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I celebrate and adore this picture of my mom, taken long long ago. I discovered it today while scanning dozens of our family photos in order to digitalize them. It will probably surprise her to find that I posted it (HI, MOM!) but I just love it.

So young, so full of life, and so free…I love it.

This looks like joy, to me. I want to go swing on a rope over a lake just like this… Why must we remain on the ground, be grounded, down-to-earth all the time? I want to be soaring and floating in the air, feeling the sky.

I am finding joyful treasures as I organize the family pictures. The stuff of legends and legacy.

 

Today was a beautiful day in Southern California—warm, clear, fragrant with the promise of springtime. The perfect day, in fact, to celebrate Christmas with my Nana and our family.

Originally, Bill and I thought we might surprise Nana on Christmas Eve on our way to dinner that night. There has never been a Christmas when I have not spent at least part of it with Nana. When we received the call, though, telling us that Grandpa Yoder had taken a turn for the worse, we drove immediately to the hospital and knew that Christmas with Nana would need to be shared on a different day.

She left her tree decorated, and we could see it through the slider window as we all ate lunch outside by the pool today. Aunt Jenny and Aunt Anna set up the ping pong table and found a new model of the old Toss Across game, which we set up for Violet and Katie. We all enjoyed the time outside, time with family. It was still Christmas, because we were all together. Yes, the kiddos may have been in rompers. Yes, we ate sandwiches instead of prime rib. Yes, we all broke a sweat in the hot sun playing ping pong. Yet, it was just as full of the Christmas spirit as any time we’ve been together on the holiday. What a blessing to know that Christmas can truly last all year in the heart, and in the gathering of family.

Eric was able to take his first “generations” picture. The four of us have been together before, but we had yet to all be pictured together. I remember on that last visit with Grandpa Yoder at his home in November, it crossed my mind to take a “generations” picture…but I didn’t get around to it that day, and I thought “We’ll have another chance soon.” I wish we had one of all four of us, like we do for Katie.

Eric met Great-Aunt Jenny today. If Eric had been a girl, we had decided that he was going to be named “Jennifer” after her.

Eric and his great-grandmother, June Mitchell.

Learning how to play Toss Across.

How fortunate we are to have had this day together, to make these memories. In a life where we must say goodbye to those we love all too often, happiness is taking time with one another while we have each other here.

Gather your joy in your family, and celebrate the love that spans generations and years.

Okay, I am keeping it short for today. 🙂 A combination of teething and moderate reaction to his vaccinations yesterday meant that Eric and I were up for most of the night. Katie never reacted to her immunizations, but the past two times Eric has developed a low-grade fever to accompany them. It’s not too big a deal, because I would much rather comfort him through a little warmth (which means he is developing his antibodies) than to take the risk that he might contract an illness that is many magnitudes more serious. However, it meant a wakeful night for us, because he was restless. Even though his fever was never extreme, he was much more comfortable with palliative care so I used cold washcloths to bring his temperature down for him so we could both get a couple hours sleep in between. With changing, feeding, and the cold compresses, we were awake for about an hour each of the three times he woke up… But, that’s how it is a mom. It’s just that he has spoiled me, because he sleeps like a champ—I am not used to waking up so, so, so much anymore!

I am sleepy today.

Yet this morning when I finally had to peel my eyeballs open, when both kiddos were as awake as could be, I really had to have a talk with myself for one minute…and I made the decision to CHOOSE thankfulness. Thank you, for my children. Thank you for letting them be safe and healthy with me. A night of wakefulness? That’s part of my job. I really can’t complain, except that at 6:00 this morning, I really felt for a split second like grumbling…a lot.

Then the Matics and Yoder farm values kicked in. Get up. Do the actions. The heart will follow. Make the oatmeal. Cut up grapefruit. Dress the children. Dress yourself. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps…and get going. Do I really think my ancestors had time to complain? And look how much easier I really have it. A microwave. Gas burning stove to make tea. A heater to keep the house warm.

