Sunday, December 25, 2011

Advent and Christmas 2011

"For just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be...." --Luke 17:24

A really good Advent sets up a really good Christmas, and we had a really good Advent this year. As we usually do, we set up the Christmas tree with a few strings of blue and purple lights (Advent colors), but nothing else. Actually, Jaybird had fun coloring and cutting out and hanging up Jesse Tree decorations, so for most of Advent our nearly-bare tree was decorated with those. In a nutshell, Jesse Tree symbols summarize salvation history leading up to the birth of Christ -- each symbol represents a different biblical story or episode.

We also lit the Advent wreath most nights; we sang a new verse of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" every week, until we were able to sing the first four verses reasonably well. Even little Alleluia Boy was singing along in his own way by the end! Of course, we have read the Scripture readings for the day from the lectionary for years, so that was good too -- hearing all those very hopeful, poetically beautiful readings from Isaiah over several weeks leading up to Christmas.

We went to confession as a family, Advent being a penitential season and all.

And on the day before Christmas Eve, the kids and I ran around town donating things. We saw this story in the Winona Daily News about the 600 families who received a free holiday basket from Winona Volunteer Services. Actually, a friend had driven past on the pickup day and then Facebooked about the line that stretched six blocks. Here's a picture from the Daily News:

That was the prompting we needed to head to the grocery store -- each child got to pick an item to donate. Mouse wanted to donate a 15-pound ham! I nixed that only because I wasn't sure whether they would accept perishable food, so she chose two jars of pickles instead. (Turns out the ham would've been okay -- oh well, next time!) Jaybird donated a bag of potatoes. And Bear donated a can of pineapple. We ran all that over to the food shelf, where it was weighed; we also dropped off a check. Then the kids got a five-minute tour of the food shelf. (Or as Mouse corrected: "Actually, we just stood around while you talked to the lady.") We found out that, indeed, nearly 1,000 families in our area rely on the food shelf once a month or more. That's nearly one in five families in this town. And that, frankly, is amazing.

We also donated a whole bunch of stuffed animals to another charity. Then it was off to Pizza Hut for a bit of a reward!

It was a buffet -- and this being Winona, that meant it was absolutely packed. But the kids enjoyed it anyway. The other thing we'd done in the week leading up to Christmas was to go through all their toys (again!) to organize them and to get rid of some of them. It was a lot of work (again), so the pizza out was well-deserved. By me especially. : )

That night we went down to La Crosse to see the Rotary Lights display in their park along the Mississippi River. This year, Alleluia Boy was properly impressed -- he kept looking around, wide-eyed, pointing out the "light, light!" We think he enjoyed it. And it was unseasonably warm and ice-free this year!

Bear's friend came along for the ride -- far left.

Christmas Eve morning, we decorated the tree with "real" lights and "real" Christmas decorations. It's a wonderful really feels like a turning point, like we've come out of this period of darkness and penance into this time of light and joy.

The kids watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on DVD in the afternoon -- their one and only Christmas special. I have a special place in my heart for that special, because of Linus's speech on the true meaning of Christmas -- the birth of the Christ child. It was fun to hear the kids all laughing like crazy at Snoopy's antics. Some things are just classic!

Also Christmas Eve afternoon, our next door neighbor came over for a small gift exchange and cookies and milk. I shouldn't say "small," since she is always VERY generous with gift certificates to the local book store and Godfather's Pizza.

Another Christmas tradition for our family is Christmas Eve dinner at the local Catholic Worker house. Dinner was great -- ham, turkey, stuffing, and lots of great sides, including a wonderful squash soup. People were a little subdued, for understandable reasons, but there was still a lot of camaraderie and laughter. Bear and I ate with a new guy who regaled us with wonderful and amazing stories of his 19 years working as a carpenter in the Alaska wilderness.

We eat there every week, of course, so many of the regulars have become good friends. I persuaded them to pose for a picture after dinner:

Then it was homeward to get dressed for "Midnight" Mass -- at 8 p.m. (which is good, 'cause we couldn't do any later!). The girls dressed in their Christmas dresses:

Mass was wonderful -- the high point of Christmas, as usual. Although...

...Christmas morning was pretty nice, too.

This little guy had no idea that it was Christmas, but squealed with delight on
seeing the "horsey" anyway.

There is a story about the little prayer book Mouse is holding. I actually "hid" this gift and a few other small religious items too well -- and ended up spending about an hour and a half searching for them on Christmas Eve night, meaning that I didn't actually get to bed until early Christmas Eve morning!

The kids enjoyed all of their many gifts, as you can see in the video below.

We took time out for a walk in the nearby Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge just to get out of the house and to enjoy the beautiful weather. Everyone was in good spirits.

