Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dear Kenya, Ready Or Not, Here I Come!

Well, tomorrow is the big day.  The day that we have spent the last year preparing for.  While most of you are enjoying friends and family, my husband and I will be ringing in the New Year somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

Dave and I have had the last 24 hours together--just us, no kids--as the grandparents have whisked them away for a few days to enjoy the last of their Christmas vacation in Arizona.  We have spent a significant amount of this 24 hours discussing the past year of our lives.  I will just tell you, it has been a crazy year!  We started listing all of the stuff--good and bad--that has happened this year and are, quite frankly, amazed that we have survived it all!

God has taken us on a long and crazy journey these past 365 days, and it is all culminating together tomorrow as we board a jumbo jet bound for Nairobi!  I have spent several weeks now trying to decide what to talk about in this opening blog to our upcoming trip.  Since it is the eve of New Year's Eve, I think it would be fitting to talk about New Year's resolutions.

In preparation for this trip, Dave and I have received a TON of advice from people.  Most of it has been really helpful--make sure you drink lots of water, make sure you get up and walk around the plane a lot, make sure to take something to help with jet lag, hold on to your passport, switch your phone service to international, pack toilet paper (Huh?  What?  Okay, I can honestly say, I have never, EV-ER traveled anywhere that I have had to pack my own TP!  This may possibly not end well for me.)

Anyway, in the sea of good advice, I did receive 2, very simple, very pertinent pieces of great advice.  Since I'm all about sharing, I have decided that I would like to share these awesome words of advice with you, too. 

So, here it is, my 2013 New Year's Resolutions:

(drum roll, please)

1.  Breathe

2.  Don't forget to look around

For those of you that know me very well, you know that I can be intense.  I mean really intense!  When I am focussed on something, nothing will stand in my way.  And I will always get it accomplished--often to the detriment of anything and anyone around me. 

As I spent time thinking about what changes I would like to implement to my life in 2013 (yep, I know, I'm weird.  I do this every year--just so you know), I realized that I don't spend nearly enough time breathing or looking around.  I mean really breathing or looking around.

As my kids would say, "Of course you have to breathe.  If you didn't you would die."  Well, sure.  But my resolution isn't to just partake in the act of respiration--you know, breathing in and breathing out.  My resolution is to really breathe!  I am resolving to take the time time to just stop.  Clear my head of all the voices (don't judge me, you know you have voices in your head, too!), and just take a minute to enjoy the air.  I mean REALLY.  BREATH.

I have to confess, the looking around part, is going to be a little harder for me.  It is not in my nature to stop and smell the roses.  This one is going to take a bit of concerted effort on my part.  However, I cannot think of a more appropriate, or exciting time to implement this.  Kenya!  I mean really, how many times does someone get to visit such a cool place during their lifetime?  It's not like I have picked an outing to Wal Mart as the maiden voyage for this new resolution (although, that does have a bit of a draw, at times, too).  Yes, I have a BIG job ahead of me (1,700 pair of glasses is no walk in the park), but I am going to take some time every day to look around, enjoy the beauty, experience the people, and relish in God's provision and blessings.

So, to quote the wise and profound words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it". 

I hope you experience an abundance of oxygen, overwhelming clarity of sight, and an amazing and happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Molasses Sugar Cookie Recipe

This recipe has moved to its new home on my recipe blog.

You can find it here

 For more of my fun recipes, you can visit Vanessa's Country Cookin'.

Day 8 of an Anderson Christmas--Cookies!!!!

13 years ago I received the best gift I have ever gotten from anyone!  Ever!  It may seem weird to some of you, but my sister-in-law gave me, what I think may be, the best cookie recipe in the world!  Seriously!  Molasses sugar cookies--YUM-O!  This magnificent recipe came beautifully packaged atop a nice tin of the scrumptiously baked product.  I have never tasted anything quite so delightful in all my life.

As an aside:  It is not an unusual thing for me to keep some of these suckers on hand (frozen) so that I can take a couple out at any given time when I have a "sweets" craving.  I put a small scoop of vanilla ice cream between two of them, and sandwich these little delights together.  I have included a picture, just to get your taste buds going!  You're welcome, by the way!

Now, for those of you that know me very well, you know that I make a lot of cookies.  In fact, I make 15 dozen cookies each and every week for one of my church's less formal worship services.  Each week I have some random, yet customized crazy little hand-held treat.  However, these molasses sugar cookies are, in my opinion, the best one of them all.

The receipt of this gift was the genesis for my final, and (by far) favorite Christmas tradition--making and delivering homemade cookies for my amazing neighbors. 

If you have been reading my blog, or if you have been to my house, you know that we live out in the boonies.  Not to say that we don't have neighbors (we do), we just don't live right next door to our neighbors.  That being said, we have had to make a concerted effort to get to know the folks that share our little corner of the middle of nowhere, and what a journey it has been!

We have the most awesome community you can imagine.  We are only about 11 minutes from Target, but it feels like an entirely different planet when you are out here.  It is a good 30 minutes, round trip, to the grocery store if you have forgotten something.  We are at the mercy of the county when it snows, as there is only one road in and that same road out.  We have no natural gas lines or municipal water sources to draw from.  Internet service is sketchy, and cable television is non-existent (thank goodness for satellite)!  So, most of you city folk are probably wondering how we could ever possibly survive out here.  Well, I will tell you--we do it as a community.

When we lived in town (in a pretty decent-sized neighborhood, I might add) we knew the names of exactly one family that lived by us.  We shared a strip of grass between our houses and would frequently chit-chat while out doing yard work.  That's it.  One neighbor.  Period.  And end of a very short and sad story.

