2015 Christmas Letter

One thing I love about this time of year is the chance to reflect back on the year that was, and think ahead to the year that will be. This is the reflecting back – that public facing summary of what the year has done and been; of how we’ve all grown and changed. Some years I look back and feel like I have nothing to say. Some years the news is sad. Some years I worry that I’ll sound braggy if I’m honest. My mother-in-law gave us some old Christmas letters my husband’s father wrote during the Gulf War. They are a lovely snapshot of my husband’s family at a pivotal point. I can only hope that writing down what I see from the vantage of the end of the year eventually feels the same for my children!

The Johnstone siblings
The Johnstone siblings

The year started in Washington state, in the only cold weather they got last year. We were all together for over a week – a very unusual thing for us. We were celebrating my brother’s wedding, and thoroughly enjoying being together as a family. We hiked in the winter woods. We took a trip to Portland. We went to the Mineral Headquarters Tavern for the first time ever in our lives. Every time I am with my family, I’m forcibly reminded how much I like them. I often wonder why we live so far apart, but then I remember the family ethos of adventure and independence and have a sneaking suspicion I’m also training my children to move continents away when they’re older.

While I was in Washington, I got a call about an interview at Google. It was extremely exciting even to make it to the interview round. Since I was working in staffing and recruiting software, I knew by reputation that Google was one of the hardest places in the US to get to interview at. Over the next few months there were back and forth conversations with them.

Hijinks. They kept coming by with plows, so eventually the police asked us to go inside. Then they stopped plowing.
Hijinks. They kept coming by with plows, so eventually the police asked us to go inside. Then they stopped plowing.

Meanwhile, shortly after a Patriots vs Seahawks Superbowl where I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to win, the snow started to fall. You might have heard that Boston had just a dusting of snow this past year. (AHAHAH! Yeah.) It was epic, as week after week another foot would fall on banks where the last snow had not melted a jot. By the time of the last major storm, as we dug out, I had the incredibly uncomfortable feeling that if we got another major storm I would not be able to dig out because there would be nowhere to put the snow. The claustrophobia got so bad we rented snowshoes so that we could be outside, with horizons wider than the trapping paneled walls of our house. Even when spring should have been advancing – on the last weekend of the maple tap – we walked the woods in the snow and had an epic snowball fight.

Which meant that on the first week of March, when I went into Cambridge for my interview with Google, what should have been an hour long trip took about two. I’d given myself extra time, and I needed every second of it. The interview went very well, and not too long after, I found myself signing an offer and planning to work in Kendall Square. I still can’t believe my amazing luck and good fortune!

There was a little time before I had to start, though… so we took an impromptu trip to Cozumel to celebrate.

The dolphin's name was Merina
The dolphin’s name was Merina

Ahhhh… there is something about a tropical island vacation that is everything you want out of a tropical island vacation. Thane opened the door on chapter books. Grey read extensively. The kids learned how to snorkel (on the surface). Adam and I got some quality snorkeling time together too. We played games. The only even minor blot was that on one of my dives I seemed to come up with water that wouldn’t leave my ear. It was actually a barotrauma (very rare in snorkeling) and I have since permanently lost very high notes in my left ear. (Or rather, I have them all the time as a persistent and extremely annoying ringing.) I still think it was probably worthwhile!

They're all kind of smiling
It didn’t rain all the time, which meant we could use the hammock

The summer was absolutely full of camping, the way I like my summers. I went camping five times – our standard three trips, plus a camping offsite for work, plus a week long trip with just my husband to New Brunswick which was very cold and very wet but where we went sea kayaking and saw some really really cool fossils. Camping with the kids has only gotten more fun. They read and play and hiked and rode bikes. I love camping, and camping with these guys continues to improve.

9 mile bike ride in Boston
9 mile bike ride in Boston

Which was another cool thing about this year – the kids both really learned how to ride their bikes! We went on a bunch of bike rides this summer, and watched them as they went from wobblers who fell down all the time, to fast and confident riders. We did a nine mile bike tour of Boston (which Thane was truly not ready for and which took years off my life) … but we did it! I feel like bikes are truly resurging. My children will be more independent for this skill!

