Vacation’s over! Go back to school!

In both 2012 and 2013, snowstorms cancelled the last day of classes leading into the year’s winter break. Except for a brief return Monday (for Northeast students) Mother Nature gifted mine and yours with a couple of extra days this week. If we ever needed it confirmed, this week did so: Mother Nature is no mother.

If she were, she’d have known these kids needed to be back in school. NOW. Already a long break from classes (Dec. 20-Jan. 4), my two were ready to be back at it. Admittedly, I much prefer extra days on the back end of break vs. Decembers 2012 and 2013 when that last day before winter break, with all of its scrambling to finish shopping and baking and cleaning before the kids are released, were foiled by “Mother” Nature. Pfft!

holiday goofballsThis year’s break wasn’t the easiest as one person to whom I shall refer as “Sullen Boy,” clearly missed the memo about holiday cheer. All Sullen Boy wanted for Christmas was a go-cart. All Sullen Boy’s sister wanted for Christmas was for her brother to get a go-cart. All Sullen Boy’s parents wanted for Christmas was for Sullen Boy and company to stop with the go-cart already!

Over dinner one night in early December, we told Sullen Boy and his sister there would be no go-cart under the tree. And we’d already let the Big Guy know as well. Our reason was simple: Marty and I didn’t know what the heck to look for, where to look for it, and couldn’t he just wish for something easily found on Amazon?!!!

Except for the occasional “I don’t care, Christmas is gonna suck,” Sullen Boy held it together during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Aside from his regular sulking over the knowledge of no go-cart, I suspect the child needed a quality dose of Vitamin D. And here we can blame “Mother” Nature, again. Gray skies and fog? In December? Seriously?! Sullen Boy’s lucky he didn’t find a full-spectrum energy lamp under the tree!

Up until Christmas Eve, it appeared Sullen Boy had come to accept there would be no go-cart on Christmas morning. Marty and I weren’t saying, “Never,” but rather, “Not now.”

And we thought he understood, that he was ok with that, that someday, maybe even in February when he turned 12, his dreamed-for go-cart would appear. Then, while having chili at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, Sullen Boy dropped the bomb: “If I don’t get a go-cart, I’ll know there’s no Santa Claus.”


I was aghast at this mastermind, wielding Santa like an Ace up his sleeve. Who does that?! Apparently my kid, that’s who. With a stubbornness that can only be linked to a long line of stubborn Murrell men, I blame his father.

In spite of my sisters and parents scolding Sullen Boy that Santa doesn’t respond well to veiled threats, he knew he’d struck emotional gold. While it surely wouldn’t result in a go-cart ‘cause Santa don’t play dat, Sullen Boy had just won the guilt game.

And when Christmas morning arrived, resplendent with moderate temps, green grass and a beautiful sun we hadn’t seen for what felt like weeks, Sullen Boy’s expectations were met, there was indeed no go-cart waiting for him.

I didn’t hear him say the words, but I knew he was thinking, “See, there’s no Santa.”

And Mother Nature, in all her irony, shined a glorious sun all over the day.

I will go no further into Christmas 2014, about how Santa may have mixed things up and accidentally given Sullen Boy a couple of repeats from the year before. I also won’t go into the Christmas Day gathering at my parents and how, just as grace was being said for Christmas dinner, I burst into tears.

I will merely say that this holiday was not our best example of gratitude and goodwill. Taking a cue from Sullen Boy, it was pretty lame.

On the consumerism side of things, this holiday is awful, but for whatever reason—lack of sun, lack of snow—I just never felt that pa-rum-pa-pum-pum drumming in my heart that only the Christmas season brings.

I think it actually had a lot to do with the season kicking off so dang early! What was with the Christmas radio station cueing up long before Thanksgiving?!

By the time the manger was ready, I was beset with some of Stephen Colbert’s Grinchitude. If I had to listen to Mariah Carey sing “I All Want For Christmas is You” one more time, I was going to make a fruit cake just so I could drop-kick it out the back door.

