Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas Magic

“You seem so excited about getting the Christmas tree this year,” one of my girls said to me last week as we sorted through our box of ornaments and contemplated where to hang each one. While some Decembers the tree trimming can seem as much holiday chore as happy tradition, it’s true that this year I was eager to get the tree up, to insert that key symbol of the season into the living room.

I figure this is because I can feel the shift of this season in my children, from pure magic to – well, whatever comes after the magic fades. And because I ran into a mom of older kids, the day we got our tree, who said her offspring don’t even want to help decorate the tree anymore. And because I remember getting there myself – reaching the age, somewhere in teenage-dom, where I didn’t really want to help with the tree anymore either, when hanging ornaments onto needled branches felt more tedious routine than joyful ritual.

My kids aren’t there. Yet. But I can see the writing on the packaging of Christmas future. So I am embracing this season as much as I can – and trying not to let the bittersweet-ness of growing-too-fast children seep too deeply.

Instead of dwelling (for long) on the photo from five short years ago that popped up on my computer screen recently – the one of my now-non-believing son writing his annual missive to Santa in large, uneven, red and green letters – I focus instead on his sister’s excitement of getting the Christmas decorations out and strewing them about the house.

Rather than worrying (too much) about the littlest exclaiming incredulously that so-and-so doesn’t believe in Santa OR elves, I focus on her sleepy-eyed fascination each morning with finding our own magical elf, Jingle. And try to ignore the fact that she’s already let go of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, so Jolly Old Saint Nick is the only one left.

Although this season is busier than busy, I try (with occasional success) to step back, take a breath, and focus on the joy – and the goodness of that busyness. How lucky to be busy with things that I love – writing and coaching and being Mama – even if many dark winter mornings I long for a few more cozy minutes snug in bed.

Beyond the deadlines and shoveling and bills I wish I could ignore, there is skiing and cookie-making and finding and wrapping gifts and eating good food with people I love. My house smells like Christmas trees and ski wax – two of the happiest smells I know. And it sounds of children, sometimes fighting – with me or each other – but also sometimes, often, laughing and sharing stories and discussing which decoration should go where.

Shining lights fill the season – on the tree in my living room, from the glint of sunlight off snow, and shimmering in the so-dark winter sky. The other night, as we were driving through that darkness, my daughter looked out the window at the countless stars twinkling from an unimaginable distance away from our car, our town, our planet.

“There are so many,” she said, her voice filled with wonder. “They look like Christmas tree lights sparkling all around us.”

Perhaps, then, the magic of this most wonderful time of the year doesn’t fade so much as it shifts. Maybe it’s there to be found, no matter what form of magic we believe in, if only we look the right way, in the right places.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the December 14, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Snow Thankful

The landscape last week transformed in a blink from dull November to dazzling winter. Tuesday the kids scored a snow day from school – an occurrence so rare in these parts that it threw us all for a loop.

At first, I was aggravated by this unanticipated day off from school, which came after a three-day weekend and on top of a to-do list already lengthened by two days away the previous week. The kids, of course, were thrilled – both by the bonus day off and by the snow quickly covering the world outside.

As I shuffled my schedule to accommodate work and mom duties, they dug out winter gear and headed out to play. Occasionally I’d glance up from the keyboard, relocated for the day to the dining room table, and catch a glimpse of a sled flying by or a shovel being dragged into the front yard or a snowman taking shape in the frosted-over perennial bed.

It was perfect “snowball snow” – wet, dense, and easy to shape. Soon the kids had figured out that if they started at one end of the yard with a fistful of packed snow and kept rolling, they ended up at the other end with haybale-shaped snow forms nearly as high as they were. Slowly, the yard filled with large snow sculptures.

Try as I did to focus on the tasks staring at me from my computer screen, the fun being had outside was a consistent distraction. There’s something about that first snowfall that calls to my inner child: come out and play! (OK, OK, it’s not just the FIRST snowfall, but the opening act of the season pulls my focus to unravelling.)