So, when we moved out to the sticks, we resolved (out of a true desire as well as out of sheer necessity) to get to know our neighbors.  I mean really get to know our neighbors.

Shortly after we moved in, I was on this baking kick and had made a ton of cookies.  I really didn't want them in my house--because I would just consume them all.  So, I thought it would be fun to share them with those around us.  Thus began a tradition of hand delivering some Christmas joy to our neighbors.

It has been so much fun!  Now that my kids are able to act as my "little elves", they absolutely have a blast!  They have been able to get to know all the great people that we live by (as well as all the dogs who come running in hopes of receiving a treat too)!  Our neighbors have begun to grow comfortable with the Anderson children, and we have cultivated new friendships with folks we would have otherwise never met, in the process.

During this time, we have been blessed by our neighbors (there was the time when we called one of them to come kill a 5 foot, meaner-than-heck rattle snake that was seeking asylum in our home).  We have also been able to be a blessing to them.  We have, on many occasions, been able to "share" water when the pump to their well has gone out (see, these are the things that city dwellers don't have to deal with).  We have had the opportunity to bottle feed calves, as well as take care of a vast array of dogs, cats and even a couple of fish.  We have sledded, snowboarded and made snowmen when our entire neighborhood was snowed in for 3 days straight!  We have borrowed and shared a multitude of various kitchen items (butter, sugar, sour cream, etc), and in the process have become this strange and eclectic little "family", of sorts.

This years' package from Chateau de Anderson was a mixed pack--consisting of Snickerdoodles, Grasshopper, Cappuccino Chocolate Chip, and of course the signature Molasses Sugar Cookie.  My kids were all giggles (even though it was FREEZING) on delivery day.  We were able to share with those around us, and were able to add one more layer of community to our already awesome little utopia.

So, in writing this final entry of my Christmas blog, I have a few, but simple take-home points.  First, I bet you have some amazing neighbors.  I would encourage you to take the first step and reach out to them.  You might be surprised to find a little diamond-in-the-rough living right next door. 

Second, encourage your kids to engage those around them.  I know, we live in a scary world with scary people.  I'm not saying to put your kids in harm's way.  But, our world seems to have lost a lot of what makes us uniquely human--the need to belong to a community.  The actions of a few disturbed people (who, quite frankly, may have not been so disturbed if even one person had been kind) have let fear drive a wedge between otherwise normal and friendly folks in our world.  I think it is up to each and every one of us to drive that element of fear right back out. 

Finally, never underestimate the power of one simple gift.  My sister-in-law has no idea how many lives she has touched because of this one very meaningful (and, I might add, inexpensive--for all you tight-wads out there) gift.  It was well-planned and well-executed.  It will serve as a gateway to immeasurable friendships for the Anderson family for years to come.

So, I hope I have encouraged you and your family to begin the process of cultivating community and friendships--wherever your little piece of the world is. 

Have a very, Merry Christmas and community-filled New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 7 of an Anderson Christmas--Twas the Day Before Christmas

Twas the day before Christmas, when all through the house
The creatures were fighting, causing insanity in my spouse.
School was on break, and the natives were restless
from watching TV, and making big messes
My husband was home to observe all the folly
And I had returned with tortillas and tamales.
The pork loin was roasting on low for the day
While the children were arguing over what game to play.
The chili was thawing on the counter for dinner
When my daughter announced that she was the winner.
My husband was frantically trying to search
For last minute items needed at church.
When all of a sudden there arose such a clatter
My children jumped up to see what was the matter.
The dogs had dug out of their yard yet again
Sending my already crazed husband in a tailspin.
Seems a varmint of sorts had caught their attention
Their shock collars useless as a means of prevention
The kids were both screaming, bad scenarios in their head
Convinced man's best friends would be found later dead.
After what seemed like hours they came home in a funk
No worse for the wear, and no hint of skunk.
Safely returned, to their yard with a gate
My husband announced "We're going to be late!"
We grabbed all our coats,  and scrambled to the car
Not wanting the dogs, our Christmas Eve to mar.
My husband calmed nerves on the 12 mile drive
Where in a Christmas miracle, we arrived right on time.
We found a great seat as the choir started to sing
While my husband took care of "just one more thing".
The lights were turned low as the mood became calm
While the words of King David were read out of Psalm.
We Three Kings, and a somber Silent Night
Were beautifully sang with conviction and might.
A passionate retelling of Christ's birth with sheep
Caused even the crustiest cynic to weep.
The service was ended with a Joy to the World
So loud, that in Canyon the words could be heard.
The candles extinguished, we bid our farewells
And exited the building like a herd of gazelles.
Arriving back at the house, the mood somber and holy
We were met with the smell of tamales and posole.
Plates were prepared with precision and ease
Dinner was done and was sure to please.
The banter was light-hearted and centered on God
I'm sure to most people it would be considered odd.
Our quaint little family, sitting down at a meal
Discussing Christmas traditions 'til we all had our fill.
Table cleared, kitchen cleaned, we gathered by the warm fire
For the end of the day, my husband desired to inspire
Reading from Luke, both children were silent
There was a calm in our house--at least for the moment.
After a prayer and some replay of all of our days
It was time for the finale'--our Christmas Eve P.J.'s!!!
We each had a turn to find out our clothed fate
And were pleased to discover, they were all pretty great!
Snuggled deep in the couch, the fire my husband stoking
Both kids were in giggles, we were all playfully joking.
Reminded that the day is not about ones self
We excitedly settled in for our viewing of Elf.
The scene makes me teary, every time in my mind
So thankful that God had blessed all mankind.
With the gift of His son and so, so much more.
I drift off to sleep without even a snore.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Day 6 of and Anderson Christmas--The Birthday Cake for Jesus

I love cake.  I really like birthdays, too--mostly because I get to eat cake.  I love to make cakes, buy delicious cakes (from Cakes N More or Miss Piggy's specifically), and consume cakes.