Yes, readers, it was that basic this morning. Get back to the fundamentals of gratitude. Be glad I don’t have to walk ten miles in the snow. I had to remind myself of my basic thanks. That’s how tired I was. Tired, but not too tired to forget that I have so much to celebrate everyday. I am lucky.

So we ate, dressed, and went for a walk. It is almost counter-intuitive, but when I am most tired, I try to exercise. Exercise gives me energy when I feel I have none. We went to a park and played. I pretended that my eyes and head and back did not hurt, chose not to dwell, and eventually I tricked myself into feeling more awake.

The morning got better. Dad and I went to our Toastmasters meeting. I was a little tired there, but managed to win Best Table Topics (despite truly believing that it should have been someone else). When I am tired, I guess I worry less about what I will say and so I am not as nervous as I normally am.

The best part? I got to watch my dad win Most Valuable Member of 2010 for our club. I thought that honor was well-deserved. I know it might seem biased, but my main criteria for the Most Valuable Member includes attendance (as there would be no club if people didn’t attend regularly). Record showed that my dad had the best attendance of the year. He also completed his CC, to help the club meet one of its goals. Too, he has been serving  as an officer and has done some extra little things, like make new name cards, purchase materials to share without reimbursement, etc. He really loves being a part of Toast of the Valley.

Also, I know he would never vote for himself or even think he would ever be considered—that kind of humility is also appealing to me when it comes to awards like this.

So the tiredness is catching up with me this afternoon, but I am truly thankful for the joys I got to witness today, even with only one eye open. My children laughed and played and learned, and I got to watch my dad win an award that is meaningful to him, one that he did not expect.

Gather your joy by celebrating the triumphs of your family, of those you love. When we are really glad for others, and to have them in our lives, then we have all the heart-energy in the world, even if our bodies are begging for our beds.

Rooting around in the garage this afternoon, Eric harnessed to my front and Katie painting with watercolors, I found in a box of my old playthings a snow globe I’d once received from Grandma and Grandpa Yoder for Christmas. Gosh, it must have been a Christmas as long ago as 1986 or even 1987 or 1988. A Christmas back when we all were here: Aunt Lark, Uncle Eric, my grandparents, my young parents.  I wasn’t much older than seven or eight years old when I received it, and it was before we moved to Temecula, I know. I remember being little and holding it in my Yorba Linda room and watching it for hours, of being an age when the world was perfect, an age when my parents could still protect me from almost everything.

It is no longer really a snow globe (the glass broke long, long ago, maybe in the move), but the music box part of it still works fine. There is a clown holding three balloons, and the tune it plays is Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—more of an up-tempo version.

Dusting it off, bending the wired balloons back to standing, I placed it on our family room bookshelves. As I thought about the song it plays—a poignant song originally, full of regret and disappointment and the irony of missed timing (the Judy Collins cover always makes me feel weepy)—I also pondered how much it draws our attention, really, to finding and celebrating all the moments when timing is right, all the times when we aren’t the fools, or clowns,  that Shakespeare warns us mortals about.

So there were blessings today.

Eric had a check-up and vaccinations with his pediatrician this morning. My brave little boy. He is “long and lean” in Dr. Camacho’s words, at 26.5 inches in length, and 15 lbs., 6 oz. A good check-up is always a blessing. My mom came to help, and that is always welcome. Katie entertained her brother while we waited, by jumping and making up funny things to say. He laughs and laughs at his sister—I love it!

Later, my dad came over to help with a couple of things around the house. He took Katie for a walk and to lunch while Eric napped, so I had a little personal time this afternoon and time to work on my editing. I held and cuddled Eric as he went to sleep and just savored holding him for awhile while I read through some new recipes I’ve been wanting to try. I spent time studying his little baby face, marveling that I have him here with me now—as he was always meant to be. I began to ponder: what if the timing of Bill and I deciding to have a second child had been just the tiniest bit off? Would I not have had Eric? Impossible to fathom. He is as much a part of my destiny as is Katie.

