Tuesday, December 10

What I Learned in the Quiet of a Local Inn Two Weeks Before Christmas

If you're anything like me, and I have a feeling at least some of you are, then you may have found yourself smack dab in the middle of the Christmas planning/shopping/party/school concert/decorating/cookie making season with everything going whirly twirly all around you while you try to hold it all together (and wondering if you're ready!).

I don't mean hold it together like you're going to lose it and have a meltdown at any given moment (though that happens sometimes when the hormones are flying high and there is too.much.to.do)-- I just mean you're hoping you remember to send the wrapped book for the book exchange in with your six your old on the right day, and the lemonade for your 12 year old for her party on another day, and that you don't forget to send the gumdrops and smarties you promised to the 1st grade teacher for the gingerbread houses, and you're secretly hoping that everyone has a Christmas-y looking dress (and tights!) in their closets that actually fit...just in case you need it. And that's just the tip of the proverbial Christmas-with-kids iceberg.

Last week was full, full, full of fun, fun, fun, but left not enough time at home, which means my house is now a mess, mess, MESS!

We went from Thanksgiving celebrations, to visiting  friends in Saratoga Springs (a 4 hour drive for us), to Nutcracker rehearsal and performance week, with piano lessons and a chorus concert thrown in for good measure.

I took this picture of my bed to send to one of my friends who confided in me that she kept moving her laundry from her bed (where she promised herself she was going to put it away everyday) to the floor (when it was time to sleep), and then back to the bed again (the next day when the fresh promise of a new day assured her that certainly this was the day that it was going to get done!) and then back to the floor (so she could sleep again)...over and over again.

I wanted to assure her that she wasn't alone, nor was she abnormal. Or, at least if she is abnormal than she's not alone in her abnormal-ness because at least one other momma (me!) is right there with her.

I'm not sure what this all means...that we all need to slow down (probably), or perhaps just embrace the moments because these memories with our kids are formed in such a short period of time-- time that passes very quickly-- and so it is an ebb and flow of doing (concerts, visiting friends, performances, school events) and being (trying to find time to recoup at home, and be together as a family without rushing here, there and everywhere, and finding some time to breathe).

It can be a tricky balance to find sometimes, but it's the only way forward.

In an effort to find some quiet space I booked a one night stay at a local bed and breakfast last night. I told Scott that I needed some quiet- 24 hours worth of quiet- to process what the last few weeks have held, and prepare myself for the next few weeks to come.

Even though I felt guilty leaving the house two weeks before Christmas, and saying no to several requests yesterday and today...the time...the quiet space...it was exactly what I needed.

I was actually signed up to do Centers in Aubrey's 1st grade class this morning, but didn't realize it until Sunday night after I booked the hotel room. As awful as I felt about it, I knew that this was my only chance to get away for weeks to come and that I needed to prioritize it. After several unsuccessful attempts to find another parent to fill in for me, I ended up sending a very honest apology note to her teacher explaining that I couldn't come in this morning.

I only tell you that because I know, as moms, we often struggle with disappointing people and saying "No", but sometimes-- to make quiet space for your soul-- it's the very thing you have to do.

So  many of us struggle to make space for our souls to rest. We feel guilty or indulgent for even thinking about a night away. Last year, when I did a similar overnight at a hotel and told my mom about it she told me that that she wished she had done the very same thing for herself when I was younger...that she could have used a night away.

I wish I could go back in time and make that happen for her...I think it would have nurtured things in her soul that desperately needed nurturing.

As I sat in that quiet room last night and this morning I thought about a lot of things. I brought books, and journals, calendars, post-it notes, and school papers that needed to be read. There was a lot I needed to do for life, but what I needed more than anything was the quiet. And my Bible.

I needed to breathe, and pray, and breathe and pray some more...I needed to ask God to quiet my mind and my heart so I could see clearly through the fog of busy family life. 

I've been reading through the book of Luke this month (Did you know there are 24 chapters in the book of Luke, so if you read one each day you will read the entire story of Jesus' life by Christmas) and was moved by these words, "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (Luke 5:16).

If Jesus needed to withdraw to lonely places to connect with his Heavenly Father, how much more do we need to do the same?

I'm not sure what that looks like for you this month, or during this season of life. Perhaps it means turning a cartoon on for your kiddos in the middle of the day and committing that time to prayer, and journaling. Perhaps it means giving yourself permission to head out one night this week to Starbucks with your Bible, and a journal and the bazillion thoughts in your head.

