Saturday, November 30, 2013

Our Lives in Ornaments: 2013 Edition

In my last post, I described the many wonderful entries into this year’s Ornie Competition, leaving out only the three that belong to Jeff, Alexa, and myself. As the blog owner and author, I decided to reserve a post just for ours.

In the past, I have picked out Alexa’s ornament entirely on my own. Because I view these ornaments as memory keepers—visual reminders of the key themes and events of our lives, holding the memories and bringing them back to us each year—I didn’t want hers to be a childish “I like cats so mine is a cat!” theme when there have been more pervasive and meaningful currents running through the year. This year, however, I knew that she is old enough to have a preference, and she deserves to have her voice heard when it comes to the ornament that does, after all, represent her year. At the same time, though, I knew that we never would pick one for her—and if we did, it would be of the “I like cats!” variety—if I simply sat her down in front of a computer screen showing all of this year’s Hallmark ornaments and had her pick her own.

My compromise for her this year was that I picked two themes. Then I picked two ornaments, one for each theme. Then she picked the one she wanted from those two. The ornament that she rejected was a Noah’s ark ornament, complete with animals walking up the gangplank. In my mind, this ornament represented a couple of things—her love of all kinds of animals and the focus we’ve had this year on teaching the Bible as Truth, different from the other stories we read. It also represents both of our homeschool curricula, as Little Hands to Heaven has a week-long unit dedicated to Noah and the b-b-boat, and Sonlight P3/4 includes a Noah’s Ark graphic novel-style book.

(c) Hallmark. The ornament Alexa didn't choose.

The ornament that Alexa chose is a more specific representation of the beginning of her “formal” (to the extent that our homeschool is formal, which it isn’t) education. Her ornament shows a Mama Snowman … er, Snowwoman … holding a Baby Snowman … Snowbaby? … on her lap while reading to her. This scene represents the feel of our homeschool, though in our case, it’s more often that we’re lying on the carpet together while reading, rather than sitting in laps. And just like in our family, there’s a little cat sitting beside the reading pair. Oh, and do you want to know why Alexa chose this ornament instead of the Noah’s ark one, which I expected her to want because of all the animals? It’s because this ornament had a cat, and the Noah’s ark one didn’t—so Alexa got her “I like cats!” ornament after all. It paid off for her, too; she was the winner of this year’s Ornie Competition.

Alexa's 2013 ornament: Reading is "Snow" Much Fun!

Jeff’s and my ornaments appear very different from each other, but their themes are so similar that I will describe them together, at least at first.

This year was an odd combination of peace and chaotic stress for Jeff and me. It started out a little stressful, but nothing unusual or worrisome—we were in the throes of preparing for our third intercontinental move. Upon our arrival here in Kosovo, we settled in more quickly than we ever imagined we could. We made friends. We felt at home. It was amazing how peaceful our lives seemed.

Then, things began happening in each of “our” countries. The Egyptian army ousted President Morsi, who had been elected democratically but who was ruling dictatorially. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to go quietly, set up massive protest camps, and began attacking Egyptian Christians and their property. The Embassy of the United States underwent another mandatory evacuation, affecting friends of ours. In Cambodia, election results were disputed, protests—intended to be peaceful—broke out, and the possibility of violence loomed large. I received messages from friends there asking about how the American embassy would assist in case a mass evacuation of American citizens became advisable.

In the United States, continued leaks from a traitor damaged Americans’ perceptions of the intelligence agencies whose mission is to protect them, endangered those agencies’ ability to fulfill that mission, and caused a diplomatic furor that affects all Americans abroad, not just diplomats and their families. A political standoff resulted in a government shutdown, and the vitriol directed against federal workers—who did not in any way cause the shutdown; that was the politicians—was even more strident and widespread than I imagined it could be.

And, finally, here in Kosovo, in this place where the vast majority of the local population loves America and Americans; in this place where we met a young Kosovar man who joined the United States Marines out of a sense of gratitude to our country, who served honorably, and who even renounced his Kosovan citizenship in favor of American citizenship because it was asked of him in order to increase the ways in which he could serve; in this home where we felt (and still feel) such a sense of peace—here in Kosovo, two young American women were viciously attacked because they were here as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS; known to most Americans as Mormons). In the aftermath of that attack, I became aware that Islamist extremism is on the rise here, and this place, though peaceful, is not as peaceful as I had assumed.

Deborah's 2013 ornament: A Wish For Peace

My ornament for 2013 reflects the turmoil that our countries have experienced this year and the hope and wish that I have for them—for all four of them. My ornament is an amber dove, inscribed with the words “one hope … one wish … peace.” It is the heart cry of a mother, a wife, and a friend.