Eric was still napping when Katie returned home, and she saw that I had put him down on her bed (a little closer to where I wanted to work). I asked her if she minded that he was on her bed, and she said, “No, he can be there; he’s my little brother!” She is so generous with her heart and her love for Eric. She is beautiful in her big sister role. And he adores her, too. I hope they always will love each other as much and as purely as they do right now. It is beautiful to witness.

And it is beautiful that, after so many years, my snow-globe-turned-music-box returned to my life just when I needed it, right at the time it would be most meaningful. While it reminds me of times that I miss and long almost too much to return to for just a moment, it becomes a talisman of childhood, a symbol of protection for an age I hold dear. It symbolizes what I most long to protect in my own children: innocent joy, free of worry, a joy of life.

A good friend of mine (and my former 10th grade English teacher) Donna Dutton, another lovely spirit full of light, posed an thoughtful question to me in an e-mail this morning: What do I think of the revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

To catch up, an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, is going to publish a new version of Huck Finn (as we call it in English-teacher shorthand) with all instances of the n-word replaced. NPR reports that there are other words that will be changed, as well. For example, “half-breed” will be revised to read “half-blood” and so on.

It is fair to say that, as I have grown older, my views with respect to censorship have grown more complex. As a young student, a young scholar of English at a liberal arts university, and a new first-year teacher I was loud with my trumpet that no literature or art should be off limits, censored, or banned. Yet with experience and motherhood has come the understanding that not all “art” has inherent value, simply because it was produced. There are a great many films, for example, that I would never allow to come into our home. There are several I have turned off mid-watch (even before children) because the language offends me. Why should my criteria be different with written material?

Few would dispute that Twain is one of the greatest American novelists and artists of his age, or of any age. I do think that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer constitute valuable, worthwhile, thought-provoking artistry. Even more to my personal liking is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I wrote about on the day last year of Salinger’s passing. Catcher is filled with cursing, and yet I do believe they have a purpose. I believe that Twain’s use of extremely culturally charged words also had a purpose—a purpose that is still relevant today.

I weigh this idea, though, with how I feel about more and more expletives being permitted on TV. It has become so rampant and permissive that watching prime time TV with Katie present (even recorded, since she goes to bed near 8:00 PM) is out of the question. Bill and I have a personal philosophy that cursing or, obviously, using hurtful names to disparage others is never okay. We do not teach our children those words, and if they ever hear them elsewhere and start using them, they will be corrected. Yes, intellectually we understand that words are just words—human beings give them arbitrary values and emotional tones. We have both read Stephen Pinker’s work on the subject. Intellectualism, however, is only one facet of our experience as human beings. Whether we like it or not, the words we choose to use do define us. For better or worse, I always wince when I hear someone use a curse word (just as I cringe when one comes into my head in frustration), and I always wonder why that person has chosen not to express himself or herself in a more positive and polite way. Often, I can’t help being offended by those words, depending a little on context. That’s just…me. For better or worse. Perhaps I am a little too subject to my upbringing and cannot look enough outside my own box, it may be argued, but I was raised to use more polite word choice. It’s that Mennonite blood in me, I think.

For me the words I use or don’t use are a way to honor my family, my husband and children now, and my parents and extended family, my elders. We would never dream about using such words in front of my Nana or my grandfathers, so why should I use them any other time?

I step away from myself, though, and I realize that sometimes, the artful use of curse words can be amusing. Satire, farce, social commentary: wielded with skill, even the most powerfully negative words in our culture can be illuminating. I think there must be some part of me that distinguishes between using a curse word simply because we stub our toes and using a curse word to elucidate the human condition as a call for edifying, positive change. Intent?

We can see why this issue is so complicated. My intellectual side pulls me one direction, but my experience with the world and human nature guides me in another.

It would be easier to take an entirely intellectual approach and argue that anything should be permitted in art or expression at any time, and everyone should just “get over it.” I’ve been down that road of thinking before…but then, what about “art” that exploits women, or even children? What happens in a world where there are no boundaries of taste—whatever taste is? Or parameters of right and wrong? It often seems like one of our more logical choices is to choose to celebrate a language, and an art, that revolves around goodness and love. Sure, words may be just words, but they are powerful and impossible to divorce from sociocultural baggage…so why not choose to fill our minds and hearts with good ones?