It has always perplexed me, that in the US, we celebrate the biggest birthday of the year with. . . pie?  Does that seem strange to anyone else?  Anyway, given my aforementioned predilection for cake, I decided when my kids were really little, that since we had a cake for everyone else's birthday all year 'round, didn't Jesus deserve a cake on his big day too?

So, several years ago we started making simple, poorly decorated birthday cakes every Christmas morning.  I usually let my kids help me decorate them and then we would whip out a loud and off-key version of  "Happy Birthday". 

Fast forward to 2012.  This year, as April was fast approaching, (both my kids' birthdays are in April) my son announced that he wanted cookies for his birthday.  Gasp!  What?  You can't have cookies for your birthday!  It's a birthday!  Let them eat cake!

Then, my daughter, (much to my horror) announced, proudly, that she wanted my homemade cinnamon rolls for her birthday!  Are you kidding me!?!  No!  Let me them eat cake!

After much deliberation, I realized I was not, indeed, Marie Antionette (or any kind of widely recognized Princess, for that matter) and decided to acquiesce to my children's demands.  It was, after all, their birthdays we were talking about (even though I still contend that the mom should get something for the pain and discomfort of each of those historical days, but that is an entirely different topic altogether.)

So, 2012 yielded Angry Bird cookies for my son (yes I made them, and they turned out so awesome I had to put a picture to show them off), as well as my amazing (yep, I'm humble like that) homemade cinnamon rolls for my daughter's big day.


To compound the travesty of the year, when my birthday rolled around, we were actually out of town. I was too stuffed from the amazingly greasy burger and fries to even consider a piece of cake on my big day.  Although, Dave's awesome aunt Susie, knowing how I love yellow cake with chocolate icing, did see fit to make this hilarious "all-things-Disney" cake for me the day after my big day.

November rolled around and Dave decided he wanted my very delicious (if I do say so myself) Egg Nog Cupcakes for his birthday.  So, his was at least some sort of cake product, but still not an actual cake.  They were really delicious, though.

Now we are in December, and while I still like the "idea" of a birthday cake for Jesus, I have to wonder if we should do it at all?  Birthdays have morphed into something so non-traditional that I am unsure of how to proceed this year.  My family just doesn't seem to think that birthday cakes are really all that big of a deal.

So, anticlimactic as it seems, the 6th Anderson Family Christmas tradition may not be long for this world. I do still think a birthday celebration of sorts should be had but I am perplexed as to what this might look like. I still have a few days to decide on this one, but it may, sadly, be a tradition of the past.

I do hope you decide to celebrate the biggest birthday of the year in style--whatever that looks like in your family.  Have a Merry and fun-filled Christmas.  And, I hope you (and I) are still able to convince them to eat cake!

Day 5 of an Anderson Christmas--Christmas Cards

I love Christmas cards.  I always have.  I know that must surprise most of you, given my historical disdain for the "commercialism" of this holiday. However, I do really like Christmas cards.  When I was significantly younger and living off on my own in college and/or Optometry school I would spend a considerable amount of time at the Hallmark store looking for that "just-right" card.  You know the one?  It's got that funny front and then when you open it up "BAM" an even funnier punch line?  Yep, those are the ones that I used to scour the aisles looking for.  Then I would spend countless hours (usually when I was supposed to be studying for finals) handwriting notes to my dearest and closest friends.  Many of you may have received one of those several decades ago, and you're welcome, by the way!

I guess it was just my little way of keeping in touch with all the people that had touched me over the years.  It gave me just a few minutes, once a year, to reflect on the friendships that I had managed to acquire along the different phases of my life.  It was a great exercise for me to acknowledge how deeply I cared, and how thankful I was, for the impact each and every one of those people had had on my life.

Fast-forward to the era of AK (after kids).  Now during my 40+ years on this earth, I have amassed a large number of dear friends that mean the world to me.  I have also amassed the seemingly never-ending needs of two small little children that require their mother to be present--both mentally and physically.  So, the time of handwriting notes quickly diminished, giving way to the juggernaut that is the mass-produced photographic Christmas card.

I have heard a lot of people mock these photo cards as impersonal, or even cheesy.  I respectfully disagree with both of those opinions.  I really enjoy seeing photos of all of my friends and their kids.  It is awesome to see that most of them turned out relatively normal after all.  Not to mention the warm and fuzzy feeling I get inside when I realize that they are knee-deep in, as we say in Texas, "payin' for their raisin'". 

Several years ago, I was perplexed as to what to do with all the Christmas cards I received every year.  I loved looking at the pictures, reading the occasional "annual update" that accompanied them, and reflecting on the relationship represented.  So, I decided I needed to display them somehow.  I figured out that I could hang wide, wired Christmas ribbon from the threshold frame that separated my living room from the kitchen.  It is a really wide opening with ample room to hang such a display.  Then, as cards would arrive during the month of December, I would simply hang them on the ribbon.

For the entire month of December every year since, I have been able to walk through this opening, glancing across the sea of aging faces and be reminded of all of the amazing people that have crossed my path over the years.  With the combination of mine and Dave's friends it has become quite a display.  I have never met many of Dave's friends, yet every year the arrival of their Christmas card prompts him to tell me some funny story about college.  Dave has never met a lot of my friends, but he could probably tell you their names, if shown their faces, along with one humorous (and likely, questionably illegal) thing that they had done in their youth. 