Here is the video of Christmas morning:

One of the highlights of the season for me was listening to Brother Mann, president of Saint Mary's University, deliver some brief remarks before the SMU Christmas dinner. He offered one of the best reflections on the Christmas season that I have heard in a while. The Scripture quotation at the beginning of this post was part of his remarks. I was really struck at the imagery in this quote, especially in the way he connected it to the incarnation.

The Gospel of John gives us that wonderful image of the Christ child as a light in the darkness, but I also like this image of Christ as a bolt of lightning spanning the sky. It really captures just how radical the Incarnation of God is...because if you really are so crazy as to believe in a God whose love for humanity is so great that he becomes one of us in order to draw us to him, then the Incarnation changes everything, absolutely everything. Like a flash of lightning in the night, it lights up our world and our lives, so that we see them as they truly are...and that is a good thing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Short note

Our adoption blog is on private for a little bit...hope it is temporary...if you want an invite and haven't gotten one, email us!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The continuing adventures of Alleluia Boy

First snow of the season...interesting, but cold!

It helps to have big sisters to pull the sled!

Being a big helper, like his older brother.
While the other kids sled, Alleluia Boy likes just hanging out in the swings.
Not quite the same experience as in summer, is it?

An excellent winter diversion: playing with water in the sink!
Runs up the water bill, but as long as you clear the room and
remove his shirt, it's worth it for half an hour of relatively
peaceful co-existence with the rest of the universe.

Where's baby Jesus? We'll have to wait and see!

This is the smile that may have saved us from making TWO
long trips to get our fingerprints!

And this is toward the END of the trip...what a trooper!

After a hard day, you have to just crash. With your bottom
sticking up, of course. Why is this so comfortable???

Another lost tooth

A couple nice things that happened today...Mouse lost another tooth today at school, during D.E.A.R. time (Drop Everything And Read). She said she just let it knock around her mouth until reading time was over, because it was so quiet that she'd be embarrassed to say anything. The older kids are old pros at this now, so it was amusing to walk past her bedroom a few minutes ago and see a sign taped to the stairwell banister: "Please come, tooth fairy!!!!!!!!" The tooth fairy has a habit of forgetting. Thanks for the reminder, Mouse!

Earlier in the evening we joined the seminarians at Immaculate Heart of Mary seminary for Mass followed by dinner. The kids were somewhat intimidated by being the only kids in a room full of very serious young men who all chanted the Mass parts. But they really enjoyed the formal meal afterward. We sat at the head table, with the priests who run the seminary; the priests explained the etiquette to them (why they had THREE forks and all that) and asked all sorts of questions and generally enjoyed getting to know the kids. The older kids were all on their best behavior, and did really, really well. Alleluia Boy was himself -- mostly sweet, with a few cranky moments thrown in just for good measure. But he totally stole the show when he started singing the "Alleluia." All priestly heads turned his way! Later, Alleluia Boy went around the table offering the sign of peace, and a bit later after that, he and Jaybird sang "Alleluia" followed by "Bless you!" This prompted much story-telling about his other antics -- like receiving a potato chip in cupped hands, then crossing himself, today at lunch.

The seminarians had taken up a collection to help out with Alex's adoption -- a fairly sizable amount, actually. It totally took me by surprise when this was announced before the meal blessing, leaving me a little choked up. I continue to be amazed by people's generosity around this boy. God is good.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Adoption stories

Sorry that we haven't posted much here is one of those especially busy times of life, especially with Christmas upon us. Besides my other work and volunteer responsibilities, I'm also trying to learn rudimentary Russian (and am extra motivated by the experience and comments of April Jacobson) and otherwise prepare for the adoption. As we move closer to the adoption date (we just got our $800 USCIS fingerprints done in St. Paul -- see our adoption blog for details), I find myself increasingly immersed in others' adoption stories, probably as a way to prepare myself, both emotionally and practically. I've been particularly interested in Asking with Faith, which is a blog kept by the amazing Canadian teen who did so much to advocate for Alex. Their family just brought a nine-year-old girl home from Bulgaria -- and while it has been joyful, lately it has also been pretty rough. As she points out, it's pretty typical for adopted kids (especially ones who are more cognitively typical) to go through a grieving period that includes lots of rage and anger and defiance. Thank goodness their family knows how to ride it out. They are in our prayers. I read their story knowing that we could be going through the same process in a few months.

It has also been fun to follow the Jacobson's adoption blog, since they are adopting from the same country as Alex, and April Jacobson keeps a fairly detailed account of their process.

And then there's the story of Katie, the nine-year-old girl who weighed just eleven pounds when she was adopted by the Musser family about a month ago. It's amazing to see how she has gone, in just a few weeks, from this... this:

Wow. This family got a lot of flack and resistance from people concerned about them adopting a severely handicapped kid, but they did it anyway -- eyes wide open to the difficulties and necessary sacrifices, but also seeing beyond that to the ultimate reality of Love with a capital "L."

