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A castle is where I’d end up on days like today when we lived in Scotland. Days when the luminescent green earth called me outside for an adventure. Out to where pink-blossomed trees quivered in a gentle breeze and white fluffy clouds danced across a seamless blue sky.

As we’re sadly lacking for castles in Midwestern USA, I buckled the General, Waddlesworth, and Little Bear into the car, handed an apple to each of them, and headed off for a country drive through woods and rolling farmland in search of some Estate or Barn Sales. And did I find any? Certainly did.

I came home in possession of a light-up globe attached to a table. Some vintage curtains dotted with fishing, golf, and other manly pursuits, which I hope will one day become cushions or even a bean bag for my boys’ rooms. And books. Always books.

With my dose of sunshine and newly found treasures, and a day off from homeschooling due to my eldest being at a friend’s house, life looks good. I feel happy. Blessed.

Not so a fortnight or so ago, when I found myself tangled at the bottom of a slippery, murky, gnarly pit. 

While my morning routines got my days started and gave me focus, by afternoon my positive, cheery mummy reserves were running dangerously low. After a long school day I wanted nothing more than to curl up with a mug of chai and watch Fixer Upper. Not face the whole make dinner/eat dinner/clean up after dinner/wrestle the kids to bed routine.

But my  lack of motivation and feelings of despair came more from simply the exhaustion of raising four squirrelly little boys. It was more than the challenges of homeschooling. More than the difficulty of doing so much of it on my own since John has been working unusually long hours of late.

while I battled within the walls of my own home . . . it felt like the world around us was crumbling to pieces.

The problem was that while I battled within the walls of my own home, trying to give my children knowledge, feed them healthy meals, help them grow in faith, it felt like the world around us was crumbling to pieces. And what could a tired out mummy do about all that?

What was the point, really, in trying to make up my mind which shade of grey to paint the dining room, or doing anything else to bring loveliness to our home? Why search Pinterest for sugar-free dessert recipes? Why invest the energy in teaching the Professor about the injustices of segregation?

What, really, was the point of all my efforts, what with wars being raged, the American political scene making us all cringe (or cry!), and craziness like the recent Target bathroom/dressing room controversy leaving people up in arms.

What was happening to the world I would one day send my boys out into? 

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I was overtaken by a Spirit of Fear that left me nearly useless to the people in my life. And so one night, sitting in my bed with my pink and white polka-dot clad phone, I began to search for what God’s Word might have to say about all that.

What I found has changed my outlook 100%.

I read

 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesions 2:10

And that has made all the difference.

As I Christian, I believe that God created me, his daughter, with great forethought and care. That He chose the date and place of my birth, this exact time in history, for a reason. That He gave me these sons to raise up and prepare for the good works He has for them to do. That he gave me this husband to be my partner in life, that we can be a mutual blessing and “spur one another on to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). That he gave me this home to be a haven for my family and all who enter here.

And so you see, the daily work I do with my sons, with my home, with the people I seek to care for in my community and across the globe, they are not meaningless at all. They are vitally important to those whose lives I touch. Important in eternal ways I may never see.

Our world may seem to be spinning into chaos. Our current political candidates may not seem worthy of the title of President. But our God in control. And he IS worthy in every way. He is all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful, and always present.

And He has good works for me to do.

Avonlea x

I woke smiling. Basking in the sunlight I could feel on my eyelids and in the merry sound of a little bird’s song.

The snow had melted, the sky was blue. Surely we’d put the days of cold and darkness behind us and spring was here. But, oh, not so! Winter is putting up a terrific final fight here in Midwestern USA, and we are living in a snow globe once again.

But I haven’t lost heart, for it will at last be defeated, and until it does, I have every excuse to boil the kettle, slip my feet into my slippers, and curl up with my book.

I’m back in Mitford, do you know it? Have you met Cynthia and Father Tim? They seem real enough that I feel I should introduce them, but then I do have a subconscious way of disbelieving that many of my favourite characters were, in fact, made up. Fictional. Didn’t ever actually exist.

I find myself wondering if they could still be alive . . . or their children or grandchildren at the very least. Maybe a few more greats in there if you’re talking Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre. But Anne Shirley, yes, she and Gilbert could easily have some grandchildren still living. Maybe even children, at a push. I think Rilla was in her early teens during the first World War.

