Friday, December 28, 2012

light in the darkness

Our holiday weight loss plan was to take Sommer to a public place and let her put everything in her mouth, thus bringing home a violent stomach bug for Christmas. Okay, it wasn't exactly the "plan", but that is what happened.

The day before Christmas our littlest daughter awoke vomiting in the wee hours of the morning. Holding my baby while she heaved, 5, 6, 7 times, unable to tell me what hurt or when it was coming, has to be one of the more heartbreaking things I have done as a mother. We somehow survived the day, with the low moment being a severe code brown while both girls were in the tub.

The sickness passed and Sommer seemed to be feeling better. My family was given an informed account, but still wanted us to visit for Christmas. We all made it through a wonderful, celebratory Christmas morning and family-oriented Christmas afternoon. We stuffed ourselves for dinner. Then it hit. In a span of 30 minutes, Annike, Christian, and I were all down with the same violent virus. Merry Christmas to us!

This particular Christmas has been a strange one. It seems like darkness has been at work, doing its best to prevent us from seeing the Light. We witnessed more sadness than usual this December. A sadness that often felt like darkness. We have seen a young mother diagnosed with cancer. A young child sentenced to a lifelong disease. Friends experiencing unexplained health issues. A dark cloud of discontent and anger in people we have interactions with. And, of course, there is little that compares to the shadow cast upon December by the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut. How my heart hurts for the people in that town whose lives have been forever changed.

While I was up all that Christmas night, trying to sleep between episodes of our own dark illness, I grasped onto the truth that no amount of darkness will win out over the Light. My mind and spirit clung to immense thankfulness... for a good partner to help hold the children... for the knowledge that this would be over within 24 hours unlike the bad news that so many others had this season... for the still small voice that whispered for me to do laundry before this all happened readying many pairs of clean pjs... for my brave brave 4 year old... for a baby who slept through it all... for my mother who would help us and take care of us as only a mother will, highly contagious disease and all... for the strength I knew was not my own.

Through it all we must remember that the Light has already won. In a sleep-deprived, sick night comes the deepest kind of gratitude. Just like, out of a smelly stable came a royal King. From a humble baby in a manger came the Wisdom we have all be looking for. Through a cruel death came the world's Savior. In the face of all that is inexplicable, He is the Answer.

Excerpts from Isaiah chapter 9 (italics mine)
"Nevertheless there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress....
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest...
For to us a child is born,
to us a Son is given,
and the government will be on His shoulders.
And He will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end...
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

the nutcracker

On Sunday afternoon, we got to go on a special girls date. Annike, my mother, and I were invited by the Sugar Plum Fairy herself.

The Sugar Plum Fairy happens to be a good friend of our family's, a child I babysat regularly, and the flower girl from our wedding (which was clearly a while ago because look at what a lady she is now!). She personally invited us to Carmel's fantastic performance of the Nutcracker. What a treat! She was beautiful, with all of the poise and grace of an enchanted fairy.

Annike was enthralled. She couldn't take her eyes off the dancers. During every pause in the music she shouted in her high piping voice, "Now what?!" and "Where is the Nutcracker?!" and "When is he going to become a prince?!?" sending the audience around us into giggles. The enthusiasm was clear.

Prior to the show we joined a special group of little girls and mothers for a fancy tea in our winter best. It was complete with tiny sandwiches, a dessert buffet, and Annike's favorite "bubbly apple juice".  (Papa told her once that the apples in the orchard next door to us grow the apples that make the Martinelli's bubbly apple juice... to which she replied, "Are they growing bubbly apples?")

We were little princesses. The afternoon reminded me that every little girl should know that she is worthy of being celebrated. Since having Sommer I haven't taken much time to spend individual, undivided time with Annike. Dates like these will definitely be added to our annual priority list.

Of course, the day would not be complete without a reenactment of the ballet. Proper attire optional.

A little more work to do? Maybe. It is really hard to be a good ballerina with little sister in the way.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

core values

Blogging has taken a backseat to Christmas this year, as it should. We are doing our best to celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way. A big part of that is simply being available to celebrate a little at a time throughout the entire month of December.

With most of the shopping out of the way (last post), celebrating a little at a time has spawned many spur-of-the-moment holiday a family portrait (fingerprints by all of us, antlers by Annike)

... and a wine-cork Christmas tree (no, we did not drink all of these bottles in December)

... and a few snowflakes suspended throughout our home.

In December we have also managed to squeeze in some holiday baking with the last of the fruit in the orchard. These green apples have ended in some delicious desserts.

