Friday, November 30, 2012

Starting with 200

Gifts. I have kept counting them. But I can't write this next part of the list without crying. So, I've put it off and put it off. But, here they are. Many won't make sense if you weren't there. It's ok. I'm counting out loud.

200. My neighbor's young daughter, who loaned me a car to drive to the hospital and told me to just keep it for as long as I needed it.
201. My cousin driving me home to spend the night in between hospital days.
202. Every single nurse in the hospital was kind and helpful and warm. Every. Single. One.
203. Dr. Jenny Lessard. I don't know how to thank her enough. Or how to thank God enough for her.
204. Dr. Sanda Morar. Her love is such a gift.
205. The short stay nurses, who came to visit, especially DeeAnn...for rushing in like a whirlwind and making us laugh, though we were drowning in sadness.
206. Dr. Dale Berry and his gift for talking medicine and theology all at once.
207. Meals from church people, who don't even know us.
208. My parents best friends, who live just minutes away.
209. For that best friend sitting in his car in the driveway when I pulled up to an empty house.
210. CaringBridge
211. Text messages offering encouragement and love.
212. An extra recliner in the hospital room.
213. The courtesy cart at the hospital.
214. Hot coffee at all hours of day and night.
215. Visits that were unexpectedly helpful.
216. Peace between family members
217. The hospice nurse on the morning my mom died and the stories she told.
218. Facebook friends, who were awake at random hours of day and night with messages of love.
219. No. More. Pain.
220. Friends for Mane.
221. Friends of my own, who drove Mane all around.
222.  My sister-in-law, who carried her own hope and kept it secret, who delivered gluten free lasagna and small comfort gifts.
223. Gluten free cookies and bread from a friend.
224. The ambulance drivers.
225. The funeral home directors.
226. Small town courtesies.
227. Heated seats.
228. The pastor from Utah
229. Friends from California
230. Stories people told
231. A steady stream of cards in the mail
232. Full freezer...for me and my dad
233. Bible study folks driving all the way to see us
234. Flowers from all kinds of people
235. Friends who ran out to buy vases.
236. Caribou from my dear, dear friend
237. People who ask the hard questions with me
238. My mom's ring
239. Help with the slideshow. THANK YOU!
240. Unexpectedly finding music I loved for the slideshow.
241. My children singing spanish songs at the memorial.
242. My uncle facebooking my dad in the middle of the night.
243. My uncle answering his phone in the middle of the night.
244. My dad's boss giving the guys paid time off to come to the memorial.
245. My ant & uncle flying in from Alaska.
246. My aunt driving down from Canada.
247. My uncle driving from New York.
248. Merkel Cell Awareness t-shirts
249. Emails from Jess in New York
250. A friend who will take up all my causes with me.
251. Orange yarn
252. Basket of fruit from a friend in St. Paul
253. Knowing that friend's children cared enough to call their mom as soon as they saw the message on facebook
254. Ann at PHS for understanding and taking the time to talk about it
255. My brother-in-law and his wife have TWINS on the way. How can this be? In this middle of all this. Double blessing.
256. Mane getting time with her good friend twice a week now that they're both homeschooling.
257. People ordering MCC shirts
258. My co-workers. Wow. They are just the best.
259. My boss, too, and her husband. So glad to be working for them right now.
260. Facebook messages from my parent's friend, who care about me too.
261. Having the time to blog about my favorite season.
263. Swimming with Mane AND Mango at Lifetime.
264. Attending TWO theater events this month.
265. A husband who lets me be who I am.
266. That I can still be grateful.

I don't even want to think that I can still be grateful right now. But, there it is. There are gifts in my life. They are there...whether I open my hands and receive them or whether I push them away. I am fighting to choose life. To choose accept those gifts that are offered, though they cannot take the place of gifts I've lost. They don't replace my mom. They don't give her back to me. But they are not nothing. They don't make it better. But they do add to my life. They make my life richer than if I had nothing at all. They are, in fact, signs that I am still alive.

