so that was 2014…

…didn’t it go quickly?!

As we’re into the phase of end-of-the-year reviews and round-ups, here’s a summary of the blog during 2014. Feel free to click here and there, on whatever interests you. If nothing interests you, feel free to leave, without guilt ūüôā

I began the year with a resolution to shed the guilt. I then started a hospitality mini-series. Did I finish it? No. But did I feel guilty? No. Result!¬†I blogged about why open our homes, what hospitality isn’t, the connection between hospitality and generosity, and hospitality and personal space. Months later, I sneaked in a post about what it’s like to have a quiet house.

At the start of Lent, I shared an interactive idea for encouraging our family to pray more for our friends and family. Later, I shared a simple Easter card craft, as well as the ways our family celebrates Easter.

I took a trip back to my old school – first time in 12 years – and pondered on memories, nostalgia, the now and then. I got caught up in the busyness of life, forgot to blog for a while, then caught you up with what I’d been up to¬†– craft, garden makeovers, playhouse building and potty training.

In July, the blog went crazy.¬†Why we’d decided to send our son to a school in special measures seemed to provoke interest – not only with you lot, my faithful friends, but over on Mumsnet, who kindly made it their blog of the day.¬†One day alone yielded 2.5k blog views. That particular blog post¬†has now seen over 4k¬†visitors. I followed it up here.

Back in real life, I was pondering identity through observing my daughter with her beloved doll. Over the summer I got praying for my son, about to start school.

I was fortunate to review some great books this year: The One plus One (JoJo Moyes), Falling (Emma Kavanagh) and Play through the Bible (Alice Buckley), as well as the fab Storytime app.

On the eve of my eldest starting school, I took a look back over his¬†last few years, in the form of a letter to a new mum. I wrote birthday posts for my daughter and son. My friend and I planned a fairy party for our daughters’ 3rd birthdays, whilst my son had a Peter Rabbit themed 5th birthday party¬†– and don’t forget the extravagant bash I threw for my husband’s 35th.

With Mister¬†starting school, I guess it was natural that I would start to blog about school from a parent’s perspective. OK, so the crazily popular post back in July had got a lot of hits – but purely because Mumsnet had backed it. In October, I was totally baffled when something I rattled off in minutes got a lot of views and shares: how to be a great school mum (read: parent!). I’ve lost count of the amount of personal stories people have shared with me, as a result of reading this blog.¬†It has made me blush with embarrassment – but also smile with great¬†joy, knowing that a few more teachers are being thanked and appreciated than might have been otherwise. Wow! In addition, I shared some things I had¬†been learning¬†since Mister¬†had started school¬†and some end-of-term ideas¬†to bless your child’s teacher.

With Christmas approaching, I blogged on ethical Christmas shopping, finding the magic in Christmas, how to write a round-robin, and how to receive an unwanted gift.

Oh, and I joined Twitter.

So what does 2015 hold for desertmum? I may return to blogging about hospitality (in truth, my silence has been because I’ve been pretty challenged by it in real life); I hope to read more, and write more reviews; school-life, and how it’s changing¬†me (let alone my son) will feature more prominently. Perhaps I will learn how to use Pinterest. There will also be one or two surprises in store: exciting things which I can’t yet write about but look forward to sharing with you very soon!

What do you enjoy reading on this blog? What would you like to see more of, less of?

And how does 2015 look for you?

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after the guests have gone…

It is Christmas Eve Eve.

As households all over the world start to swell with the arrival of relatives and friends, our family is experiencing the opposite: a rare moment of having our home to ourselves for a couple of days.

We have a permanent lodger – although really he’s a good friend, and plays the part of a fun uncle as far as our kids are concerned. We eat together, spend evenings together, look after the house together. He left yesterday to be with his family over Christmas. We had another friend staying for a couple of days – he left this morning. On Christmas Day we scoot off to see extended family – but for these two precious days, our home is just the four of us.

This year, our guest book tells us nearly 50 friends and family stayed in our home…including some American friends of friends who stayed when we were away, and whom we have yet to meet. In addition, we housed a theology student on placement for a month, a friend who was without accommodation¬†for a couple of months, and a guy who was here¬†to do the main talks at the York St John mission week. We’ve hosted thank-you suppers, mums’ (and kids’) socials and student meals. We’ve had most of our church over for Sunday lunch. (At least, we¬†had¬†had most of our church over. But it’s hard to keep up when God is growing the church!) And there are friends who pop in regularly – little people come to play, bigger people come to play Settlers of Catan or watch an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Many people come for work-related meetings with Desert Dad¬†– and, if they come near a mealtime, they’ll almost always stay for food. We’ve never been precise with portions,¬†and there’s always enough.

