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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Celebrating Christmas

Last year was not a good year for Christmas in the Sherwood family.  Living out of suitcases in a temporary house for five weeks ended on Christmas day when we moved into our permanent house.  We borrowed a tree from one of Brandon's (very, very kind) colleagues and made the best we could of the season.  But it wasn't very festive.

This year, Brandon vowed to celebrate Christmas so much he'd be happy to take down the tree and turn off the music on December 26th.

We started the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  We pulled out all of our Christmas decorations, loaded up the iPod with all fifteen of our Christmas CDs, and finished the day with White Christmas and peppermint hot chocolate.

In church the next day, we started singing Christmas hymns.  There are never enough Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas to sing all of the songs you want to.

The next Monday evening we made snowflakes and drank more hot chocolate.  Because you can never have enough hot chocolate.

On Saturday we went to our first holiday party.  I took my very favorite Christmas cookies, peppermint chocolate cookies.  Because, peppermint.  You can never get enough of that at Christmas.  And of course chocolate.  Because that's for all seasons.

The next Monday we made wrapping paper.  Brandon and I cut out potato stamps while the children eagerly and impatiently watched - I keep thinking that next year will be the year I'll hand over the Xacto blade and not care about the poor design quality - and then let them loose.  And after they went to bed, I made my own tastefully designed sheet.

The next Saturday we invited everyone over for a caroling party.  And we had hot chocolate.  Again.                                       

In church we watched the First Presidency Christmas Devotional and some of the children thought that they were going to die of Mormon Tabernacle Choir overdose.  I enjoyed it.

The next Monday we all enjoyed Mr. Krueger's Christmas, just in case people still felt a need for more MoTab, and drank the hot chocolate left over from Saturday's party.  Christmas, brought to you by hot chocolate.

And on Saturday we enjoyed our final Christmas party, a section party hosted by Brandon's boss.  The children enjoyed a visit from Ded Moroz and his helper, Snegurochka.  They got to howl for his arrival, circle the Christmas tree, chant for it to light up, and sing a song to receive their treat bag.  I'll now be unimpressed with Santa Claus forever.  All he does is sit in a comfy chair and ask about presents.  

Sunday, after having our church Christmas program, we made our yearly gingerbread house, a highlight of the children's Christmas celebrations.  The girls and Edwin are finally old enough to enjoy sticking candy on every single surface that I'll consent to squirt icing on, but Joseph (and now Eleanor) don't care for anything but stuffing every piece of candy they can find into their sticky faces.  

For our final Christmas Family Home Evening, we watched Muppets Christmas Carol and ate schawermas.  But no hot chocolate.

And tonight we'll have some friends over for Christmas Eve dinner and singing.  Then it will finally be Christmas.  

I used to worry that all of the fun things we do for Christmas were somehow wrong, distracting us from our worship of Christ.  But I've made my own peace, creating a place where gingerbread houses and the creator of the universe can coexist.  I can have fun with my children and enjoy the company of friends because of Christ's birth over 2,000 years ago.  The gift of his birth and life is not something to be admired and revered from afar, like that crystal vase your grandmother passed to you, the one that never can actually be used for anything because it is so precious.  The gift that he has given us - the ability to come here and have family and friends and fun and gifts and gingerbread houses - is one to be used every day to its fullest.  We can make snowflakes and think of the beauty that Christ gave us in everything, even snowflakes that we can barely see.  Our gifts to each other remind us of Christ's gift to us.  Our time with friends fills us with the love that Christ has for all of His brothers and sisters.  

And so we can pack up the tree this year, knowing that we have enjoyed the Christmas season this year to the fullest.  We will go on into the New Year, freshly reminded of the gifts we have been given.  And when Christmas comes around again next year, we can do it all again.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Happy Birthday, Edwin!

Edwin turned six last week.  I find this kind of amazing, that my third child is six now.  There is a qualitative difference between five and six.  Clothes aren't from the toddler section any more.  School is a full-time, state mandated affair.  It takes two hands to show how old you are.

Kathleen turned six when we were in Baku and it seemed like it had taken absolutely forever for her to get so amazingly big.  And then Edwin turned six, almost behind my back.  I remember my uncle telling me, as we both gazed at three week-old Kathleen asleep in her carseat, that you're holding a tiny little baby and then the next thing you know they're going off to college.  I'm starting to feel that with my own children, even if college is almost a decade away.