This post was inspired by Ann Voskamp at:

holy experience

Jesse Tree 2012 - The First Week

So, here's a possible plan for the first week of Advent/Jesse Tree. I've included a number of different resources for telling the stories each night. Of course, you may read them directly from scripture or you may use a children's picture Bible of your choice, depending on the age of your children and how long you think they can listen.

Jesse Tree ornaments for the first week of Advent

Sunday, December 2nd

Light the first candle of Advent, the candle for Hope, and have a little conversation about hope. In our house it looks a little like this:

Me: "This first candle is a symbol of hope. What is hope?"
Mane: "Hope is when you're waiting for something."
Me: "Right, hope is when we believe something will happen and we're waiting for it. What are we waiting for?"
Mane: "We're waiting for Christmas!"
Me: "What's so special about Christmas?"
Mane: "It's when we celebrate the birth of Jesus."

Now that conversation has changed some over the years because we taught Mane that Christmas is probably not when Jesus was born. The season of Advent, though, is a time set aside for us to focus on the gift of Jesus, even if he was born at a totally different time of year.


We'll be reading Isaiah 11 to introduce the Jesse Tree. Then we'll read the Story of Creation.Have have used these books (not all at once, but over the course of several years)

In The Beginning by Steve Turner, illustrated by Jill Newton (the whole book)

The Children's Illustrated Bible - stories retold by Selina Hastings, illustrated by Eric Thomas - chapter on "The Creation"

One Wintry Night by Ruth Bell Graham, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson (chapter 3)

The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Bee Willey (chapter entitled "The Jesse Tree" and the beginning of "Paradise Garden")

This year we will be reading Days 1 & 2 from Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional.


Following the reading, we hang Jesse Tree ornaments. Then we open the Advent calendar.  The symbols for this night are:
- Tree
- Globe/Earth

Monday, December 3rd


Tonight's reading is about the Fall of humans, the first sin.

The Children's Illustrated Bible (Hastings) - "The Garden of Eden"

One Wintry Night (Graham) - chapters 4 and 5

The Jesse Tree (McCaughrean) - finish chapter entitled "Paradise Garden"

Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional - Day 3



Tuesday, December 4th


Tonight's reading is the story of Noah. A picture book we have often used to tell this story is:

Noah's Ark written and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (You have to scroll down the linked page. It was published in 2002.)

You could also read:

The Children's Illustrated Bible (Hastings) - "Noah's Ark," "The Flood"

One Wintry Night (Graham) - Chapter 6

The Jesse Tree (McCaughrean) - chapter "A Boat Full of Animals."

Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional - Day 4



Wednesday, December 5th


This night's story is the calling of Abraham and God's promise to make Abraham into a great nation. Readings can be found in:

The Children's Illustrated Bible (Hastings) - "Abram's Journey"

One Wintry Night (Graham) -very, very beginning of Chapter 7; just a tiny bit is said about Abraham

The Jesse Tree (McCaughrean) - chapter "Strange Visitors"

Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional - Day 5



Thursday, December 6th


Tonight's story is the story of Isaac. This is a difficult story, and you may want to do some reading about the context and meaning of the story before deciding if it's an appropriate time to pass it on to your children. I recommend this article from Hebrew For Christians: The Sacrificed Seed of Abraham. It is long and intense, but that is exactly the type of article needed to really work through the complexities of this story. (If you choose not to cover this story with your children this year, simply move on to the next day's reading. There will be other places this Advent where you can stretch other stories over several days.)

Here are the places where you can find tonight's story:

The Children's Illustrated Bible (Hastings) - "Abram, Sarai, and Hagar," "Abraham's Two Sons," "The Sacrifice of Isaac"

The Jesse Tree (McCaughrean) - chapter "A Test of Love"

Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional - Days 6 and 7


Ram or goat

Friday, December 7th


Tonight we read the story of Jacob's dream of the ladder and the angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven. In this story God renews the Abrahamic covenant with Abraham's grandson, Jacob. Indeed, Jacob goes on to become the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.

