giving good gifts

We all love to get good gifts, but how many of us are good at giving really good thoughtful gifts.  I’ll admit, I struggle.

And even when I manage to think of something absolutely prefect to give, most of the time it is outside of my budget, or there are time constraints that make it just not possible to accomplish.

But I got a reminder this past Saturday that there are some gifts that are precious, perfect, always appreciated, and free.

I had to go to a funeral on Saturday, (bear with me here.  it will all make sense in a minute, I promise.  just keep reading….) and I needed to take Ginny with me.  Martin had commitments that could not involve a four year old, so she had to come with me. I knew it wasn’t going to be any fun for her, but she can be pretty good about sitting still so I knew it wasn’t going to hurt her to go. 

The funeral was for a Sunday School teacher that I had when I was very young.  She also did substitute teaching at the Christian school I went to and her son was a young man I looked up too alot.  In a “6th graders distant crush on a rugged senior soccer player” kind of way. 

The church where the funeral was held is the same church I grew up in and my mother worked in.  First Alliance Church in Atlanta.  While my mom worked, my brother and I used to play all over the church.  We would do commando crawl races under the pews. We played hide and seek and tag everywhere (and I do mean EVERYWHERE, even the baptismal).  We even got in trouble once for eating up all the communion crackers.  We thought they were just crumbled up saltines.  During services my mom sat close to the front row.  She had a real talent for disciplining us silently and unobtrusively.  I remember that quite clearly, but I can also recall times when I would get sleepy and put my head in her lap.  Mother would do what all mothers do…trace letters or just random patterns on my back and run her fingers through my hair as I drifted.

okay, so you get the picture.  My mother and I were heading into a building that we hadn’t been in since 1987.  To attend the funeral of this dear lady, and to see people we hadn’t seen in forever.  Bringing my child along just made sense. She can be a conversation piece.  A distraction if this whole experience gets too intense or awkward.

Besides, she has this adorable smocked dress.  It’s black with tiny white snowmen up around the collar.  With her fair coloring and those big blue eyes……how could I resist the opportunity to show her off? 

Stay with me…there is a point. 

So we are all in the car.  Me, my mom and Ginny.

And Ginny, naturally asks “Where are we going and why am I all dressed up?”


me: “okay Ginny, when mama was a little girl she had a sunday school teacher she loved very much.  That sweet lady had a good life.  She had grandkids and was very happy, but now she is gone to heaven to be with Jesus and her family is very sad.  We are going to go give her family hugs”

Ginny “okay”

Then she goes back to playing with her stuffed toy in the back seat and my mom and I embark on a discussion of old times at First Alliance Church.

We get to the church, walk in and wow…..  it is different, and the same all at once.  There were people we know and people we used to know and people we don’t know at all.  The service was beautiful and the music really got Ginny’s attention.  It was a long service though and by the end of it I was whispering to Ginny all about the special treat (high tea with mama and grammy) that she would get if she could just sit still for a little while longer.  Eventually the service was over and we filed quietly out into the vestibule.

At which point,  my child enthusiastically reaches for all these complete strangers and starts handing out hugs. 

Some people she grabbed around the legs, some she pulled on their sleeve till they bent down or picked her up to see what she wanted, and once she reached out from my arms to hug the mother of a friend of mine from middle school.  She literally attack-hugged the whole crowd….and it was like watching the sun come up to see the effect she had on that room.

It was so simple.  She gave comfort.  She gave smiles and hugs because they were needed.  She didn’t know these people.  But she blessed them right where they were.

Yes, my child is adorable, but that’s not the point.

The point for me is that so often when someone preaches on using our gifts they talk about time, money and talents.  The talents they refer to seem to be the specialised sort.  Like being able to sing, or preach, or organize or build things.  To me, those things are nice but what I think gets overlooked are the little gifts.

  • a note (but of course to write an encouraging note you have to have at least some familiarity with the person)
  • a hug (but most people, gregarious four-year-olds aside need to have some acquaintance with a person before hugging them)
  • a smile.  Smiles can be given to anyone, anywhere without knowing a single thing about the other person.

What? you don’t think a smile is a gift?  When was the last time someone just beamed when you walked into a room?  Remember how that made you feel?  Well you can make other people feel just like that.  I call that a gift.

I have a challenge for you.

Next time you walk along  in the mall, or on your way to or from your car in a parking lot, try giving the gift of a smile to literally everyone whose eye you can catch.  That way they don’t think you are just smiling to yourself.  Make sure you catch their eye and then smile right at them.   Make them feel like you smiled because they crossed your path.

Let me know how it goes.  I’m betting you will be addicted to this form of gift giving in just one session.

oh, and one other blessing rained down on my head during that service….Ginny put her head in my lap and I got to play with her hair and trace letters on her back in that same sanctuary where I can clearly recall my mom doing the same to me.


hippos doing what?