But anyway, back to Jan Karon’s Mitford series and the people living there. What to say of them? What to say to convince you that if you haven’t ever visited them then you really, really should?

I was disbelieving myself, in the beginning. Had a hard time thinking I could ever so adore a book whose hero was a 60-something-year-old Episcopalian priest. But I’ve grown to love him. Him, and the woman he woos, and the people they love and live out life with in their little mountain town.

In the lives of these individuals you will find most of the tragedy and pain you would encounter almost anywhere in this world. There, written across the pages in black and white. And yet the characters are not left abandoned to a cold and self-seeking world. They have each other. And through the actions and words of Father Tim–keen gardener, Wordsworth quoter, reluctant jogger–they are reminded that they also have God.

There are days I’d like to stop by the rectory. Sit by the fire. Ask Cynthia to see her latest watercolor. Rest my body and soul as I sip a cup of sweet Southern iced tea.

I’d like to see these two in action. These two love-birds who go on picnics, and surprise each other with presents, and go walking in the rain. These two who pray together–the prayer that never fails–and though they may themselves be struggling, still seek to shine light into each other’s lives time and time again.

And I’d like to hear her say it. Hear Cynthia tell Father Tim what she loves. And hear him ask back, “What don’t you love?” Because she’s ever so good at saying it. Ever so good at NOT complaining, but instead putting into words her delight in every good and perfect gift, no matter how small. Rain on a summer evening. Sleeping an extra three minutes. An unexpected email from a friend. Why not give thanks for it all?

Complaints come tumbling out so easily, spreading discouragement to all those who hear. So I’m trying to remember to say it–to give thanks out loud for every gift, every glimpse of beauty, no matter how small. 

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Indignant is the word to describe how I felt back in 2005 upon hearing that another version of Jane’s Austen’s beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, was to be released in the cinema, this time starring English actress Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet. The very existence of this new intruder version felt like an insult to those who had played in the 1995 BBC adaptation of the book. Like utter disloyalty to Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, who, in my mind, actually were Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Why make another when perfection had already been reached?

But of course when the time came for the film to appear in our one local cinema in Inverness, Scotland, where we were living at the time, I went along to see it. And slowly, as I sat with my sweet popcorn and mini tub of ice cream, I felt my arched brow of skepticism slowly fade into a soft smile. For even with the simplified script, the overacting, and that awful brown dress Kiera Knightly dons for the majority of the film, it cannot be denied that with all the talented cinematography that captures the breathtaking Darbyshire scenery and the gorgeous film score by Dario Marianelli, the film is a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. And I decided that perhaps seeing what other artists had to offer was, after all, a good thing. 

I like to put it on in the background sometimes, if I’m, say, folding laundry or working on my scrapbook. But Keira Knightley will never, ever be Elizabeth Bennet, just as the 2005 version will never be to me the haven of coziness, inspiration, and nostalgia that the 1995 version is. 

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And so it will be with this newest adaptation of the novel Anne of Green Gables by Canadian Author Lucy Maude Montgomery, which will air in February 2016. This version was created by Breakthrough Entertainment , and stars young actress Ella Ballentine as the red-headed orphan Anne Shirley, and Martin Sheen as Matthew Cuthbert, the Bachelor who, along with his spinster sister Marilla, ends up adopting the feisty, talented, kindhearted Anne.

Canada’s CBC-TV also has plans to run a series, simply titled “Anne,” which is set to air in 2017, and which CBC says will follow Montgomery’s story line, but will also “chart new territory.” Writer Moira Walley-Beckett say she had adapted Anne’s story and that Anne’s issues are really contemporary ones like feminism, prejudice, and bullying.  

I will watch both versions. And if the trailer for the made-for-TV film is any indication, that adaptation will be charming and entertaining, if nothing else.

But I’m a little concerned that the series will modernize Anne too much, throw Anne’s catch phrases about in a way that becomes obnoxious, make the story into something Montgomery never intended it to be.

 So yes, I’ll watch them, but at the possible risk of having to go back on my word, I’m quite sure that these will not be the versions I go back to–again, and again, and again. Because Megan Follows who starred as Anne in the Sullivan Entertainment   version simply is Anne Shirley, just as Colleen Dewhurst is Marilla, and Jonathan Crombie is Gilbert Blythe.

