Outtake Advent

Posted by Amy Evelyn Oden , Saturday, December 17, 2016 8:00 PM

I’m not gonna lie, friends: I use Photoshop every year on our annual Christmas family photo.

In addition to the forgivable tweaks of color and brightness, I sometimes remove unwanted elements and sometimes I even meld different shots together.

Last year, after probably fifteen takes, we still didn’t have one good one. So I took a smiling head of Oliver off one shot and pasted it onto another where the other three of us were smiling.  If you look closely at my hair, the keen eye will note that I have two of the exact same curl on the right side due to the overlap from Oliver’s pasted head.

Two years ago, I was five months post-partum and may or may not have used some clever shading to hide some of the baby weight (read: double chin).

This year, by some miracle of grace, we got a good shot of all four of us in only four takes.  But Photoshop still helped out to fix some unsightly background elements.  We wouldn’t want anyone to see the garden hose or that grime on the front walkway wall, you know.

I like to have one cohesive, cleaned-up family image to encapsulate that year.  Does it matter if it’s a little fake?  Probably.  I don't know.  It doesn’t bother me that much.  There’s something very satisfying about a squeaky clean picture of us at the end of every year that I’ve spent up to my ankles in toys and broken crayons and stickers and dirty laundry and body fluids.

There is a slight pang of guilt, however, as I send the photo out to family and friends. “They’re not seeing the real us,” I think. And maybe—like the time I noticed the mom at the library who seemed to have it all together…and then I noticed her three-year-old’s shoes were on the wrong feet and I sighed with relief—my friends and family would be glad to see the double chin and the grime on the wall.  Maybe I could be the sigh of relief they need.

Much like that cleaned-up photo, I'm wanting to create a beautiful, meaningful, memorable, picturesque holiday season for my kids.  This year, however, I’ve been calling this “Outtake Advent” because it’s been unrolling much more like a blooper reel than a magazine layout.

On December 1st as the countdown to Christmas began, I was texting with my best friend who was waiting on her labs to see if chemo was on or not that day.  (So I could stop this blog post here and you’d understand already that Christmas is unfolding under severely-less-than-ideal circumstances this year.  But I’ll continue anyway.)

We were sharing about our countdown kick-offs, laughing-so-as-not-to-cry, as her children fought over who got to read the first Advent activity and her daughter scowled at her son through the whole thing. On my end, I had hung up the stockings on their heavy, metal mantel hangers, then left the room to do something else. Oliver yanked on one and the hanger crashed down onto his toe, so I come back in to find him crying and bleeding.  An hour later, the whole big-toenail would be black. 
We read Day 1 of the family Advent devotional book that I wanted to start as a new family tradition.  The next day, Vianne and I got into a fight about reading it because she didn’t want to do it.  She eventually declared that she would do it (begrudgingly) this year but NOT NEXT YEAR.  To date, we’ve read nine of the seventeen entries so far, and that’s only because we doubled up on at least three days (yeah, do the math, that means we’ve read it six out of seventeen days…that’s 35%).

We bought a Christmas tree stand that, when the box was opened, looked like it had been run over by a truck (back to the store again!) and finally, after eight years of marriage, bought a star topper for our tree, which burned out a week later. We also bought new ornaments for this year; Oliver’s has already been broken and glued several different times. 

After getting the tree set up, the kids and I were putting the ornaments on and I felt we needed some music. I turned on my favorite Christmas CD (Steven Curtis Chapman’s The Music of Christmas) which I turn on every year as the moment in which I declare, “It. Is. CHRISTMASTIME!” and I usher in the season.  Those first few notes make my soul swell and fill me up with hope and joy and excitement for what’s ahead.  But this year, Oliver screamed through the first two songs because he was mad that I’d changed the CD.

I bought a fir-scented candle to emulate fresh Christmas tree and it smells like fake-tree-like-generic-holiday-scent-that's-mildly-unpleasant and we're lighting it anyway, because it was $5.24 plus tax, darn it.

I tried to be fancy for an outing last week and wear actual expensive perfume, and though I was aiming at my neck/chest, it went directly into my face. My nose & cheeks smelled great!

Yesterday we took a tray of homemade holiday treats to our local public service agency. I hate sounding like I'm tooting our own horn here, but we did this last year and they seemed thrilled about the cookies and about our visit.  Maybe they were just being nice.  Now I'm questioning everything I ever knew.  This year, we felt like a big intrusion and were told that it really wasn’t necessary (“We just want to say thank you,” I said), that we were contributing to their seasonal weight gain (“Oh, you guys burn it off,” I said), and, while being shown all the many, many treats they’d already received (Why didn't I just take my tray and leave at that point?), that they encourage people to give instead to the less fortunate (“We do that too,” I said with gritted teeth, leaving out the next part, “Just take the $%#@ cookies and say thank you.”). Message received. My “Things Not To Do Next Christmas” list just grew by one item.  It's not the first time and won't be the last that I try to do something nice and end up feeling like an idiot.

I want things to be fun that end up being stressful. I want to be calm and I’m yelling at the kids not to touch things. I want to be a blessing and I'm made to feel like a burden. I want to be joyous and impart peace to others and I’m having near-panic attacks in stores when I can't get through the aisles. 

If I sound petty and privileged, I am, but it goes deeper than decorations and ambiance and not-so-well-received treats, too. I’m giggling with my daughter over the gender of gingerbread cookies while inwardly begging heaven to quell the despair of terrified children half a world away that are hoping they wake up tomorrow, let alone on Christmas morning. 

I’m making toffee and praying for tumors to go away, for custody battles to end, and for hearts grieving over the recent loss of loved ones to somehow be comforted this season, knowing first hand how dark that can get. 