This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I named this blog "Gracewatch." There it is.

More at their blog, The Blessing of Verity.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Counting boy!

Alleluia Boy is now counting with us. If he hears someone counting (or if we get him started), he completes the sequence...up through six or seven, at this point.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

First sentence!

For the past couple weeks, Starling and I have been eating dinner fifteen minutes before the older children so that we can get some time to connect (and eat) without constant interruptions. We figure we put in all the time making the food -- we're tired, we're hungry, we deserve to eat it in relative peace before taking on our nightly waiter/waitress shift. It works out pretty well, because then when the kids sit down, we're able to focus on their needs in a more cheerful frame of mind. I highly recommend it.

Mudpuppy, however, does eat with us -- just to keep him out of trouble. And it was while he was eating with us this past Wednesday that he said his first (real) sentence:

"Dada eat pizza!"

Made it up all on his own. Starling and I stopped in mid-pizza bite, looked at each other, and then started praising him. He just went back to eating his pizza, apparently unfazed. Maybe he's been thinking sentences for a while. Anyway, it is an honor for him to make my homemade pizza the object of his first sentence, since it is so very delicious!

We even took a picture to mark the occasion (see above).

He has also been singing variations of the "Alleluia" pretty nonstop recently -- often at the top of his lungs in various public places, and when he's sitting in his chair. I think he gets enough attention for it that he's kind of addicted to it now. He is actually pretty on key, for a two-year-old. So I am officially changing his nickname on this blog from Mudpuppy to Alleluia Boy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First haircut

Mudpuppy had his first haircut today...long overdue. Jaybird went first, so he could see that there was nothing to be afraid of. Here's how it went:

And here is how the girls look with their new, shorter hair...prompted in part by their desire to avoid all the tangles and hassle of brushing out long hair:

Aren't they cute?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Some zingers from the kids...

Bear: "I really like praying the rosary. I'm thinking of founding a monastery devoted to praying the rosary, unless someone already thought of that idea."

*  *  *

As a family, we were reading and discussing the Sunday readings, including the iconic passage from Proverbs 31, on the virtues of a noble wife:

10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

So after reading that, my husband begins: "So, kids, what we have here is the Bible's description of an ideal married woman: she is good, loving, works hard, gives to the poor, and is wise and thoughtful. Right? She is not--"

And the 11-year-old boy interjects, "Mom!"

*  *  *

Things Mudpuppy says:

"Ohhh! Okay!" -- You'd have to hear it to appreciate it; it's a long, exaggerated "oh,' the kind someone says when they finally realize something.

"whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" -- Picked up from his older sister for anything that's too exciting for words.

A random act of kindness

Well, this blog is called Gracewatch, and I guess things don't get more grace-y than this. Now, how would you like to get a note like this one in your mailbox? Even better when there's a couple of gift cards taped to the other side! This note made my week, I think, and came at a time when I needed a little boost of inspiration about my parenting vocation. And really, mid-November in Minnesota, who doesn't need a little boost!

It also got me thinking about whoever sent it. We've done a little detective work using informal handwriting analysis but haven't narrowed the field down by much. But I was also thinking about how much the sender must have enjoyed doing this. Maybe this Advent we'll take this on as a family project -- dropping secret notes to people who deserve an extra boost. So, if you happen to find an anonymous note like this one in your mailbox anytime soon, it's probably just a secret surprise from us.

Wait a sec -- I shouldn't have said that, I guess...oh well...just pretend you didn't read this....

Being beacons of light!

Veterans Day

This past veteran's day, Mudpuppy and I went up to the Saint Mary's University Veterans Memorial for some quiet prayer observing the day. We were joined by a few friends. This has become something of an annual ritual since the memorial was erected. We prayed for all veterans...especially those we know personally, who are cherished friends and family members...and we prayed for peace, so that this little one and all children might never know the horror of war.

And we once again read the words of the Church, from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #497:
The Magisterium condemns “the savagery of war” and asks that war be considered in a new way. In fact, “it is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era, war could be used as an instrument of justice”. War is a “scourge” and is never an appropriate way to resolve problems that arise between nations, “it has never been and it will never be”, because it creates new and still more complicated conflicts. When it erupts, war becomes an “unnecessary massacre”, an “adventure without return” that compromises humanity's present and threatens its future. “Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war”. The damage caused by an armed conflict is not only material but also moral. In the end, war is “the failure of all true humanism”, “it is always a defeat for humanity”: “never again some peoples against others, never again! ... no more war, no more war!”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of birthdays and various things

Well, it has been a long time since I last is insanely crazy around here, here's a quick catch-up post.

The weather continues to be exceptionally mild (for the most part...we had snowflakes
in the air today)...extending the playground season.