I was practically introduced to Anne’s world from birth when my mother named me Avonlea, and it was to Sullivan’s 1985 version that I was first introduced. It was these actors whose faces I had in mind as I read the books, these faces I felt uplifted and encouraged by on those days when I, too, felt “in the depths of despair,” or had “a Jonah Day,” or could say of God’s working in my life, “He knew.” They are as much like friends to me as any fictional characters could ever be.

Another chance to view what is probably my favourite story on earth? Yes, please. Perhaps Breakthrough will even go on to make other Anne films based on Montgomery’s books,and stay a little closer to the stories than Sullivan did with their second Anne film. But just as I’m quite sure that a rose called a thistle or a skunk cabbage wouldn’t smell the same, an Anne by any other name could just never be as sweet. 

 

 

The ONE gift

You can hear it so many times that it excites you about as much as the side of a cereal box. Maybe less. Especially if you’ve grown up with it all—those carols and those words. Sunday school, church, Awana, VBS.

Again, and again you hear about the baby born. His miracles. The cross. Until you stop hearing at all. Or maybe you hear, but you’ve lost the wonder. The awe. The faith. 

Maybe you’ve done better than I at keeping sight of “the real meaning of Christmas.”

Then again, maybe not. 

Maybe, like me, you really wanted to show your children the real miracle that Christmas celebrates, but with all your Pinterest surfing, food list making, and out-of-town-company preparing, you forgot. 

For me this holiday season, the truth has crept in gradually, like the slow approach of a faintly burning light in the dark. 

This year has been so difficult, and I’ve felt stretched in so many ways…

Spent the first two months out of the country in Scotland for the birth of Little Bear (our fourth boy and last child; a lump to swallow by itself), and then had to transition to life back in the States. Battled fatigue as I’ve been woken by baby every night for the past twelve months. Struggled to balance my role as wife, mother to four rambunctious boys, writer, cook, organizer of too much stuff, chauffer, friend, and homeschooling mum. Took in a friend’s daughter for the summer. Opened our home to friends—a family of six—for seven weeks while they sought out a new home. Made do with chaos while we put on a small extension to our home. Helped more than one person move house. Pounded at Heaven’s doors for the souls of those yet lost.

Looking back on the four years since immigrating back to the States, it’s not hard to see the other challenges and losses we’ve encountered, like the burglary to our home three years back.

And in one way I feel shattered by it all. Bedraggled. Weary both body and soul.

In another, the shadowy places we’ve trudged through in the past few years have only made the greatest gift—the one believers in Christ Jesus claim to celebrate at Christmas—shine like never before.

For his gift—the gift of eternal life through belief in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Himself God—is one that can neither be lost, stolen, damaged, outgrown, or in any way taken away. Such a gift!

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This is the gift I will be sharing with my children and other family members on Christmas, and there is a very simple way you can do it, too, with items you most likely already have in your house.

  1. Wrap up five items in Christmas paper – something broken (a toy?), something outgrown (baby clothes?), an empty wallet or purse, and a figurine of baby Jesus (or picture of the cross), and a heart (a Christmas ornament?).

  2. Gather your family round and let them open the parcels one by one, explaining the meaning of each as you go along, using the suggestions below . . .

  3. For the broken item – Is this toy new or old? Have you ever had anything break? Things don’t last forever, do they? They can stop working or break.

  4. For the outgrown item – Would this fit anyone in the room? Clothes don’t last forever, do they? We can outgrow our clothes, or they can get holes in them and wear out.

  5. For the wallet – Look inside the pockets. What has happened to the money? Has it been stolen? Spent? Lost? Money doesn’t last forever, does it? It can be spent, stolen, or lost.

  6. For the Baby Jesus – Who does this figurine represent? Did he stay a baby or grow up to be a man? Yes, he grew up to be a man and died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins.

  7. For the heart – What is this? Yes, a heart that represents the love of God. If you believe in your heart that God died on the cross for your sins and that he was raised again back to life, then God gives you the gift of eternal life to be with him and others who loves him forever. No one can take that gift away from you. It is the only thing that can never be lost, stolen, broken, or taken away from you by anyone.

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Merry Christmas to you all! 