Perhaps it means you drive to a park some night this week, or on Saturday, and simply sit in your minivan and read (I love my minivan quiet times!). Maybe you can actually sneak away for a night this week or next (I give you permission if you can make the logistics happen with your husband or extended family members!) to a hotel or bed and breakfast-- to a lonely place-- and just be...be alone with your thoughts, with your prayers, with God. It may be the best gift you give to yourself all month.

I found it ironic, that just weeks before Christmas I ended up looking for space at a small local Inn (Asa Ransom House in Clarence)-- it reminded me, in some ways of Joesph and Mary.  Even more ironically, my room had a view that looked over the back wooded yard and down onto a small house/cottage (built years ago by the owner of the Inn). Next to that cottage, set right in front of a small pond was a hand built wooden nativity scene where Mary and Joseph looked down on baby Jesus in the stillness and quiet of the night.

I can't quite explain the peace I felt when I saw the nativity and how it reaffirmed what the Holy Spirit had been speaking into my soul for days...that in the middle of the mostly busy, but sometimes quiet moments of this month, but in actuality, every day of the year--God is with us. He is with you, and me, and very much present in our lives if we slow down to notice.

This past Saturday I wrote this at the top of my calendar for the week, "Emmanuel...God with us."

I knew I needed to see those words every day. To intentionally remember why we are celebrating this Advent season.

I don't have any quick tips to simplify your hustle and bustle this month, nor am I going to tell you to do one more thing. The only thing I will say is that stopping ALL.THE.THINGS. just for a few moments, may be the best gift of all.

Hugs to you all.

Monday, November 25

Giving Yourself Grace in the Middle of the Holidays- A Thanksgiving Post (#4)

Ah, friends. How is it the end of November already?


Earlier today, while I was at Panera,  an older woman stopped to ask me the time. I was sitting at a table eating lunch and writing this post so my computer was open. I looked at the clock, then looked up at her,  "2:21," I said.

"Oh my goodness!" she exclaimed, eyes wide like she was late for something, "Time waits for no one!"

I smiled, "No. No it doesn't."

She rushed off on her way, seemingly shocked that the day was going so fast. I continued writing this post, pondering how the last month has gone by so fast. This month, last month, the month before that...

Wasn't it just the 4th of July? I swear we were just waving sparklers and eating Doritos beneath a cascading fireworks display?

But, alas, here we are, playing bumper carts at the grocery store as we pick up recipe items for stuffing and green bean casserole, while reckoning with the fact that it's the last week of November, which means Christmas is also RIGHT. AROUND. THE. CORNER!!!

I have really enjoyed writing about gratitude and thanksgiving in this space this month. This is my 4th and final post on the topic and the act of writing these posts, if nothing else, has awakened my own heart and mind to the necessity of practicing gratitude not just in the month of November, but as a regular part of my life. All. Year. Round.

For me, this more intentional gratitude practice came at a good time- the days have been getting shorter with the dark coming early. It's getting cold in the Northeast and between the shorter days and the colder weather I often want to just curl up in a ball and hibernate. I've struggled with seasonal affective issues for years, and feel like I'm still recovering from last winter. I hate the term "seasonal affective disorder" (SAD) because "disorder" carries a lot of negative connotations, and the complexities that contribute to SAD are deep and wide. It's a different recipe for each person that has to do with hormones, serotonin levels, biological sensitivities, season of life, etc. etc. etc. However, the struggles are real and I've been feeling tired and less chipper than I'd like.

While I may write more about SAD at another time, you can hop on over to Sarah Geringer's blog to read some best practices for combating SAD--she has a great 4-part series on it that she's currently re-running on her website. As for me, I just dug my Verilux light lamp out of the basement and sat in front of it while sipping coffee for 25 minutes earlier today (yes, yes, I actually do this! If you're feeling blue, c'mon over. I'll make you a latte on our espresso machine and we can both sit in front of the lamp together!)

All that to say, I am thankful for sunshine and blue skies today. I am thankful for the week that lies ahead and the chance to get together with family and friends. I am thankful for our church and the fellowship we experience there every week. For the series our pastor has been teaching  on Thanks-Living, which is a term I hadn't heard before, but have been thinking a lot about over the last few weeks.

