Christmas Cards

The picture which made it on the Christmas Cards this year
The picture which made it on the Christmas Cards this year

Christmas Cards are a big deal to me. The process starts in the summer with the question: should I get a professional to take our pictures? Every four years it’s a no-brainer. We have a professional picture taken ever four years for our family portrait wall (usually by Coe). This year was one of the four. The pictures came out fantastically!

Sometime around Thanksgiving, often Thanksgiving proper, I go onto Shutterfly and craft my cards. (Their site is annoying, but improving, and their production values are excellent.) I usually make a calendar for the grandparent-set at the same time, so it’s a lovingly laborious process of going through all the pictures I’ve taken all year, spotting the highlights, uploading them, fixing them, etc. I place the order, and curse myself for not doing this two weeks ago so I could WRITE the cards during Thanksgiving, because I won’t end up having enough time to do them justice. (Please note: this happens EVERY YEAR.) Fall is my busiest time, so I really don’t have time to do this two weeks earlier, to my regret.

So there I am, on the 9th of December, with 100 cards and envelopes staring me in the face. And I begin.

I have two sets of addresses – my personal address list and the church list. The first list is about 60 addresses long, and then I send out all the remaining to my church brothers and sisters. This process probably takes me 20 – 30 hours over the coming weeks. I spend big amounts of time on weekends, and nearly every free weeknight. It takes me far more time than baking, shopping or decorating do.

Why do I do it? And why does it take so long?

Happily, the act of writing all these cards gives me a lengthy chance to think on that investment. And year after year I have come to the same conclusion: this time is not only worthwhile, but precious.

You see, I address the outside of the envelope, and then I write to the person I care about. Some people actually get a full sized letter in their Christmas card. There are a couple correspondents I have where our only communication is annually, at Christmas. For example, one of my college classmates died of Muscular Dystrophy a few years after graduation. We had been good friends in college, and I’d known his mother who had moved heaven and earth to give him a “normal college experience” even though he was very motion constrained. So I wrote his mother a sympathy card, letting her know what he’d meant to me. She asked me to keep in touch, saying it was nice to follow what his life might have been like if he’d been healthy. So, every year I send her a Christmas Card with an update on my life. (And of course, every year I remember my friend in doing so.) And every year she writes back with an update on hers. So the updates are huge – a baby born, a wedding, a big job shift, a move, a death in the family.

And that shows what’s precious to me about this whole laborious process. I take time to really think about the people who matter to me. I stop from my busy day and try to tell them how I really feel about them. Almost every year, there’s a name I take off my list. This year, I didn’t send a card to Grandma Jones because she is gone where no Christmas Card can reach. This sorrowful moment is also a reminder that I have no guarantees that this isn’t the last Christmas card I’ll ever send to the friend in question.

So, if this was the last card I ever send to this person, what would I want to say? If this was my last chance to tell them what they mean to me, how would the card be different? And then I try to write THAT card. (Note – this isn’t perfect. Sometimes inspiration fails, and sometimes I just get tired.)

Christmas is a time of counting blessings. We get and receive gifts. We connect to family and friends we don’t see as often. We lay down our busy lives and pick up our slower ones. We think about the year behind and plan for the year ahead. We think of what is meaningful to us.

There is nothing more meaningful, more precious to me, than you my friends. There’s no gift under the Christmas tree more dear to me than the ones that fill my mailbox this time of year.

Merry Christmas to you, my friends, and a joyful new year.

These are a few of my favorite things
These are a few of my favorite things

A place of my own

When I was 9, I had a hideout. It was under the stairs in the garage downstairs – a place no one came because no one had any reason to. It was cold and concrete and entirely mine. Tragically, my parents converted that hideaway to a bedroom for my sister (some tripe about her not wanting to live in a drafty room entirely made up of windows). I’ve had many “places of my own” through life. There was the concrete bunker by the river. The abandoned tree house. The best of them was my dorm room in college. Since I married straight out of college, that was the only time in my life I’ve been the single occupant of my residence.

Now I own a house. It’s a nice house, with 4 bedrooms and practically all new appliances. (Latest update – the battery in our car died while we were pumping gas yesterday. I’m debating whether that counts or not.) You would think that this house I own is really “a space of my own” from basement to attic. I mean, I bought the couch. I organized the glassware. I water the plants. It should be the ultimate fulfillment of that impulse, right?

