Wednesday, December 30, 2009

super cuts

In all the hours I spent on the piano bench in the practice room poring over scores learning repertoire and developing dexterity and finger independence by technical exercises, I never envisioned putting these skills to use cutting other people's hair.  I can't even fix my own hair. This does not bode well for my lass.

For a long while now, though, I've been cutting the lads' hair, but this morning my beloved took a seat in the stylist chair (sans booster).  I was kinda nervous, since there's a big difference between a young lad's home haircut and one on a grown man, but I am humbled to say it came out alright (if I do say so myself) with lots of coaching from my beloved as to how the professionals do it.

When my elder lad was a baby, we trimmed his bangs a couple of times, and my beloved even gave him a haircut or two.  Then it grew and grew, and the lad simply wasn't keen on the whole hair-cutting business.  Figuring it was just hair, after all, and not worth a battle just yet, we let it grow out.  Then enough was enough.  One Good Friday I took some scissors and started to trim some off the back while he sat on the back porch at my mother-in-law's house planting some seeds in a pot or something.

"What are you doing, Mama?" he asked me.

"Just trimming," I replied.  But I was pretty hesitant...

My mother-in-law (herself the mother of three boys) told me at the time, "Eventually it'll be no big deal."

"Eventually?!  There isn't going to be an eventually.  This is a one-time deal.  We're going to the barber shop next time." I told her.  I had no intention of repeating this exercise.  Silly me.

When it became apparent that sitting in the barber's chair was not going to happen anytime soon, I checked out some books from the library to learn some techniques, and now I'm pretty well-practiced with scissors (clippers are another story).  We have our routine down: both boys get their hair wet via a dunk in the tub (they hate the spray bottle).  Then they take turns in the chair with the booster seat that we bring into the bathroom and they both watch a video on our little DVD player.  Works pretty well (most of the time).

In thinking about all the skills I have cultivated as a mother since the time my first lad was born, some make more sense than others.  This hair-cutting business is not one of the skills I thought I would develop.  But I have out of necessity, and it's one I'm comfortable making use of when necessary.  I don't plan to be their stylist the rest of their lives, but for now it works for us (just so long as they have a good video to watch).

As for me, I slipped out yesterday to the salon and returned home with my hair cut and coiffed (but not colored, despite a few gray hairs that are making themselves known).  The outing did Mama a world of good, but not quite so much as returning home to the joyous shouts of my bambini saying "Mama, you look pretty!"

God love them.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ode to the clementine

Dear little clementines, how we do love thee.
Your orange peel is protective
yet yielding to little fingers seeking to enjoy your sweetness.
(They call you "clemenTIMES".)
'Til now we had not known the delights of the little cuties.
We're so glad we do.

Monday, December 28, 2009

favorite Christmas books

We benefit hugely from a longstanding tradition in my beloved's family at this time of year: our children receive books as gifts every year from my beloved's parents and grandparents (among others; my sister gave them books this year as well).  Each book is selected with great attention to detail both with regard to the story and how it relates to the child for whom it is intended.  The opening of the Christmas books is one of my favorite parts of the Christmas festivities.  I love to go back and look at the inscriptions in each one year after year, as these books are ways of remembering our bambini at particular stages in their lives and the things that captured their fancies at the those times.  They're also ways of marking our journey as a young family.

For example, the year we were expecting our second lad, we received Little One, We Knew You'd Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Jackie Morris.  With beautiful imagery both literary and visual, this book captures the profound joy and hopeful expectation of not only a couple expecting a baby, but the world awaiting its savior.  The interactions depicted between Mary and Joseph and the two of them and the newborn Jesus are tender and intimate, creating a sense of quiet wonder coexisting with abundant joy.

When a shepherd boy goes in search of the lost sheep in his care, he finds much more than he was expecting.  The boy (and the lamb missing its mother the sheep) finds Mary, Joseph, and newborn Jesus in the stable.  Something inside him recognizes the immensity hidden within the humble couple and their baby, and he longs to be a part of it.  The warmth of Raúl Colón's illustrations evokes a sense of wonder and peace.

"After the star had set, after the angels had roosted, after the shepherds had hurried back to their sheep, there was one person still awake in the dark stable."   Thus begins Geraldine McCaughrean's Father and Son: A Nativity Story.  Joseph sits awake in the stable after everyone else is asleep, wondering how he can ever care for, teach, admonish, instruct, and joke with the one who formed the world and all its contents.   This is a book filled with emotions that will resonate immediately with parents both seasoned and those just starting out.