My favorite holiday “can’t do without it” recipe is called Hippocras

No it does NOT involve hippos.  Ugh.  Think of a hot version of Sangria, heavy on the cinnamon. If you want the history on this yummy beverage, click here

Here’s what I do at home.

  • Set crock pot on counter.
  • Turn on high.
  • Pour in 2 gallons of apple juice
  • Find cheap red wine, pour in at least 2 cups.  You can do more depending on your tastes
  • Taste.
  • Cut up a seedless orange in slices. Remove any seeds, but leave the rinds on.   Add to crock pot.  You can also add some orange juice as well.  But be careful not to add too much orange juice.  It can send the whole tone of the mixture over too much towards the sangria side.  Sangria is fine…for summer.  This isn’t summertime.
  • Add spices to taste.  Spices to choose from are:

Cinnamon STICKS (never add ground spices to a drink mixture.  All they will do is float to the top and get in people’s teeth) If you can’t wait for the cinnamon sticks to work their slow magic just add some Candy Red Hots to the pot.  They will dissolve and give you the taste you were looking for.

Whole Cloves.  Here again, please stay away from the ground spices.  A trick to keep the cloves from floating into your way when you are trying to ladle out your punch is to stick them into the rind of the orange slices when you originally put the orange slices into the crock pot.

Sugar.  Not too much.  this is supposed to be a refreshing cup of cheer, not a sickly sweet dessert in a cup.

  • Stir.
  • Taste.
  • Add more stuff till you get a balance of taste that you find appealing. 
  • Taste some more. 
  • Oh heck, go get a mug and have a bit more.
  • Now go take your mug and sit down on the porch or in front of your fire. There, that’s much better isn’t it?
  • and that’s how you serve it.  Hot and unpretentious.  This is a “kick off your shoes, stretch your feet towards the fire, curl up on the couch” type of beverage. 

There are some side benefits to having Hippocras in a crock pot on your counter:

1.      Your house will smell heavenly!

2.      And if you make sure to turn the crock pot on and let the contents heat all the way up at least once a day, you can keep this going, on the counter all season long.  Yes, you heard me.  All season long.  I normally start a pot of this stuff in early November and keep it going till the end of January.  Just add more liquid (apple juice, wine, orange juice) depending on what it needs.  This means you have an excuse to taste test it at least once a day. 

3.      You are ALWAYS ready for guests….or at least your house will SMELL ready.

You can also make a “virgin” version of this using just cinnamon tea, apple juice, orange juice and the spices.  But I love the warm welcome of a hot mug of wine on a cold fall/winter evening.


So tell me, what is your “I can’t live through the holidays without THIS” recipe?

coming out from behind the tree….

So after the New Year’s Day meltdown what happens next?  Once you admit that you are sad and overwhelmed, where do you go from there?

Well, I got busy. Just in a different way.

  • I got back into Bible study
  • I got back into aerobics class
  • I started my 2011 Siesta Scripture Memory Team notebook
  • and I got snowed in for a week

Yup.  You heard me.  Getting snowed in for a week was the best thing that could have happened to me just now.  Everything came to a screeching halt and we just played.  We enjoyed Ginny.  We snuggled in front of the fireplace, we watched White Christmas, we played with the neighbors, we went for a nature hike, and I didn’t put in a single job application all week.  I just put the whole mess aside and gave myself up to enjoying this rare event of being snowed in.

And trust me, getting snowed in for a solid week in Atlanta is unheard of.

Wanna see photos?

yup.  I kinda thought you might.

This was after only about 2 hours of snow.  We got more than this, but the photo is so pretty, I just had to share.

Martin insisted that I take this shot.  I didn’t think it would turn out, but it ended up being one of the most unique photographs from this snowfall.

the only “flocked” tree I have ever liked….Our outdoor Christmas tree, with lights, covered in snow.

I love the way the colored lights glowed through the snow.

find a happy place.....

This is my happy place.  Snow is falling outside.  I have slippers, wine & cheese, a good book, a sleeping dog, a fire in the fire place, a beautiful Christmas tree.  you will notice that second glass of wine.  It wasn’t for me, but for my wonderful hubby who would come to shove the dog out of his chair and complete my happy place picture.

Our dog Kirby, heading for Narnia…..

Ginny playing in the snow with papa. I didn’t get very many shots of this, mostly because the snow was still coming down and I didn’t want to damage my camera.  So after snapping off a few shots of Ginny and Martin, I put the camera aside and just went out and enjoyed the playtime.

Our front porch.  Out of four steps you can only see ONE set of treads.

Martin and Ginny in front of Grammy’s house.  We hiked the mile to her house because she can’t go for a solid week without seeing her grandbaby.  Plus it gave us a chance to try out our fancy new sledding rig.  cool yes?  We both enjoyed pulling Ginny and the neighbor kids in it.