So, I hope you enjoy the Christmas cards that you receive every year.  I hope you realize that someone (and probably lots of someones) cared enough about you to go to the expense and effort to drop you a simple card to wish you a "Merry Christmas", "Happy Holiday", "Happy Hanukkah", or "happy whatever" this time of year.

I hope you have a wonderful memory-lane-filled December of Christmas cards. 

And Merry Christmas from the Anderson Clan!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Day 4 of An Anderson Christmas--The Advent Calendar

I love my in-laws.  Seriously!  I, on a pretty regular basis, hear the craziest horror stories from friends about in-law issues.  I simply don't understand.  I literally won the in-law lottery with mine.  They are two of the most amazing people I have ever met.  Really!  (And I'm not just saying that because I know they read my blog).

Okay, it does take me a few days to get everything in my kitchen back to where it needs to be after they come for a visit.  However, as we have previously established, I am a HUGE kitchen Nazi!  I also have the occasional conversation with them about why it may not be the best dietary decision to let my kids eat at Applebees for breakfast, lunch, and dinner all on the same day.  But, kitchen-reorganizing, and restaurant selections notwithstanding, my in-laws are really awesome!

With that in mind, we haven't always seen eye-to-eye about most things Christmas (or anything Christmas, for that matter).  However, in their previously-established awesome way, they have managed to chink away at my crusty exterior with regard to Christmas and some of the traditions surrounding this crazy holiday. 

Shortly after our first child was born, my in-laws gave us the coolest Advent Calendar.  It is made of wood with a metal center and little magnetic "nativity characters" that fit one-per-holding-cell around the exterior.

I have to admit, the Advent season was not a very big deal for me when I was a kid.  In fact, I actually had to have Dave explain some of the tradition surrounding the Advent in the years after we were married.  So, this was an entirely new tradition that I had married into.  It certainly took some getting used to, and I had to be regularly reminded about it early on.

We also have these really cool friends that, every year, send us a paper Advent Calendar with little cardboard tabs that open to reveal short Advent phrases or factoids.  This has been a nice addition, as now the kids can alternate calendars and days to avoid the ever-present competition within our family.

If you are not familiar with the meaning or significance of The Advent, there are a number of great sites you can reference.  Just Google it, and you will be amazed!  However, if you're kind of lazy, like me, the gist of it is this:  The word "advent" comes from the Latin "adventus" meaning "arrival" or "coming," particularly of something having great importance.  Basically, it is the time leading up to the "arrival" or "coming" of the Christ-child--Jesus. 

Every day for the 24 days leading up to Christmas, the Anderson family is able to take the time to open each of the little wooden doors or cardboard flaps (whichever applies) and have the Christmas story retold in a fun and interactive way.  We are able to take just a few minutes daily to reflect upon the significance of Christ being born as a human as well as slowly build the crescendo of expectation and excitement as December 25th grows closer.  Of course, sometimes the farm animals and/or shepherds show off some of their, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moves and end up on the roof of the stable, but we're just kind of fun and creative like that.

So, as the birthday of Christ draws closer, I hope you take just a few minutes to remember exactly what it is that December 25th really signifies.  Retell the Christmas story to your kids (or grand kids--cuz you can see how that has worked out in our family).  Take the time to reflect on the humble human-beginning of our Savior.

And I hope you have a VERY Merry and Advent-full Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Day 3 of an Anderson Christmas--The Christmas Tree

Our Christmas tree is ugly.  I mean really ugly.  Think A Charlie Brown Christmas, ugly.  Seriously!  But, it's our tree.  The Anderson's tree.

Here's a picture, if you are having difficulty imagining it:

Every year, sometime after Thanksgiving, we set up our tree.  Early on, when it was just Dave and me, it would sometimes not even get set up until Christmas Eve (and then, only to appease my mother-in-law--who LOVES Christmas and considers it tantamount to blasphemy to not have a tree).  Anyway, it used to be an enormous chore--spend 2 hours setting up tree, gaze at it for 5 minutes with the room lights off, worry for the next however-many days that the house would catch on fire, and then spend 2 hours post-Christmas taking it all down.  It all seemed a bit cumbersome.

And then I had my first kid. . .

And then I had my daughter. . .

My daughter LOVES Christmas.  I don't know where she gets it from, really.  It must be some sort of mutated gene--I did eat a lot of tuna when I was pregnant with her.  Anyway, she loves Christmas.  We can hardly get the turkey carcass off the counter on Thanksgiving Day before she is asking when we are going to put up the tree.  So, I decided very early on, that I had better embrace this thing--like it or not.

Right after Dave and I got married, we made this really strange decision to buy a Christmas ornament that would symbolize that particular year in our life.  It was a weird decision, really.  I'm still not sure how it was that I agreed to such a thing.  Even worse, I think it may have actually been my idea!  I'm pretty convinced that he somehow drugged me using mind-altering pharmaceuticals disguised in my morning coffee, but I simply have no proof of that.  So, for the sake of this discussion, I will acquiesce that it was, indeed, my idea.

Well, some number of years later (probably about 4 or 5), I realized, while we were setting up the tree, we had actually amassed quite a large number of "ornaments of significance".  We had the "Our Wedding" ornament (gag--it actually has two doves kissing under a heart), a whole host of "Nativity Characters" (courtesy of my in-laws, who, knowing that their grandchildren were being raised by wolves, were bound and determined to exert undue influence in this arena), and of course the cheap little ornaments with my kids' cute little faces that had been made in either Sunday School, Mother's Day Out, or some other group kid-setting that had craft time.

I know.  I, too, am as shocked as you are that this monstrosity has an existence within my home!  Ugh!