Kate DiCamillo's Great Joy is a visually arresting book (with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline) with a profoundly moving story centering on a little girl living in a busy city and the homeless organ grinder on the street corner she watches from her window.  She's getting ready for her Christmas program, but she can't stop thinking about this sad man and his little monkey, especially after seeing them sleeping on the street corner in the snow.  Moved with compassion, she is compelled to reach out to him.  The result is pure joy.

 In Saint Frances Celebrates Christmas, Mary Caswell Walsh tells the story of the first nativity scene in an easygoing manner perfect for young children.  Saint Francis gathers people and animals together for a wondrous effect.  This Christmas we received The Song of Francis and Jingle the Christmas Clown by Tomie de Paola, which I eagerly await reading with my bambini. 

Cynthia Rylant's Silver Packages is a poignant story of an Appalachian town awaiting the yearly Christmas train.  A wealthy man once helped by the people of the town stands on the caboose tossing Christmas presents to the children standing in the snow clad in threadbare clothing.  One little boy learns a profound lesson about receiving, then giving back.

Our list of favorites would not be complete without a couple more of Tomie de Paola's books, including The Legend of the Poinsettia and The Story of the Three Wise Kings, and Merry Christmas, Curious George.

Snuggled up with my bambini reading these books makes for some of my most favorite times.  I hope it adds to their joy and understanding of the reason we celebrate Christmas.  I know it adds to mine.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

chocolate in good conscience

I am pretty much addicted to this chocolate peanut butter granola.  My selective four-and-a-half year old lad is, too.  It's a healthy snack with a touch of chocolaty-peanut-buttery goodness -- offering protein, endorphins, fiber, and a touch of sweetness.  Fabulous!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

great expectations

When I was a novice music director planning the first Christmas liturgies of my service, I selected Marty Haugen's ebullient "Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn" as the opening song of the Christmas Day liturgy.*

"Awake, awake, and greet the new morn,
For angels herald its dawning,
Sing out your joy, for now he is born,
Behold! the Child of our longing.
Come as a baby weak and poor,
To bring all hearts together,
He opens wide the heav'n-ly door
And lives now inside us for ever."

Festive, yes, and fitting, sure -- but not "O Come, All Ye Faithful" or "Joy to the World" or some other such bulwark of the Christmas carol repertoire as some might have been expecting.  I was known for introducing a lot of new music to the parish, and Christmas was no exception.

Each of us has our own set of expectations when it comes to such things as major holidays like Christmas.  They are built on tradition, the memories of our childhood, the hopes we have for how we'd like to celebrate in the future, and (at least) what we think the people we plan to celebrate with expect of the holidays.  But what happens when it all turns out differently?

The final two weeks of Advent passed in a blur for our family.  Our lad who seemed so fragile was for good reason.  He was diagnosed with pneumonia, then a week later turned up with an allergic reaction to the antibiotic prescribed to treat the pneumonia.  Before that latter revelation, we were contending with breathing treatments and medicine and such.  This left little time or energy left for fully entering into the Christmas mystery -- at least, in the way I thought I should have.

With Christmas Eve came a blizzard -- an anomaly for our region of the country.  Its arrival meant no family coming over to spend Christmas Eve with us or us going to visit other family on Christmas Day as we had planned, treacherous travel conditions for those who did venture this way, and no outing to Mass -- the centerpiece of our entire Christmas celebration.

Now the weather conditions are improving, and family is on the way to celebrate with us.  May our tidings be festive, joyful, and grateful for the blessings of family, the restoration of good health for our young lad, and most of all for the gift of redemption that comes with the arrival of the Christ child.

Christ enters into our reality knowing full well what it is, and wanting to be a part of it.  Our desire to be still and listen and make every little detail perfect is itself a gift from God -- a stirring of our devotion and faith.  But he knows our particular circumstances -- chaotic and stressful and exhausting though they may be -- and embraces us and them.  Even when we can't come to him, he comes to us.

I don't remember if we got to this fourth verse of the carol that Christmas morning with the obscure music (there *were* other, more familiar selections that morning), but it certainly seems fitting this year:

"Rejoice, rejoice, take heart in the night,
Though dark the winter and cheerless,
The rising sun shall crown you with light,
Be strong and loving and fearless;
Love be our song and love our prayer,
And love, our endless story,
May God fill ev'ry day we share,
And bring us at last into glory."

*In our Catholic tradition, there are several Masses celebrating Christmas beginning on Christmas Eve, including the vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, Mass at Midnight, and Mass during the Day on Christmas Day.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Advent goodness

I am woefully behind getting up any Advent decorations, but we're still trying to observe a hopeful and expectant Advent.  We made St. Nicholas Day a centerpiece of the early days of the season.  This weekend we'll be trimming our Christmas tree and decorating our house (if our lad feels up to it), fitting as we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent called "Gaudete Sunday" or the "joyful" Sunday, rejoicing as Christmas draws ever closer.   And for the third year in a row, we're enjoying The Very First Noel, an excellent animated video about the Three Kings' journey to Bethlehem.