After putting our attic renovation plans on hold (due to being twice as expensive as I reckoned + needing a new furnace), we had to reconstruct our living space up there. The attic as it is has four spaces: a landing, a completely unheated bedroom (no closet, so just a bonus room) with the best view in the house, a partially climate controlled room with a sink (I know – weird) and an unfinished storage area with particularly lethal looking nails.

In our previous iteration, the small room was our guest room (or Chez Gospel when he was living here). The bigger partially heated room was our office. This came from a period in time, now lost to the fog of history, when computers were stationary and couldn’t be moved around easily. I know this sounds crazy now, but you needed a room where you could leave them set up all the time, and they took a significant amount of space. So when we moved in, we prioritized that space (which we’d used constantly in our prior house) and deprioritized the guest space. In her October visit, my mother in law had… ideas on how this could be improved upon.

So I decided to make the larger/warmer room with the sink our guest bedroom, and turn the (coldly) beautiful room with the view into an office. Since we do still intend to eventually do the attic project, one doesn’t want to buy much in order to do this. For the guest bedroom, we will need a new bed, my brother having taken his with him. But the office had everything I needed.

Over the course of a day or so, I put it together. And it scratched an itch that I’d had so long, I hadn’t even realized it was an itch. It was like taking off boots I’d worn for a long hike. It felt… amazing to have my own room again. And although my family is welcome there and Adam also works there, it feels very much like my own secret spot. It’s made me unreasonably happier than it should.

The view as you walk in
The view as you walk in

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The new best reading spot in the house
The new best reading spot in the house
My favorite view in the house
My favorite view in the house
The workdesk - primarily for computing but also for scrapbooking/stamping
The workdesk – primarily for computing but also for scrapbooking/stamping
The music alcove - the first time I've had all my instruments and music in one spot
The music alcove – the first time I’ve had all my instruments and music in one spot

What about you? Do you have a place that is just yours? Is it something you long for?

Peace & the Second Sunday in Advent

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. The four advent candles, for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, stand for hope, peace, joy and love. Every week in this season of waiting we light another candle. The world gets a little brighter and we think on these things: what it is to hope, what a hope of peace looks like, how it is to feel joy, and the great love we believe God showed us in becoming human to be one of us.

Candles & LEDS - the oldest and newest light sources
Candles & LEDS – the oldest and newest light sources

This weekend my family prepared ourselves for Christmas. We selected the tree. We brought down the boxes of ornaments. We hung one advent calendar and filled a second one with Hershey’s Kisses. We played The Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” and Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album. We told the children the stories of the ornaments as we hung them: the sad stories, the funny stories, the happy stories. We discussed optimal ornament hanging strategies, and enjoyed the new LED lights we got with purple instead of pink making the tree significantly less orangy this year than last year. We watched Scooby Doo in a fit of nostalgia brought on by Thane’s Scooby Doo ornament, and the children were shocked to discover that it is actually pretty good.

Decorator and decoratee
Decorator and decoratee

Our halls decked, Adam and I decamped to my holiday Christmas party where I got to sing on the stage at the House of Blues, which was something I didn’t know was on my bucket list until I was standing under the bright lights singing.

All dressed up with somewhere to go
All dressed up with somewhere to go

I love this time of year so much. And I think what I love most about it is that it’s a joyous contradiction. It’s the season of lights, but instead of bright 100 watt bulbs we light our homes with, with have tiny 13 lumen candleflames. It’s the season of warmth as we turn up collars and look to the first snow-commute-disaster of the year. (Tomorrow, according to one report I read!) It’s a time busy with parties and cookies and cards and caroling and…. but it’s also a time of year when we slow down a little. We sit a little and look at the lights. This year I’m feeling the magic of the season in full force. Perhaps it’s because this year for the first time my children are full collaborators in the creation and appreciation of the time apart. We shall see.