~ Avonlea 

Usually it was fish and chips that they offered to bring. Crispy battered haddock and thick-cut fries doused with vinegar and a sprinkling of salt, picked up from the Chippy on their way over.

I’d start to tidy, but would remind myself not to worry too much. Just a quick wipe of the bathrooms, and a fresh hand towel (one of my personal hospitality must-do’s) would suffice.

There wasn’t much point in frantically scooping Lego into toy bins or straightening out the sofa cushions. Our friends did, after all, have three little boys who’d be joining our two (at that time), and I knew I could expect the five of them to make quick work of emptying the wicker toy basket and turning the sofa into a pirate ship.

After the ketchup-soaked fish and chip papers had been cleared away and the children were in the other room hard at play, the adults would gather round the dining room table, within ear shot of the littles in case someone got a bump, or there was a lesson on sharing that needed to be learned.

There’d be coffee then, or tea, and some little nibbles, and the stresses of life would dissipate as we talked and shared, the fire crackling at our backs. They’d stay past bedtime, but we didn’t mind.

They were our last-minute friends. The spontaneous ones. And we loved it.

We loved it, and it went both ways.

I remember phoning once, on our way home from a day of picnicking and wading in the rock pools of St Andrews. And we were invited to “tea” (the evening meal in many parts of Scotland).

There were probably toys everywhere. Crumbs on the floor.  Some sprinkles on the toilet seat. But I don’t remember.

I remember the lamb chops smothered in curry paste, the homemade sweet potato chips sprinkled with salt and hot pepper seeds. I remember Mary’s smile. I remember there was cake.

Later on, Mary and I nursed cups of milky tea beside the patio doors while the men took the children into the cool autumn air to play on the trampoline. Two tired mamas, we talked, we laughed, we shared our hearts so that the other knew how to pray. We felt stronger. We knew love.

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You see, a mama doesn’t mind it. Not one little bit.

Doesn’t mind balancing her cup of tea as she picks her way over the minefield of toys to make her way to your couch.

Doesn’t mind grabbing a wad of toilet roll to wipe sprinkles from your toilet seat.

Has selective vision when it comes to the pile of dishes in your sink.

She didn’t come to inspect your house. She didn’t come to give you extra work.

She came for the friendship. The laughter.

She came to see you.

Friendship and laughter bring sanity. Clarity. Helps us see that most of the chaos is normal, and we’re not the only ones going through it all.

God made us that way. To bear one another’s burdens. To celebrate together.

And I have to remind myself of this often–

that my desire is to bless, not impress. 

That laughter is made brighter, tears are made lighter when there’s cake.

Cake, and of course, a hot cup of tea.

And so even if you are a tired mama, don’t let this stop you from letting others into your house, especially if they are a tired mama, too.

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She came one night with a raw chicken. I knew she’d be staying a while. And I welcomed her into the quiet of our little stone house.

John was away in London. Or Edinburgh, perhaps. And even with the woods and the beaches to walk, the days and nights grew long, just Baby and me.

Soon the oven warmed the kitchen, and the smells spread through the house. And she sat with me while I fed and changed him. Spoke with me, listened, like she’d nowhere else to go.

And when Baby was down, and our bellies were full, she sat a bit longer just to chat.

A few months on and we were headed south, leaving Inverness for the hills of Perthshire,

and she came back.

She and another friend, as if it were nothing.

They came with boxes, newspapers, and bags, and within a few days the house was wrapped and packed, and it was nothing I could have done on my own, not me and Baby, who climbed in and out of boxes, unpacking what I’d packed.

And I was grateful, oh so grateful, for their help.

But it was more than the job, of course, more than helping me move house.

It was also their time, their laughter, their there-ness

that spoke volumes to my tired mama heart. 

Saying that, I loved the help.

Acts of service is a love language I so appreciate and understand. 

But not every mama loves someone showing up with a dust rag and a mop.

An offer to help clean her house can make her feel inadequate. Like she’s failed as a homemaker and it’s clear to all the world that she’s drowning in laundry and dust.  

So if you know a tired mama and you really want to love her, 

first find out what kind of love* speaks to her tired mama heart. 