As we were placing these eclectic little hodge-podge of ornaments onto our tree, we all had a fun  walk down memory lane.  Dave and I were able to tell the stories to our kids about all the crazy little dangling works of art.  There was the stingray ornament that we purchased while on a mission trip to Belize (that signified the day Dave and I had the privilege of swimming with Stingrays).  There was the roller blade ornament (Dave and I went roller blading the very first day we met), and of course the iPod ornament that signified the year that I finally entered the age of digital entertainment.

The kids especially liked seeing all the little "art projects" from years past with their funny little younger kid-faces on them.  It was then that I realized that I kind of liked (and gasp: yes, even looked forward to) this small window of time every year.  It also spurred me to be more intentional about looking for the "big events" every year in the life of our family. 

There are a number of web-based companies that offer digital photo uploads and creation of ornaments:  Wal Mart, Snapfish, Walgreens, Shutterfly, Mpix, etc.  So, in recent years I have actually had ornaments made with our family photos on them--since the kids (and adults) really enjoy the walk down memory lane with the pictures, especially.  One word of caution:  you might want to avoid the glass or porcelain ornaments, as they do shatter when dropped.  Sadly, I have had a few casualties in these designs.

Of course, my in-laws, now giddy with excitement at having prevailed in this one small (okay, maybe it was a pretty HUGE) victory over Christmas, have now made it their mission in life to add to our ever-growing collection.  I have to admit, they do pick out some pretty rockin' ornaments to give the kids every year.  My personal favorite:  the Millenium Falcon ornament that plugs in and lights up!

Well,  as much as it pains me to say it, the 3rd Anderson Christmas tradition is our Christmas tree.  My kids love it.  We have a lot of fun and laughter every year setting it up, and I have to admit, it really has grown on me these past few years.

So, I hope you find fun memories of your family tucked away behind the pre-lit branches of your own tree this year.  And have a very, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Day 2 of an Anderson Christmas--Angel Tree Kids

One of the things that we try to teach our kids about Christmas (most of the time unsuccessfully) is that it really isn't all about them.  As is prevalent in American culture, December (and Christmas in particular) seems to be a time where those who are deemed "less fortunate" garner a lot of publicity.  I could go into an entire rant about the other 11 months of the year, but for purposes of this blog, I will try to stay focused on December. 

Lots of organizations have, what I have sort of generically started calling, Angel Tree Gifts.  If memory serves, I do believe that Prison Fellowship was the first to start such a ministry.  Salvation Army has their version, and there seems to be an ever-growing abundance of these ministries every year.  Our church does one locally as part of our LEAF (Learning English Among Friends) program

The LEAF program is run through our local church and is one of the things that I love most about my church.  Basically, the ministry exists to teach immigrants (or anyone, really) the English language.  There are several hundred folks that come every week to our church campus with the expressed intent to learn English.  These families are frequently recent immigrants, coming from war-torn and impoverished countries around the world with the simple desire to find a better life for themselves and their family.  They are of every race, religion, and nationality imaginable!

With these families, as you can imagine, comes an abundance of bright-eyed and energetic little children.  Assimilating into American society, I can only assume, is overwhelming for most of these folks.  At Christmas, while these hard-working, wonderful people are just trying to put food on table and shelter over their kids' heads, their kids are attending local public schools and being inundated with the American ways of Christmas.  Stepping outside of my upbringing, I can only imagine the stress and frustration that this must cause many of these parents.  Christmas presents are simply a luxury that they may not be able to afford in this new-found land of theirs.

So, our LEAF ministry does Angel Tree gifts for all of these kids every year.  They print out a card with the name, age, and gender of each kid and then members of our church "adopt" these kids for the purpose of providing them with at least one gift at Christmas from a church that loves them.  My kids get giddy when they see the little pink and blue cards being set up every year.  This year, I didn't even know they were there until the kids dragged me over to pick out their cards.

Every year, both of my kids get to pick out a child their same age and gender to buy a gift for.  They shop for the gift, wrap it, and then we deliver it back to the church for the LEAF ministry to distribute.  My kids LOVE it!  They spend more time picking out that gift than any other gift that they give.  We all go as a family.  It has added so much more meaning to the "giving" aspect of Christmas for us.

So, there you have it:  Christmas tradition numero dos for the Anderson Clan!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Day 1 of an Anderson Christmas--Black Friday!!

Okay, I know this first day of Christmas post may seem a bit odd, given that I just did an entire post ranting over the distortion and commercialization of Christmas.  Well, I'm sort of clinically insane, that way. 

So, while seemingly a bit odd, the first of the 8 Anderson traditions is actually Black Friday!  In the time BK (before kids), wild horses could not have dragged me out in public on the day after Thanksgiving.  All fattened up and still sluggish from the tryptophan, there was nothing that struck terror into my heart like the crazed and unshowered masses at Target, Wal Mart, or (insert store of choice here).  Then came the dawning of the era of time known as AK (after kids). 

As all of you that are parents can attest, once you have kids it is extremely difficult to have an intelligent conversation with your spouse without hearing at least one of the following statements:  "I have to go to the bathroom.  Mom!  I think someone has a dirty diaper.  Mom!  Tell him/her to stop touching me.  I'm thirsty.  Mom! I'm hungry. I'm sleepy.  Mom! Oh!  Can I have that?  That's not fair!  Mom! Are we there yet?" Anyway, you get the picture. 

So, Black Friday has become the one day of the year where my husband and I get to spend the whole day together--just us.  No kids.  Period.  Ever.  Simply NOT ALLOWED!!!  It is the one day of the year that I can mark on my calendar a whole year ahead of time as DATE DAY!!  I get a whole day--just me, Dave, and the other 100,000 or so crazy people in Amarillo, TX that have decided to brave the cold and hectic chaos known as Black Friday.  I know, I'm really romantic that way.