And now here we are, finally enjoying Mother Nature’s gift: winter. Suddenly it’s cold outside and I want to bake, snow is swirling and blowing and I want to listen to music. The holiday fir, dropping its needles like snowflakes, is suddenly just a bit prettier today than it was two weeks ago.

While Sister occupies a rocking chair on the porch, ears covered in headphones, Sullen Boy cuddles up to me and suggests we open the puzzles, asks if we could play Scrabble . . . and so what if I crave a bit of “me time,” them being home a couple of extra days? Okay Mother Nature, you win: Thank you!

Originally published 10 January 2015 in The Observer.

Cookies & forgetting togetherness

It’s that time of year again. When the baubles and trimmings, cooking and gatherings remind me that I have the shortest memory on the planet.

As if we need reminding, this is the time of year when goodwill and kindness should abound, when tolerance and love should be chief. When the red kettles and bell ringers stand at store entrances; when the Santas are sitting; when the dreidels are spinning.

cookie decoratingI look at this time as a reminder to be good, not because the Elf on the Shelf is watching, but because it’s simply the right thing to do.

But earlier this week, I found myself forgetful.

Tuesday night, after Moira begged and bugged, pleaded and implored to roll out the cookie dough I’d mixed together a few days earlier. I forgot the reason I’d made the dough in the first place: as a show of goodwill, kindness, tolerance and love.

I gave in to Moira’s insistence and as we got started, felt myself begin to crack. I’d forgotten these cookies weren’t about Jenny and how tired she was, about the mess it would make and she’d be stuck cleaning up. These cookies represented an awful truth: I HATE BAKING.

I feel awful even typing the “H” word, but baking is such a messy pain. And cutout cookies? Good lord! The flour, the rolling, the sticky dough?!

After gathering the necessary gear, immediately I struggled to get the cold, hard dough from the container. It was as if the dough had turned to stone.

Moira, excited to use the new snowflake cutter, wore it like a bracelet and fiddled with the star, tree, rocking horse, angel and dove cutters. Anxious to have something to do, she chirped about school and a book she’d been reading. I forgot her excitement. I forgot how precious and fleeting such moments are.

I tried explaining cutouts aren’t really a two-person job which is code for “Beat it!” but I held my tongue and struggled to work out a two-person system.

I’ve never been the most patient person and as the dough continued to frustrate me, I started to fear it would take all night. And when I get fearful, I get ugly.

After we got the first couple pans through, me getting more crazed and upset with each lump of flour, I yelled at Moira, “I just want this done!”

I forgot she’s just a little girl.

Then I saw it. I saw that I was injuring this little girl’s spirit. I saw Moira, who’s just innocent and happy and filled with joy of the season. I saw her chin drop, her shoulders sag. She asked to leave. “Oh, no,” I barked. “We’re in this together.”

Both Marty and Maclane cut in, offering to help, but I refused, boiling.

And then something happened.

I’m guessing when I muttered, “We’re in this together,” that it was a prayer of sorts.

Instead of pushing my daughter into a state of tears, it was as if my attitude of awfulness fell away and a flow was found amidst the baking madness.

Magically, a calm blanketed me and we struck a rhythm. I rolled and we both worked the cutters. Moira lumped the scraps into a ball as we took turns laying them on the cookie sheets. When a batch came out of the oven, Moira would scoop them from the pans to the cooling racks while I’d roll out the next batch.

I felt my breathing settle and my pulse slow, it was then that I remembered.

I remembered this wasn’t about Jenny or the cookies or the mess. I remembered I needed Moira! I needed her to show me how to behave! I needed Moira to show me what goodwill and kindness, tolerance and love looked like.

I forgot all of this.

But I’m never forgotten. The love that makes this season bright sustains us all, even me, in our darkest, most-harried and wrecked moments. The goodwill and kindness, tolerance and LOVE reached beyond this Earthly plane, into the darkest corner of my soul to remind me, “Do not despair.”

Maybe a meltdown during cookie baking isn’t a big deal to most, but it’s in these moments that I see how far I have to go, how much better I want to be. I know I’ll soon forget, again, and get all wrapped up in Jenny, but Tuesday night Santa came early. That from the most feeble of phrases, “We’re in this together,” comes the most honest of prayers: “We’re in this together.”