But back to Twain. Ultimately, do I think he should be bowdlerized? No. Absolutely not. The choice to read his words or not must remain with the individual. Do I think that he would be an easy read for a less mature or experienced reader? No. His humor is sometimes subtle, his writing complex. It might be tempting for some readers to take him at face value—and there is one of the problems. I also taught To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels of all time. Harper Lee used the n-word, too, but she was more straightforward about her message: it is easier for young students to see that the only characters who use that word are utterly uneducated buffoons, including the antagonist of the novel. It is easier to teach students the context, for them to see how she uses the word in the mouths of the villains to make a point about racism. Twain is not always as clear, even though his point is similar. With my own children, I will teach them these novels when I am convinced that their reading comprehension is sophisticated enough to deal with the cultural weight of it.

Other films and novels they will have to choose on their own, when they are adults—and that is the point of all that Bill and I seek to teach them. How to make good choices… What to put in their minds and hearts, and above all, why.

I think much would be lost if, in the revision of Twain’s works, we lose the ability as Americans, as people, to have this discussion.

When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), I often read certain passages aloud to my students. We would have a discussion about the n-word. I told them that my choice, as a human being, was that I would not be saying the word when we read. I know that probably offended a handful, and rightfully—it was my own form of personal censorship I guess. Except: they could still read and see the word as it was printed on the page. Each of us has to make her own choices. I supported my colleagues who would read those words aloud, and I respected the logic that led them to do so. It came from a caring, loving place, just as my choices did. Those colleagues were just as important to the freedom of our literature, if not moreso, than I was to the cause of individual choice. All American high school English teachers deal with this issue, and many of us fret about it late at night. I will always maintain that students needed to see how all of us dealt with those words, to know that one day they would have to choose, and that there were good arguments on both sides.

One of the joys of our glorious freedom in this country is that we can still debate this subject in a meaningful way. Gather your joy in thoughtful freedom today!

 

 

 

 

Of all the pictures arranged on the memorial table at my Grandpa Yoder’s funeral reception last week, the picture of the old Yoder farmhouse, a red wooden structure surrounded by trees, in Indiana took up the deepest root in my mind and heart. He had kept it in his office, and I’d never seen it. Some part of me comes from there. So often I have felt a fundamental connection to my Amish Mennonite ancestry; in fact, my dad’s side of our family also hails from generations of farmers in California. Farm blood is my blood. I celebrate the attention and reverence that farm values place upon working with our hands and finding glory in a job well done, upon the simple pleasures and basics of life, upon the importance of family and working together. The down-to-earthness.

In another serendipitous common thread winding among events happening in my life, my mom gave me several cross stitch projects and supplies for Christmas. Knowing of my love for all things Amish, one of the patterns she gave me features an Amish countryside village with horses and buggies. During Christmas, I had a chance to glance at only briefly as I was helping Katie with her gifts.

Today I pulled the gift back out. In one of those amazing life coincidences that leaves one speechless, I noticed for the first time the wording on the top of the pattern. To be stitched above the scene are the words “BIRD IN HAND.” I could almost feel the breath leave my body. She bought that pattern months ago; I had been considering titling this blog “birdinyourhand” for some few days before Christmas, before ever opening the gift. What are the chances of all these elements—my ancestry, my core values, my outlet for expression (my blog), etc—coming together right at this one time? I am going to have to ponder this one…

My dad, Richard Matics, and I were speaking of  down-to-earth farm values this afternoon, in fact, as we discussed the main values of his real estate company. He owns Matics Realty Inc, and we’ve been working on writing the content for his website. My brother’s MIL (mother-in-love) Lorraine Ryba, one of the owners of PuterWerkZ, has been designing the site. Only the completion of the written content is needed for official launch, and so my dad and I sat down for a second writing session today. My dad and I work well together: he talks about what he values and the facts, and I write and edit the content into paragraphs. It gets a little hectic at moments with the two kiddos as busy as ever—I can’t exactly report that I have quiet working conditions—but there is joy even in the loud loveliness. My mom came over, too, and she and Katie both were squealing in delight while playing hide-and-go-seek.

