Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top 9 Instagrams of 2012

After much blood, sweat, tears and artistic obsession, I am officially declaring these to be my Top 9 Instagrams of 2012.

Let's be honest. I posted over 900 photos to Instagram this year, and I could claim about half of them as my favorites. This was a very difficult and highly subjective selection process.

But in the end, I can readily say that these photos are not only aesthetically pleasing to me but also represent some of my best memories of the past year.

From left to right and top to bottom:

1. A summer dinner of shortcake, whipped cream and fresh fruit is a longstanding family tradition around here. I love the primary colors and strong geometry of the shot, set off by the warm wood of my patio table. This is a bowl full of summer and it takes me right back to those sunny, fruit-filled days  that I love so much.

2. On the way to a Seattle Mariners baseball game, I captured the lovely architecture of the alley side of these buildings. I love the similar-but-different brown tones and rectangular lines of these back-to-back-to-back structures, and I smile to remember that just beyond the bottom border of this serene composition was a swarming sea of baseball fans, vendors and food stands.

3. These are the maple trees that border the playground at my old elementary school. I haven't visited my former stomping grounds in decades, but the minute I stepped behind the building, the memories of my childhood swept through my senses like a tsunami. It was an overpoweringly nostalgic experience, and this photo captures that intensity through the bold complementary colors.

4. This tiny paper crane was folded from an old map by my youngest, and photographed as we were moving her into her new dorm room, 1500 miles from home. This precious creation is not only a marvel of beauty and a perfect icon of my daughter's personality, but photographed in my open hand, it also symbolizes the act of allowing my baby bird to fly away from me.

5. In a mass of fields overflowing with fresh, bright, sturdy, growing tulips, I found a small wooden wagon heaped with several armloads of cut, spent, wilted blooms. And these flowers gave me my most satisfying shots of the day. If I had to choose, this would be my favorite Instagram of the whole year.

6. One of my biggest surprises in 2012 was that I learned to love the desert. I never fancied the brown, dry, empty spaces of the southwest United States in the past, but since visiting there three times this year, I've come to appreciate that special brand of beauty. Plus, saguaro cacti might be about the cutest plants ever.

7. After my darling little students finished a watercolor project one day, I glanced down and saw this little vignette of scattered supplies and messy splatters. Somehow, it captured the innocence and gentle beauty of their work, and I love the simple shapes and colors.

8. Once again this summer, Ranger accompanied us to Kalaloch, Washington for our annual camping trip. Isn't he just the picture of calm watchfulness? I love the contrast of the wild forest in the background against the tiny bit of domesticity and civilization that we have temporarily established in the foreground. To me, this photo sums up both the challenge and rewards of camping.

9. Without a doubt, I love the geometric lines, circles and rectangles of this wall of LEGOs. I'm a sucker for the blast of bold colors, and I smile to see my daughter's complete focus and concentration on picking the best bricks. But this photo also symbolizes to me my growing experimentation with editing my photos. I've learned a lot this past year about how to achieve the subtle effects that I admire most in others' edits, and it's fun to look back at my first Instagrams and see how much my work has changed over the months.

So cheers to 2012 and thanks to Instagram for helping me beautifully capture all these good times!

My Rudolph Tree

I came up with a new concept this week: the Rudolph Tree.

Like a lot of good ideas (and yes, I'm going to brazenly categorize this as a good idea), this creation was born when I took two older ideas that had nothing to do with each other, and made them have sex.

{If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read this. Trust me, that will help.}

See, one of my big red balls has been floating around the house lately. For the past few months, he's been looking for a new job since he was not needed out in the garden with his bretheren. 

{If you have no idea what I'm talking about again, read this. Honestly, it makes sense, I promise.}

So as I was milling around the house, wondering what I might do with a perfectly good big red ball, I stepped out onto the front porch to water my ivy plant. As I glanced down at the wire support that holds the vines and spirals up to a pointy top, and the twinkly lights that are currently decorating the green leaves, my mind first flashed It looks like a Christmas tree, and then, But where's the star on top?

BOOM. Ten seconds later, I slipped the spare red ball over the top of the wire plant support and stepped back to scrutinize the result. 

I'm seeing Rudolph the Reindeer's oversize red nose atop a tiny green tree. The effect is somewhat ridiculous. Which is probably why I love it.

So happy that my lonely big red ball has a new place in the world. I think he fits right in with my outdoor Christmas vibe.

He's not a misfit any more!

Paved Paradise

One of the best places I know to take pictures of the afternoon sky and setting sun is the parking lot at my local Target store.

I know that sounds wrong. Living in such a naturally beautiful and picturesque town as Mukilteo, Washington, I should be recommending the nearby beach, or a cliff over the sound, or a vantage point from a wooded glade.

Nope. It's the view from the asphalt tarmac outside a big box store that really does it for me. 

Check out these glories of today's pale winter sky and you'll see just what I mean.

I know this isn't exactly what the expression, "paved paradise," is supposed to mean, but it sure is working for me.

My Birthday Party

About five years ago, I decided to throw myself a birthday party.