I turned 42 on Nov. 7. A few nights earlier, Starling and I went out to eat in La Crosse (woo-hoo!), the first time we'd done that in years, due to Mudpuppy being so young. I went looking for a fancy-but-not-too-expensive restaurant and thought I found one in the Waterfront. I couldn't get their menus to come up, but another review said they were "reasonable," which turns out to be a relative we found out. Everything was wonderful, from the service to the ambiance to the (truly amazing) food. Starling said she had the best scallops she'd ever tasted, which is saying something for a girl who grew up on the Eastern seaboard, and whose parents now live on the Gulf Coast. But I couldn't help feeling bad about the expense...what would St. Francis say???!!! Yikes. The penultimate "fancy restaurant" moment came when someone other than our server stopped at the table just to brush a few bread crumbs off the white linen tablecloth.

Isn't this just cute? It's a mousse something or other...note the little ice bridge
connecting the two berries...and that is a curl of pure chocolate on top. $9.
My favorite part of my birthday is getting homemade gifts from the kids, along with their kind words. Every year I say the same thing: "Do you know what my best present is? You!" Only this year when I said, "Do you know what my favorite present is?", the older kids said, "Yeah, yeah, us!" And I said, "No! These warm pajamas!" Ha ha, just kidding. The older ones are at that jokey stage. We ended the party with a big group hug.

Mouse and Jaybird with their paper airplanes.
The day of my actual birthday, the kids were off of school. Happy birthday, you get to watch the kids all day! Actually, they were very good -- they entertained themselves most of the day. They rediscovered paper airplanes, and spent hours making them and flying them, both indoors and outdoors.

And finally, before I turn in for the night, here is a bit from the kids' Fall Sharing Night:

Bear with the classroom salamander.

Mouse with an algebraic cube.

Jaybird demonstrating her mastery of terms for three-dimensional geometric objects.
She also demonstrated a word-matching work.

And here is Bear with his favorite work -- maps! Here he is working on placing
city names on a map of the Ukraine.
That's all for now!

Happy Halloween! And All Saints Day!

Well, this post is past due, but better late than never, right?

We celebrated All Saints Day before Halloween this year, since our church's ASD party was on the Sunday before Halloween. It was very similar to last year's format -- family folk dancing followed by a potluck and "guess the saint" costume contest -- so I won't repeat all of that here. This year, Mouse went as St. Elizabeth of Portugal, Bear went as St, Paul Miki, and Jaybird went as St. Julia Billiart. Another girl went as St. Julia the fourth century martyr, which took her by surprise. Mudpuppy went as Juan Diego, except he refused to wear the tilma that Starling made for him.

The girls made their own pumpkins, by themselves, this year.
 Halloween was little weird. We visited the Kensington again; that is my favorite part of the whole night. The residents dress up and sit behind tables in the dining room; the kids go along from table to table collecting treats while the residents smile and say nice things about them, always urging them to take more candy. I love seeing how happy it makes the residents when the kids visit. They especially liked little Mudpuppy, who went along in his little pumpkin costume, cautiously taking the candy -- and then trying to put it into the basket held out by the next resident in line, or taking more than one piece, not out of greed but because they're pretty. He was getting into the swing of it by the end!

We promised to stop by the Catholic Worker for dinner, but before we did, we swung by the parish rectory at the invitation of Fr. Jim, who loves M&Ms.

Yeah, this picture isn't the greatest, due to the dim light and
excited kids.
Then we headed over to the Catholic Worker, where we shared in sweet potato soup and black beans and rice, all of which the kids barely touched. That was weird because we ended up being the only guests (besides one other guest living in the house).

Then Jaybird wanted to stay for the Halloween party, so we left her at the Bethany House (the other house, where the party was -- not the house that we had dinner in). Several of the former live-in volunteers said they'd watch her. She carved pumpkins with one of her friends (a guest at the family house and a classmate from school), had lots of cake and brownies and cookies, and watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" on the front porch. She actually preferred that to trick-or-treating.

Jaybird with her friend at the party
That left Mouse and I to go around the neighborhood; Bear is "too old" at age eleven, so he stayed home and answered the door, and Mudpuppy had had it anyway. As usual, trick-or-treating in our neighborhood is part moveable block party -- a great way to reconnect with people we haven't seen since June (at the actual block party) as well as our older shut-ins. This year, Mouse went as a Snow Princess, which she had to explain to everyone, since she was wearing a long, blue gown. Also, she carried a ball that had a floating eyeball in it, and that lit up when you bounced it. She was very talkative with the neighbors, stopping to chat with everyone.

Our pumpkins. I especially
like the one on its side. Sadly,
they were nibbled on by
squirrels before we even lit them.

Despite working alone, Mouse managed to bring back quite a haul. At three pieces a day, they're still only halfway through it!