May we all find ways to carry our gratitude from this month of November, where we are reminded in extra measure to practice saying "thanks", into the other 11 months. May we all find ways to increase our own thanks living each and every day...all year round.

I have to tell you, my "plans" to practice gratitude with the entire family have not gone quite as I had hoped.  I had the quotes written down, bought several books, had a list of scriptures I was going to write on our chalkboard, and all sorts of ideas for mealtime talks.

It all seemed so grand and sweet and do-able in my mind.

We do have a handful of thankfulness items written on leaves and taped to our gratitude tree.  I did write one of the  four verses that I jotted down up on our chalkboard-- it's been there for two weeks now. I'm hoping someone else in the house has actually noticed it. I've read a couple of books about giving thanks with Aubrey and we took cranberry sauce and apple pie to a "Friends-Giving" celebration (which is always one of our favorite events of November).

That's all good, right?

I can sometimes be hard on myself when the grand plans are quickly reduced to much smaller plans, and haphazard conversations at the dinner table  are squeezed in in between arguing about who gets the ketchup first and how someone is annoyed that someone else is chewing too loudly.

But, I realized this week, that as the kids are getting older and we continue to live our full and sometimes admittedly too busy lives, that we're not always going to be able to teach our kids about things like gratitude, or God's grace, or the deep meaning of praise and thankfulness in picturesque conversations at a Hallmark ready dinner table.

That doesn't mean we don't still point them in the right direction. I've posted quotes around the house, have hung "thankful" signs and banners in the kitchen, and have kicked up conversations about these things in the car and sometimes at dinner. I've done my best to do what I could do this month. Sometimes our plans intersect with this thing called life, and we need to give ourselves enormous grace when the outcome is not quite as planned.

I also realized that the most important thing that I could do this month was to practice deeper gratitude in my own life-- to make myself a more grateful person.  I've done this by writing down the things I'm thankful for in my journal (and sometimes online), by integrating more praise into my prayer times, and by deepening my own understanding of gratitude. Ultimately, we are our children's greatest example, so even when our grand plans for family meals, and conversations don't play out the way we dreamed they would, we can continue to set an example of what we're preaching (and planning!) in our own lives.

I encourage you to be the example-setter this week. Be grateful while you're running errands,  and buying dinner groceries, and helping your child clean their very, very, VERY messy bedroom (Ok, maybe that was me on Saturday night, and I wasn't so grateful about it and said a lot of grumpy things about messes. I've since asked for forgiveness and am changing my grumbling ways and promise to be more joyful the next time I enter said bedroom!).

I encourage you also to give yourself grace when your best laid plans for grand Pinterest holiday crafts, devotionals, and family gathering ideas don't go quite as you were hoping they would.

It's normal. I promise. It doesn't mean you're a bad mom. I double promise. And you're still teaching your children wonderful, beautiful things in the middle of it all.

I promise.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Now our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name 
1 Chronicles 29:13

Monday, November 18

Practicing Gratitude, Week 3: Being Grateful for the Little Things

It's been a full and busy week in our house. All the normal stuff. You know how that goes, right?  Sometimes, when you’re a family of five the normal stuff can feel a little like a 5-ring circus—full, colorful, and noisy, with a little bit of chaos and mess thrown in for good measure. 
I’ve had bronchitis, which has slowed me down a bit, and then Ella got sick later in the week and was home with me on Friday. I only share all of this with you to let you know that if your own life feels a little bit like a circus, well, you’re not alone. We’re eating popcorn and peanuts and wondering which end is up some days too.
#metoo #parentingiscrazysometimes
As I was thinking about gratitude and what it looks like to continuously practice being grateful in the middle of IT ALL (and we all have our own IT ALL), I decided to pull one of my favorite books on thankfulness and gratitude off the bookshelf and re-read some of the underlined passages.
One Thousand Gifts has virtually become a classic in the Christian book world, and for good reason. Ann Voskamp's profound ability to explore the mundane in search of the beauty and blessings that go unseen around us every day is the poignant reminder that so many of us need. A reminder to stop, look, listen, notice and praise God for the bazillion blessings that are right in front of us, even when our days feel a little bit like…well, the circus.