This is noteworthy because, until this time, I had never had a party on my birthday.

Cake with candles, yes. Gifts, certainly. But never in my whole life had I had a proper invite-my-friends-over-and-host-a-special-event type of birthday party.

This is what happens when your birthday falls on New Year's Day. It's a strange day for a birthday party.

And honestly, I've never really cared about the birthday part. I don't need more gifts or cake or special attention. I just wanted to have a day to surround myself with the people who mean something to me.

So that is what I do. Each year, on the Saturday between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, I invite everyone I know to come over. I offer refreshments, provide a comfortable space to gather and talk, then let the chips fall where they may.

Sometimes we break out glow sticks and strobe lights, bump some dance tunes, and have a rave.
More often than not, we smoke cigars outside in the dark and have deep talks about life.
Usually there is some highly competitive Wii bowling.
Once there were strippers. Amateur male strippers. Not kidding.

And one time we found the bottom half of a child-sized mannequin and shoved it into the snow bank outside my front door. That was a great night.

Last night's party was eventful in different ways:
  • I held a precious four-year-old boy on my lap while he ate Nacho Cheese Doritos, then rubbed his head till he fell asleep.
  • I baked and served about a hundred pigs-in-a-blanket, and could have used a few dozen more.
  • I stayed up till three a.m. talking with a bunch of twenty-somethings about fatal accidents and dead bodies.
And that, in my opinion, made for a perfectly smashing birthday.

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For more stories about birthdays, read:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Twelve Books Of Christmas

Another Streicher family tradition for celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas is reading a book a day from our collection of children's Christmas books.

Well. That isn't exactly a radical idea, is it.

But let me explain. It's one thing to sell your kids on the idea of reading children's books when they are actually children. But once they hit the teen years and beyond, trust must use a bit of finesse to keep them interested. 

In the past decade, I've tried some gimmicks, like wrapping up 12 books and letting the girls choose one each night, or hiding books around the house and having them search one out. None of those tricks rekindled much interest. Ha. Understatement. My efforts to inject some new energy into an old ritual was interpreted as attempted brainwashing and forced family fun. Honestly, the tradition became such a chore that I gave it up for a few years.

This year, hope sprang anew in my heart, and I decided to try again. And rather than cook up some complicated, cutesy scheme, I took a straightforward approach:

On Christmas Eve, while we were gathered together and in a festive frame of mind, I dragged out our two big baskets full of Christmas books, and plopped them in the middle of the room. After explaining that we would read one book aloud each day during the Twelve Days, I asked each person in my six-person family to select two of their favorites.

I expected some moans, some groans, and plenty of half-hearted participation. 

But guess what. They loved it! Each member of the family gleefully dug into the piles, calling out titles of the books they wanted to choose, debating in detail the strengths and weaknesses of various plot lines and characters, and generally conjuring up a million happy memories of reading Christmas books together in years gone by. 

And even more shocking, we have actually gotten around to reading the books. Oh sure, we are a little off our count. As of the fourth day of Christmas, we have read three books. Two of those were on the same day. But considering the heel-dragging that we have suffered in recent years, that's a landslide win.

So, in no particular order, here are our Twelve Books of Christmas for 2012..I heartily recommend each and every one!

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg
Toot & Puddle: I'll Be Home For Christmas by Holly Hobbie
A Dozen Silk Diapers by Melissa Kajpust
Lucy & Tom's Christmas by Shirley Hughes
The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett
Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect by Richard H. Schneider
Emma's Christmas by Irene Trivas
All for the Newborn Baby by Phyllis Root
Olive, the Other Reindeer by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
The Donkey's Dream by Barbara Helen Berger
Christmas Trolls by Jan Brett
The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Twelve Times The Memories

A partridge in a pear tree
Two turtle doves
Three French hens
Four calling bird
Five golden rings
Six geese a-laying
Seven swans a-swimming
Eight maids a-milking
Nine ladies dancing
Ten lords a-leaping
Eleven pipers piping
Twelve drummers drumming.

I love these little Twelve Days of Christmas ornaments...I bought them a long, long time ago, and for many years, we have hung them up to mark the passing of each day of Christmastide.

As you can see, they have taken some beatings over the years. There are several held together by blobs of glue and extra lengths of wire. Paint is chipped, the hooks are bent out of shape, and a few berries have gone missing.

These bumps and bruises may make my treasures look a bit tired to the casual observer, but to my eyes, they are beautiful. Every imperfection brings back memories of tiny hands that held and patted and played with the little figures.

I cherish the remembrances of the many Christmases past that these ornaments have seen, and I'm glad my daughters and I have not just one, but twelve days of Christmas memories for each year of our lives together.

Christmas Has Only Just Begun!

Card by Paperless Post, Posted by Design Milk

What's that you say? Today, December 26, is the day AFTER Christmas??

And it's time to take down the tree, box up the decorations, and call it good for another year??

No way. We aren't done with Christmas! In fact, we are just getting started!