Peace is a rare commodity in this world. The world keeps throwing up sorrows. Just this week, one of my friends was dead for two hours when his heart stopped Thanksgiving night. And blocks from my work, in the blink of an eye sixty people became homeless as their Christmas trees went up in a grand conflagration. In Aleppo, the last voices of the crushed citizens are going silent. Where is the peace? And if I find it in the walls of my own house, with my family and my tree and my Christmas music, well… should I? What right do I have to peace when so many live without it?

But then we come back to that first candle. I still cannot believe that despite two hours without a pulse, my friend was saved. (He just posted a hilarious status update “In my defense, I was dead at the time.”) Through a miracle past knowing, no one was killed or seriously injured in a fire that called firefighters from 20 neighboring towns. There’s no silver lining for Aleppo, but there is a sliver of hope at Standing Rock, where the Army Corps has decided to find a safer route.

The peace we have comes from the hope, not from the existing perfection. And we look forward to joy – the rarest of emotions – and to love, the foundation stone for our lives.

Shall We Gather at the River?

Raise your hand if you’ve read this Facebook status update some time in the last few weeks:

Hey folks, for my own personal mental health I’m logging off Facebook for a while. I love you all – be kind to each other!

I’ve read a lot of them. (Heck, I’ve posted one or two of them.) In the last few months Facebook has stopped being a guilty pleasure and started being a painful habit. I’m not sure why that is. Is it that the algorithms have started condensing the things we see to pound us with one emotion – and that emotion right now for so many of my friends is fear and anger and pain? Is that all we’re posting to Facebook because it seems if we don’t post our fear and anger and pain we’ll seem unsympathetic or uncaring? Is the Facebook algorithm just showing that, in favor of our usual diet of cat pictures and travel selfies?

I don’t know. But I can feel the community I’ve had in Facebook breaking apart. I know what it feels and looks like, because it’s happened before.

When I first left college, my social collection was a mailing list. There were about eight or nine of us, all friends from college, who were on it. We emailed each other ALL THE TIME. We probably exchanged one or two hundred emails a day. (We mostly worked from home on computers.) We knew everything about each others lives!

Then we all started getting LiveJournal accounts. That was probably the greatest flowering of “internet friends” for me. It was all psuedonymous (eg. we only knew each other by username, not by actual name. There are still some people who think of me as Oriana, so strong was that connection and identity.) It lasted a long time – maybe 6 or 7 years – and we had extremely strong relationships with each other in these intertwining dialogues. I called 911 for LJ friends who needed medical intervention (which is extra challenging when you don’t know their real name or where they lived – I solved that by knowing who they knew In Real Life and reaching out to those people). I invited LJ friends to my home, and many remain dear and beloved friends.

But at some point around 2010, the LJ community fell apart. It stopped working, people wrote their goodbyes or just drifted off. Where my friends used to post about 100 posts a day, that same list now rarely has more than one or two posts a day – and most of those are syndicated from other sources like blogs. It was frankly a huge loss. I still miss it, although I was one of the drifters. I got a job that didn’t allow for massive amounts of dinking around online and switched my focus to a long form blog that I updated less often but more intentionally. (This one!) “My Truant Pen” is lot less interactive and dialoguey than Livejournal. But according to my stats, not that many people read this blog any more either.

Now I think Facebook is dying, but unlike when LJ died I don’t know where they’re going. Are we digitally disconnecting? There are upsides and downsides to that. Spending less time glued to screens is no bad thing, especially when replaced with coffee dates and quality time. But taking away that community and filling the void with isolation is a bad thing. For me, I want a group of friends in lively online community that I can know and be known by, who share and care about each other. Ideally this has a big overlap with my group of proximate friends I can hang out with.

I’ve propose G+ (look me up at https://plus.google.com/u/0/+BrendaFlynn) as a place to connect. Somehow that has not been met with universal approbation. So I’m genuinely curious – what are you doing? Have you completely unplugged from social media? Did you switch platforms for connection – and if so to what? Do you miss the connection? Do you think after the dust settles people will go back, or is this a permanent migration. Where can I go to be with you?

Appliance addendum

The garbage disposal sprung a major leak during our Mocksgiving cleanup.

I’ve lost count of how many appliances we’ve had to deal with in the last three months. (Do cars count as appliances?) I’ve told my boss I’ll be working from home one day a week indefinitely to deal with whatever contractor related issues arise.

He says that sounds like a reasonable response.