Without Moira (and every other living entity), I cannot know and understand what goodwill and kindness, tolerance and love looks like, feels like. Thank goodness “we’re in this together.”

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!

Originally published 20 December 2014 in The Observer.

Battling consumerism with gratitude

I think there was a time when the holidays excited me. I assume I used to want to break out the decorations and crank up the Bing Crosby.

Today? I’m just tired. It feels like a sham.

Could I be struck with a bit of Grinchitude to quote wordsmith Steven Colbert? Possibly. I can only speak to my own observation of our country and that observation is “depressed.”

I’ve got a good life. A GREAT LIFE! But when I consider the lives of other Americans, those who haven’t had my opportunities and good fortune? I find it difficult to be merry and bright.

There is so much suffering, right here! I don’t have to reminisce about old Sally Struthers commercials for starving Ethiopians, I need only turn on public radio for soundbites on the increasing level of poverty right here in the United States.

That social class I grew up in, the Middle Class? It’s disappearing, folks. Profit margins for big companies are larger than ever, and yet the minions (you and me) are making less and less in jobs that require more work and effort than ever before.

The most recent jobs report noted a smidgeon of wage growth, but today a $10 an hour job (if you’re lucky) brings a lot less into the home than the same wage 10 years ago.

I know I’m not the only one who sees fatigue plaguing us at every turn.

I refuse to shop at that big, blue-bannered box store with the yellow smiley face. We try to shop local and though most employees of local stores appear cheerful, I know they’re struggling. How do I know? Because we all are. Our dollar, at least here, appears to be weakening.

This isn’t new news. This is reality for 99 percent of us. Day in and day out, we fill our fuel tanks, our cupboards, our refrigerators. We work to replenish the bank accounts to once again fill the tanks, cupboards and fridges. It’s the hamster wheel . . . and I want off.

So how do I do this? How do I confront this soul-sucking reality, not to mention the social issues that plague our nation?

A beloved mentor once told me, “When all else fails, count your gratefuls, Jen.”

So here goes:

I’m grateful to be an American. This isn’t necessarily easy for me to say. I hate the tarnish that’s dulled our reputation. I cringe at the behavior of our leaders. And yet I must stay mindful that I live in a country that affords me crazy-good freedoms.

I’m grateful I don’t live with fear for mine or my family’s lives. I don’t worry that my children will be taken from their school and killed. I don’t worry about us being taken by terrorists and tortured. I don’t worry about being murdered for my gender or skin color. I’m grateful to live where these gratefuls are seldom even recognized as such.

I’m grateful I have shelter. Our cupboards are full, our roof doesn’t leak and our furnace keeps us warm. What’s more wonderful than all of this? Knowing that if my world collapsed tomorrow and we were suddenly without such comforts, Marty and I have an incredible family and community that would lovingly shelter us.

I’m grateful to live in rural Iowa. While I totally enjoyed being a “townie” those years Marty and I lived in DeWitt, I adore living in the wilds where, if I need to, I can run out to the clothes line in a towel and not care (though not in December).

I’m grateful for humility and forgiveness. Anyone who knows me well is aware that when I lose my moral focus, I become a massive, oversized jerk. These episodes are often painful and end with me making amends for what I’ve done. I’ve never enjoyed this. Ever . . but when I’ve found the humility to recognize my wrongdoing, the forgiveness that’s been offered me leaves me speechless and often in a puddle.

I’m grateful for family and friends. This may sound a bit too obvious, but my family and I haven’t always been so glad to know each other (see prior grateful). The relationships I have with my family today—my parents, my sisters, my brother, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my nieces, my nephews, the Reeds, the Kroymanns, the Olsons, the Murrells—are the stuff of miracles! And friendships?! My cup of egg nog runneth over.

So there you have it, once again that beloved mentor of mine was right. Nothing turns my gray skies blue like remembering the things that truly matter. I may not be able to effect change on the big picture, but if I can keep these gratefuls in mind, I open myself to small opportunities for little changes. And just thinking about the possibilities drives my Grinchitude away.

Originally published 13 December 2014 in The Observer.