This is not a boast – it’s just the context for why having a couple of days by ourselves is unique and special. The thought of it all may make you feel tired – actually, summarizing it like that makes me feel pretty tired¬†too!¬†Well, here’s what I’ve learned which makes the whole thing loads easier:

* I don’t have to be √ľber-sociable every time someone enters our home. People don’t come because we’re perfect – they come because we’re genuine. We don’t hide our arguments, our strops, our tired moments, our stressful days. I don’t have the energy to play perfect hostess this much. If we only invited people over when I¬†did¬†have the energy, then I can’t imagine what beautiful opportunities for hospitality we would miss.

* God does it. I know this sounds clich√©d, but He does. We give Him our home, our cooking, our kids and ourselves – and He shows up and makes it work. I don’t know how, but He does. I know this because people return and return, despite the negative things outlined above.

* God is gracious, and gives us times of rest. Desert Dad and I preserve at least one night each week solely for each other. We preserve (as much as possible) our day off together as a family. We grab little moments here and there whenever we get them. And this couple of days is one of those moments.

Do I regret this lifestyle choice? Because, even though I would argue that it’s what Jesus demands of us, it’s what the Bible calls us to – it is, still, a choice. As we enjoy some quiet time together, I’m so grateful for what my children get from this rather manic, open-door lifestyle. They are both brilliantly confident at talking to adults – from a whole range of backgrounds. They get attention from lots of different people throughout the week. There’s rarely a dull moment in the house! They are learning to put others first – to offer them the chocolates first, to ask what drinks people would like. Yet they know they have a secure place to call home, and a safe haven in the embrace of Mum and Dad, however many people are in the house. They know they are loved – and are learning to love others as they welcome them into our home.

Happy Christmas! Hope you all have a very blessed, peaceful time this week.

From a rather chilled-out Desert Mum xx

the grace of receiving an unwanted gift

As Christmas approaches, I find myself mulling over something which is starting to make me just a little uncomfortable: the possibility of eliminating giving from our Christmas celebrations.

Let me backtrack a little: I often hear people say, or even say myself, variants of “We won’t do presents this year”, “Let’s just give to the kids – we adults don’t need anything” and “Why don’t we do a Secret Santa instead?” Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty that is¬†very good about the sentiments beneath these suggestions. Most of us can’t afford to give something exquisite to everyone we know – or even just everyone in our family – and we’re clear that Christmas is about something more meaningful than racking up credit card debt. Also, we know we don’t need more Stuff. So attempts to decrease this buying (which we can’t afford) of presents (which aren’t needed or wanted) can be very sensible.

But there’s a problem when we connect the giving of gifts purely with the accumulation of material possessions.

See, Christmas is about giving. Whether you celebrate Jesus’ birth or not, it’s clear that this is a story all about giving: the giving of God’s son to His people; the giving of Mary in pregnancy and labour; the giving of Joseph in reputation; the giving of the innkeeper in the stable; the giving of¬†the shepherds in adoration and worship; the giving of the wise men in their extravagant gifts.¬†Our tradition of giving stems from this story – and we lose a sense of what Christmas is really about when we stop giving.

One reason we can be keen to eliminate gifts at Christmas is¬†the fear of getting the wrong thing. I know that as I get older, I become more sure of what I like and what I don’t, what I’ll wear and what I won’t, what I’ll display in my home and what I won’t. To be honest, the thought of being given something I dislike does fill me with a sense of futility about the whole procedure. Surely¬†it would have been better to give the money to the poor,¬†I muse, echoing the complaint of Jesus’ onlookers, when a woman gave him, to put it bluntly, a very impractical gift¬†(Matthew 26, Mark 14, John 12). For what do you get for the man who has no home, and no possessions other than those he wears? Perhaps a new robe or a new pair of sandals? Definitely not a jar of expensive perfume. And yet this was¬†exactly the right gift, for it came with the love of its giver.

Gift-giving¬†is not an exact science. We will not get it right every year, with every person we buy for. And neither will they always hit the mark with us. Gift-giving¬†is not an exact science – but neither should it be. Gifts are there to express how we feel about our family and our friends – sure, the product itself might not always be a brilliant choice, but the act of giving it¬†says “I thought of you – I took some time to think of you as I shopped for, or made, your gift”.

Next week, I can pretty much guarantee that all of us will receive some things we don’t like. Perhaps things we hate. How can we receive them graciously, looking not to the unwrapped package, in all its hideous glory, but to the eyes of the giver, and what that person means to us? We invest a lot of time in teaching our children not to be greedy, to be content, that gifts¬†aren’t the main event at Christmas – but it’ll only take them a few seconds to glance at our faces showing¬†obvious disappointment at a gift, and all that¬†will be undone. How can we teach contentment,¬†when we so clearly show that we’re unhappy with our own¬†gifts?