For Edwin's birthday we took him to a local play place - this time with indoor bumper cars! - and got fried chicken before coming home for coconut cake and presents.  His fondest wish was to go up into the mountains to play in the snow, but we had a busy day and so had to stay around town.

We've had a rough time with Edwin - no matter what anyone tries to tell you boys and girls are not the same - but he has really become a pleasant part of our family.  If you ask him right, he's happy to help and will talk your ear off about the largest airplanes that anyone could imagine.  He and Joseph will spend a good amount of time playing together every day, coming up with creative ways to make a whole lot of noise.  If he decides that he is going to do something, he does it and won't give up until it's done.  And he adores his little sister.

Happy Birthday, Edwin!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Caroling, Caroling Now We Go

Last Saturday I hosted my very first embassy party.  Dushanbe is a small enough embassy that pretty much every party is an open invitation party, which is something that I really enjoy.  Everybody is in the cool crowd because there aren't enough people to support two different crowds.

I lured guests with the promise of home made doughnuts, cider, and hot chocolate.  Maybe this wouldn't have worked in a country where those things are plentiful, but it works pretty well here.  You don't have to like me to like my doughnuts.

I had a fun time decorating the house, perusing the internet for weeks looking for anything that could be pulled together from local ingredients.  A few days before the party, I struck gold at a store that resells Ikea products and was able to find both red Christmas ornaments and votive candle holders.

The morning of the party we took a quick trip to the local park and... pruned... the local evergreens and took the prunings home to decorate the house.

Everyone finished off four and a half of the six dozen doughnuts I had made and drank a gallon and a half each of cider and hot chocolate before we settled down to get some caroling done.

Some of the songs went well, some better, and some just really, really long.  But all of the them were enjoyed and sung with gusto.

One of my favorite, favorite parts of the Foreign Service is being part of a strong, close community of people that I come to know and love.  We gather for birthday parties and barbecues, by the pool and around the Christmas tree.  We all know that in a few years the friends we sung all the verses of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" will be scattered across the world, never able to gather together again for a reprise.  But when we are together, we are family.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Snow Day

Dushanbe is not a very cold city.  Everyone here desperately hates winter, counting down the days until spring as soon as the temperatures start dipping below fifty degrees.  But it isn't because winter is particularly long, or even cold, it's because of bad housing and spotty electricity.  When your concrete block house with no insulation doesn't have power to run your few poor radiators, winter is a pretty rough time.

 We've had a nice fall, with the temperatures only dropping into the fifties in November.  Last week I shut off all of the radiators in the house because we were dying of heat - when it's 65 degrees and sunny, you only need a little heat, not ALL of it.

Then it got cold.  And then it started raining.  And then it got colder. told me that we would get some snow, about 1-3 inches on Thursday and 1-3 inches that night.  I shouldn't really be taking an American weather website as reliable anyway, and when the children and I went out Thursday afternoon in six inches of snow, I was reminded of that fact.

Luckily we have a park less than a quarter mile from our house, which makes for perfect snow playing when everyone else is huddling inside or hurrying home to huddle and get away from that nasty white stuff.

Most of the children had a great time making snow angels, sliding down hills, and making (and then breaking) several snowmen.  Eleanor was unimpressed, but most 19 month-olds are unimpressed with most new experiences.  We only bring her along because she can't be left alone in the house.

Dushanbe doesn't usually get snow until January, so it's started early this year.  Last year was pretty mild, so we'll have to see how this one goes.  But if it snows, we'll have a great time playing in it.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas Shopping

I need (maybe need is a strong word) more Christmas decorations. When we pulled out our Christmas decorations from their two year-old mover's wrap this year, I realized (again) that we just don't have enough decorations to fill the large houses we end up in. I'm not much of a decorator because that would require spending time actually shopping for something that's simply there for atmospherics.

I got religion back in October and ordered two (two!) ten-foot long decorated garlands to hang on our enormous dark brown-painted staircase and did some serious searching for glass ball ornaments, but in the end the selection overwhelmed me and I didn't commit in time for anything to get here before January.  Such is life when you don't have a Target.  Somehow it's a whole lot easier to fill your shopping cart when the actual items are sitting on a shelf just waiting for you to drop them in.  I don't know how many thousands of dollars of stuff has never been bought because I never got the gumption up to enter my credit card number (which I have memorized, sadly) in the check-out form. Brandon claims this is a good thing.