The Children's Illustrated Bible (Hastings) - "Jacob's Ladder" (You may also want to include chapters leading up to this in order to understand who Jacob was and how he came to be in the place where he had the dream.)

The Jesse Tree (McCaughrean) - chapter "Stairway to Heaven"

Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional - Day 8



Saturday, December 8th: The First Day of Chanukah

Saturday marks the beginning of Chanukah this year! Tradition has it that each member of a family should have their own menorah/chanukiah. Candles are lit from right to left. The center candle is the shamash, the servant candle, and is used to the light the other candles each night. Before our Advent readings, we will say the blessings involved with the lighting of the chanukiah and light the first chanukiah candle. Then we'll light the Advent candle, tell the story, hang the Jesse Tree ornament,  open Advent calendars...THEN we'll play dreidel and eat chanukah treats! (I'll be writing more about Chanukah over the next week, now that I've completed this post on the first week of Advent!)


Tonight's story is the story of Joseph. This one is long and will take some time. If you skipped the story of Isaac, you can easily stretch the story of Joseph over two days. It is worth noting that both Isaac and Joseph are prophetic pictures of the coming Messiah. Both involve stories of redemption. Both are foundational to the establishment and continuance of the Jewish people, from whom that Messiah would come. This fits beautifully with the first night of Chanukah, as Chanukah is also a story of miracles and salvation.

The Children's Illustrated Bible (Hastings) - all or select chapters about Joseph

The Jesse Tree (McCaughrean) uses two chapters to cover this story: "The Dreamer" and "Famine and Plenty."

Ann Voskamp's Advent Devotional - Day 9


A Coat of Many Colors


This is the 7rd post in a series of posts about Advent, Christmas, Jesse Tree & Chanukah traditions. See the other posts here:
Season's Traditions
Jesse Tree

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Download-able Advent Devotional with Jesse Tree Ornaments

I just peaked over at A Holy Experience, the blog of Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, and I saw that she has a FREE Family Advent Christmas Devotional with printable Jesse Tree ornaments that you can download. I think this may be our landing place for Advent this year. Check it out!


This is the 6rd post in a series of posts about Advent, Christmas, Jesse Tree & Chanukah traditions. See the other posts here:
Season's Traditions
Jesse Tree

Hope that Burns Us

I love, love, love the planning and preparing for this season of Advent and Chanukah. I love the strings of lights, the glittery reflections on window glass and ornaments. I love the feel of the words that surround this season...
 I want to wrap those words around myself like warm, downy blankets, their comforting sounds shushing the wails of grief, ever singing in my ears. Is it muffling grief? Is it balm to the wounds? I don't know. It helps. It eases the suffering.

A candle flickers in the Nativity scene in my entry room day and night. I light candles often in my house, for beauty, for remembrance, for prayers. I think of the seas of candles at candlelight Christmas Eve church Easter Eve at the Basilica. Especially, I think of the way we extinguish our candles at the Basilica when we hear of the death of Messiah and then we pound on the pews until one single light returns.

One single light.

The light of Yeshua. The one we Hope for this Advent. We are waiting for His return. When grief overflows in our hearts we beg.
Come, Yeshua. Come.
Come now.
Come save us.
We are done with this world. We pound on the pews. We stomp our feet. The noise builds to fill our ears. Darkness fills our eyes. Grief fills our throats.

Until that one tiny light returns. And gives light to the whole room. And our eyes flood with relief from the aching darkness. Our burning hands are still. Our tired feet can rest. Our cheeks are wet with the grief and the pain and the hope that burns us.

"And he sang to them, now in the Elven tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness." (from Tolkien's The Return of the King)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Picture Book Advent List

Here's our list for a-picture-book-a-day Advent calendar. (Keeping in mind that Dec. 8th-Dec. 15th is Chanukah.) My plan is to have a slip of paper in the matchbox Advent calendar with the title of the book. Then we'll go find it on the shelf & read it. I opted for doing this, rather than wrapping all the books in order to save paper!