I opened the book to a section in Chapter 4 where Ann talks about how fast time  seems  to fly when we are adulting and parenting and trying to take care of all of the things we need to take care of. She talks about her longing to slow time down. To just BE in the moment. 
Yes. Yes. Yes.
             “I speak it to God,” she says. “I don’t really want more time; I just want enough time. Time to breathe deep and time to see, time to read and time to laugh long, time to give You glory and rest deep and sing joy and just enough time in a day not to feel hounded, pressed, driven, or wild to get it all done—yesterday. 
            …I just want time to do my one life well.  
                A soap bubble bursts next to my skin.”
Ahh, yes.  Me too, Ann. Me too. 
Ann goes on to do what Ann does so well—she tells us how that gorgeous little soap bubble made her pause to ponder the wonders of the world. How a soap bubble made her stop and remember God. How it pulled her out of her hurried, cranky pace to be able to BE in the moment.  
Isn’t that what we all want? Time to do our one life well. And, isn’t it so true? When we start to feel hurried, rushed, and like it’s all going too fast we get cranky and maybe a little bit ungrateful, whether we mean to or not. Not the kind of ungrateful where we’re complaining about life: Just the kind of ungrateful where we’ve gotten too busy to stop and intentionally be grateful for life. To stop and praise God for this life He’s given us. 

If any of this is resonating with you, you should grab One Thousands Gifts and read Chapter 4 this week, because I wish I could share ALL of the words with you here. They’re beautiful words dripping with truth. 
[As a matter of fact, if you don't have a copy, and leave a comment at the end of this post, I will pick one lovely comment leaving reader and send you a copy of One Thousand Gifts in the mail.]
Voskamp goes on to say this:
“The wonder right in the middle of the sink. Looking for it like this. I lay the palm under water and I raise my  hand with the membrane of a life span of moments. In the light, the sheerness of bubble shimmers. Bands of garnet, cobalt, flowing luminous. 
I see through to the pattern. I see. The way my life, vapor is shaping. I hadn’t noticed. 
It’s #362. 
362. Suds…all color in sun. 
That’s my answer to time. 
Time is a relentless river. It rages on, a respecter of no one. And this, this is the only way to slow time: When I fully enter time’s swift current, enter into the current moment with the weight of all of my attention, I slow the torrent by being all here. I only live the full life when I Live fully in the moment…Weigh down this moment in time with attention full, and the whole of time’s river slows, slows, slows.”
As I read her words it dawned on me that as I’ve been counting my own blessings this month, and finding that the counting of the blessings brings about a kind of peace I wasn’t expecting, that that peace comes from the pause…the slowing down of time…the stopping to notice details that we so often rush by.
I guess the wise teachers that coined the phrase “stop and smell the flowers” were on to something. It’s in the stopping that the seeing begins. It’s in the seeing that the heart grows bigger with gratitude. And it’s in those moments that a much longed for peace settles into the soul, even if it's only for a few minutes before the kids come tumbling through the door, boots and hats covered in snow and we’re on to the next thing.
But, maybe there is a way to more present in that next thing too…to be thankful for their gloriously flushed faces and pink cheeks. To remember for a moment the joy of playing outside in cold snow (rather than complain out it as I enjoy doing in my old age!).
I know this is all easier said than done. Believe me, I KNOW.
But heres to trying.
Trying to slow down to notice this week.
Trying to be in the moment.
Trying to count our thousands of blessings. Blessings as small as soap bubbles and flushed pink cheeks.

I’m going to leave you with one of my favorite Psalms of Thanksgiving:

Psalm 100 
A psalm. For giving thanks.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
Come before him with joyful songs. 
Know that the Lord is God.
It is He who made us, and we are his 
we  are his people, the sheep of his pasture. 
Enter his gates with Thanksgiving
And his courts with praise; 
Give thanks to him and praise his name. 
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations. 

And a quote…
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”     (Melody Beattie)

Tuesday, November 12

Practicing Gratitude, Week 2: Counting Your Blessings As a Family

"When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around."  
~Willie Nelson

If you are one of my Facebook friends (Hi friends!), you know that I've been writing a gratitude post on FB each day this month. I hope I'm not driving ya'll crazy with my daily posts...as much as I enjoy social media it can drive me a little crazy sometimes too. That said, it has been such an impactful practice in these last 12 or so days that I've been doing it. Please know that when I share with you on FB that it's coming from my authentic heart-- truly, if you could know only one thing about me, it's that everything I say is always and only coming from a place of authenticity. 