I resigned myself to a rather bare-looking Christmas living room for yet another year and made solemn promises to at least replace the three fourteen year-old light strings that gave up the ghost this season and then practiced admiring our Christmas tree and stockings.

Then we decided to host a caroling party.  And, of course, there's nothing like the thought of guests to inspire one's latent decorating urge.

Thankfully, we are in a post-Soviet Muslim country instead of a regular Muslim country and everyone here celebrates New Year's in a way that looks suspiciously similar to Christmas, complete with trees and decorations.

So Saturday morning found all seven of us in the car right after eight o'clock for a quick trip to the large bazaar south of town with 'everything' you could ever need.  I had spent some time in Baku shopping in a bazaar of the same idea, so I knew we needed to get an early start to have even a prayer for a parking spot.  Most places in Dushanbe have decent parking - i.e. parking on the street - but this place, according to the Google Maps satellite image did not.

The scrum started in early, as it always does in these sorts of places, and when I spotted an open slot on the very edge of the sextuple-parked car mass, Brandon pulled over and gladly paid the three somoni (fifty cent) parking fee to the official looking man strolling around.  I strapped on Eleanor, got the children in order, and we all started started hiking.  All Soviet bazaars are organized on the same principle - rows and aisles of ten foot-wide stalls selling pretty much the same thing as their neighbors.  The stalls are organically organized into sections that morph into each other, and the only way to find something like, say, the fabric section is to 1. ask someone or 2. wander around until your find it.

We were on a tight schedule - birthday party at eleven - and so I nagged Brandon until he decided to attempt strategy number one.  "You want aisle number ten," the first man assured us, "that's where the New Year's decorations are."  We all turned around and hiked through Saturday morning shoppers, cart-men, tea-sellers, and piles of trash to the other end of the market.  Nothing but fabric.  We turned right and made it to the other corner and found fancy dresses and shoes, but no Christmas New Year's decorations.

So, on my insistent advice, Brandon took a survey.  Because if you ask ten people the same question, surely there will be a statistically significant number of similar answers, right?  "Row twenty four." "Across the street at door one." "I don't know." "Door three." "New Year's decorations?  Why would you want those?" "Somewhere over there [vague gesturing]." "Turn around and go back down that aisle.  Follow me."  And, with no other more reasonable options, we followed.

And he was right, but also not right.  We found a smattering of stalls hanging shiny tinsel garlands (so that's where they all went) and displaying glittered masks.  One guy even had several boxes of LED string lights in all colors but white.  But there was no swath of stalls with ball ornaments, white lights, and all of the other things we had braved traffic for forty-five minutes to find.  So we kept looking.  After making our way to construction goods and mens' clothing, Kathleen announced that it was almost ten o'clock.

Image result for Корвон Душанбе

I hadn't put on makeup, dried my hair, or wrapped the birthday boy's gift, so we turned around and headed back to the car.  There aren't convenient light poles (or light poles at all) in these parts of the world, but you can find your car just as well by marking what half-constructed building or fancy-dress store you parked near.  Maybe even easier.

So after easily finding our embarrassingly muddy black Pilot, we loaded everyone back into the car and hastily pulled out so that another driver, giddy with finding such a great spot, could pay his three Somoni to the man in the uniform.  No Christmas ornaments today.

If we had done this three or four years ago, I would have been pretty mad.  We had woken up early, gobbled down our breakfast, and driven to the opposite edge of Dushanbe just to find one thing. Three hours of our Saturday morning were wasted, and there wouldn't be any time next Saturday for attempt number two.  The decorations were there (confirmed sightings had been reported by multiple embassy personnel), we just couldn't find them.  I could sense them, deep in a hidden corner, mocking me with their promise of a stunning and tastefully decorated living room.  Instead I would have to live with what I could scrounge.  Maybe the anemic pine in front of our house could donate for the cause?

