every few months I've been going on a new purging spree- getting rid of all I think I can handle and then in a few months, realizing I can get rid of even more. This week I've read so many great posts on decluttering our stuff, that I thought I'd share a few with you.

I think the best blog post I've read on the topic is this one (even if you don't read the others, check this one out):

How to See Past Your Mountain of Stuff to a Place Called Enough, which is a guest post from the author of the Life Cleanse Starter Kit that I mentioned before. She writes in this post about her father-in-law downsizing and the months that it took their family to go through the stuff he'd accumulated in his house over 30 years:

"I found myself wondering what the point of it all was – all this accumulating. Here was all this stuff that no one really wanted – that had little value in the end. It wasn’t what made his house a home – his marriage was.

I've also done a great excercise this week from the Life Cleanse Starter Kit that has you assess every space in your house for how cluttered it is and whether it causes stress or feelings of peace. I now have a list of areas in my house that are stress-inducing and whenever I have 20 minutes, I go through and declutter one to cross it off my list.

Here's a list of more blogposts from this week about our mountains of stuff and how to get rid of them:

So there you have it. If you were looking for inspiration to declutter, clean, reassess priorities and possessions, look no further. And if you need even more encouragement, we can cheer each other on. Because although it can be daunting, it feels SO good once you're done!

Letter of the Week

We've been chugging along with the letter of the week idea that I mentioned in this previous post and I wanted to share some of the great ideas & resources we've used. Most of these ideas came from your comments and follow-up emails, so I have you to thank, really.

  • A great web resource for ideas is Letter of the Week: Preschool Curriculum. On the site you can click on the letter you're focusing on and up pops a list of words, ideas for food to make, crafts, books to read, songs to sing, even Biblical characters & traits that start with the letter. We've been pretty low-key in our activities, but it's great to know that such a detailed resource is out there if you need it.

  • My favorite idea that someone gave us was to decorate a cut out of the letter each week. Trying to be resourceful with supplies we already have at home, I cut out 10 inch letters from construction paper and we've been taping the finished products up in our stairwell "art gallery" so that by the end, the entire alphabet will wrap around the walls. I've also tried to use decorations that start with the letter that we already have on hand: "A" was apple prints; "B" was covered in various stamps we had of a Baby, Balloons, Birthday cake, etc...; "C" was a collage of c-words cut out of a magazine; "D" were Dot stickers; and "E" posed a challenge - so far all we had at home were some Elmo stickers, but I think I might pick up some elephant ones or eggs I suppose.

  • Jenny had the great idea of my daughter making and sending cards to a friend who's name starts with that letter. I LOVE that! It not only gets her thinking about the sound the letter makes but also being thoughtful & generous.

  • One of my favorite purchases awhile back was a set of alphabet cookie cutters. For "C" week we made cookies - the letter "C" and other shapes that started with C: cat, candle, even candy cane (I know, wrong season). I've also used the cookie cutters on Leta's PB&J sandwiches or cheese slices for lunch. She LOVES this!

  • I even stumbled upon an alphabet book of poetry at the thrift store awhile back- so each week we read a goofy poem with hilarious pictures all about things that start with that week's letter.

Anyways, just wanted to share the wealth of good ideas that some of you have been sharing with me. Anyone else doing this and have great ideas to add to the list?

The Monday Time Suck

Mondays are often the day of the week where time flies by and I have no idea where it goes. It's my day between the fun of family time on the weekend and my often crazy work day on Tuesday. So a lot of pressure seems to fall on poor unassuming Monday.

Every other week Monday starts with a morning playdate up at the Shoreline playgym - which both Leta and I look forward to. But I realized something funny about the rest of the day after the playdate on my weekly trips up north. Having lived in Shoreline before Leta was born, I'm thoroughly familiar with what I like to call the "Bargain Mecca" of North Aurora. Costco is up there. My favorite thrift store is up there. The dollar store is up there, among a ton of other bargain favorites that I no longer allow myself to visit. And Monday's are our grocery shopping day, so we often go to a grocery store up there, too. Unfortunately, all of this can add up to a day where all of our freetime is spent up north running from store to store with a 3 year old in tow - because "I'd better hit them all while I'm already all the way up here" (as if 175th is really THAT far from where we live).

Then I return home, with a now cranky 3-year old who's been rushed from place to place and had her rest time pushed back further and further, with a car full of groceries & stuff , and suddenly my time with my daughter for the day has been sucked up in a vortex of bargain-seeking followed by an evening of getting ready for the workday tomorrow.