Eventually, I gave up and pulled on snow boots, jacket, and mittens to join the fun. I helped the kids roll bigger and bigger snow bales, packing and lifting and piling the wet, heavy snow where they directed. At one edge of the yard, my son built an igloo, heaping snow into a huge mound and hollowing it out from within. My daughters rolled snow, one giant ball at a time, into a circle to create a Stonehenge-looking fort, complete with seats and backrests and an arced door to crawl through for entry.

The temperature dropped that night, freezing the kids’ soft-snow creations into solid forms in the front yard. Since then, they’ve been dusted by flurries, softened by the sun, and refrozen several times.

And the kids have spent hours outside – in both daylight and the pre-dinner darkness of November evenings – careening down our tiny sledding hill, fitting sneakers into old ski bindings to slide around the yard, adding features to their initial snow creations, and joining an epic snowball fight.

Beyond transforming the landscape and providing the kids with endless opportunities for outdoor fun, the snow has helped me to shift more readily toward winter, too.

While much of my work this time of year – and beyond – relates directly to snow and skiing, I have been hesitant lately to embrace the busyness the season brings. I was lamenting the dark and the cold, the arrival of endless early mornings for the next many months, the severe diminishment of downtime.

That all changed as the world transitioned to white last week. I’m ready now. Let it snow. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Leading Traditions

When I wander into my children’s elementary school these days, I am always astounded by the adorable smallness of the kindergarten and first grade students. More than once this year I’ve remarked, “They’re so tiny!” to another parent or teacher, who then reminds me that my kids were that little once, not all that long ago.

Then I remember how big the 6th graders seemed when I first walked into school with my two kindergarteners. The “big kids” towered over the littles. They moved confidently through the halls, laughing and talking all the way, oblivious to how BIG they were.

Now my two oldest are 6th graders, and even my own littlest is one of the “big kids” now, in 4th grade. The kids who were 6th graders when mine started kindergarten are now high school seniors – “big kids” in a whole different way.

There were several aspects of being 6th graders my older two children happily anticipated as they started this last year of elementary school. Sixth grade is the culminating year at their school, their seventh school year traveling the same hallways, playing on the same playground, and following the same schedule.

Finally, they would be the BKOC – the Big Kids on Campus.

One of the things I love about their school is that the older kids are encouraged and guided to become leaders in various activities. While they were looking forward to a new teacher, FIRST LEGO League, and just being the oldest, the kids were most excited about the responsibilities that come with being in 6th grade: leading mixed-age Peace Groups, working with the 1st graders on various projects, planning and orchestrating the school-wide end-of-the-year Festival of the Arts.

Last week, the 6th graders helped the 1st graders carve pumpkins. The older kids also paired up with their 1st grade partners during the annual Halloween parade through town – one of my absolute favorite Franconia traditions. With no littles of my own needing help with costumes or maneuvering the route, I joined the crowd of parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors gathered to watch the procession of super heroes, princesses, goblins, and vampires stroll through town.

I watched as one of my sixth graders (the other was in Boston for a different parade) shepherded her two 1st grade charges from candy bowl to candy bowl, the littles each holding tightly to her hands.

It’s not quite true to say the transformation from wide-eyed, gap-toothed little kid to self-assured, take-control big kid surprises me. I’ve watched it happen, gradually, over the years. What’s surprising is how quickly those years seem to pass. When I close my eyes, I can still see my own 1st graders, small and sticking close to my side. When I open my eyes, those same kids are nearly as tall as I am and branching out more and more, realizing little by little that there’s a whole big world out there.

As much as my 6th graders are embracing this school year, there is also some trepidation about what comes next, as they worry about being ready for middle school, leaving the familiar boundaries, stretching just a bit into that bigger world. I’ve watched other classes of sixth graders, though, and I know once April vacation hits, these kids will be looking more forward than backward. They’ll be ready for the next step, eager – if still anxious – to move on.

For now, they’re busily preparing for the upcoming FIRST LEGO League competition and starting to plan for Festival of the Arts. And they’re looking forward to their next project with the 1st graders, building gingerbread houses in December: a sweet tradition, in more ways than one.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 8, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.