Jeff’s ornament this year is in honor of those who work to make my wish reality. It is no secret that we are political conservatives, and that there are plenty of federal jobs that we believe should not be federal jobs. But there are many federal workers who work quietly, in the background, for the same or even less pay than they could earn in the private sector, and their goals are to provide for the security of the United States of America, to protect her people from threats of which we may not even be aware. These federal workers—all federal workers—were demonized this year by people who don’t understand what they do or why they do it, but who would be severely and negatively impacted if they were to stop doing it. It seems only appropriate to me that Jeff’s 2013 ornament is a figure of Batman, swooping down to save the day, in a move that would be characteristic of him even during the events of the movies The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, when he was demonized by the people of Gotham City, on whose behalf he never stopped fighting. Likewise, many of our federal workers did not stop working—did not stop fighting—even during the shutdown, when they were being vilified and when they didn’t even know if or when they would be paid. Like Batman, they continued to protect us from threats, our blissful ignorance of which allowed us the luxury of demanding that they stop.

Jeff's 2013 ornament: Descending Upon Gotham City

A child’s pleasure in learning, in reading, and above all, in cats. A woman’s wish for peace. And a man’s determination to keep fighting the good fight no matter what others think. Those are the things for which 2013 will be remembered in our family.

Ornie Competition: Extended Family 2013

As long-time readers of this blog know, our family participates in an annual tradition known as “The Ornie Competition.” It was begun many years ago by the family of Jeff’s stepfather, and we’ve participated ever since our marriage in 2006, more often than not via internet-based video conferencing. Each member of the family picks out a Christmas ornament that represents his or her year, then presents it to the group. The patriarch (Jeff’s stepfather) decides in advance who will judge the competition, and a determination is made as to who has the best ornament that year. Criteria vary from year to year (often depending on the judges’ personal preferences), but factors that generally work in favor of particular ornaments include whether or not it was handmade, the ornament’s attractiveness, how well it fits the theme identified by the individual who chose it, and—the key factor—the quality of the story and presentation that accompanies the ornament. The competition traditionally is held on Thanksgiving Day or, in recent years, the day after Thanksgiving.

There were several amazing ornaments this year—I am grateful that I was not chosen as a judge! I don’t always tell about all the ornaments here on the blog, but they were so good this year that I do want to mention all of them.

The toddler's ornament, photo courtesy of my mother-in-law

Our first ornament was from our newest participant: the toddler son of Jeff’s stepsister and her husband. This adorable little boy loves to “cook”—he pulls out pots and pans, fills them with real and pretend food, and stirs away. His favorite toy is his kitchen set. This budding chef’s ornament was a highly appropriate pan, with a fish inside it. Since one of his few words is “fish,” and he says it excitedly whenever he sees the ornament, it was even more appropriate.

The father's ornament, photo courtesy of my mother-in-law

This little boy’s father is a television producer. He had a rough year, from late last year to earlier this year. We don’t know the details because of a nondisclosure clause in the final settlement, but he was sued by a very powerful man and spent the year working and hoping for justice and waiting for this difficult chapter in his life to close. Now, the chapter is closed, and he seemed satisfied with the (unknown to us) details of the final settlement. His ornament was an open book, with the scales of justice resting on the pages.

The mom's ornament*, photo courtesy of my mother-in-law

Jeff’s stepsister told us that she has settled into motherhood well. Her life and job are full of stress, and her favorite moments of the day are those spent with her little boy. He grabs a book, brings it to her, and sits in her lap while she reads it to him again and again. These moments of peaceful bonding with her son are commemorated in her ornament: a brunette woman reading to the little blond-haired boy in her lap.

My mother-in-law's ornaments, photo courtesy of my mother-in-law

Jeff’s mother gave us all a scare a couple of months ago. She went into the hospital for an angioplasty, with the intent of having a couple of stents put in. The relatively routine surgery took a drastic turn for the worse, however, when her blood vessels demonstrated their fragility by breaking during the procedure. She was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital that was equipped to perform the emergency double bypass surgery that saved her life. She submitted two ornaments this year: an ambulance to commemorate her first (and hopefully only) ride in an ambulance; and a handmade one that shows a heart with a stitch in it (representing her mended heart) on one side and, on the other, the name of the cardiac center where the emergency surgery occurred. She showed it to one of her rehabilitation specialists, who asked her to make one for her as well. My mother-in-law’s doctors will be receiving these ornaments as a small thank you for their dedication and skill.

The husband's ornament, photo courtesy of my mother-in-law

My mother-in-law’s husband has been wonderful, both during the emergency itself and during her recuperation thus far. He ensures that she rests at home, with him doing the bulk of the household work, and that she gets the precise amount of exercise that her doctors recommend for her rehabilitation. He comforts her, reassures her, and encourages her. He already had committed to moving away from an area he loves so that she could be nearer to her grandsons, and now with her health situation, he has committed to doing even more of the work involved in that move (which has been delayed for an undetermined but planned-to-be-short period of time while she regains her strength and they wait for their house to sell). His ornament memorializes the work he has done as his wife’s caregiver since her surgery.