I write all this not at all to complain about our schedule (it's obvious that I've chosen it), but to point out the folly of my choices that I'm just realizing this morning.

I woke up super early this morning because I was craving some time for reading and inspiration before this busy day got underway. And I stumbled upon the blog Momentum Gathering and her "Free Life Cleanse Starter Kit". Always one for simplification how-to's, I started reading it and was so inspired by her approach to time usage. The kit leads you through a few excercises in tracking your time and then evaluating how you feel about where it's going, questioning how to reprioritize so that more time is spent doing the things that bring you joy. (I highly recommend it!)

Although I could say that bargain-shopping brings me joy... it's not lasting joy. Lasting joy would be time spent playing on the floor with my daughter, in awe of what her imagination comes up with next, and taking the time to actually notice and appreciate things like her adorable toddler hands manipulating playthings. Before I know it those cute little hands will be grown up and gone. I need to make choices that simplify my time better, so that more of it can be spent consciously in ways that reflect my priorities and bring me joy instead of disappearing and leaving me unfulfilled.

How about you? If you take a minute to evaluate where your time goes, what are the things that take up your time but don't bring you joy? What might you eliminate from your schedule in order to free up pockets of time for what you really crave?

What is Sabbath?

Is there anything God created that's more perfect than the idea of Sabbath? In the last few months I've been trying to really instigate this idea of a weekly day of rest and it's infused my week with a sense of peace and a clearer focus on the priorities I've chosen for my life.

Last Sunday a guest preacher at our church spoke about Sabbath and the fact that it allows the rest our bodies and minds need. She even went as far as to say that it's almost arrogant to insist that the world can't go on without our help 7 days a week! By taking a day off, we realize our insignificance in the grand scheme of things and God's significance as the source of everything.

Throughout history people have fell into the trap of legalizing the Sabbath- turning it into rules that need to be followed, rather than the rest it's supposed to embody. That being said, I do have a few "guiding principles" that I've discovered bring me the rest and peace of Sabbath (but I don't allow these to become concrete legalizations):

  • Sabbath, above all, means a day where there is nothing I "have" to do (other than take care of my daughter, of course). No work responsibilities, no cleaning the house, no household projects.

  • Sabbath is usually Sunday for me, but if that's not possible, I choose another day. I often have responsibilities at church on Sundays, but I try to have my time before and after church be Sabbath time. That means, reading the newspaper in the morning, not treadmilling, going to church and returning to a day free of work.

  • What constitutes "work" completely depends on my attitude. Some days, I can't wait to get my hands in the dirt in my garden and it's completely relaxing. Other days, garden projects feel like chores that "need" to get done before the next rain, etc... Some days turning on my oven to cook dinner feels like work, while on others, I crave therapuetic cooking and baking.

  • Knowing myself and my obsession with cleanliness well, I only truly am able to relax if the house is clean ahead of time. Sometimes this means staying up late the night before to deep clean the kitchen or vaccuum the floors. But I just know that my relaxation is so much purer when not distracted by a dirty floor. (Again, this isn't something I legalize, but just something I realize about myself and my "compulsions").

  • Sabbath activity can be non-productive. I often spend Leta's naptime on that day reading fiction or books that I don't "have" to read for any reason, collage journaling (something that is competely purposeless, but brings me so much satisfaction), or even...the holy grail of non-productivity...taking a nap!

  • Sabbath is a time of enjoying the company of family. The afternoon is spent doing whatever sounds fun to Matt, Leta, and I, often visiting our extended family in the evenings.

Now, I do have a confession as I write this post. This week has been one of the busiest work weeks for me since I went part time. So, this week I was forced to have only a Sabbath morning yesterday and will have the late afternoon today. It's not ideal. But, hey, in times when things are out of my control, I still know there is immense value in still carving out that day of rest.

Being Content

For awhile now I've been thinking about the idea of being content with what I have in certain areas of my life. Obviously, money and possessions are aspects where it's so easy to focus on the ever-elusive "more" that I think I need to be comfortable. And yet, for the most part I think I'm growing in that area- feeling most of the time that I have more than enough possessions and really need to focus on purging the uneccessary ones.

Then there's the fact that we've been in some form or another of an adoption process for almost a year in half now (which is because we were slow & pursued so many various paths in the beginning). And although I can't wait to expand our little family, I've learned to be content and truly cherish this time that I have with just one right now.