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If it’s Acts of Service, an offer to fold her laundry, wipe down the high chair, or wash her dishes will have her heart skip a happy little beat. And if you sit and chat with her while you do it, while she feeds the baby, she’ll appreciate it even more. Have a bit more time? Offer to sit with the children while she grocery shops solo. The sacrifice of your time and hard work will make her feel cared for more than anything else.

If it’s Quality Time, bring some muffins, just spend time with her, chaos and all. Or if you can, whisk her out for coffee and a chat. Or offer to join her on a trip to the park with the children. What this mama craves is your active presence. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, she just wants to see you and to build your friendship, whatever you do together.

If it’s Words of Affirmation, this mama needs encouragement, truth, and peace spoken into her life. Compliment her on her strengths, and what she’s doing right as a mother and wife. Tell her how you value her friendship. Remind her of God’s love for her, His child. If you can’t tell her in person, call or send a card.

If it’s Gifts, this mama would love you to turn up with a pot of soup and a loaf of bread. A bag of clothes that your little one has outgrown. A new diaper bag to replace hers, which is so worn out. Anything to let her know you were thinking of her. She probably wouldn’t turn down a gift certificate to her favourite restaurant or spa, but the price is not the issue. She’ll just be delighted to know you were thinking of her, whatever gift you bring.

If it’s Phyisical Touch, what this mama might need more anything else is a hug.

Being the mama (or daddy!) of little ones is not an easy task. Not a nine-to-five kind of job. It begins from the time we open our eyelids to the time we lay down our weary heads (and often continues through the night as well). We long to raise our children to be rich in faith, love, and good works, but such important work can seem overwhelming when running on such a little bit of sleep. So if there’s a tired mama in your life, find a way to help her be the faithful wife and mama she so longs to be by showing her love in a way that will strengthen her and help her run strong.

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 *Love Languages taken from The 5 Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman

It’s been six months, but I’m still talking. Still telling what happened–what she did–with as much excitement as if I’d just stepped off the train.

January, Little Bear just a month old, still waking often, still calling me from shallow sleep to hold him, back-bent and weary, as I rock, rock, try to keep my head from nodding as I feed him off to sleep.

January, and I’m still recovering from his birth, still tender and swollen, still feeling lost as I try to wade my way through the emotions that come with newborns and returning to the country that was home for eight long years.

January, and in spite of craving sleep like an addict, I feel anxious to do some shopping for the belated Christmas we’d be sharing with my family back in the States.

I couldn’t drive, but there are trains there, and I decided catch one, just me and Little Bear, to Inverness, where we used to live and where one can find such delights as Primark, Debenhams, and Marks & Spencers.

I was set to do the return trip in a day, but the night before, I spoke to a friend from our old church. A trendy grandmother with a soft young voice, smiling eyes, and a penchant for the color blue. She convinced me—without much effort—that Little Bear and I should stay the night. Have two days in town instead of one.

The trip began disastrously. I spent half the time trying to ignore the stressful cries of a newborn, and the other half in the dressing room feeding and changing his nappy. I would have had to go home empty-handed, frustrated, in tears.

But instead came my friend with her car to meet me and whisk me and Little Bear off to her home for a hot dinner (she held the baby while I ate!), endless cups of tea (she said I must keep my strength up!), and a heart-to-heart conversation in a soft chair (I sat while she bathed the baby!). And that’s only the beginning. I haven’t yet mentioned the fruit and water bottles in my room in the event I needed a late night snack, the electric blanket that had been turned on to keep my bed warm and waiting, or the new home décor magazines that were set out in case I wanted to take a look.

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I laid my head on my crisp white pillow that night with a smile on my face and peace in my heart.

Just a night in that house and I felt rejuvenated. Encouraged. Loved.

Ministered to in every way.

And I could say my friend is just like that. Just the sort of person to convince you she liked sleeping on the floor and that you really should have her bed. And perhaps that’s a little bit true. But if you’ve seen her Bible then you’ll know it’s also a little bit more than that. Book marks sticking out like porcupine quills. Notes added to the margins in her tiny, dancing hand. She spends a great deal of time with that book, I gather. Probably a great deal of time on her knees, too.

And somehow, in a way that surpasses all comprehension, spending time with that book has the power to transform us. Help us stop thinking of our own needs and see the needs of others. Help us see what a teary-eyed, bone-weary Mama needs more than anything else.

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