This Christmas, my prayer is to be more gracious – more Christ-like – in the receiving of gifts. I’m not going to lie, but perhaps my response to an unwanted gift might be more focussed on the giver, and not on the gift itself. “That was so kind of you”, “You’re so thoughtful”, “Thanks for thinking of me”. I want to use it as an opportunity to deepen my relationships with those I give to and receive from.

Jesus came to earth as a tangible expression of the relationship God seeks with each one of us. I hope and pray that each one of us can grow in our relationships with each other this Christmas.

five ways to bless your child’s teacher in the last week of term (each of which takes less than five minutes)

Well, we’re well and truly on the home run now! Five precious days, and this¬†long term will be over. For those of us whose kids began school in September, this term will have been significant. There will have been huge leaps forward, perhaps some setbacks, new things learnt (for them and for us), and a whole lot of fun. But it’s not over until the fat lady sings (or whichever kid has a solo in the Nativity this year), so here are a few ways we can support and bless our kids’ teachers in this final week before Christmas:

1) Thank them.¬†Obvious, I hope, but for a longer explanation read this. Some parents like to buy chocolates or wine for their kids’ teachers – and, if you have the resources to do so, this is great – but I would argue that a few thoughtful words in a card mean more. Be specific – think about exactly what it is that you’ve appreciated about them this term (even if it sounds silly – at least it will sound genuine). And write it in a card if you can, as opposed to just saying it – that way, the teacher will have a lasting record of your comments, and you won’t be rushing the sentiment, tripping over your words as you catch the teacher in a brief few seconds between them handing you half a ton of your child’s artwork and running to catch another child who’s about to fall off the climbing frame.

2) Thank the headteacher.¬†Unless there are serious issues and you’re considering moving your child to a different school, there should be a couple of lines you can type into an email to school, for the attention of the head, expressing how happy you are with the school, the Early Years unit, the way your child has settled in, the overall ethos, or whatever it is you’ve particularly appreciated this term. If you mention your child’s teacher by name, that will be a great boost to them! (Often heads pass on this kind of praise to staff – even if they don’t, they’ll remember it next time a promotion or other opportunity arises.)

3) Compliment the Nativity play, even if it was totally awful, cringeworthy and tuneless – although, more than likely, it probably spelled C-U-T-E from start to finish, and you were totally spellbound by how Other Adults managed to manoeuvre not only one but 30+ largely uncoordinated little people into their various singing/reading/acting roles. Say so! This has probably taken a huge amount of work and stress to put together. Make sure they know they’ve done a good job!

4) Keep your child focussed.¬†It may be the last week of term, with all manner of fun activities each day, but your child still needs to be¬†“in school, on time, in uniform” (as the children at my son’s school have learned to chant) ready to engage with whatever is planned for that day. Especially with young children, try to avoid late nights, too many after-school activities and too much sugar this week. Come Friday, there’ll be two whole weeks of indulgence, so leave it till then. Oh, and try not to over-excite your children by doing something significant like giving them a new baby brother in the middle of the week. (That was an in-joke – you know who you are…!)

5) Tell your child’s teacher to have a rest.¬†Teachers are notorious workaholics. OK, so you telling them to take a break won’t necessarily mean they do it – but enough people say it to them, you never know: they might just take some notice.¬†My first boss¬†always told us teachers to have a good rest over the holidays – and¬†it had an impact on me (still does now). Jan/Feb are often the worst times for staff sickness (a long Autumn¬†term, followed by two weeks of not-much-rest over Christmas), and this will have a knock-on effect for our children. Our¬†teachers’ physical and mental health needs to be a concern for us parents. So, whether spoken or written, encourage your child’s teacher to have some proper time off this Christmas!

 

the art of the christmas round-robin

Way back before Facebook, the human race had another way of sharing inane details about their lives with those they loved the most: the Christmas round-robin. We still receive a few of these each year, and I have to say they make entertaining reading, although perhaps not always intentionally. This year, we’ve rattled one off for the first time in ages – so if you’re returning to tradition like us and planning to send your news by snail mail, let me offer you a few words of wisdom:

1) Two A4 sides. Absolute max. And don’t be thinking¬†you can shrink the font lower than 11pt and get away with it.

2) Photos. Lots of them. 90% of round-robin readers say they don’t read the text anyway. (This statistic may or may not be true.) The pictures have to tell a story.

3) Hide the evidence. Every employer knows that their staff will use the company photocopier to reel off their Christmas round-robins in full colour – it’s kind of¬†a done deal. But at least you can be discreet and take the master copy with you when finished. I got some interesting gossip from a newsletter left by the machine when I went to do mine.