It's been an interesting practice for me, this practice of putting written words to the things I'm grateful for each day, or at least one thing. It has made me slow down to notice, pause to consider, and watch a little more closely the many blessings in my life. 

As I've been working on these posts I've also been reading through quotes about thankfulness, and gratitude, and blessings. Guess what? Everyone says the same thing...they say that a posture of gratitude changes your perspective, it brings peace, it helps you to feel more joy. 

I can honestly say that everything they are saying is true. I have felt my heart-- a heart that I thought was pretty grateful in general prior to this experiment this month-- open up in ways that I haven't felt it open up in a long time. I have found myself being completely enamored as I watch my six year old play in the freshly fallen snow outside. I have found myself staring at my husband and being extra grateful for his generous heart and the way he makes me breakfast EVERY MORNING! 

I have to be honest, I would have called myself a mostly grateful person, but I take a lot for granted.  I've taken my home for granted. I take my freedom in this country (especially my religious freedoms) for granted. I take my health, and my husband's paycheck and even my kid's health for granted. I have taken the beauty and joy that can be experienced at each stage of life and motherhood for granted. I've taken my marriage for granted. I don't think any of us set out to do this, it's just that these things, these blessings in our lives, they become such a part of our "normal" that we forget to be intentionally thankful for them.

When I physically write the words of the things I am grateful for, I can feel a shifting in my soul-- a shifting from the low hum of anxiety and overwhelm that I can tend to carry as a mom about all of the day-to-day things (ALL.THE.THINGS!) to a peace that feels like a great big deep breath to my soul.

And for that I am very, very thankful. 

So, in the spirit of continuing to practice thankfulness and gratitude this month around our house the girls and I finally created our thankfulness tree yesterday. I'll let you in on a  little secret- I had a moment where I thought, My big girls are getting to old for this. They're going to think I'm a total cheeseball. 

But here's what actually happened-- we had fun working together. Cutting that tree out of brown butcher paper and then needing to rely on each other and utilize a little teamwork to tape that thing to our sliding glass door as it kept folding down on itself. We laughed, we ripped tape of the dispenser, we sighed, and then laughed some more. 

And, when we finally got it all up on the wall, including the "Thanksgiving" sign we made to hang above it out of the pre-cut leaves we had bought, we all stood back, smiled and said, "Wow! That's really cute!"

(When four of the five people living in your house are female, you talk about things being "cute" or not "cute" a whole heck of a lot!) 

Sorry the photo is so hard to see. Our new snow made it quite bright outside, but hopefully you get the idea. The leaves above the tree are strung through brown string and say, "Thanksgiving".  

Then, at dinner, everyone grabbed their little leaves and pens and started scribbling down what they were thankful for without me needing to even ask (Aubrey was especially excited about this and tries to write something new down every time she passes by the table!). 

I'm also going to add quotes to the window as I come across them (like the Willie Nelson quote from the top of this post), and we're posting a new Bible verse about blessings, worship, or gratitude on our kitchen chalkboard each week.

This week's Bible verse: 

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
James 1:17

We have to keep things pretty simple in the Littlewood household or this momma has a hard time following through. So, that's the extent of our plan, and we're having fun with it so far. 

I did come across these two websites that offered great suggestions for incorporating gratefulness practices into your life individually or as a family. The links are listed here: 

Marelisa over at Daring to Live Fully offers some excellent suggestions for practicing gratitude: 

9 Gratitude Activities For Children (from the website Investing in Children):

And here are two fun picture books for talking about thankfulness with kids: 

We love the "Bear" books by Karma Wilson! In this one, Bear has a Friendsgiving in which all of his woodland friends bring a dish over to pass and then reflect on their gratitude for each other and their meal.

I haven't read this one yet (I just ordered it today), but am looking forward to reading it with Aubrey when it arrives this week!  

Instead of ordering just one copy I ordered two so I could send one as a gift! All you have to do is leave a comment either here, or on my Facebook page (under the link to this post) so that I know that you stopped by.  I'll pick one winner on Sunday night and announce it my Thanksgiving post next Monday! 

Blessings to you all. I hope these words in some way encouraged you to find little ways to practice extra measures of gratitude in your homes this week! And to be a total cheeseball with your kids-- stye love you for it more than you think (;