Unicorns and a Teepee

The end of another spring break is upon us. True to form, we’ve had rain – and snow. Granted, we had some sun too. Temps have been mostly in the 40s, and finally above 50 today. The predicted high temp for the last day of break is 78. Figures.

The reality of snow in April, coupled with envious thoughts of friends vacationing in warmer places, began to darken our family mood. Relationships were straining. A bit of separation was necessary, so I shooed the kids outside to relieve some tension.

Once outside, our girls got busy making a fort. They crafted a wonderful little stick and pine needle abode: cozy, welcoming and warm. They were methodical, resourceful and very proud of their dwelling. They will both make excellent homemakers. Our boys, impressed and jealous, dubbed the girl’s fort, “The Unicorn Stable.” (we’ve developed a strange affinity for unicorns)

Not to be outdone, the boys started their own project. It was much less organized. There was a tear-down and relocation, bickering, name-calling and aimless wandering. There was wrestling and chasing and whipping with sticks. All the classic ingredients of boyhood play. In the end, the boys brought a teepee to life. It’s not cozy, but certainly manly. And with the top of the teepee 12-inches from the power line, opportunity is ripe for future excitement.

As a dad, it was fun to watch (and help) my children in their creative play. Snow, sand, sun or whatever, taking a break with the kids is valuable leisure time. And, it is a relief to know the unicorns finally have a place to sleep.

The Unicorn Stable

The Teepee

Family Stew

I’m addicted. Katrina’s addicted. Our kids are addicted.

It started a couple of months ago when we “bundled.” Yep, we put our phone, internet and TV all with one provider. It felt inevitable in one regard; against my principles in another. But I’m OK. One bill is nice. What’s not nice are the hundreds of TV channels I didn’t ask for and don’t need. Is it really necessary to have an SD and HD version of everything? Basic cable and I got along just fine. Oh well.

Fortunately, there’s a sliver of silver in our technological cloud – the Food Network. My family likes food, so food-based programming is a double-portion of love. The addiction I mentioned earlier is to the show “Chopped.” In Chopped, professional chefs are presented a “mystery basket” of food items. Their challenge is to create an appetizer, main dish or dessert from the mystery ingredients. Judging is based on creativity, and of course taste. It’s fun, fast-paced and fascinating. The cooking techniques we’ve gleaned from our viewing have already brought new tastes and presentation to our toast, salads, mac-n-cheese – you name it.

My Chopped addiction stems from the enjoyment of watching seasoned chefs make amazing dishes from ingredients that have no business being together. Ingredients like smoked chub and strawberry milk. Peanut butter cereal and Saki. The sweet and sour, pungent and savory, common and exotic – all brought together through a coaxed harmony.

Sounds a bit like a family, doesn’t it? A coaxed harmony of mysterious ingredients. Take my family, for example. Some of us look alike. Others, not even close. Some are sweet, some sour (not all the time…on either count). We’ve got actors, singers, writers, and readers. Some builders, some painters, some sculptors. Linear thinkers. Dreamers. Brown skin. White skin. Athletic. Clumsy. Talkers. Thinkers. Risk takers. Each person unique in their personal “flavor.”

In Chopped, there is a key requirement of the competition that is sometimes overlooked by the chefs. That is, the flavor of each ingredient must be evident in the final composition. Flavors can be subtle or overt, but not masked. This means coexistence must be negotiated between all ingredients. In the context of family, God brings diverse individuals into coexistence through a mini-community. Some combinations are unpredictable, even volatile. No matter the ingredients, God’s desire is for a tasty “family stew” in which individuals contribute their unique flavor toward seasoning the whole. Every member is critical to the overall quality of the mixture. No one lost, hidden or neglected as each takes part in the fullness of the finished composition.

God uses the family dynamic to teach giving and receiving. Family living accentuates the value of relationship in community while not dismissing the inherent worth of the individual. As we live-out our uniqueness side-by-side with our spouse, children, brothers and sisters we learn to treat others the way we want to be treated. We grow our pallet toward accepting – and hopefully enjoying – different flavors of people.