Matchbox Advent Calendar

1. You Are Special written by Max Lucado, illustrated by Sergio Martinez - While this is not technically an Advent, Christmas or Chanukah story, I love the message that each of us is loved and special. This is, after all, why the Messiah was sent..."for God so loved the world..." And this is why we celebrate Advent.

2. Old Turtle written by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee - Again, not technically a book for the season, but, again, communicating that something went desperately wrong with the world and the Messiah was sent for our redemption.

3. Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend written by Julie Stiegemeyer, illustrated by Chris Ellison - This is my favorite children's book for explaining how Santa Claus came to be.

4. Wonderworker: The True Story of How St. Nicholas Became a Legend written by Vincent Yzermans - We don't intend to read this whole book. I intend to skim it for highlights and show off the pictures.

5. D is for Dala Horse written by Kathy-jo Wargin, illustrated by Renee Graef

6. The Legend of Old Befana written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

7. The Night of Las Posadas written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

8. Hanukkah Haiku written by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Karla Gudeon

9. The Story of Hanukkah written by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Linda Dockey Graves

10. Beni's First Chanukah written and illustrated by Jane Breskin Zalben

11. In the Month of Kislev: A Story for Hanukkah written by Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Louis August

12. The Hanukkah Mice  written by Ronne Randall, illustrated by Maggie Kneen

13. Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story written by Marci Stillerman, illustrated by Pesach Gerber

14. Snow Crazy written and illustrated by Tracy Gallup

15. Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening written by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers

16. The Wild Christmas Reindeer written and illustrated by Jan Brett

17. The Berenstain Bear's Christmas Tree by Stan and Jan Berenstain with Mike Berenstain

18. The Littlest Angel written by Charles Tazewell, illustrated by Paul Michich

19. Trouble with Trolls written and illustrated by Jan Brett

20. Christmas Trolls written and illustrated by Jan Brett

21. Owl Moon written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr

22. 12 Days of Christmas written and illustrated by Jan Brett

23. A Forest Christmas written and illustrated by Mayling Mack Holm

24. The Night Before Christmas written and illustrated by Jan Brett

25. The First Christmas written and illustrated by Carol Heyer

(I have made every effort to link to books and book descriptions through author websites. For some links, you will need to scroll through a list of books by the author to find the specific book I have mentioned. I believe that all of the books are available for purchase online, though they may not be available directly through the author's website.)


This is the 5rd post in a series of posts about Advent, Christmas, Jesse Tree & Chanukah traditions. See the other posts here:
Season's Traditions
Jesse Tree

Advent Calendar - In Picture Books!

Another fun & fabulous Advent idea for those who love books and want to fill the season with stories and snuggly, book-reading memories:

A Picture Book a Day Advent Calendar

Wrap up twenty-five picture books. Open one book each day until Christmas, snuggle up and enjoy the story! (These can be books you already own or even books from the library!)

The following bloggers have compiled lists of the books they have used:

Our Home on the Range
A Striped Armchair
Sarah Jane

TOTALLY OFF TOPIC (sort of): While I was searching for book lists, I ran across this Rocking Chair artist: Hal Taylor. I think you should check out his website, too! He makes a rocking chair with arm seats for little people to look over your shoulder while you're reading.

This is the 4rd post in a series of posts about Advent, Christmas, Jesse Tree & Chanukah traditions. See the other posts here:
Season's Traditions
Jesse Tree

Monday, November 26, 2012

Elf on the Shelf, Random Acts of Kindness and other Christmas Traditions

For those of you who are looking for STILL MORE seasonal traditions, I wanted to share some that others have shared with me.  The types of traditions I'm focusing on are those that extend through the Advent season to develop that sense of hopefulness and anticipation.