But, having looked in vain enough times before, I was just resigned.  Maybe I could make a field trip during the week.  Perhaps I could get some custom-done greenery from that lady at the botanical gardens.  Maybe snowflakes hanging from the chandeliers instead of balls?  Or perhaps everyone could just enjoy singing carols together without a Martha Stewart living room.  The songs would get sung, hot chocolate drunk, and doughnuts eaten either way.  And I saved money.

So those of you with easy Target access, enjoy your easy Christmas decorating.  Think of me when you load up your car with shiny baubles, strings of working lights, and cute Santa statues.  I'm off to go 'borrow' some greenery from my neighbors.  Wish me luck.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Norman Rockwell Moments

Four years ago we bought a piano.  I had grown up with a piano in my house, taking lessons for five years, and wanted my children to learn too.  When the first Christmas came I pulled out our Christmas songs and called everyone over to the piano.  "Let's sing some Christmas songs," I insisted, "it will be fun!"  Scenes from all of the family Christmas movies that ever had people happily joining together around a piano with smiles, harmony, and fuzzy camera lenses paraded through past my eyes as the children reluctantly abandoned the toys and games they had been happily playing at thirty seconds before.

Kathleen was five, Sophia three, Edwin two, and Joseph in bed.  I banged out the first few chords and bravely dove in to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."  Kathleen, who could read, followed along hesitantly.  Sophia, not yet literate, made it through exactly five words before giving up and sneaking back to her baby doll.  Brandon wrestled Edwin to the couch and sang every ten words or so in between changing holds on Edwin.  

After a few songs I put the piano book away, fuzzy Christmas feelings scattering in the reality of actual family life that involves children, not actors paid to smile in pretend family love.

This past Sunday afternoon we gathered for our Sunday afternoon family game.  We've reached an awkward spread of ages; the girls are old enough to play more complicated games like Clue, Catan Junior, and Enchanted Forest (Brandon hates that game).  The boys only like games that involve destruction and loud noises - Jenga - and those for a maximum of fifteen minutes.  Brandon has his own treasured family visions regarding games, and wants everyone to play together.  

While rummaging around for something everyone could enjoy, Brandon hit upon name that song.  
As Thanksgiving has come and gone and our decorations are up, I suggested playing with Christmas songs.  Brandon worked up a point system - three notes is five points, five notes three - and the first round started.  Sophia stole "Oh Christmas Tree" from Kathleen and then we all sang it together.  Edwin stole "We Three Kings," and Joseph guessed "Jingle Bells" on his own.  

After each song everyone gathered around the tree, enthusiastically singing the words they knew and making up the ones they didn't.   We sang as the Christmas lights glowed softly next to the piano, bringing thirty-three Christmases' magic to the room.  We all sang songs of Christ's birth, gathered together in our family, one of the countless families that His coming brought eternity to.  

Eventually the boys wandered off and we finished with "Silent Night" before finishing off the last pumpkin pie for dinner/dessert (pumpkin is a vegetable) and regular life started again.  Joseph smacked Edwin with an improvised sword.  Eleanor dumped her milk on the floor.  Kathleen refused to give a toy back that she had stolen.  Everyone got sent to bed sooner than was strictly necessary.

Children are a lot of work, much much much more work than pleasure.  They come into the world helpless and clueless and parents have the daunting task of turning them into people that will be capable of rearing children of their own.  This work is good and necessary - without it everything in the world would stop in a very short time.  But it isn't exactly sitting on a beach in Tahiti.  Then again, nothing that is worth anything is sitting on a beach in Tahiti.  Brandon hated the quote hanging on his parent's wall by Goethe, "It is not doing the things we like to do, but liking the thing we have to do that makes life blessed."

But every now and then, those brief moments come that give us a glimpse into eternity, together as a family.  Everyone is in harmony, working or singing or playing together, and the world in that moment, in that small space, is perfect.  I am more than myself, Brandon and I are more than a couple, and all of the work and worry and long nights and frustrating times are paid off in the one perfect moment where we are a family.  Those moments come rarely, and their rarity brings infinite value to them.  When I think of an eternity with my family, the thing that is most precious to me in the world, I would trade literally anything for that.  I will change diapers, I will wipe noses, I will dry tears, I will wash dishes, I will stay up nights, I will break up fights, I will clean up vomit, and I will probably never take that vacation in Tahiti.  Nothing is too dear to give up.