Insulation, check. Vapor barrier, check. Strips, check.
Insulation, check. Vapor barrier, check. Strips, check.

During that trip I took with my husband to New Brunswick, we had lots of quality time together in the car. (We listened to some awesome podcasts together!) But then we got to talking about “what we wanted to do” yadda yadda. And at some fateful point, Adam announced that he was going to do a renovation of our dining room. We got a great deal on our house, in no small part because the decor was disastrously 70s. Drop ceilings and cheap paneling covered the 120 year old plaster walls. We just needed to take down the paneling and drop ceiling and maybe redrywall. Might take a couple weeks. It actually took three months of Adam working nights, weekends and taking Fridays off to work more. It turns out there was no insulation in those walls (despite our having hired a company to blow in insulation – they drilled holes and messed up our siding, but didn’t blow in any insulation). So that added a bit. He reframed a wall. Drywall is hard. But it looks amazing now. And makes our living room look bad….

Three fine young men
Three fine young men

Around the time the drywall was being mudded and sanded, my brother came to live with us. The wedding that had kicked off the year was not a durable match, and his contract in Denver had come to an end. On the drive back from New Brunswick my husband invited him to come live with us and as the summer crossed to fall he did. He’s been kicking off his Steampunk Vicar officiating services and is looking for a IT helpdesk type job while he contemplates the next chapter in his life.

Mind. Blown.
Mind. Blown.

Another new start in the life of the Flynns. I won’t pretend that Grey’s decision to play trumpet hasn’t made me extremely pleased. Even better – he’s been incredibly dedicated in his practicing. He’s practiced on average once a day since Thanksgiving. He can now play “Ode to Joy” very well (which is *not bad* for two months in on a new instrument!) I’m trying VERY HARD not to get ahead of myself with this one.

We were working on the Magnificat
We were working on the Magnificat

There has also been a lot going on in the life of the church. This year I am teaching 2nd – 5th grade Sunday School (which is usually pretty fun). I’m also running a mission study taskforce. We’re using the New Beginnings process, which is a significant investment in prayerful thought and time. Because I’m crazy, I’m also running the Christmas Pageant this year. If your Christmas Card is late this year, that’s why.

This year has been a phenomenal one for me. It’s been full of the kind of adventures I like best, the people I love and new opportunities. I think 2016 is going to have a very tough time topping it, but I’m willing to give it a chance!

May your reflection on your year be filled with as much joy, and may your year ahead be even better!

I usually select about 100 pictures to choose from when I’m making my calendar. Here are this years top pictures!

Has your family tried them, powdermilk?

We were driving home from church today. It’s a bright, sunny cold February day here in New England, and the roads were clear of traffic as we came home. It had been a good church service: an excellent sermon on Sabbathing even from church commitments, both my husband and I in the pews for once, a series of hymns with modern words and ancient tunes, and a little bit of honkey-tonk piano to round it out. I had my traditional post-service “Grande two-pump nonfat extra hot no whip mocha” in hand. The boys were goofing off in the back seat – being brothers. Thane has not had an “incident” in 24 hours. And Garrison Keillor was on the radio talking about Powerdermilk biscuits. My, they’re tasty and expeditious.

And I was washed over with a sense of well-being and contentment.

Well-being and contentment are not such common emotions to me that I fail to notice them. In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve felt them without threat looming at the edges of them, as though I better enjoy them now, quickly, because if I start thinking about the wrong things they will go away. No, I just felt happy, and like I very well might stay happy all the way through the end of the Superbowl tonight (and beyond, when the Pats cream the Giants!)

By the time the Ketchup Advisory board commercial came on, we were eating funny curly spaghetti-type pasta (bought from our local butcher), and giggling around the kitchen table. Garrison made a joke about radio, and how no one was listening to it, and it got me thinking.