Elf on the Shelf

The Elf on the Shelf tradition is based on a book that tells the story of an elf that watches over the children in the household and reports back to Santa at the North Pole about whether they are naughty or nice. The elf hangs out at the house all day and reports back to Santa at night. The elf often hides or does some bit of innocent mischief upon return, and the children find the elf each morning. The official website of Elf on a Shelf can be found here:

You can find ideas for the types of mischief your elf might do all over blogs and pinterest online. In its simplest form, the elf just hides each night, and the children find the elf in the morning. More elaborate scenarios might involve the elf playing the the children's toys, making messes or bringing simple gifts and treats.

You know how I keep telling you that it's ok to take things slow, to not do everything all at once? But, of course, kids will expect the elf to make an appearance every day. So, I found this website with a list of EXCUSES for what happened if the elf doesn't show: My Pigeon Pair. There you go! You can keep your relaxed, flexible frame of mind for the holidays. You've been provided with excuses. You're welcome. (My Pigeon Pair is also filled with Elf Mischief ideas. So, spend some time there and have a look around.)

I know of families that have changed the whole story, but they like the idea of something that hides or does mischief for the children to find in the morning. So, some families have fairies, some have bears, some have a monster... Maybe there's a neglected stuffed toy in the back of your child's closet somewhere that you could adopt as your seasonal mischief-maker. Name the toy, put it on the mantle, on a window or on a shelf, introduce the idea to your child, and let the merriment begin!

Random Acts of Christmas Kindness (RACK)

Some families choose to count down the days until Christmas with Random Acts of Christmas Kindness. Sometimes they keep these ideas in envelopes - one for each day - or they have them in their Advent calendar.  I found this beautiful blog post about a family choosing to begin this tradition: Gathering and Scattering. And more of a how-to post with printable RACK cards can be found here: TSJ Photography. That post includes back links to how her family got started with RACK and how it ended up for them in 2010. Be sure to click around on all the links.

The Empty Manger OR The Last Straw

This is a tradition in which the family begins with an empty manger at the beginning of the holiday season and a pile of straw (straw can be found at many craft or garden supply stores). Family members secretly do kind things for each other, and each time they do something kind, they place a straw in the manger. The goal is to make a comfortable bed of straw for the baby Jesus...and to prepare and soften our hearts as we celebrate the gift of Messiah.  This tradition is based on a true story called The Last Straw. Tennessee Farmgirl wrote a beautiful blog post about practicing this tradition with her family.

This is the 3rd post in a series of posts about Advent, Christmas, Jesse Tree & Chanukah traditions. See the other posts here:
Season's Traditions
Jesse Tree

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jesse Tree

"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit." (Isaiah 11:1)

"The Tree of Jesse is a depiction in art of the ancestors of Christ." (wikipedia) It is a type of family tree, a collection symbols representing the people and stories that make up the larger story of redemption, from the perfect creation to the birth of a perfect Messiah. Isaiah 11:1 tells us that the Messiah will come from the family or "stump" of Jesse, and this is why we call it a Jesse Tree. When we make a Jesse Tree for Advent we hang those symbols (ornaments) from a tree (or from...well, something) creating an artistic representation of the family tree, the family story that we all share...for Romans 11:17 says, 

", although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree..."

A Jesse Tree is a simple and tangible way to tell the redemption story, especially if you have small children participating in the family celebration of Advent. We use the ornament symbols as prompts to review the story each night before we tell a new piece of the story. You will be amazed what your children (and YOU) remember even weeks or months later. 

The idea of the Jesse Tree goes far back in history. Again, from wikipedia: "The Jesse Tree has been depicted in almost every medium of Christian art. In particular, it is the subject of many stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts. It is also found in wall paintings, architectural carvings, funerary monuments, floor tiles and embroidery." These images date all the way back to around 1000 AD. So, in using a Jesse Tree as part of Advent, you are participating in a tradition that is at least 1,000 years old. You are part of a great line of people, together honoring the story of redemption through Jesus, the Messiah.