By luck of the random draw, our little nuclear family—Jeff, Alexa, and myself—were the last three to present our ornaments this year.  I could include ours in this post, but it’s getting a little long, and I’d rather devote one post to just our ornaments. Stay tuned; ours is coming up next.

Related posts:
Our Lives in Ornaments: 2012 Edition

* I edited the photo to remove the toddler's name. I'm just not comfortable sharing the names of children who don't belong to me. I left in the name of Jeff's stepfather, however, as it's been shared on the blog before and his wife told me it was ok.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Two Months

Hmm. Apparently it’s been over 2 months since I published a blog post. That may be a new record for me. There probably are a few reasons why it’s been so long, but the top two come to mind pretty easily.

The first is that it’s just so easy to live here. My most prolific blog-writing times are right after I move to a new post, as I process all the newness of the place. I did write several posts soon after we arrived here, but I don’t think it was as many as I usually write early on at a new post. Frankly, after living in Egypt and Cambodia, Kosovo just doesn’t feel “foreign” enough to inspire those getting-adjusted posts! My neighborhood feels American, the supermarket feels American (though I don’t use Google Translate nearly as much—read: ever—at American grocery stores), I no longer am a minority in terms of race, and to top it all off, I settled in socially much more quickly here, due to a great embassy community and quick contact with my traditionally sought-out group, the missionaries. So I just don’t have the amount of processing and adjusting to do here as I did in either of our last two posts.

The second quick and easy reason why I haven’t posted in so long is that I’ve felt very busy. Homeschooling only takes up 30 or so minutes each day, but somehow it feels like it takes much more time than that. And—at the risk of sounding elitist—it has been an adjustment for me to be cleaning my own house again. We were able to hire an absolutely wonderful full-time housekeeper in Cambodia for a price that inspired her to do a happy dance in my kitchen and that also was lower than we would have had to pay for a one-morning-a-week cleaning service in the States; domestic help here also is less expensive than in the States, but it’s significantly more expensive than in Cambodia, and we decided that it made more sense for me to clean the house myself here. But it does seem to take a lot more time than it really should, probably because I never really have focused a lot of effort on learning to be an efficient housekeeper. It’s past time to change that. In addition to teaching Alexa and cleaning the house, the active social scene here has contributed (in a good way) to my feeling of busy-ness.

As if all of that weren’t enough—and it shouldn’t be, though it is—I’ve also been spending a good bit of time looking up recipes online. I’m contemplating a major change in my diet and have started taking small steps in that direction. I don’t buy into the pseudo-religious idea that our distant ancestors’ diet was perfect and that all modern innovation in food production results in poison, but I am beginning to be convinced that there is more about our food that matters than calorie count and whether it’s a protein, carb, or fat. It was an easy sell that whole, minimally processed foods are healthier than foods that are highly processed, added to and subtracted from. After all, it’s pretty intuitive that a whole apple provides more nutritional value, with fewer calories, than a similar volume of apple juice or applesauce that has had sugar and preservatives added and fiber removed; it’s also easy to see that refined sugar offers little to no value in exchange for quite a few calories. It was a harder sell, but I’m beginning to come around to the idea we may be better off limiting or avoiding specific other foods as well, in particular grains. The jury is still out, but I have been looking up paleo recipes—these recipes always avoid grains, legumes, and highly processed foods. They usually avoid dairy as well. I’ve found lots of good recipes and have started limiting grains—I’ve found that a couple of days without grains results in me feeling more tired but still better overall, with less stomach discomfort. (Every website I’ve read has said that it’s normal to feel tired and even headachy when switching away from a grain-based diet, as the body adjusts to getting more of its calories from fats than from carbs.) I’ve never had major issues with my stomach, but I have felt mild to moderate discomfort so often that it’s come to be normal, not even something I notice or complain about, but I do notice its absence when I avoid grains. I’m not ready to take the plunge into a completely paleo (or primal, if you prefer) lifestyle, but I’m gradually moving more in that direction. To be honest, I probably won’t ever go fully paleo, but since I do seem to feel better with fewer grains, that’s what I’m going with for now.

I also have spent some time recently looking at options for Alexa’s PreK curriculum next year. (I’m considering this year preschool, next year PreK, and the following kindergarten.) I like Sonlight’s P4/5 package as a base curriculum, but even if I add the kindergarten language arts to it, I think the phonics instruction will be too much review and not enough new material for her. So I’m considering purchasing a separate program to teach her to read, possibly All About Reading, or for a more economical option, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons or The Reading Lesson: Teach Your Child to Read in 20 Lessons. We’ll probably use Handwriting Without Tears PreK. I haven’t gotten around to looking at the math options yet, but we'll almost certainly work through some of the Mathematical Reasoning workbooks that are included in Timberdoodle's preschool and PreK curricula; we'll probably start those sometime this spring.

That’s most of what’s been filling my time lately and why I haven’t been posting much. I’m not sure when I’ll start having more time again—or inspiration—so I apologize now if it’s another two months before I post again.