The most important preparations are those that we make in our own hearts to receive our King of Kings at Christmas.


The same sweet lad who was just a few days ago wooing me with his little sonnet of Mama love has fallen ill with a fever, junky sounding cough, and upset stomach.  The past couple of days he's been saying he needs me to snuggle him, which I am always happy to do, especially when he is as obviously miserable as he is.  Who wouldn't want their mother at such a time?

Now that Daddy is home for the weekend things are a little more manageable, but yesterday was a different story...

While the ailing lad needs Mama to hold him, his older brother also wants me to play trucks with him, and the baby girl has set her sites on climbing the stairs on her own.  After that she decided that Mama-holding-business looked pretty good and wanted plenty of it for herself (when she wasn't trying to rearrange her elder brother's careful set-up of animal figurines and trucks).  What's a solo-flyin' Mama to do?

As I scurried around preparing what might pass as "lunch" amidst the feverish lad's plaintive pleas for me to hold him, the elder lad was (thankfully) quizzing me on how to spell "construction site" for him to label the truck drawing he'd done at school this week.  The lass was making her request for sustenance known as well; Mama barely managed to get everyone something to eat. 

At times like this, it's all about triage.  Who is in the greatest need at this very moment?  As I've written before, multitasking is an art form I practice daily to master.   When it comes to the immediate and intense needs of these three souls, Mama desperately wants to meet them all.  But I'm only one person.  How can I?

One idea is to pile up and read together.  We did that for a while.  We fudged a little on the TV time, all watching a Planet Earth episode on oceans, Dinosaur Train, and Curious George.  We bundled up and went for a drive; the sleep that had eluded the ailing lad during our story hour came shortly after backing out of the driveway, and his brother and sister fell asleep themselves.  (I had packed some dark chocolate in case things worked out that way.  Mama needed the endorphins.) 

Help arrived shortly after we got home in the loving hands of my mom, dad, and sister.  Everyone's spirits were buoyed when Daddy arrived home with pizza.

The two healthier siblings did what they could to console and care for their brother, though by the end of the day with only brief rolling siestas for anyone, patience was in short supply.  The poor lad didn't mean to be fussy; he simply couldn't help it.  We've all been there.

He's still sick today, but his spirits are improved.  Here's hoping the extra TLC will be just what he needs to get over what's ailing him.

Lord, I pray for guidance in caring for these children, for their physical, mental, and spiritual health, for my younger lad's speedy and complete recovery, and for continued health for my other two children.  I don't know how "mothers of many" balance these precarious situations.  I guess they just do the best they can with what they have at the moment.  That's what I tried to do yesterday.  It wasn't the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last.  I pray that God will make up the difference between what I'm able to provide and what my children need.

Friday, December 11, 2009

favorite authors: Tomie de Paola

One of our very favorite authors is Tomie de Paola.  "Prolific" is one way of describing his output, but "wonderful" and "delightful" are probably more descriptive (if somewhat more subjective).  He's penned and illustrated several books of a religious nature, among them one on St. Patrick, a few on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and several about Jesus, as well as those about ordinary people answering the call to everyday sanctity.  Some of our favorites among these are The Lady of Guadalupe, The Clown of God, and Christopher the Holy Giant.  He also has written some based on legend (such as The Legend of the Poinsettia), and some endearing stories drawn from his own childhood.  Of these we've really liked The Art Lesson and The Baby Sister.  Then there are fun ones that answer burning questions like those about popcorn and clouds in the aptly-titled The Popcorn Book and The Cloud Book respectively.

These days we're enjoying Jingle the Christmas Clown, Pages of Music (written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by de Paola), and Tomie's Little Christmas Pageant, perfect timing too as our elder lad just appeared in his first Christmas program at his preschool. Mama wasn't prepared for the strong reaction of wonder and pride seeing her lad in his element on stage dressed as a Wise Man in an orange robe and crown.  Who knew?

I remember reading Nana Upstairs Nana Downstairs as a child (older than my own bambini), though at the time de Paola's name didn't stick with me.  When I checked it out not all that long ago to see if it might be one my bambini would like now (I decided to wait until they're a little older to read it to them), I could barely make it through the book without tears welling in my eyes thinking of reading this book with my parents and also of my own grandmothers, one living and one no longer living.

De Paola's simple, honest prose and his charming illustrations endear his books to parents and children alike.  It's no wonder he's an enduring favorite, not just at our house, but around the world.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

the heart of the home

You know that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where someone makes reference to the husband being the head of the household but the wife being the neck?