Having a Jesse Tree can be a completely stand-alone tradition and does not have to be done along-side Advent candles or Advent calendars. If the tree, the candles and the calendar are TOO MANY things all at once, you can choose just one. If I were to choose just one, I would choose the Jesse Tree. This, for me, has the most meaning. And, with all the on-line guide available, it can be done with very little preparation, entirely from home. As I've said before, this isn't about doing everything perfectly or doing it ALL the first time around. This is about making meaning and creating focus. Be flexible. Know that what you do this year doesn't have to be what you do next year or the year after. You can do this one year at a time.

To get started with your own Jesse Tree, you'll need ornaments to represent the stories and something to hang the ornaments from. This is what ours looks like:

We chose a wreath because we didn't have any space in a room or on a table for a tree. We have an eclectic assortment of ornaments to represent the stories. For some stories we are still looking for a symbol. As a family, we've enjoyed the quest to find just the right ornament. This makes the Jesse Tree meaningful and personal to us.

Some people use a drawing of a tree on the wall and paper symbols to attach to the tree (printable paper ornaments and a printable guide for each night of Advent 2012 can be found here: Faith Magazine.) Others use a felt tree and felt figures. has a guide that begins BEFORE Advent this year in order to cover all 29 stories that would be included in the longest Advent seasons. (They also have coloring pages for each day to keep little hands busy while the story is being told!) Other guides cover only 24 stories, to coincide with Advent countdown calendars, and still others give instructions on which stories to use for different season lengths.

We have used the book The Jesse Tree by Raymond and Georgene Anderson, as well as the book The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean to guide our readings. We have seldom just read straight passages out of either book. We often use children's picture books of the story for each night. In upcoming blog posts, I will be sharing some of our resources for each night. 

This shows our Advent candles with a few of our Jesse Tree ornaments surrounding them and the McCaughrean book to the side. We like to lay out the ornaments that we will be hanging soon to have them as part of our table centerpiece throughout the day. Our menorahs are also in the photo, in anticipation of Chanukah (also to be discussed in another blog post).

This is the second post in a series of posts on this Season's Traditions. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts, reflection and ideas for the season!

Season's Traditions

By special request, I'll be blogging for the next several weeks about Advent, Christmas, and Chanukah traditions - both those that we practice here at The Midnight Cafe and those that I think are brilliant but haven't tried yet. This is going to be a little like Advent 101 because I want to offer the possibility of these tradition to people who are totally new to the idea. I strongly believe that traditions help us focus, they help us make meaning, they help us mark time, and they help us draw closer to each other and to our Creator. Traditions are meant to be modified to fit each family. They are meant to be tools in the shaping of our lives. So, I'm offering here some possibilities and a whole lot of information. Take what you need and leave the rest.

So, first things first...Advent is a season of anticipation, a season of hope, a season marked by reflection...and filled with meaning. If you get too wrapped up in doing things to make the season happen, you'll totally miss the meaning. You'll be frazzled and weary before Christmas even arrives. If you're new to Advent traditions, start slow. You don't have to do everything. You can do one thing or dabble in many. But you absolutely do not have to do it all. This is about remembering the gift of the Messiah. It isn't (and never has been) about doing everything right.

Next, I just want to say that Advent isn't only for families that come from liturgical church traditions. Anyone can celebrate Advent. It might not look like Advent at your local Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist church, but if you are participating in a way that draws your focus toward the gift of Jesus as Messiah, you are celebrating Advent. The candles and calendars and stories and ornaments are tools, not the focus.

So...that said, advent begins ONE WEEK from today! Advent always begins 4 Sundays before Christmas.You can remember this because there are 4 candles in an Advent wreath, one for each Sunday until Christmas. Many people have a fifth, larger candle in the middle of the Advent wreath to light on Christmas.

The season of Advent is not always the same length as an Advent calendar, which always begins on December 1st and counts down the days until Christmas. So, this year, if you're using an Advent calendar, you'll start on Saturday, December 1st. You'll light your first Advent candle, however, on Sunday, December 2nd.