4) I’m not interested in why you didn’t renovate the bathroom as planned, how you’ve ended up with six cats, or a lowdown of all the possible schools your little one could have gone to, with all their pros and cons. If you want to write this sort of info, do us all a favour and start a blog, where you can drone on about it to your heart’s content, and at least we can ignore you.

5) By all means embarrass your kids if it’ll entertain your readers – after all, you’re writing it for them, not your offspring. Think of it as premature revenge for the hell they’re going to put you through in their teenage years.

6) Add a bit of gloss (and I’m not talking about the photos). Lying? Not at all. It’s merely a bit of¬†‘artistic¬†license’ – this is¬†an actual¬†Thing that writers use, you know. It elevates your writing.¬†You need to realise that Christmas round-robins function in much the same way as Facebook: people nosey into your life to see if it’s better than theirs. If you’re going to go to the effort of writing up your year, you might as well provoke a bit of envy.

7) Choose your Christmas cards wisely. Folding your carefully-worded Christmas missive seventeen times to cram it into the tiny little envelope along with its tiny little card will only occur Royal Mail charges – for you or for your recipients. And that is not cool.

So there you have it, readers. Never say I don’t do anything for you. And, if you’re on our Christmas card list, expect your round-robin shortly…

a magical Christmas – but where’s the magic?

I am a sucker for Christmas.

I love my festive season with¬†all¬†its trimmings. I adore¬†stirring the Christmas pud with my kids, making mince pies and constructing a gingerbread house with shaky hands before the gloopy sugar cools and hardens. I love getting out our Advent box full of Christmassy books¬†and toys¬†to enjoy throughout December. My heart skips a beat at the thought of present shopping, wrapping and sending. I can’t get enough of¬†Slade and Band Aid and Wham and all the cheese – and I¬†adore¬†singing the carols (preferably in parts, sinking to alto depths then screeching the descants at top volume just because this is what geeky musoes love to do).

In short, there is nothing I don’t like about Christmas. For me it’s a magical time of year, from start to finish – a time which draws together all my favourite things (family, cooking, baking, music, presents, time off) in celebration of Jesus, my Saviour and friend. What could be better?

Every year I engage in long, meaningful discussions with friends about how we can avoid the ‘trappings’ of a Western, consumerist¬†Christmas, and get back to the simplicity¬†of the original¬†narrative. (I’ve had two such conversations in the last four days.) I spend buggy-pushing time wondering how I can make this Christmas more centred around Christ. I search for Advent reflections to help me make this period¬†count.¬†But, on the whole, I think I can hold all these things in balance fairly successfully – yes, we enjoy the material trappings, but our Christmas is certainly about Christ.

However, I’m not so sure our kids are able to balance it all. What message do I give them when I’m furiously herding them into the kitchen to bake some Christmas goodies, or strictly enforcing Christmas-card-colouring-in time, or banging on about Christingle, or¬†Santa, or Bob Geldof? (Mister¬†must be the only five year old in the country who is more familiar with Sir Bob from his early days as the green-trousered frontman of the Boomtown Rats. Honestly.)

I’m not anti these things – if you’re not convinced, perhaps re-read¬†the opening paragraphs of this post. But, since having kids, I’m realising the need for clarity. I can hold the various elements of Christmas festivity in balance – but they¬†probably can’t, and neither should I expect them to. So, the question is: what are we celebrating this Christmas? Because the narrative which truly gives our Christmas its¬†magic – the story which sparkles infinitely beyond any Christmas myth, film or song – is what I want my kids to remember. It changes us in December – but, more than that, it changes us through the year.

Christmas is a magical time for kids. But if we source that magic from the Disney store, trips to see Santa, Christingle services, tree-decorating or anything temporary, we run the risk of breeding a generation of materialistic, self-centred individuals who know nothing of their place in the most incredible story of all time.

I want my kids to have a magical Christmas.¬†And this starts with telling¬†them the most amazing story ever known: that God should not leave us in our chaos and mess, but send His son to live among us, to understand, to empathise, to die and be resurrected. How our house is decorated will point to this story. The songs we sing will point to this story. The food will celebrate the story. But mainly, we will be telling the story – because this story is the¬†true magic of Christmas, the magic which lasts and doesn’t fade.

* In case any of you are concerned about my use of the word ‘magic’, I offer this disclaimer. No connection to black magic or anything otherwise un-Christian¬†is intended – my use of the word¬†is based¬†on its prominence in the language used around Christmas time. For example, M&S rebrand as ‘Magic and Sparkle’ throughout the Christmas season; parents talk of wanting to make the season ‘magical’ for their children; Christmas activities are marketed as ‘magical’.

If you’re not bothered about my use of the word, forget I ever said¬†any of this.