I remember when NPR started being part of our life. It was shortly after we moved to Mineral, perhaps 1988, with the long car rides that entailed. Before that, we listened to oldies on the radio, and tuned in specially to listen to Paul Harvey. It was before the real rise of talk radio. With NPR, suddenly, the news entered my life. I struggled to catch up and figure out what the Iran-Contra affair was. I was completely snookered by an April Fool’s joke announcing that Starbucks was building a trans-continental coffee pipeline. I joked that I was getting my NPR PHD, and I listened all the time, even during lunch at school to Ray Suarez (who was infinitely preferable to Juan Williams IMO) while eating a pizza pocket and drinking apple juice. The theme song to “Talk of the Nation” still generates a Pavlovian mouth-water reaction and a great desire for pizza pockets.

These NPR shows were a very important part of my family’s lives. Every week we listened to a somewhat younger Garrison Keillor, after our own Protestant church services. He spoke of a world more familiar to us than the urban and urbane one that dominates most media. We too lived in a small town with a lake and a good network of gossip. Saturday mornings were also precious radio-wise. I woke early and joyfully (those of you who know me know how incredibly implausible that is – but true!) on Saturdays to take the hour and a half trip in to Tacoma to the Tacoma Youth Symphony rehearsals. My commute was accompanied by “Rewind” and “Car Talk”. I usually passed the Tacoma Dome as they ran the Car Talk credits. I remember I was leaving a rehearsal the day that Yitzak Rabin was assassinated, and was just old enough to weep for the chance for peace that bled out with his assassin’s bullets. My family would again gather in the evening to hear “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” trying to guess the quiz answers before the guests. If we perhaps scheduled it so we could be sure to catch our shows, well, that only made sense.

As I shared some of those same moments with my young and growing family, I thought of how lovely it is. The most precious of these radio shows are still on, with their original casts. Click and Clack are still there. Garrison somehow still finds new material in a gentler age that fades into memory. “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” is still wicked funny. (Rewind didn’t survive, but you take what you can get.) In tv, even the best shows only last a decade, if that. M*A*S*H only lasted 11 seasons. The entire world of media has fundamentally shifted in the fifteen or twenty years since I was a kid at home listening with my parents. Everything is change and newness. Except these things, which mean so much to me.

But for now, for at least this bright cheerful Super Bowl Sunday, Dusty and Lefty are still out there herding cattle on the prairie, just like they were when I was a girl. You can still win Carl Kasell’s voice on your home answering machine (as if anyone has one of those), even though he laid down his serious news microphone. And Car Talk’s official statistician is still Marge Innovera. And there are still bright Sunday mornings to be filled with the joy of living and family.

Merriment Managed

Ah, Christmas! We are at the height of the fun and joyful years with our kids. The Christmas Eve service was excellent. Thane clutched a Christmas card from my aunt and uncle with a scene of the nativity in his hands, periodically lifting it to give “cute baby Jesus” a kiss as he wide-eyed and wiggly watched the tableau of unfold before him, punctuated by familiar carols. After the service, the boys laid out cookies for Santa (soo…. many… cookies!!!!) and put on their brand new Scooby Doo pajamas and soft-footed ascended the stairs. Although Grey had expressed his scientific intention to run some double-blind studies around the existence of Santa, he was out light.

Morning dawned bright, joyful, and not unreasonably early. 7 am is a perfectly fine time for Christmas. A vast ocean of glittering gifts was laid out under the festive fir. And oh joy unbounded! Santa had come! The stockings were resplendent and overflowing. He even put three Hershey’s kisses in the tiny little knit stocking for Puppy. He left a note thanking the boys for their excellent behavior over the course of the year. Then the great unwrapping began.

Thane’s most-played with gifts were an astronaut helmet, a sword and shield and a light saber. He also got a bunch of games, books, some puzzles (which have made a resurgence in popularity) and a bunch of other stuff I don’t remember.

Grey got the sword, shield and light saber too. What fun is it to get a sword if you have no one to battle, I ask you? He also got a camera, a DS game, a bunch of board games, books, and crafts.