Since my parents decided years ago to always spend Thanksgiving in Texas, we have had the luxury of built-in babysitters for 10 years running now.  It's fantastic!  My kids get quality grandma time, and Dave and I get to practice what it's going to be like when we are empty-nesters.  We also have the luxury of being able to shop for the kids without them around.  Not to mention the natural deadline for buying and wrapping gifts is always the following Saturday morning.  I am forced to plan, execute said plan, wrap the plan, and then load my plan up into the Ransom Express delivery car (complete with free shipping) to finish off the weekend!  It's a win-win-win-win!!  I'm done by cyber Monday, my kids little "love tanks" are full from grandma and grandpa, my husband and I are finally able to eat 2 whole meals together without interruption (yes, we do breakfast and lunch), AND I get free shipping for my entire family!

The thing that I like the very most about our little "tradition" is that for the remainder of the Christmas shopping season, I am free to enjoy the little things.  I am no longer stressed about what to buy that person who has everything.  I am not tired from waiting in line after line after line in the weeks following Black Friday trying to purchase the multitude of things that still need to be purchased, when I am in an actual hurry.  I can stop and enjoy the twinkling of everybody else's pretty Christmas lights (because, as my kids will tell you "We don't do Christmas lights because it's bad for the environment".  I guess one of these days I should actually tell them the truth--that I'm just too cheap to pay the excessive electric bill.  It just sounds more noble to credit the environment, though.)  This one little "tradition" of ours has really freed me up to do a multitude of other fun things without the added pressure that the prolonged buying of presents seems to bring. 

The other added benefit has been the camaraderie between Dave and I.  We are really intentional in the days leading up to Black Friday.  We spend time (after the kids are in bed, or while they are in their own little tryptophan-induced comas on Thanksgiving afternoon) thinking about and planning for each and every gift that we need to buy.  We don't wander aimlessly through stores looking for heavily marketed "inspiration".  Nor do we impulse-buy items  under duress.  We have a budget, and we have the massive Black Friday marketing machine with which to find the biggest bang for our buck. It really is a good thing for this extremely type-A girl to have a plan that works.

So, there you have it.  The Anderson Family Tradition of Black Friday!!  I kind of secretly hope that you don't decide to incorporate this one, as it will just make my Black Friday shopping experience even more crowded!  But Merry Christmas, anyway!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Anderson's 8 Days of Christmas--Part 1

I didn't used to be a very big fan of Christmas.  In fact, in years past, I really kind of dreaded the entire month of December.  I was regularly surprised by the notion that seemingly otherwise normal people could be whipped up into such a frenzy over the whole deal.  People seemed to drive more angrily aggressively.  Grown women (and men) could be found shoving each other in stores, or yelling at perfect strangers over the smallest little half-priced items imaginable.  Depression rates and suicide rates skyrocketed.  Alcohol-related deaths would increase.  People would go deeply into debt buying gifts for people out of a sense of "obligation".  Quite frankly, I just didn't understand it all. 

I mean, as a Christian, the premise of the holiday was about the birth of Jesus Christ, right?  The God of the Universe, deciding of His own free will to give up the glory and awesomeness of Heaven to come "slum it" as a human for 33 years.  The end result?  His torture and death--in probably the worst way imaginable.  Just a little over 3 decades later, He would be hung on a cross and allowed to suffocate over the course of a day.  All the while, knowing that He was doing all of this for me, you, and every other person throughout the course of human history.

So, knowing God's overall game strategy, Christmas was a really frustrating time of year for me in the past.  It would literally make my heart sad to know that somehow Santa Clause and his little flying reindeer had somehow taken center stage over the Lord of the Universe.  Frosty and company, too. 

I have to admit, there was a part of me that really wanted to be Jewish.  I mean, Hanukkah, now that's a holiday and tradition I could really get behind.  It was reverent, unapologetic, and totally focused on God and His amazing power.  You didn't hear about drunk Jews beating each other over the heads with Menorahs, or screaming obscenities at fellow drivers at the local mall.  It just didn't happen.

Well, as irony would have it, my feelings about Christmas quickly began to change right about the time I had kids.  It has been an evolution, of sorts, but the past 10 years has changed me and my heart.  No, I still don't erect an inflatable Santa in the front yard.  Nor do I engage the "crazy people" at the mall (it's always best not to feed the wild animals).  However, with the help of my amazingly patient husband, I have managed to navigate the Christmas season in my own way--trying really hard not to ruin it for my kids.

Spoiler Alert: read on at your own risk!!!

Okay, I do feel that I need to offer some sort of a public apology here to all those kids (and parents) that had the misfortune of hearing my precious little 4 year old announce from the stage of our church's Christmas Eve service in 2007 that "there's no such thing as Santa Clause".  Yep, that was my kid.  I'm that parent.  You know the one?  The one that just has to ruin it for everyone.  I really am sorry.  I never meant to cause you or your kid irreparable harm in the process of teaching my kids the true meaning of Christmas.

End of spoiler. . . you may commence reading:

With that in mind, our family has formed a number of "traditions" during this time of the year.  Some are focused on the more somber and religious aspects of the holiday and the faith that is represented by the significance surrounding it.  Others are just fun, little quirky things that we have had a good time doing together as a family.  Over the next few days, I'm going to post my "Top 8 Anderson Family Christmas Traditions".  Now, you may ask yourself "Why 8?  Why not 12?  12 would be so much more catchy."  Well, I will tell you:  it's because I couldn't think of 12, okay?  Seriously!  As I told you before, this is a work in progress--my transformation on Christmas.  You should merely consider it a Christmas miracle that I was able to even come up with 8! 