Now, here's the fun part! We designed our own very non-traditional Advent wreath some years ago. I'm not a fan of green wreaths, and I'm perpetually worried about the fire hazard. So, we found a circular mosaic-ed tray/plate, and we place 4 votive candles in a circle on the plate around the center "Messiah" this:
We've had the same center candle since Mane was around 2 years old because it only gets lit for a few days of every year. You can do most anything to set up your Advent candles. See a number of non-traditional ideas at (Or go look on Pinterest!)

Traditionally, Advent candles are purple and pink (3 purple, 1 pink). Our family has used other colors over the years. We do typically use 3 of one color and 1 of another, but that isn't necessary either. Remember, these are traditions for your family, to help you focus this season, to bring honor to your King. This is what the candles are intended to represent:

1st Sunday: Purple: Hope
2nd Sunday: Purple: Peace
3rd Sunday: Pink: Joy
4th Sunday: Purple: Love

Your family might choose a different color for each idea. Or you might choose to have all white candles. Some families choose white candles because they are unscented and less likely to cause allergic reactions. Do what works for you.

The first year that we celebrated Advent, we made a matchbox Advent calendar. This was such a fun craft, and I'd definitely recommend it! See instructions at Here's a photo of the one we made:
As you can see, it needed some repair of several years of use! Since that first year, we purchased a magnetic Advent calendar just like this one:
This calendar is very sturdy and can be used year after year. We still haven't parted with our matchbox calendar, though, and I suspect we will be using both this year.

Of course, a variety of Advent calendars are available for purchase. Michaels has a paint-able wooden Christmas tree Advent calendar this year with 24 drawers. Paper, one-time-use calendars can be found at almost any department store, typically with chocolate behind each numbered door. has a number of other handmade ideas.

The advantage of a homemade calendar is that you don't have to fill it with candy. We've filled our matchboxes with pennies, beads, charms, erasers, jelly bracelets, hair binders, and all manner of other tiny things. Remember, these things are not meant to cost you a lot. They are meant to build anticipation...and possibly reward little people for sitting through a quick candle-lighting, prayer and story.

Here's what a typical night of Advent looks like for us...

- Light the candle(s) and discuss the meaning of each candle that has been lit. This is typically very brief. I'll get into what some of these discussions look like in later posts.

- Read scripture/story/book. For us, the reading will correspond with our Jesse Tree ornament for the night. The Jesse Tree is probably the most significant part of our Advent tradition, and it's going to get its own post here in my blog. The short version is that the Jesse Tree tradition involves telling the major stories of the Bible from creation to the birth of Jesus over the days of Advent. It is a condensed retelling of the redemption story. For each story, we hang a symbolic ornament on our Jesse Tree.

Others will choose a different set of readings to guide them through Advent. lists the traditional Advent readings for each night.

- Say a prayer.

- Hang the Jesse Tree ornament.

- Open the door of the Advent calendar.

- Blow out the candles.

This series of traditions developed over a period of YEARS. We did not start doing everything all at once. I can't stress enough how important it is to relax and do what works for your family. You want this to be peaceful. You want it to bring your family life and joy. You do not want a bunch of stress and unfulfilled expectations. Let things happen how they happen. Breathe in the moment.

Be blessed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Disclaimer

One month ago, on October 14th, I went to see my mom in the hospital, expecting that she would "get better" for another month or more before the end came. That Saturday, she died.

Today I am listening to Christmas music...the orchestral kind, not the holly, jolly kind. Last weekend I put up strings of Christmas lights in my house. The light is soft and warm. People keep telling me how hard the holidays will be. I feel like I need to explain that I'm not forgetting her with the lights and the music. I am just so thirsty for beautiful things. It's so hard. The beautiful things carry me through. They feel poignant and full of meaning...somehow more beautiful in the middle of all the heaviness. Many moments throughout the day, I take in a ragged breath and realize I am on the verge of sobbing, that I cannot breathe for a moment, that this is so painful I must double over, sit down, push on my eyes to stop the onslaught of tears. I cannot cry every waking moment. Nor can I forget. So, I live in this airless place of grief. Trying to live. Being oh so grateful for the people in my life and the fact that we have one more moment together. And then another. And another. There are so many beautiful things. And there is so much sadness.