I’m teaching my kids Christmas carols with a chokehold on the lyrics’ promises as I wrestle fears about the future and finances and foreign powers. 

I’m supposed to be showing goodwill towards men and women but during the political nightmare of self-righteousness, hate-slinging, finger-pointing, hypocrisy and histrionics that is 2016, I only like about twelve people right now. (Don’t ask which twelve. I'll never tell.)

So I don’t have tips, as some bloggers do, on creating the perfect Christmas or ending the year well. I can post pictures that look like I do, but here’s the reality behind them: I’m trying to remember 1) to breathe and 2) what’s important.  I’m praying desperate prayers all day every day.  I’m finding moments of hope and peace and joy but I have to keep re-finding them. I’m trying to smile at people that I feel like yelling at. I keep asking for forgiveness for losing my temper, my focus, and my mind.

And I’m thanking God over and over and over that He so loved the world that He sent a Savior for it, and for me. Because it needs one. And I need one.

Honestly, friends, it’s there I find the “true meaning of Christmas”. It’s not that we were photogenic supermodels with picture-perfect houses, without flaws or troubles, and God was like, “Hey, I thought I’d send my Son on a vacation to Earth.” It’s that we were dysfunctional and rebellious and hopeless and self-centered and ungrateful and misled far, far beyond any Photoshop tool’s ability to fix it, and God sent His Son to save us and to show us a different, sacrificial, God-centered way to live.  And then, He sent His Spirit to live in us because even when the way was shown to us, we still couldn’t do it by our strength and will and ability alone.

If everything were going perfectly right now, I might forget that.

So, to end a year that’s far and wide being labeled as horrible, to put it mildly...

In solidarity with the rest of humanity who can’t get it together either, and in keeping with the first Christmas, where the family photos would’ve had all kinds of grime in the background and at least one crying baby despite what the carols claim, I’ve decided to post the Oden Outtakes...the real, unedited pictures from our Christmas (and a few other) family photo sessions. 

My Christmas gift to all of you who’ve made it this far in the post: a sigh of relief and, I hope, a really good laugh.

Thanksgiving 2012

Christmas 2012
She confused her Christmas dress with the Christmas treats.
I'm smiling...
...no, I'm not stressed out...
Christmas 2013

And...nailed it.
Christmas 2014

July 2015
Trying to use a remote...can ya tell?
(love Vianne's facepalm here...)
Where's Vianne?
Oh, there she is.
And...gone again.

Thanksgiving 2015
Oliver was not feeling very thankful.
Christmas 2015

Merry Christmas?
Bribed the boy with chocolate.

Christmas 2016
 Ok, employed some help from Photoshop for this one.

 Can't get both of them to stay still and smile for anything.

There may have been threats to return all the Christmas gifts.


You're welcome.

September 2016

Posted by Amy Evelyn Oden , Saturday, October 15, 2016 9:26 AM

September was a full & fun month around here. We watched The Wizard of Oz a lot, wished that start of fall meant leaves to jump in (not quite yet here), endured a few more days in the 100s and enjoyed the backyard blow-up pool longer that we thought we would.

Oliver - who in 25 months of life has barely paid any attention to the television - is now completely obsessed with the Amazon Original show "Creative Galaxy" which he calls "Arty".  He wants it on from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed, even if he's not in the room or not watching it.  He throws a fit if you turn it off or if Vianne wants to watch something else, so he's learning tough lessons about not always getting what he wants and having to take turns with his sister.  Vianne enjoys the show, too, and it has inspired her to craft up a storm lately for the past several weeks.  This is great in that both of them have been happily occupied for more time than I have been used to, but there are also a lot of resulting messes and tantrums...so it's sort of a love/hate thing for me.

Oliver continues to amaze us with his new phrases.  He likes to pick up objects and say, "How this get here?" (Now that I think about it, I probably say that...spatula in the bathroom?  Canned food in the guest room?)  He sometimes has what sort of sounds like a midwestern accent, "What happened, Mom?", another of his cute phrases, sounds like, "What hyeahappened, Mom?"  And because of the Wizard of Oz obsession, all "why" questions in our house are now answered by both kids with "Because of the wonderful things he does!" except Oliver's sounds a little more like "Buh-tuzz wunner feens he does!" and I make him say it over and over because it's so cute.

Vianne's favorite thing continues to be pretending we are people other than we are.  We are still quite often the Hsiehs or the Blairs, recently added The Shields, or the usual cast of Disney Princesses/Transformers/Marvel Super Heroes & Villains.  She really likes to be the villains playing tricks on the good guys which usually involves putting something that tastes yucky into what they're eating.  She also likes to pretend, when we are returning home from somewhere, that we have missed our house and the driveway we are pulling into is someone else's house...and we hope they're nice and will let us stay...and we hope they have kids to play with.  This imagination of hers!

I've found windows of time to get back into scrapbooking and back to my Marie Durand research project.  Sometimes this feels very satisfying, sometimes this means coming out to find that what I thought was fifteen minutes of peace was really the kids making an unexpected mess in the other room.  But it feels like a good start to regaining a little of myself back...I feel like I've been missing for awhile now.

Smiles for Mama during one of the many Wizard of Oz viewings

Very focused on the movie + popcorn

Our pretty-in-pink little lady, ready for church and obliging for a photo shoot...

Grampa came for Labor Day week & brought the rainbow pool!

Patrick at the grill for our low-key Labor Day BBQ

Batman to the rescue!
The month-long craft-a-thon begins...

Each craft starts nicely like this...
...and quickly devolves into this.

We were invited to our first friend birthday party since moving up here and introduced both our kids to the sport of bowling in the same event!  Oliver was all about the shoes.

Happy Birthday to William!

Vianne with her sweet friend Kaliyan
A bit of silliness with Daddy

More crafting (ack!)