Anyway, I hope they entertain, enlighten, and perhaps even inspire you to create some traditions of your own.  However, I hope that at the center of your celebration you always remember the reason for the season!

Also, if your kids happen to have the misfortune of spending any amount of time with my kids during the month of December, you have my permission to just tell your kids that the Anderson children were dropped on their heads when they were younger, and not to believe everything they tell you.

So, may you and your family have a Happy Hanukkah, and/or MERRY CHRISTMAS--your choice!!!

(No, Kwanzaa does not get an endorsement in this blog.  Feel free to send me hate mail, because, quite frankly, until the creators of Kwanzaa/Kwanza/Quanza finally figure out how to properly spell their holiday, I don't really care!) 

Oh, and before all of you "historians" start giving me a lesson on the proper spelling of Hanukkah, I know already!  "Chanukah" is difficult to translate from Hebrew, so for folks speaking English (or, Texan, as most of my readers probably are) Hanukkah is more universally accepted spelling for this holiday in America.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I Had An Epiphany

I had an epiphany last night.  I know, most of you are thinking "Oh great.  Vanessa had some flash of brilliance. . . She finally realized what JJ Abrams keeps in all his mystery boxes." (Those of you that are JJ Abrams fans, you know what I'm talking about.  To the rest of you, it's too lengthy of an explanation to undertake here.  It would require years of pointless, mindless, cult-fiction that isn't really pertinent to this discussion, and you would just be annoyed with me for wasting those precious hours of your life.)

Anyway, I digress.  I had an epiphany.  A HUGE one!  As most of you know, Dave and I are just a few short weeks from our trip to Kenya.  As part of the preparation for that trip, we were tasked with a number of things--one of which was to read this book.  The premise of the book is about effective and not-so-effective ways of helping those in need.  It has been a really eye-opening dissertation into the way most Americans try to help those that they perceive as "needy" or "impoverished".  (As a side note: if you have ever experienced that tug on your heart to help those in need, I would really recommend this book as a resource).  So, being the good little "rule follower" that I am, I have been dutifully reading the book. 

I have to admit, it has been really helpful to me as I battle the range of emotions that accompany a trip of this magnitude.  I have been able to work through some of the struggles that I have with modern medicine in a primitive setting.  I have known, for some time, that the full extent of the resources I have in America will just not be available in such a remote setting.  I have spent the last 6 months reconciling in my mind exactly what it is that I will be able to do there.  Here in the states, I have all kinds of expensive equipment, high-dollar medicines, and additional doctors of varying specialties at my fingertips.  There:  I will have a battery operated retinoscope, a plastic eye chart (and hopefully a wall to tape it to), some lenses, 1,700 pair of glasses, and whatever knowledge of medicine I have managed to cram into my little brain over the past 20 years.  No fancy retinal scanners, no hoity toity topography machines, no laser technology, no slit lamp, no Wills Eye manual, no Google, and certainly no surgical suites complete with highly specialized and skilled surgeons. 

So, that's all well and good.  But, what was this epiphany, you may ask?

To answer this, some back story is relevant here.  About a month ago, Dave and I set out on a new process of teaching our kids to be more responsible, less entitled, and more self sufficient.  I have done several posts on this subject that you can read about here, here, and here

As I was reading last night, I came across a section that talked about a church that had been volunteering at a homeless shelter.  Once a month they would purchase food, prepare a meal, serve it to the shelter residents and even clean up afterward.  Now, reading this I thought "Yep, that's pretty much what Jesus instructed us to do, right?"  If your brother is hungry, feed him.  If he is naked, give him clothes.  Also, it occurred to me that Jesus was pretty specific about the first shall be last, the last shall be first, and of course the whole part about washing His disciples feet is pretty big too.  Acts of service and humility, right?  Isn't that what we have been taught in Sunday School for decades?

Well . . . after all these years, it seems that most of those lessons were given a bit out of context.  What this church (the one helping in the homeless shelter) came to realize is that the full act of serving was really robbing most of these residents of their dignity, self-worth, and pride of a job well done.  The act of serving was actually harming the very people they were trying to help!

What?!?  How can this be?  But, Lord, their intentions were pure!  I don't understand!  You have commanded us to serve, haven't you?  I mean there's that whole verse in Matthew "And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!'" . . . Isn't that what you have instructed us to do--to serve "the least of these"?

That's when it hit me!  This is exactly where God has been taking me this last year.  I don't have to go to the continent of Africa to fulfill his commandments. (Well, okay, I guess the whole "Go ye into all the world and teach the Gospel part is kind of saying that).  But, I can fulfill his command in the confines of my own home as well.  Teaching my kids to clean up after themselves (rather than doing it for them), instructing them in meal preparation (instead of just serving them), and helping them learn the valuable lessons associated with working hard at something and sometimes failing (but sometimes succeeding, too) has been good for them.

I have been amazed this week to see the looks on their little faces as they have presented their "masterpieces".  (December brought the addition of once-a-week meal prep for each of my kids' new life to rid them of the entitlements.)  They were excited to have a voice in the menu and have worked more joyfully and purposefully than I have ever seen them work in all of their short little lives.  The meals were really delicious, too.  Really.  Not like in the okay-it's-edible-and-I-don't-want-to-ruin-my-child's-self esteem-so-I-will-eat-it-with-a-smile-on-my-face-good.  I mean, REALLY good!  If I hadn't actually watched them both make their meals, I would have sworn that a fully-trained and experienced chef had prepared them.