Our healthy choice for December has been using the old Halloween candy for decorating the gingerbread house instead of for eating. The brilliance of this is simultaneously clearing out the cupboards to make room for all of the Christmas chocolate coming our way.

The Christmas tree looks a little different every year. After breaking a large handful of glass ornaments during the first hours of tree set-up, we made an attempt at toddler-proofing by putting it on top of an old table from the barn. Not a decorating strategy I want to repeat every year, but it seems to be doing the trick. We hung a few kid-friendly ornaments on the lower branches within Sommer's reach, but as I suspected, they have not remained on the tree.

Overall we have clearly been having a lot of fun because the kids are worn out...

Making Christmas meaningful for our children is always a challenge. Despite all efforts at downplaying the wrapped packages under the tree, Annike will tell you she is most excited about the presents she gets to open on Christmas day. How do you combat that?

We are trying to fight it with a few core Christmas values. Ours are:

  • Togetherness - Being together, being present while we are together, celebrating Christmas a little at a time in the moment with each other, celebrating one of the greatest gifts of the season which is these people in my life who I love so much.
  • Giving - This point will be hammered into them: We are giving, giving, giving,... the only way to counteract the "getting". We are giving gifts, giving crafts, giving sweet treats, all of our favorites will be given away. Whether you like it or not, small children, YOU WILL GIVE!
  • Anticipation - Advent is all about anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Children anticipate Christmas day the way that the ancient Jews anticipated their Savior. This parallel can makes it a little easier for these little people to understand the excitement of Jesus coming to earth. We can't wait to celebrate the best Gift of all! Preparing to receive that Gift is what December is all about.

And just when I fear the most important Message may be occluded by the bombardment of the consumer-based messages, Annike asks me an insightful question like "Why do we hang apples and snowmen on our Christmas tree if Christmas is about Jesus?"

Great question, honey. Let me think about that for a minute and come up with a wise response.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

christmas giving

Thanksgiving is over, and it is now safe to admit that I am listening to Christmas music.

As soon as Turkey day passes, I inevitably begin to feel the impending anxiety of Christmas approaching.  My to-do lists grow as my time shrinks. It seems that every year I begin December with great optimism about my ability to do Christmas "right", and every year I exit December exhausted, wondering what happened to all of my good intentions.

I am remembering my final trip to the mall last year, three days before Christmas. My first mistake was believing I could do any Christmas shopping with a 3 year old and a 3 month old in tow.  My second mistake was waiting until the last minute to do it.  Of course, that may have been because I was trying not to make the first mistake. I was armed with the double stroller and lots of snacks.  It seemed that every woman my mother's age and older stopped me to tell me how cute my kids were and how brave I was to go Christmas shopping with two children and then they each had a lengthy, detailed story they wanted to share about the time they had gone shopping with their own children back in the day. While I love women, and love the grandmother age, I began to feel anxious about the ticking time bombs in my stroller. So anxious thinking about all that I had left to do before Christmas and how little time I had left to do it that I could not enjoy the kindly intentions of these women. Instead of shouting, I have about 45 minutes until total meltdown occurs, 10 people to buy presents for, and you are using up precious shopping minutes! I resorted to simply being rude.

Forty-five minutes later we made an emergency exit with a screaming baby, having made no good purchases. It was one thing to feel frustrated at an unsuccessful shopping trip, but another to feel disappointed in myself for the way I behaved. Being rude to women who were enjoying my children did not help me accomplish my tasks.  It only put a damper on my day, and possibly the day of others. (But, seriously, maybe next time these women can hold the baby and play with the 3-year-old for a few minutes while I shop?)

The problem with giving at Christmas is all of the obligation involved.

You see, I love the idea of giving. I love the idea of finding just the right object that will bless the people on my list. As fall roles around I typically get excited about something I am giving to my mom, or someone else in the family.  But by the time Christmas arrives there is always someone (usually a handful of people, usually male) that I just haven't a clue what to get.  This is what I mean by obligation. Suddenly I am not buying because there is something special to give, but instead because I feel the obligation to put something in a pretty package for someone to open. Thus Christmas falls prey to commercialism. It might be why my dad has more than 30 flashlights next to his bed. Though, he does love a good flashlight.

At the heart of Christmas is the spirit of giving, and in itself there is nothing wrong with this. Where I fall short is the way that I give. Going on the mad hunt for presents last minute, spending hours in the mall because it is too late to order online, should not be what Christmas is about. That style of giving actually prevents me from giving in more meaningful ways.

Giving in a meaningful way is sometimes giving a thoughtful gift, but it is also giving a memory... giving an experience... giving a tradition... giving words... giving homemade (though there is no question that this option is NOT a time-saver)... giving food... giving fun... and most often, giving the gift of a me that is present in the moment, not prone to distraction or hurry.