This, of course, is hard to remember in the middle of fights happening while dishes have to be washed with a pause to change diapers.  It's always easy to see the goal on the straightaways; it's the curves that life throws you that make it hard to see there from here.  But in those times I can remember our perfect Sunday evening of love, Christmas, and singing.  And I will keep traveling down that road.  Because the end is worth it.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Dream Come True

When I was a child, my parents never washed Sunday dinner dishes.  After filling up on pot roast, mashed potatoes, jello, and rolls, they would inevitably stretch their arms, pull an enormous yawn and announce, "We're going to go take a nap.  Get the dishes done and Don't. Wake. Us. Up.  See you in a couple of hours."

I've often thought of those Sunday afternoons longingly.  I don't wistfully remember squabbling with my siblings until the dishes jobs got parted out (No, you got to wipe the counters last week.  It's my turn this week!) or taking three hours to finish what my mother could knock out in thirty minutes.  I always thought I lived with unreasonable tyrants who abused their parental monopoly on force.  I deserved some rest on the Sabbath, didn't I?  I had worked hard sitting through church and needed to recover curling up with my favorite book.  Washing dishes wasn't exactly on the program.

Instead, I've thought wistfully on my parent's ability to finish their dinner, clear their plates (maybe) and go take a Sunday afternoon nap.  What a luxury, to have enough time to spend an hour or two on Sunday to nap.  Instead of spending an hour washing the dishes they had just spent the previous two hours getting dirty just in time to hustle the children off to bed, they got to nap while somebody else washed the dishes.  What was that like?

I am here to tell you today that it is wonderful.

I just crawled out of bed from a beautiful, luxurious hour and a half nap.  I didn't wash a single dish, wipe up a single crumb, or sweep up a single dropped pea.  After finishing our turkey pot pie, Brandon announced to the children that we were going to take a nap before marching up the stairs and doing exactly that.

I'm sure the children squabbled about jobs, complained about tyrannical parents, and wondered when the resting part of the Sabbath was going to show up.  But I didn't hear any of it.  I was tucked into my bed, wonderfully unconscious of anything but a full belly, warm bed, and whatever dreams were parading past my closed eyelids.  Even if the children didn't get to rest on the Sabbath, I certainly did.

Thanks, Mom and Dad, for setting a good example!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

A few weeks ago Joseph turned four.  I remember when Kathleen turned four.  She was so big; she was able to dress herself, feed herself, use the bathroom by herself, and even get herself ready for bed.

Joseph, at four, is still firmly one of the little kids.  He can feed himself, but prefers to be fed, needs his buttons done up, will wander down the stairs half dressed calling for someone to wipe his bum, and will only get ready for bed with direct supervision.

Such is the difference between your fourth and first child.

For Joseph's birthday this year we celebrated with persimmon cake and presents.  One of the other downsides of being a fourth is the superabundance of toys filling the toy room.  This is good most of the time - more toys to play with - but it translates into the bare minimum of toys received as gifts.  If it weren't for my own fond memories of opening presents on my own birthday I wouldn't even give the children toys anymore.

But I'm not that mean so Joseph gleefully opened up a red toy truck from Brandon and me and a long wooden truck from his grandparents.  The girls, caught up in the excitement of birthday and presents, made Joseph a cardboard box garage to park his trucks in.  Joseph was delighted with everything and even ate some of his cake.  Both trucks went to bed with him that night.

It's very strange to have all but one of my children over three years old, to have four children that can mostly function independently and sometimes do the things that I tell them to do.  Our family is doing some serious thinking about growing up.

I'm grateful to have Joseph in our family; his constant cheerfulness and unfailing friendliness instantly endear him to just about everyone he meets (except his father who is driven nuts by all small children).  He's always happy to give me a hug and kiss and likes to follow me around the house making strange observations in his chirpy little four year-old voice.  I know that one day he will be all grown up and much taller than me.  His chirpy voice will have dropped but he'll probably still make friends with just about everyone he meets.  He will grow older and have four year-olds of his own that drive him just as crazy as he drove his own father.  And I'll laugh and tell him stories from his own childhood.

But for now, he's still little and wants a bedtime story before wrapping his arms around my neck for a tight squeezy hug.  I think I'll keep him.

Happy Birthday, Joseph!