Adam got an XBox 360 with Kinect, which may require us to do some home renovation in order to get enough room to actually play it. Grey’s really enjoyed it so far. Adam is deep into Arkham City. I’m sure you’re all glad to hear that he’s out there protecting civilization from evil and complaining about how he’s not nearly as good with an XBox controller as with a PC.

I got a book about Peculiar Kids (from Grey), some new pajamas, two new cookbooks, a book on learning German (now slightly less relevant than when I asked for it), and a DROID X phone. Heh. Heh heh. I have joined the digital revolution folks! I’m like the last member of the technorati who doesn’t get email on their phone. I was so ready for this. So now I’m in the long process of configuring, personalizing, etc. I’m PSYCHED.

It was a great Christmas, and everyone was cheerful and no one melted down and it was neither too many nor too few gifties and there was joy and love and coffee and pancakes.

Then we went to church (hey! Did you know that when Christmas falls on a Sunday church is open?! True story!) and the kids sang with us and looked cute and didn’t complain about being there even a little bit.

It was a happy time and will be a happy memory. These are the true richnesses in life. And now I have a week to shovel out the accumulated tasks piling up since I had surgery in September. If I’m far overdue on something for you, watch your inbox.

One sad note amid the cheer, however. On Christmas Eve, I was talking with my mother-in-law about how much we were looking forward to having her here. Half an hour later, my husband tells me that she’s on her way to the ER. She snapped her upper right arm. It’s a clean break – a best case – but a conversation with her orthopedist says she can’t risk her 3 year old grandson until like MARCH. I really like my MIL and her visits are heaven for us, so this is a royal bummer for me, and obviously an even bigger one for her.

One humbug in an otherwise great season.

So… how about you? What great loot did you get? Was it a warm and joyful season? What was the best part?

These are a few of my favorite things

This time of year is hard. Hard hard. There’s still snow on the ground. You’re a million years from any vacation, past or present. And work is hard for me right now. So instead of whiiiiiining about it all, I thought I’d list out (for you and for me) some of my favorite things.

  • The smell of yeast when you add it to warm sugar-water when you begin a bread recipe
  • The way Mt. Rainier explodes into view when you turn the corner on Mineral Road South
  • The happy look on Thane’s face when he snuggles into bed with Puppy
  • Flowering tea balls
  • The Good Friday service
  • The garden on the next street that is first out with the snow drops and the creeping phlox in spring
  • Reading in the bathtub
  • D20s
  • Doing even stupid chores with my husband, because we end up laughing together
  • The wild patches in the big cloverleaves at the insterstices of busy New England freeways, like 93 and 95 on the North side
  • Advice columns!
  • Listening to Grey read aloud and then get quieter and quieter until he’s reading to himself
  • Text messages – they’re almost always from friends, almost always welcome and pretty much never hum drum or spam
  • Looking out the third floor window of my house across old New England walls, and hearing the carillon sound from Town Hall
  • Catching a real smile in passing from a stranger
  • Rachmanninoff, Gabrieli and Byrd
  • The way my kids walk/bounce/rejoice with every step
  • The smell of vanilla leaf and the tart taste of freshly picked sorrel
  • Friends on my doorstep
  • The sight of a Starbucks logo — still makes my heart leap!
  • Ars Magica — a game that’s been here and gone, like fairy rings, since I was pregnant with Grey
  • Minor music played on trumpet in a cold, dark sanctuary
  • The cliffs on Roundtop Mt. in the golden setting summer sun
  • The deep, hot, clear way jam looks when you add the pectin in
  • The way that the hum of the freeway in summer reminds me of the rush of glacial rivers near Mt. Rainier campgrounds
  • Real letters
  • Grey’s sincere interest in the babies in his life
  • Peach pie
  • Pretty dishes, especially when they have obscure purposes but I manage to use them correctly (looking at you, deviled egg dishes & asparagus server!)
  • The 5 second view of the Boston skyline you get on 128 in Burlington
  • The “kids say the darndest things” stage. (Thane announced the other morning that he wants to be called “Ketchup” from now on.)

    Those are a small subset of my favorite things. What are your favorite things?