My desire is to be a savory stock that brings richness to my family as each member fully expresses their flavor – and enjoys the flavors of one another. To celebrate unity while tasting diversity. To be a great family stew.

Bon Appétit!

Pennies for Glaciers

I am not ashamed to confess that this week, I hit an emotional crevasse. Simone and I just had a lesson on glaciers, heavy areas of ice that move and slide down mountains and form valleys. Sometimes, the glacier ends up where there is no land to support it and a sunny day comes along and the ice falls in and a crevasse is formed. Some people find it very exciting to explore down into the crevasse. Exploring requires energy.

I have decided to call the last eight months beginning in July 2010, The Time of the Brain. Brain seizures. Brain tumors. Brain surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Skulls on ice. Friends in crisis. Family in crisis.

Last week, another diagnosis opened a crevasse and I woke up for quite a few mornings and thought, though I am willing to be here, I don’t have the energy to strap on the equipment and head down into it.

I flailed about on the glacier, slipping into the valley and then I got a grip by realizing that it’s time to conserve my energy and, like a newbie planning a camping trip, I sat down for an assessment.

Pray. Love. Serve. Cry. All vital.

Homeschool. Family Life. Teaching prep. Health. All Priorities.

Facebook? Not vital. Not a priority.

Reminding kids to pick up and put away stuff? What? Hmmmm. Though this seemed to come out of nowhere, thinking back over the previous hour, I counted eight reminders that I gave out about known things my kids are supposed to do. I felt very tired about that.

Install light bulb over the mother’s head.

This is what happened and it happened quickly. A slight minute went by, I looked down and two children hadn’t put things away. Without one ounce of Mwa-haha, I called them in to the room, pointed at the item. “You owe me a dollar.” Looks were exchanged, glances of sweetness were cast and I said, “Right now.”

I’ll not dredge up the entire morning, afternoon and evening of that first day but I will confirm that not one child remained fine-less by nightfall.

I began to hear small comments about what latte ‘She’ll’ get at Starbucks with the cash ‘She’s’ collecting. Once a sympathetic sibling smoked out an SOS to another. A measured look was cast. The fine remained unlevied. The house was tidy but most importantly, I had energy.

On the second day, all the money in the land of the children was gone. Pennies were retrieved and offered but fell short.

All the children gathered around the kitchen island and a cry rang out that the system is unjust. We don’t get an allowance, remember? We’re allowed to live here and enjoy meals and clothing for all our chore-completing! We have no way of replacing the commodity you are requiring! Listen, mom, flesh wounds will heal. Emotional wounding can be dealt with later. (Real statements. Our kids are SO weird.) Stop taking our money!

My response? I’ll still let you eat. I’ll still let you wear clothes. I’ll just put up a chart so that you can see the debt grow. I feel rested and my smile is genuinely gracious.

It’s not a new idea for the rest of our large world but for me, the necessity for energy is the seed of all fine-giving. A person can only give out so much and when the needs are so clear, small and pointless drains are a heavy price.

This exercise is certainly not over but it seems like the crevasse of our lives may be have a little more joy in it. Responsibility is a breeder of satisfaction and respect creates healthy relationships. There’s still a glacier sliding down our mountain but I just bought myself some new equipment. I had to do something with all that cash.

Nativity Mischief

Nothing says Christmas like a nativity. The room I’m sitting in right now has seven forms of nativity. Some expensive. Some handmade. All are valued. I’m trying hard not to miss the mini pewter nativity that has my name on it at my parent’s house and remain content with those that I have.

Years ago, friends who are missionaries in Kenya gave us a Banana Bark Nativity Set (BBNS) which I quickly fell in love with. I’m not much of an Early Christmas planner-type but by the end of October, I find myself thinking about the BBNS and begin to count the days until it will come out of its box.