So, that was the beginning of my epiphany last night.  It has continued to morph into even broader revelations for me this morning as I have contemplated this post.  I spent some time listening to one of my favorite (and most convicting) songs.  It is a song called "Face of Christ" by Chris Rice.  Every time I hear it, I am reminded that the God of the Universe is BIG.  I mean, HUGE, big.  He's also benevolent, confusing, exponentially frustrating, and an eternal mystery to me.  It is good for me to be regularly reminded of the message found in the words of this song:

See you had no choice which day you would be born
Or the color of your skin, or what planet you’d be on
Would your mind be strong, would your eyes be blue or brown
Whether daddy would be rich, or if momma stuck around at all

So if you find yourself in a better place
You can’t look down on the frown on the other guy’s face
You gotta stoop down low, look him square in the eye
And get a funny feeling, ‘cause you might be dealing ...

I get a funny feeling, I just might be dealing
With the face of Christ

This book is teaching me that the definition of "poverty" is broader than just not having money, food, shelter, etc.  It is a mental state.  It is not having the belief that you can do something.  It is believing instead that it isn't even worth trying, because you are just going to fail anyway.  It is that "the-world-is-out-to-get-the-little-man,-and-I-am-the-little-man" way of thinking.

Yes, I am eternally grateful to The God of the Universe for taking pity on me and deciding to bless me by allowing me to be born into a family with two parents, into a community that was safe and taught me about Jesus, and into a country that grants women equal rights and equal protections.  I will forever be thankful, that most of all, I was raised in an environment that yelled from the sidelines "Vanessa, you can do it!  You can do anything you decide you want to do!"  I know, the odds of me ever ending up on the Olympic ski team were pretty much nil, but that's not what I heard from my parents, teachers, and friends.  I had a whole cheer squad around me and that has made all the difference in my life.

However, "to whom much is given, much is required" is the flip side.  So, it is a constant struggle for me to figure out how to help (now, without actually hurting the one I am trying to help), who to help, and in what ways God desires me to help.  I have been challenged this year to continually seek out new opportunities to serve THE divine CREATOR.  Does that mean giving money?  Yes.  Does that mean giving of my time? Yes.  Does that mean sitting down and looking someone "square in the eye"? Yes.  Most of all, does that mean being a constant cheerleader to my kids, my husband, and everyone else that I come in contact with?  Yes.  Even if it goes against my "natural grain".  (I've never been a very good cheerleader, but that doesn't mean I lack the ability to learn how to do it.  After all, we have established that I was raised in an environment that allowed me to do anything I set my mind to.) I mean, really, it's the least I can do, right?

In this whole process, I am finding that the greatest mission field is actually my own home.  It is gearing up to be an exciting ride. I am elated, tentative, terrified, ill-equipped, and at times speechless along this ever-winding road.  Somehow, God continues to grant me the energy to keep going.  To quote the philosophical and wise words of Dori, from Finding Nemo: I am going to "Just keep swimming.  Just keep swimming.  Just keep swimming".

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Guilty Pleasures of A Closeted Nerd

I LOVE post-apocalyptic/stranded-on-a-deserted island fiction.  I always have.  There is something very appealing to me about the resiliency of the human spirit.  These stories always make me ask, "What if. . . ".  What would I do if I survived the end of the world?  Would I die of starvation or dehydration?  Would wild animals devour me?  Or, would I somehow manage to figure it out?

This obsession of mine goes all the way back to my childhood.  My favorite TV show growing up was Gilligan's Island.  I was completely transfixed by the "what ifs" in this show.  The Professor's general lack of competence notwithstanding, this show was a great mental escape for me.  I always thought it would be awesome to be stranded on an island, if for no other reason than to just see if I had what it took to survive.  Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Island of the Blue Dolphins made me want to take a "three hour tour" on some catamaran just so I could be shipwrecked!  As I got a little older, my tastes became darker and I was pulled into wild tales like Lord of the Flies, Z is for Zachariah, The Stand, and even the Left Behind series

I have seen every episode of Survivor that has ever aired (well, except for the stupid recap shows that they used to run every year on Thanksgiving).  I think Battlestar Galactica (the remake, not the original lame version in the '70's) was one of the best shows ever to grace my TV screen.  Lost captivated me from the beginning.  Jurassic Park is my favorite movie of all time.  I think I may have been the only person in America that was outraged when Terra Nova was cancelled.  Falling Skies makes me giddy like a kid on Christmas morning, and most recently, Revolution has piqued my interest on a weekly basis.  While not quite as well produced as Falling Skies, or Battlestar Galactica, it really does make me ask the question "what if. . . "?

Now, vampire fiction. . . THAT is another story.  I have never understood the fascination.  I tried some Ann Rice back in the day, but it never really stuck.  I have not read any of the Twilight or Vampire Diaries series' (are those even 2 different things?  Don't know. . . Don't care).  Quite frankly, I don't get the hubbub.  Which leads me to my latest literary find. . . I have wasted the last 3 weeks of my life reading the first 2 of Justin Cronin's trilogy, The Passage and The Twelve, respectively.  I have been completely sucked in (no pun intended).  Yes, they are vampire books, but the root of the story is one of survival.  Survival of the human race.  Survival of family lines, and the bravery, resilience, and luck that allowed them to survive. 

There is also a more subtle undertone to these books that tickles the more "spirtual" side of my brain.  What about THE CREATOR?  How much of a role does God play with respect to "luck" vs. "the grand design"?  While we are afforded the luxury of "free will", does God intervene to, at times, protect us from ourselves?  Where is that line in the sand?  How much destruction will God allow to happen before He "swoops in" to save me?  And the list of questions goes on and on. . .

I really don't know where this obsession of mine comes from, but it is something that has plagued me since childhood.  It is my great mental escape.  For those of you that share my odd predilection for such works of fiction, I would love to have some suggestions about other works that may not have yet crossed my path. 

Ready. Set. Go!