My parents were both very glad to see us by the way.  They had cabin fever really badly, so an infusion of cuteness really helped.

Ginny getting warm after a day in the snow.  She is turning into quite a ham for the camera.

So wrap up the week and put a bow on it.

Seven solid days of a snow and ice covered driveway made for some concentrated family time.  That might drive other folks insane, but  not me.

This week of being snowed in was exactly what I needed.  No, I don’t think God sent the snow for all of Atlanta just to help my heart, but I know He used this time in my life to quiet me down and say “Child, you have been mourning the past, and yearning for what is behind you, but look.  See?  This is the present.  And it is filed with wonder, beauty and joy.”

the christmas 2010 recap

otherwise known as “it is dark behind the Christmas Tree”

We tried (just like every year) to have a low-key Christmas season but it just didn’t happen.  Between

  • Journey to Bethlehem (which didn’t happen due to inclement weather, but we got to spend a lot of time planning and organizing and being ready for it anyway)
  • co-writing, directing, costuming and staging a new monologue each week in our church services
  • learning to run the ProPresenter booth at church
  • trying to keep up my job application volume (it never pays to let momentum slow down in a job search)
  • choir commitments
  • trying to find time to keep up with aerobics class (this one we let slip)
  • keeping a general structure and schedule for Ginny
  • decorating the house
  • planning a 14 hour drive to Dallas to see Martin’s side of the family
  • Presents
  • Christmas cards/letters
  • wrapping
  • baking
  • eating

my head was spinning.

By New Years day I was a basket case.

We are really no busier than other people I guess, but when you add to all this stuff an underlying current of sadness…I finally lost it.  Martin left the room for a few minutes on New Years Day and when he came back he couldn’t find me.  I was curled up, under and behind the Christmas tree.  The mourning from my job lay-off had finally surfaced and I just didn’t have any more strength to resist it.  It is plain and simple.

I. Want. MY. Job.  Back.

Yes, God is in charge.

Yes, it will all be fine.

But while embracing the changes and relying on God for His good provision, I had skipped over the mourning phase of this whole mess.

Martin eventually found me under the tree and talked to me till he could get me to laugh. Once I was laughing at the whole thing I finally climbed out from under the tree and life went on.  Thank goodness Ginny was at my mom’s for the day.

Why am I telling you this?  Why am I publishing it to the world on a blog?

Because I think this kind of thing happens far more than we like to admit.  Normal people have small dark patches in their lives.  Normal Christians grieve.  Even over things like lost jobs.

Now on to the fun stuff. Wanna see pictures from Christmas and the days following? Of course you do.  Especially when I promise that there are NO photos at all of me curled up behind the Tree. Martin wanted to take one but I wouldn’t let him.  He said I looked cute under there.  Not really what I was going for actually.


whimsical decor in our terracotta and teal bathroom. I think it turned out well.

zoom in to see the actual ornaments. this had a very Whoo-ville feel to me.

Helping Grammy make Jello on Christmas morning

Opening presents

look at me mama! I play mooosic!

Historic Christmas Day Snow. First time in 128 YEARS!!!!

You will notice that this is not much snow really.  But it was enough to count.  Please keep this photo in mind when I show you the snow we got just a few weeks later.

hanging out with Papa in the hotel room

This pretty much sums up most of how we looked on the Texas trip.  Frazzled, tired, but happy.

Ginny and her cousin Emily playing in a fountain. Mama Altie behind them.

it is out of focus, but since Ginny and Emily hardly ever stopped moving, getting them in focus was a bit difficult.

The Russell family photo at the ranch.  Chaotic, loud, and fun.  Thank you Lord for amazingly wonderful in-laws.

Ginny getting to see a player piano at Cousin Harriett's house.

learning to pain ceramics

On the drive home from Texas we stopped overnight in Jackson, MS at a friend’s house.  She has a ceramics shop, so before we left the next day we all went and painted some things.  Ginny will have her very own set of dishes that she painted herself.  She also painted the shop cat, but we didn’t get to bring her home.

More in my next post.  This one is already too long.

Christmas continued

okay, we got the Santa photos done, now on to the rest of Christmas.

first off Christmas Eve was great.  My church does four services.

  • a 4:00 kids service (usually a drama or something that kids will love)
  • a 5:30 traditional with candle-lighting, choirs, advent wreath, etc
  • a 7:00 contemporary
  • and an 11:00 traditional.

Martin had to be available to work the 5:30 and the 11:00.  Now I knew we weren’t going to keep Ginny up till the 11:00 service, even though that one is my favorite, so we planned to go to the 5:30 with the whole family (including my parents, my niece and hopefully my brother).  It turned out to be just myself, Martin and Ginny, but we ran into some friends and ended up sitting with them.  The service was lovely, Ginny enjoyed the candle lighting very much – even though I wouldn’t let her touch the flame.