Now, just in the past few weeks, another area of needing contentedness has come into play- and that's being content to soak life in without the need to be productive all the time. I'm a huge list maker and can't seem to focus on things until I write them down in a list. So, I did that a few weeks ago with the various projects around our house that I'd like Matt & I to get done. However, what I thought was a helpful list has now become this awful burden hanging over my head! The list is long! And overwhelming! And none of it is hugely expensive or hard, it's just time-intensive. So, I've felt like I ought to be spending every spare minute whidling this list down as much as I can, being productive with my spare minutes. But it's draining when not even a small chunk of time has been carved out to just be and savor my life. I mean, is having chalkboard paint on our kitchen door really a higher priority than enjoying these last few days of summer with my family?!

So, the to-do list will get done-eventually. But if our house doesn't get painted this fall or the garage cleaned out this week- oh well. It will happen later. What I won't have later is a chance to fully enjoy all the summer activities I 've wanted to with just my 2 year old. Next summer she'll be 3 and (God willing) there will be two children to divide my attention between. In the meantime... contentedness.

How about you? How do you find ways to be content without always focusing on more or the next best thing?

"Once in a Lifetime"

I've been reading a wonderful book lately called Less is More by Wanda Urbanski & Cecile Andrews (who I recently found out lives in my neighborhood!) The bi-line is "Embracing simplicity for a healthy planet, a caring economy and lasting happiness." You can see just from that bi-line why I've been enjoying it so much!

Yesterday I read an essay by Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of The Wabi-Sabi House. She ends the essay with an explanation of the most important aspect of Japanese tea ceremonies:Ichigo, ichie, or "once in a lifetime." She says,

"This reminds us that every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to enjoy good company, beautiful art and a cup of tea. We never know what might happen tomorrow, or even later today. But in the moment, we could stop to share conversation and a cup of tea."

How much richer could our lives be if we slowed down enough to live out this principle- appreciating each moment as one that only happens once in our lives? Taking the time to be present and notice the beauty I'm surrounded with; whether it's the curve of my coffee cup, the flowers in a jar on my kitchen table, the voice of a friend who truly knows me, even the sweet 2-year old voice that keeps interrupting (but, let's be honest, still warms my heart like no one else's).

Reading this essay reminded me of a slogan that I've since adopted as a personal motto for how I want to live my life. Four years ago, I attended a youth workers conference and received a t-shirt from World Vision that said "You have ONE life. Do something." Ironically this t-shirt has done more to alter my life than any other pithy slogan or proverb. I only live once and who knows how long that life will be. I don't want to put off living it until I have more time or more money or less distractions. I want to live every day as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity, and not get so caught up in racing through life without a finish line in sight. It's so difficult for me to slow down (without feeling guilty about not being "productive"). But I'm trying. I want to "DO (appreciate beauty, serve others, love my friends and family, enjoy all God gives us in life, create things) SOMETHING."

Why Simplicity?

My obsession with simplicity began a few years ago as an obvious outcome of the financial position we were in. We didn't have a ton of money and I was forced to realize the connection between money and time. I realized that I had to ask myself "Is it worth not having a ton financially in order to have more time free from working?" (The answer for me was "yes"). As the daughter of an accountant penny-pinching father and a bargain-shopping addict for a mother, it isn't surprising that my quest for simplicity began in the financial realm of my life. I've been moderately (okay, who am I kidding) really rather obsessed with frugality for awhile now.

Since that initial awakening to the idea of simplicity financially, I've realized how many more areas of life the pursuit of simplicity benefits than simply our savings accounts.

  • By working less and not succumbing to a busy ( & thus complicated) schedule, I have more time to enjoy life; more time to spend with friends and family; more time to volunteer & serve others.

  • By buying less, I'm able to work less and still get by. I spend a lot less time shopping for things, then cleaning/fixing/dusting those things, then storing those things, etc...

  • By consuming less I'm helping the environment by avoiding the damage production of things does both while being produced and then when being disposed of later.

  • By consuming less I'm even (ironically) helping our economy- which has gotten to big too fast and is causing a growing wealth gap between our rich and poor - something God never intended for his creation.

  • By consuming less and spending less time earning money, I'm able to appreciate a slower life, to bake bread by hand, to grow beautiful flowers, to soak in the beauty of our creation, to appreciate each stage my almost 3-year old is in.

That's "why simplicity" in my life. I want my life to be deliberate. As Thoreau said, I want to "suck out all the marrow of life...and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived."

If you've ever felt that dissatisfaction towards the rat race life that has become the new norm and the extreme levels of overconsumption seen in our society, and instead have thirsted for a life lived daily around the beauty, joy, and moments that truly matter- join me in this journey, this seeking out simplicity...