Saturday, December 26, 2015

We are rich with the most important gifts

From today's Briefing:

On the last day of school before winter break, I assigned homework to my fourth-graders. I printed their tasks on the whiteboard:
Read every day.
Enjoy family.
Be thankful.
Share joy.
The assignment came with a little speech.
“You’ll be gone for 16 days. We’ve worked hard this year on your reading skills. I don’t want your brain to turn to mush while we’re apart, so please read a little every day. Even if you’re reading junky books, read something.
“Spend time with your family members and let them know you’re happy to be with them.
“I want you to think about everything you have before you receive presents and be thankful. Each of us has everything we need, and a lot of us have a lot of what we want. I hope you are as happy the day before you receive gifts as you are the day after.
“And I hope that you’ll find ways to share your joy with the people around you.”
I’m not sure how much they heard (we were, after all, hours from two weeks of freedom) or how diligently they’ve been working on their assign- ments this week. I may have lost a few with that reading assignment first thing. None of them could have been too surprised by the list, though. It mirrors my everyday teaching.
We’re in the middle of Little House in the Big Woods, the first novel in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. As I read aloud, I stop often to ask questions (“What can you infer …”) and answer questions (“What does that mean?”).
I also pause to emphasize differences between our 21st-century suburban lives and the lives of 19th-century pioneers.
Our food almost always comes from a grocery store or restaurant. Their food came from the fields and woods.
Our clothes almost always come from a store — or online equivalent. Their clothes were almost always handmade.
We are constantly entertained, with media streaming in our homes, on our phones. Their entertainment was Pa playing the fiddle when he wasn’t too tired from working all day.
One of the most obvious differences is Christmas now and Christmas then.
In the novel, Laura receives more gifts than any other child on Christmas morning: red mittens, a peppermint stick and a rag doll. The handmade doll replaces her previous doll, a corncob by the name of Susan.
I stop reading in the middle of the Christmas chapter and let it all sink in. All the cousins received two simple gifts. They need mittens for the harsh winters. A stick of candy is a luxury.
And little Laura? She’s rendered speechless when she receives a doll made of cloth and yarn.
There are days as a teacher and a parent that I wish we could regain that wonder found in basic, simple pleasures. I don’t want my students or my own two children to feel guilty for the luxuries we enjoy. I do want us all to recognize how fortunate we are.
No matter what was under the tree or in stockings Friday, no matter which of our wishes were fulfilled, we’re already rich with the most important gifts. We have clean drinking water. We have access to healthy food. We live in safe communities. Education is available to all.
We’ve got countless reasons to be thankful and joyful, no matter the day of the year.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, December 14, 2015

Holiday errands lead to sweet memories

From Saturday's Briefing:

A luxury I’ve learned to allow myself is a scheduled day off before Christmas so I can finish the errands that inevitably pop up.
As I made my list this week and planned stops strategically, I thought of the old days, when I was a work-from-home mom with younger children and a more flexible schedule. Did I fully appreciate my life back then?
On my day off this week, after I delivered my children to their schools, I sat at a coffee shop for a full hour, visiting with a friend. We drank from real cups. We had a real conversation, making up for the quick texts we usually exchange.
I was able to shop at Trader Joe’s without jostling crowds. The lack of shoppers afforded me time to study the shelves, to investigate the latest ways cookie butter is being employed. There was no wait for a cashier, and no one standing behind me, anxious to move on.
Every other store was the same way. I found nearby parking spots. Merchandise was well stocked. Sales staff members, often harried by weekend crowds, were jovial. Pleasantries were exchanged all over the place.
Meanwhile, my to-do list was being whittled with ease. Bank deposit? Check! Gift cards for teachers? Check! Wrapping paper on sale? Check!
And then it all came to a grinding halt.
I dared to enter an arts and crafts store at noon — the time when working people manage to squeeze in an errand or two instead of eating a proper lunch.
Aisles were clogged. Spirits were low. I felt a little weak. (Perhaps because I hadn’t yet stopped for a proper lunch.)
I took my place in a winding queue sandwiched between registers and bins of stuff. Ribbons, costume jewelry, note cards, liquid soap, gummy bears the size of a newborn baby. Along the bottommost shelf were piles of small stuffed animals.
“I want this one!” squealed a tiny but strong voice behind me.
“We can put it on your Christmas list,” Tiny’s mom replied.
“Yes, ma’am. That would make me happy!”
There was the briefest pause and then, “I want this one, too!”
“We can put it on your Christmas list,” her mom said.
“Oh! Look at this one! I want this one!”
“We can put it on your Christmas list,” the world’s most patient mom repeated.
The line inched forward, getting all of us a little closer to the register and offering Tiny easy access to more fuzzy animals, all of which she desperately wanted. As soon as she’d pick up one big-eyed critter, she’d spot another she loved, discard the first and embrace the second.
At last, mom declared, “I will put the entire line of Ty Beanie Boos on your list. Every single one ever made. But we are not buying one now.”
I giggled to myself. I wanted to hug the mom. (I refrained.) And I remembered the “old days.”
Yes, I had a more flexible schedule, but I was also in charge of my own tiny, strong-willed people all day long. We didn’t complete errands with ease. Schedules were dictated by meals, nap times and, in the most treacherous of weeks, potty training. Damm children were responsible for tantrums of varying degrees all over town.
Did I enjoy every single moment? Nope. Was it a luxury to spend so much time with my children when they were very young? Absolutely.
I paid for my craft supplies. I walked to the minivan. I thought about Tiny and her mom.
I irrationally wanted time to slow down for them, for all of us parents who can’t believe how quickly these babes of ours grow and go to school and create wish lists that no longer include stuffed animals.
I re-entered the mundane. Dry cleaning dropped off? Check. Quick lunch? Check. Christmas card list compiled? Check.
Big hugs for my big people the moment they got home? Without a doubt.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Notecards for Christmas

Our church is again participating in Advent Conspiracy -- an effort to deepen the understanding of the days and weeks leading to Christmas, as we wait the good news of the birth of Jesus. There are four main tenets to the conspiracy: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All.

Katie has embraced Advent Conspiracy for a few years now. She has sold bags of puff balls and jingle bells, homemade hot cocoa mix, and handmade bookmarks

This year she created three pieces of art that our church is using for the campaign. 

She chose her favorite piece, which represents ways in which we can help our neighbors, for fold-over notecards.

Each bundle of notecards includes this message from Katie about where the money will go.
She is selling bundles of five notecards for a minimum donation of $5. All the money that she earns will go to a dedicated fund at our church. Katie wants the money to go directly to children in need -- for either food or education. The money will be available to use in 2016 for children in need in the community.

If you would like a set (or more!) of the notecards, you can email me at

Thank you for considering!