My children are fond of it also but in a different way. While I am drawn to the story behind it and the thoughtfulness of special friends, my children have assigned a state of mischief to the display.  Every week after we clean, the child-duster in our home has re-set the pieces. And there are others who modify the collection’s stance. They are crafty, these children. They wait until I’m not looking or out of the room. Then as I go about my business it comes over me that something is different, has changed and though I want to be indignant, when I see the transition, I find I can’t. I don’t know if there’s been a time I have not laughed out loud. And sometimes my laughter brings the kids into the room and we all crack up together, the perpetrator glorying in his success.

So now my BBNS is not just about friendship and the African continent but it’s wrapped in memories of play and cleverness and isn’t that what Christmas is for? To unite us in experiences and to be image bearers of creativity and to bring joy to the celebration of Christ’s birth?

Here are some of our past and present favorites—some of the pictures taken in real time and others recreated. (if you received this update via email and can’t see the photos, click here to go directly to the blog)

The BBNS
 Mom’s Setup
 Cheerleading for the Christ-child
 Jealous Donkey, Shocked Sheep
 Donkey’s Eye View
 Holy Family Conga 
 Joy Ride for Jesus
 Sheep Mob

The Hug Line

What’s putting the kids to bed like in your home? Little House on the Prairie or Nightmare on Elm Street? For Katrina and me, getting kids to bed is sometimes like eating ice cream with an abscessed tooth. Let me explain.

The procession to bed starts with the announcement, “Get your pajamas on!” Cue the “ice cream” feelings. Our PJ proclamation means Katrina and I are moments away from time together – along with a snack, good books and occasionally a movie or BBC miniseries. It’s sweet respite after a long day of work, homeschooling, lost socks, temperamental computers, temperamental children, temperamental cars and everything else that comes with a household of seven (plus one dog). I’ll take Moose Tracks, please!

Unfortunately, “Get your pajamas on!” is too often misheard by pre-adult ears as “Gentlemen (and ladies): start your engines!” The donning of PJs becomes the pre-game warm-up to a nightly battle of wits. For us, the battle is drawn over what we call, “The Hug Line.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Hug Line? How sweet!” Let me stop you in your naiveté. Our ritual of bedtime hugging might engender thoughts of warm, cuddly, special bonding moments. I can’t disagree – it is special. Sweet? Not always. Here’s a small window into the drama that is The Hug Line.

Our children are quite creative. When it comes to hugging, I wish they weren’t. They’ve developed several variations of the hug. A popular one is, “As I hug you I’m going to slap your back as hard as I can” (a.k.a. “The Slug Line”). Another version is, “I’m going to hug you without actually touching you” (this is our boy’s favorite). The girls are especially fond of this special twist: “I’m going to lock my arms around your neck, go limp, and see if I can snap your spine.” Need I go on?

When hugs become slugs or require follow-up with a chiropractor, something has gone awry. Rarely a night passes without one of our little cherubs unleashing a sinister plot to foil the beauty of our hugging routine. It’s a comedy in the most tragic sense.

To make matters even less pleasant, several times in the midst of our hug fest gone wild I’ve had the “brilliant” idea of launching into a treatise on the finer points of hugging. How hugs are good. Hugs are nice. Hugs are meant to be enjoyed. They’re easy to give. I follow my exposition with compulsory practice. Each child is asked to face a sibling, look lovingly into their eyes, give a little squeeze – pause and smile satisfactorily – then side-step to the next beloved family member and repeat. Ah, special times overflowing with familial love. Yeah, right! By this point our collective “abscessed tooth” is killing us. Ice cream thoughts melted long ago. I want to scream, “It’s just a hug, people!” Craziness, but reality.

Don’t assume the worst. There are many more ice cream moments than toothache. The Hug Line holds a special place in our family story, broken backs and all. It is ripe with opportunity for talks about treating others the way we want to be treated and making wise choices. As dad, and Hug Line creator, I enjoy the opportunity for good, intentional touch with each of my children. I’m praying that I will end each day more like Charles Ingalls than Freddy Krueger.