So, my strategy for celebrating Christmas this year with purpose and intention is to minimize the amount of time I obsess over giving just the right gift to someone. And the truth is, as a good friend pointed out, no one gets me the perfect gift either. Why? Because there is no perfect gift! It simply does not exist. And the longer I spend looking for it, the more mediocre, imperfect and generic all of the things around me seem - because they are!  Things are just another imperfect way of saying "I thought of you."

While shopping is going to be a small part of my December, it does not need to play a major role. Part of my strategy for giving it a lesser focus is getting all of the necessary shopping out of the way early (like this week) so that the rest of my December can be spent building memories, capturing traditions, and being the giving-hearted Christmas-spirited person that I want to be, saving time to experience Christmas in all the ways that matter most.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

vacation, re-defined

The concept of vacation has been redefined since having children. My job title is "full-time mother" and somehow that occupation finds me wherever we travel.

Vacation used to mean a long nap on the beach. It meant reading 3 or 4 books, staying up late into the night to finish them. It meant awakening at 10 or 11am, or simply when I felt awake. Vacation meant long hikes or adventurous activities or thrill seeking that justified lazy days to follow.

Those vacations are long gone. I am not going to pretend that I don't sometimes feel bitter and miss those luxurious days. I do. But I am growing to appreciate the type of vacation that includes my children, as incapable as they are of letting me relax the way I used to.

Our vacations are still a break from the hundreds of minute details that stress and distract in any given day. It is vacation because there are no phone calls to return, no urgent emails, no worries about keeping my house clean because a friend may be dropping by. There is no obligation to attend birthday parties or church events or baby showers. There is no one missing from the dinner table, or the breakfast table, or the lunch table. There are no dishwashers that need fixing or light bulbs that need changing. And most importantly, there is no longer a myriad of excuses for why I simply cannot find the time to play with my children.

On vacation we get a chance to focus completely on the relationships in our little family. We see what it looks like to love each other without all of the distractions that contaminate our daily routine. It is a time to practice being a family without all of the regular interruptions.

And while I might periodically fantasize about a vacation from motherhood and all of the parenting responsibilities that accompany it, in reality I would miss these two goof-balls. The experiences would not be the same without them, because vacation now means taking a precious adventure with my family.

I can finally understand why it might not be vacation without them.

Note: My challenge to myself was to get a good picture of both girls together... and please do not go thinking this was an easy task. I have the utmost respect for anyone who can get a decent family picture with small children involved.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Every year we celebrate Halloween a little bit differently. With little ones, we are still figuring this out. How do we find a healthy way to get in on the fun? Obviously, for us it is not about scary things or candy or death. It does seem to be an awful lot about the adorable costumes I can squeeze my children into.

(These might look like ordinary leopard costumes to you... but no. My girls went as extraordinary serval cats. Annike has been planning it for months. For a little help with what a serval cat actually is, see this post.)

Someone wise pointed out to me that Halloween is fun because it is all about community. Community.

It makes sense. The best part about this rather ghastly night is seeing the costumes that our friends wear. Having an excuse to laugh together. Taking pictures and making another memory. Giving a treat to someone we love. Community.

The trouble is that living out on this farm means we don't have a neighborhood, hence a community, to trick-or-treat in. And if we did have a neighborhood we might not want to walk around in it at night, which is an unfortunate reality in this day and age. When I was growing up, all of the kids in my friendly neighborhood went to school together and all of the parents loved seeing us come to the door for trick-or-treat. I am wondering if that will ever be the case for my kids?

But even if that is never a reality, we DO have community. We have an abundance of laughter, fellowship, and friends in our lives with whom we can share the fun. It just takes a bit more creativity considering they don't all live in the "neighborhood".

Every year we try something new for Halloween. This year it was a morning costume party for the kiddos who didn't have school...

... then some trick-or-treating with our friends in their neighborhood (which feels like cheating to me, but that is how it is done around here.)

It is worth noting that after examining her final collection of candy at the end of the night, Annike was most excited about the shelled peanuts in the bottom of her bucket. Instead of choosing a piece of candy to eat, she asked if she could just eat peanuts. Ah yes, things will one day be different.

All in all, we celebrated being a part of an amazing community. We shared silly costumes. We made some new memories. We warned each other about scary houses that should be avoided. We held hands and hugged. Community.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

apples in the orchard

My friend Jessica inspires me. A year ago in October, she had the brilliant idea to capture these priceless photos of newborn Sommer. Of course, the pictures were special at the time.