Card by Rifle Paper Co., Photo from Sweet Iced Tea

The truth is that Christmas is, just as the song says, a Twelve Day festival of feasting and celebration. Over the centuries, the details of the tradition have shifted and changed a bit, but the modern conception goes something like this:

  • December 25 is the First Day of Christmas, not the last. It is recognized as the day Baby Jesus was born.
  • The Twelve Days of feasting and celebration go through to January 5, which is known as Twelfth Night. This time parallels the period that newborn Jesus and his parents spent in Bethlehem, resting up after his birth and sharing the joyous news of his coming with the world.
  • January 6 is recognized in Western Christianity as Three Kings Day - the day in which those wise men from the east finally pulled into Bethlehem and found the newborn Jesus. In some cultures, this festival day sits as a bookend to Christmas Day, equally if not more lavishly celebrated.

In the United States, the concept of the Twelve Days of Christmas has largely fallen from favor. To tell you the truth, I think that is a crying shame. For the past decade or so, I've been working on bringing back the Twelve Days of Christmas at my house, and here are my Top Ten reasons why you bring them back at your house too:

Card by Hammersmith Kidney Patients' Association

10. Eleven extra days for Christmas music, food, decorations, and fun. Eleven times the fun of an ordinary, one-day Christmas!

9. Celebrations spread over twelve days can be more relaxed and casual, instead of crammed into one intense, over-packed and stressed-out day.

8. Santa and his generous if a bit materialistic focus on gifts can still be part of the festivities, but he takes a starring role on only one of the Twelve Days.

7. A Twelve-Day celebration connects the ending of one calendar year with the beginning of the next, providing for a satisfying sense of closure as well as new beginnings.

6. Theologically, celebrating the story of Jesus' birth over twelve days makes much more sense than trying to fit the whole narrative into a one-day holiday.

5. Since Christmas has historically been celebrated as a festival, bringing back the full Twelve Days is retro, old school and all hipster cool-like.

4. That sad, let-down, over-too-soon feeling that many of us experience on the evening of December 25 is replaced by a grateful, satisfied sense of completeness on January 6.

3. Once you get your house cleaned and all those cookies baked for the 25th, why not relax and enjoy your hard work for as long as possible?

2. You know all those packages and cards you neglected to send before December 25? As long as they arrive by January 6, they are now on time.

And the Number One reason why you should celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas:

1. Eleven more days to watch this ridiculously silly yet earnestly heartwarming version of the classic song.

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P.S. If you still need some inspiration, check out all the Twelve Days Of Christmas images I'm posting over on beautiful!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Christmas Eve

The most exciting day of my year is Christmas Eve. It always starts out with a bang.

This year was fairly typical. I left the house early for some last-minute gift shopping, grocery store errands, and one final trip to the mall to gather up my retail-working daughters. We always meet at the big statue of the horse, and as I waited in his friendly shadow, I wished him a Merry Christmas too. 

Of course, the Christmas Eve traffic and crowds are madness, but I enjoy the hustle and bustle; there's something that bonds us all together on this day more than any other. We strangers and fellow shoppers share the anticipation of Christmas Day, and I feel a special kinship to everyone I meet.

Then it's home to wrap up the remaining presents, and tidy up the house. At this point, I usually feel stressed and anxious that there will never be enough time to get everything done. 

As afternoon darkens into evening, I shift gears into dinner mode.

For Christmas Eve dinner, we traditionally make a meal of our favorite appetizers and finger foods - barbecued meatballs, egg rolls, bagel pizzas, and of course, pigs in a blanket. This menu not only pleases everyone, but is quick and simple to prepare. And for this one day of the year, we eat standing around the counter in our kitchen. I feel myself begin to slow down and relax, and dark falls and the magic of the day unfolds.

My favorite part of Christmas Eve is getting dressed up after dinner and going to evening worship. The stresses of the day and the season all fall away, and the singular miracle of Jesus' birth is all that matters. Emmanuel, God is with us.

My favorite part of Christmas Eve worship is when we light candles and sing the final carols. 

And my favorite song is Silent Night. 

This is the high point of my holiday, the moment in which the crazy Ferris wheel of Christmas reaches the very top of its circuit, and pauses gently, silently in the dark evening sky to let me breathe in the blessings of this holy day. This is the timeless moment - I feel exactly the same, year after year after year - when the true spirit of Christmas fills my heart and mind, and everything makes perfect sense. 

Back at home, I light more candles, to keep the light burning in the darkness, My daughters open a few gifts, we finish arranging our nativity scenes, and then drink some hot cocoa while we read The Night Before Christmas.

These too, though less sacred, are precious and tender traditions in our family. 

And while the others head off to bed, I'm not done yet. For mothers, late Christmas Eve is a time of secrets and mystery; we are guardians of many traditions and rituals that take shape in the wee hours. I feel a special fellowship to other mothers whom I know are tiptoeing quietly about their own homes as I do the same. I think of Mary, who was undoubtedly awake with her little babe in the dark of the night as well. We mothers have things to do in the middle of the night, and that is a tender part of my special day as well. 

When the morning comes, and Christmas Day arrives in her joyful and triumphant fullness, that is a glorious time too. But my heart most truly belongs to Christmas Eve.