I am a creature, by nature, of the quietest and calmest and most solitudinous times of night. Always have been. Learning to work, think, and exist amid the bustle and delightful squeals and chatter and clinkings of toys has been a great challenge for me as a mother.  As much as I have always encouraged joyful noise and singing, still I sometimes crave a moment of silence with every fiber of my body—and it might only be 10:00 in the morning. Thank goodness, again, for my previous career in teaching, which conditioned me well to have patience and postponement and to embrace different needs and different voices craving recognition all at once. Thank goodness, too, for four years of living with roommates and dormmates in college, and for learning how to create a personal space in one compartment of my mind that I can go to for a five minute breather when I need to tune back in to my inner calm.

It is the time when life seems the busiest that we must return to our fundamentals. We return to our inner farm, and plant the authentic seeds of ourselves anew. Let us gather our joy—and our wits and our written voices and our moments of personal calm—in the midst of life’s most bouncy bustle.

If December is a time of watching Christmas movies, baking batches of special cookies, reaching in philanthropy toward others, and festooning every space with ornament, then certainly we must give January its own special traditions in order to keep the merriment thriving in our hearts. Why not have a holiday spirit all year? So goes my thinking.

For many, January may represent a season of making changes. True: the new year is a natural time to take stock of our lives and resolve to make improvements. Yet even as we ponder the ways we might use change as a means of quantitative betterment (lose weight, as a popular choice) , perhaps we should also remember the birds in our hands and use our very fundamentals to improve the quality of our lives.

January, in contrast to the festive month of December, has the potential to make us feel stranded and isolated as we relinquish the shared feeling of the international celebration of Christmas. It seems all the more important, then, that we figure out ways to make this month as meaningful, cheery, and blithe as we can.

A couple of years ago when Katie was still young enough to take naps daily, and when I had not yet had my second child, I would put her down, watch a movie, and work on my scrapbook for a couple of hours. All through January, I worked on my scrapbook and revisited all of my favorite musical films and discovered new ones, too. Last year, taking my real estate courses and preparing for my test, I used all of my free time very differently. This January, however, I am eager to make our January musicals part of our new tradition. Musical films are so much a part of my Yoder-Mitchell side of my family especially, a way to connect to parts of life that members of my family have loved. January I have now turned into McGaugh Family Musical Film Month. (Well, at least for three of us. 😉

In prepping our dinner menus this month, I have also decided to focus our January meals on old family recipes and our traditional family comfort foods. Recipes and dinners that my Grandma and my mom have made many times will become part of my children.

We are working also on redoing many of our picture frames. In addition to some of the newer images of moments we’ve loved and shared, we are going through our archives of photographs, scanning some, and have plans to fill our frames with more images of our ancestors. I am clearing a spot on the upstairs linen cabinet where I hope to gather these photographs of our ancestors, some many generations away from Katie and Eric, so that we may pass by them daily and remember the men and women from whom we come.

I want to ground my children in the fundamentals this month: the hobbies, traditions, and history of our family. Joyful January, filled with our own celebrations, I feel as eager for you as I did for December.

Today we enjoyed our rearranged living room (see previous post), spending the morning in there reading, looking at the rain, playing with toys, singing… At some point, we moved into the family room, and while Eric played on his play-gym mat, Katie and I prepped our pot roast. Oh, the delicious scent all day! We started a fire in the fireplace, and Katie worked on one of her presents from Santa: making lip balm. Around lunchtime, we watched Showboat, one of my favorite musical films. I always feel the tears come when we hear “Ol’ Man River.”

It was a quiet day at home, cuddly and comforting.

Let us gather our joy by holding the fundamentals of our family in our hands.