I feel like I need a disclaimer. Yes, I'm grieving. My heart is broken. I cannot breathe. I don't want to get out of bed in the morning. Yes, you see holiday lights in my house, and there will be beautiful music. Yes, I will surround myself with the beautiful comfort of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas... Yes, I often feel two things (or more) at once, and I cannot explain it. I know it's confusing. I'm just trying to breathe.

In the words of Ellen Bass:

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

My Mom

My mom passed away on October 20th, 2012, after fighting a vicious 11 month battle with Merkel Cell Carcinoma.  Here is the tribute I wrote for her memorial service...

It is possible that many of you have heard this poem, but I want to share it with you anyway. I know my mom read it and believed it...

What Cancer Cannot Do
Cancer is so limited...
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the spirit.

You see, my mom fought cancer for 11 months. She fought it with grace and with courage and hope and faith. And, though we sit here today, I still think she won. Cancer did not take her love for us or our love for her. It did not take our memories or her friendships or courage or spirit. In fact, it did not even take her peace. In the end, my mom knew where she was going, and she wasn't worried about it. After all, cancer cannot reduce eternal life, either. Because it's eternal. This life here is a little drop in the bucket of Eternal. But what she taught me here matters a whole lot to eternity. This little drop in the bucket has changed many people for all eternity.

My mom taught me what it is to love because she loved me. How can I even begin to describe her? She is the one I still want when I'm sick. She's the one I want to call with all my news. She is the one, who, despite her smallness, was always ready to protect me. When she knew she was passing from this world she wasn't worried about herself, she was worried about me and my dad and her grandchildren...and the many others who have come to rely on her...for support, for encouragement, for a listening ear, for friendship, and for practical help. My mom knew how to get things done - to make lists, plan, and organize. She didn't spend a lot of time talking about how to do something. She just made it happen. My mom also knew how to make peace with people without being a pushover. She had a strength and confidence that was all her own, but she didn't use it to trample other people or even to outshine them. She used it to see past differences and make things happen.

My mom taught me courage, as I saw her suffer losses and tackle tough challenges (like caring for foster children and moving across the continent and learning Spanish). I am so proud of her for doing the hard things. Because I know they were hard for her, and she did them anyway.

My mom also taught me to value people and relationships over material things. A person doesn't need a big house or a lot of stuff to be happy and content. If you ever visited any of the small houses my parents lived in over the last 15 years or so - from the trailer in Mexicali to their little cottage in Isanti - you know what I mean. My mom knew that wherever the people you love are, that is where home is. My parents made a great team, making a home beautiful and functional, without being big or cluttered. Their little home in Isanti is full of creative small-house solutions. (Did you know that you can store coffee cups in a cake pan in the oven, making use of all that empty space in the oven AND keeping the cups warm?) In spite of the small space, my mom stashed away games and craft projects - things that connect people and build relationships. We have spent many Christmases, my family of 5 all piled into my parent's house, laughing, talking, and playing games. My mom and Aurora worked on notebooks full of magazine cut-out collages, and later she taught Aurora to make crafty clipboards. The time mattered more than the things. 

One day my mom sent Aurora home with her shoes because she was decluttering...and I thought of how she used to let me dig through her closet when I still lived at home and I couldn't figure out what to wear. How frustrating that must have been for her some Junior High mornings. :) And I used to wear her shoes, too. I finally grew out of her shoes...and then one day Aurora grew out of her shoes, too!

She always had such tiny feet.
She was my  little Mama.
My little Mama with a big, big smile and a spirit that could not be quenched.
Her love was not crippled.
Her hope was not shattered.
Her faith was not even a little bit corroded.
Her courage was not silenced...
even to the end of her days.