The “O Holy Night” solo was done by our assistant choir director Blair Brawner and it was gorgeous.  It wasn’t as technically perfect as some I have heard, but it was beautiful.  Even the one time her voice broke…it just made it more of a human sharing moment rather than a performance.

The real highlight for me came after the service was over.  You see I had to go up to our pastor and apologize….  For wearing a Santa hat all during the service.

??? Why was I wearing a Santa hat to a church service when I don’t believe in Santa?

Well I was wearing it initially because I was just being silly.  Martin wears his a lot, and Ginny looked so cute in hers, so I was wearing mine to fit in with my sweet, silly family.

But then, on the way into the sanctuary, I passed by one of the outer doors, the one right next to the “hats, mittens & scarves tree”  This is a 9 foot tall Christmas tree that the members of our church decorate with brand new hats, mittens and scarves all through-out the holiday season.

As I was passing that entrance a blast of cold air hit me.  Really cold air.

I turned around.

there coming in the door was a woman and three kids.

all in shirt sleeves.

I smiled and said “Hi! Welcome!”

She smiled back, glanced at my hat and then at the tree.

“Do you know how we could get a hat or a coat for my kids?”

At which point I realized that I didn’t have a clue how those hats, mittens & scarves were going to be distributed. They disappear every year after Christmas, but I had no idea where they went.  To the Co-op? To a shelter? I had no clue.

“Tell you what, I’ll find out how we can get you some of those hats and stuff.  I know just who to ask, okay?” I said.

“How will I find you?” she asked, as people jostled us apart.

without missing a beat I said “I’m probably the only person in that sanctuary wearing a Santa hat.  I won’t take it off till you find me again and I promise I’ll have an answer for you”

So I asked around, and finally the pastor told me “you just march her right up to that tree and let her have whatever she needs.”

Well thanks to the Santa hat, we re-connected after the service and as I was walking her and the kids to the tree I figured I should make conversation…so I asked

“Have you ever been here before?”

“Well no, not to a service.” she said “But we come to your Journey to Bethlehem thing every  year, so I knew you were nice people”


That was worth every weird look I got for wearing the Santa hat during the service, and every time I have had to explain to my boss why I need those days in December off every year to put up Bethlehem sets and then take them down again. Not to mention all the rehearsals.

So thank you to the people at SUMC who gave hats, mittens and scarves.  And to all the folks who work hard to make Journey a reality each year – it is worth it.  We are reaching people.  People who sometimes need hats, scarves and mittens.

and I dare say, that is a fitting way to celebrate the birth of the Savior.

Merry Christmas.

joy to the world

this year Christmas was both more, and less.

less about presents (though some how the pile for Ginny was bigger than we had planned) and more about people.

We were very deliberate about making time for certain folks and digging time out of our schedule to make certain we sent out the cards, letters and presents.

Martin did Bethlehem as always.  Deirdre got sick and had to stay home.  Which is pretty much how it has been for the last three years running.  I have got to figure out how to stay well from October through January or the Worship Director from our church is never going to forgive me.

We even made time to go see Santa.  Now before anybody gets down on me for this.  Yes, I know, I said we don’t believe in Santa and will not be teaching Ginny to believe in Santa either.  However, that does not mean that she can’t participate in the ritual of getting pictures taken with a guy dressed up as the guy from the story of Santa.

Hence the next few photos…… Of the wrestling match as we tried to get her calmed down enough to take a decent shot.  Thank goodness this particular Mr & Mrs Claus were alone in the store with no line, so we had plenty of time to work with.  Also we are grateful that they are friends of ours…..or at least, they were….before we introduced them to our screaming darling………

mama sits with Santa to try to ease into this.....

mama tried to hand Ginny to Santa. uhoh....

daddy gives it a try

daddy sings, baby calms down

you guys aren't that scary after all.....

I will post photos from the actual Christmas morning tomorrow.

for now, good night.

christmas card photos

I just realized that I have photos of Ginny that I haven’t shared on the blog yet.  What has gotten into me?  I’m neglecting Ginny’s fans! (tongue firmly in cheek here by the way)

These were mostly taken at Target for use on our Christmas cards

classic, white t-shirts, white background.

is it just me or does Ginny look like she is planning a prank here? something about that smile.......

we promised Grand Mama Altie that we would get a shot of Ginny in this chair. I just wish I had seen that her pants leg had gotten pushed up....

we took a bunch with our Christmas clothing on too, but they didn't turn out as well and Martin was having to sing the whole time to keep Ginny smiling

...which makes for some odd expressions.....

this was the final Christmas card.

So there you have it.

By the way, we are very upset that our favorite Target is closing!  It is the only one in Georgia that is closing and they just had to take MY Target !!! Life will never be the same again.