I've run across this phrase "heart of the home" a lot lately.  Its particular context applies to the lady of the household, the wife and mother who tends to the souls entrusted to her -- her husband's and children's.  Part of this soul-tending business involves the temporal care of the bodies the souls inhabit and the environment the bodies live in, but there's a deeper meaning here. 

The heart of the home is where those who live in that home can find love, care, respect, encouragement, nourishment, devotion, understanding, strength, refuge from the outside world's pressures and confusions, and liberal doses of humor and accountability.   She is, for lack of more delicate terms, where the rubber meets the road.  She is in the world but not of it, aware of what the world might be trying to foist upon her loved ones and ready to refute whatever is not of God.

Between the neck and the heart, I'd rather be the heart.   I pray for the grace to be just such a pillar for the people God has placed closest in my midst.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I'll live for days on this...

From the way-back of the Bambini Ride I hear my younger lad spontaneously say
"I.  love.  Ma.  Ma.
"I love Mama!
"I.  love.  YOU."

Bless you, dear child.  Your mama loves you, too.

favorite illustrators: Chris Raschka

We've read several books illustrated by Chris Raschka, my favorite among them being The Hello, Goodbye Window,which won the Caldecott medal. It's the charming story of a girl at her grandparents' house, and for us it cultivates memories of the love we feel and fun we have when we visit our parents (our bambini's grandparents) and grandparents.

Now we've found another fun one: his retelling of Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.  The prose he employs lends itself well to reading aloud; it's a pleasure for both the one reading and the one(s) listening.  Come to find out, Raschka has several other books with a musical theme.  I'll be searching the library card catalog for those...

(dating myself again.  Do they even keep an actual card catalog at the library anymore?)

I digress.  Peter and the Wolf is a cornerstone of the children's musical lexicon (I'm always looking for an excuse to use that word "lexicon."  It's so choice.).  How neat to have it in this fresh visual form as well.  Now I must find my recording of Leonard Bernstein narrating the piece...

Monday, December 07, 2009

St. Nicholas Day

Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of (among others) children, brides, and sailors, who serves as a sort of historical basis for our modern day Santa Claus. He was actually a saint born in the third century who became Bishop of Myra in what is modern day Turkey, perhaps best known for the example of charity he gave by providing the dowries for a family of young ladies too poor to wed otherwise.    

Celebrating this feast day is a significant part of our Advent observance, as it places a premium on the consideration of the needy at this otherwise extravagant (at least, in the worldly sense) time of year.  Every year since our elder lads' first Christmas, we select children our own children's ages from our parish church's angel tree to buy Christmas gifts for.  Last week we went shopping, and the lads helped select things they thought "their boys" would like, such as trucks or blocks or puzzles, as well as some sorely-needed things like hats, mittens, hoodies, and pajamas.  They also helped choose gifts for a girl our lass's age, like diaper supplies, some soft blocks, and jammies.  It wasn't easy at first to choose some fun-looking toys to give to someone else we'll likely never meet, but the thought of other children without such things resonated with the lads, and they soon were thinking of ways to show even greater generosity.

This "Saint Nicholas shopping" is an opportunity to discuss our responsibility to those who cannot meet their own basic needs, a responsibility we feel keenly.  The need for almsgiving knows no season, but Advent is an especially ideal time to answer that need with joy, and to help our children live the virtues of charity, generosity, and kindness. 

St. Nicholas Day isn't meant to be a mini-Christmas morning, but it *is* a day to celebrate the beautiful children in our lives.  Ours awoke to encounter a few little surprises throughout the day.  Some families leave chocolate coins, clementines, walnuts, or other yummy treats in their stockings.  Seeing as how our children don't have stockings (Mama wants to make those in her spare time, so they may be waiting a while.), I drew some on paper sacks for the lads' treat bags.  They were very understanding.

We have a few books about Saint Nicholas that we read each year.  One we particularly like is Santa, Are You For Real?  by Harold Myra (strange coincidence, the author's last name and the city of St. Nicholas's ministerial service).  It's a book my beloved's parents read to him and his brothers as a child, and seeks to answer the question head on in a way that keeps the focus on Christ and the magic of the legend alive.

Another is Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Stiegemeyer, which despite its title is actually a fictional story.  This book's strength lies in its personification of the key players in the whole gold-in-the-stocking story.

As we journey forward toward Christmas, we hope to carry the spirit of Saint Nicholas with us, keeping in mind his devotion to Christ especially in children and the poor and needy.  Considering Christ's humble birth and His reassurance that whatever we do for the least of His people we do for Him, we know we can only fully experience His joy by also embracing His cross and His mission of love and charity.
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