One year later, however, these pictures have reached a new level of meaningful. Only somewhat because Sommer would rather eat liverwurst than sleep, let alone in the orchard. I find myself staring at the baby in the photo on our wall with affection and nostalgia, and a hint of envy at her state of innocent bliss.

On this hot day last October a sliver of our experience on this farm was frozen in time behind that camera lens. Meaningful because the time is slipping away. Inspiring because never would I have personally thought to combine these two important elements in our life: baby and farm. And yet, they are immiscible.

This year, Sommer is not sleeping in the orchard. She is eating apples and picking weeds and getting muddy like a good little farm girl does. It seems those newborn pictures were prophetic. Life here is part of her very being. She is a lover of nature, an admirer of all things outdoorsy, and has a noticeably sunny disposition, just like her name might imply.

Thank you, Jessica, for inspiring our newest annual tradition of photos in the orchard.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Can it really be that an entire decade has gone by in the blink of an eye? Actually, there have been many long days scattered generously throughout the decade, particularly long days. But 10 years sounds like such a long time, and looking back over it feels like nothing.

10 years ago today, my husband asked me to marry him.

We had travelled to Marin County (north of San Francisco) for my uncle's wedding. The day was a brilliant October Indian Summer day as only those who live on the west coast can fully appreciate. Not a glimmer of fog on the horizon. As I recall, we shared a hotel room with my parents as chaperons, which must have been awkward, but the details are eluding me. (Okay, maybe it really is starting to feel like 10 years ago.)

For most of our dating relationship, it had been clear to me that Christian was ready to ask me to marry him. I was the one holding back, hesitant to move forward. Only 6 weeks earlier we had been on a 10-day mission trip to El Salvador. Doubts had filled my heart, primarily about my own sense of readiness. I take my commitments seriously. Would I be able to give a forever-yes to this man? My mind was filled with fears that every single person must come to terms with before they wed. Is the timing right? Will I be able to live with someone who doesn't make his bed or pick up socks? Will I be the wife he is expecting? Does he know the real me who is hiding inside this exterior he thinks he loves? If he knew her, would he love her?

On this particular beautiful day of October 6, 2002, I awakened early at the hotel in Marin and went out onto the grounds to have a quiet time of prayer before our busy day of wedding and people began. I read the story in Luke chapter 1 in the Bible about Mary and Elizabeth who were both told by angels that they would be pregnant under somewhat questionable circumstances. Their response was to praise God because He had given them a gift. I wondered, Do I do the same with Your gifts, Lord?

Peace came over me and I knew that Christian was a gift given in my life and I was to praise God for him. I wrote in my journal that I was ready to marry him and I had no idea what was taking him so long to ask me!

That evening as we returned home from the wedding, Christian took a detour and stopped the car at a spot on the north side of San Francisco Bay that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun had recently set and we sat in the 80 degree evening on a log enjoying the view. He held me close and began to sing a song that was special to me ("When You Say Nothing At All"). I felt so loved and appreciated, and told him that I would remember this evening forever. He said, "Yes, you probably will." Then, taking me completely by surprise, he got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife forever.

The timing was clearly God's because it had been only that morning that I had reached the stage of becoming impatient waiting for Christian to ask me. I recognized only in my impatience that I was truly ready and desiring to say Yes!

I found out later that Christian had been in possession of the engagement ring for weeks, carrying it around, waiting for the right opportunity.  He had contemplated popping the big question while we were in El Salvador surrounded by friends. In the end it had not felt right to him. That was clearly the Holy Spirit holding him back because he had no other way of knowing that I was wrestling with big questions. I can look back on that time of doubting and see that it was all a part of God's work in my heart to make me ready. I needed to thoroughly process some of the harder questions before I could say Yes with absolute joy and certainty.

And, I had never wanted an elaborate public engagement, which is also something Christian would not have known. Stories about women who were asked on a day when they were feeling especially grumpy or angry with their spouse made me cringe. I had wanted to simply feel surprised. And I was, in the best of ways.

Inevitably, after the wedding occurs we are dismayed in some way by our spouse, have an argument or disagreement, sometimes over something little, but also sometimes over something big. Because of the gift of timing God gave me to process through my fears, never have I questioned my decision to marry this man. Christian was a gift in my life, and my response is to praise God for it.

This photo was taken on our very first date to San Francisco. The Golden Gate is behind us.
On the right hand side somewhere is the spot we got engaged.

Here we are on the mission trip in El Salvador at a mercado where we were playing around with
some of the local items, such as the machete in Christian's hands.

Thank you, Sweet Christian, for loving me even when I am difficult to love. Thank you for listening to God as He softly whispers in your ear. Thank you for recognizing beautiful things in me that I can often not see myself. Thank you for supporting me in all my endeavors, dreams, desires, and heartaches. Thank you for choosing to love me a decade ago. 
And thank you for choosing to do so every day since. 
Love, Ashley

Monday, September 24, 2012

birthday week

Birthday week is over. I am currently sprawled out on the couch nursing a birthday week hangover... maybe finishing the birthday cake for breakfast wasn't a good idea.

Both my girls celebrated their birthday within 3 days of each other, turning 4 and 1, and I am rethinking the strategy that went into planning it that way. Wait, it wasn't planned that way. As I recall, last year Sommer chose to stick around in my womb for a full TWO weeks past her due date. And, no, I have not fully forgiven her yet.

Today the balloons are settling around us, the presents are gradually migrating into the bedrooms, and then migrating right back to the living room, and I am reflecting on a few birthday discoveries made while we celebrated these two wonderfully special little girls.

Discovery #1:  The first magical birthday is turning four-years-old. This was the first year Annike got excited in anticipation of her birthday. Easily more than half of the fun was looking forward to it. We celebrated with a few special friends and an Under-the-Sea themed backyard party. The kids hunted for treasure around the farm and discovered treasure boxes filled with all kinds of silly things that kids think are fun, (and with a baby around, I think of as choking hazards.) Annike had a ball.

Discovery #2:  Children are pleased with the simple things. Strange that I have this rediscovery every year. Annike's party was a few days before her actual birthday. By the time her special day rolled around, I was feeling pretty tired. She asked me for a special dinosaur cake and I was tempted to let the request slide because, seriously, dinosaurs are not my specialty. In the end I decided that if a dinosaur cake would make her feel special, it was a relatively cheap and simple gift I could give her that took minimal effort and a little creativity on my part. Those are the kind of gifts we want to encourage. So, a dinosaur cake is what she got. We topped it off with a visit to the grandparents house and this day was every bit as special as the day of her party.

Discovery #3:  Cake decorating has been forever changed by the invention of pre-packaged Fondant. I admit that it is somewhat bland in taste, but it may have revolutionized the look of my cakes. I spent quite a bit of time baking and decorating cakes this week. The ladybug cake was for Sommer's birthday, and the mermaid cake was for Annike's Under-the-Sea party.

*Please note that after frosting dozens of cupcakes, I decided that I did not have time to make the mermaid cake I had been planning. As I was ditching the idea, my husband decided of his own accord to tackle decorating the mermaid cake. The decorating job you see below was done entirely by him. I was fighting off over-controlling urges to "adjust" some of his ideas, but in the end I let it all go realizing that not many little girls have a dad who will decorate a mermaid cake for them, and that was worth something in itself.

Food for thought: Is it more important for a birthday cake to look good or taste good? My husband and I may disagree on the answer.

Discovery #4:  A one-year-old's needs are in her number of years.  One friend, one sister, one piece of cake, one balloon, one candle... these are all she needed to be happy on her birthday.

Discovery #5:  It is not easier to throw two separate "small" birthday parties for the girls. Maybe this Momma isn't good at small. Maybe when I get an idea in my head that seems totally do-able, I just can't let it go. Maybe half the fun for me is planning the party. But next year we are going to do the combined thing and celebrate once.

Discovery #6:  Birthday traditions worth keeping are the meaningful ones. Our newest birthday tradition is a unique story told on Birthday's Eve (you know, the night before the birthday). It is a retelling of all the birthdays celebrated by the child, starting with the day of their birth, and counting right on up. Annike was captivated as she snuggled in bed next to me so excited to know what her 4th birthday would hold. Sommer's story was a bit over her head, but we started the tradition anyway.

Final and Most Important Discovery:  Loving these girls equally does not mean I will love them the same. I will have to elaborate on this thought more at another time because as I mentioned above, my brain power is toast right now. Let me sum it up by saying in my mind it seemed reasonable that if I threw a party for Annike's 1st birthday, then I should also have a party for Sommer's 1st birthday. After all, I don't want to be the mom who forgets about my younger children. But loving them equally is not equivalent to giving them the same things. These two girls are different in so many ways... one is rather serious and the other is not serious at all... one loves animals and one loves people... one likes to be alone and the other likes to never be alone... one is very cautious and the other throws herself at life... one is getting older and the other is still very young. Loving them equivalently is understanding their differences and loving them uniquely because of those differences. Loving them equivalently is giving to them as they have need, not as I have obligation. I love these two girls more than life itself. Party or not, no child of mine will doubt that.

Happy Birthday Girls!
(I hope you enjoyed your parties because next year you may not get one!)