Stinky Cheese and 2021

“The righteous person perishes, and no one takes it to heart; the faithful are taken away, with no one realizing that the righteous person is taken away because of evil. He will enter into peace – they will rest on their beds – everyone who lives uprightly.” Isaiah 57 1-2 CSB

I was born in Wisconsin and grew up with cheese as my second language. From an early age, I knew that fresh cheese curds should squeak, how to properly eat string cheese, and what aged meant in terms of cheese. American cheese was referred to as an artificial plastic cheese food and cheddar was king! We took pride in being the inventors of Colby cheese and even if California was technically the dairy state, we still wore our cheese heads proudly at Packers’ games!

A family favorite in our home was aged brick cheese, purchased from Gibbsville, a local cheese artisan. This soft, pale white cheese is considered a part of the cheddar family and was first created in Wisconsin. As it ages, it develops a pungent odor that some believe resembles dirty feet. Yet, if you can get past the distinct order, and slice it thin, this cheese melts in your mouth and its creamy texture and taste leave you wanting more. Someone recently shared with me that as you eat these strong cheeses, like blue cheese, Limburger, and Brick, your taste-buds change the smell as you are eating the cheese, making it more pleasing to you. I may have liked brick cheese as a child but haven’t been able to get past the smell as an adult.

December is wrapping up, along with 2021, and I am so looking forward to a fresh start in 2022. I’ve been transparent about this having been a tough year on so many levels. I remember in early November sharing with God that I felt like I was stretched thin, and couldn’t handle any more challenges, begging for peace. But within a few weeks, we had a job loss, an email that set a boundary I didn’t understand, and my uncle died unexpectedly. I felt like my world was unraveling and I could barely hold it together. I went through the motions of living but felt distant and numb. The only thing I could cling to was my relationship with God and His faithfulness.

It’s so easy to look on the outside and not see the goodness of God working at all when life is hard. If I take an honest look at this past year, and made a list of pros and cons, the cons will outweigh the pros. Yet, just like the stinky brick cheese, I must get past the stinky life situations, most of which I have no control of, and believe that God is working through these difficult situations. Notice, I said He is working though these difficult situations, not around them, not despite them, but through them. I must trust the process and believe that God is using these situations to build my trust and faith. Furthermore, He is using these situations to bring light to some areas in my life where I need healing and clarity.

Some of that healing comes through the process of confession. I am talking about finding a select few friends with whom you can be honest about your feelings. For me, that looked like sharing with my husband and a few friends that I was struggling with believing in the goodness of God. It was telling someone that I felt like I was a failure. It was being honest with all the difficulties and how I wanted to stay in bed during the holidays and only get up to play with my grandson.

 I spent most of Sunday afternoon and Monday being authentic with a few friends. My situations haven’t changed, but my perspective has changed. No one tried to fix me, instead they listened and validated the challenges. They demonstrated compassion and allowed me to be not ok. It helped me clear the air and not put on a facade that everything was fine. It helped me exhale all the hard parts in my life and inhale the love, compassion, and empathy from others. And it changed me.

This change was not a magic pill that made everything look and feel great. Instead, it was more subtle, but still life giving. It helped me release some of the burdens I was never meant to carry, and truly give them to God. It meant that I spent some time praying with my husband asking God to demonstrate His goodness and work in situations that will clearly display His glory. It meant that I wasn’t alone and that these situations are hard. It gave me glimmers of hope!

 I have no idea how some of these situations are going to end up next year. I can’t even imagine the solutions or paths that God has prepared for me. As author Lysa TerKeurst often says, “I do know that God is good, He’s good to me and He’s good at being God.” That is what I am clinging to! The stinky situations still stink, but I am choosing to embrace them, and let God work through them, just like sometimes you need to get past the smell of Brick cheese to truly enjoy it.

 Finally, I am choosing to end my year reflecting on some truly beautiful moments I have experienced over the last twelve months. Those beautiful moments will help shift my perspective and help me imagine a better year. I want to thank you for taking the time to read my blog, and I hope it has been a blessing to you. Happy New Year!


“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15

Christmas is a few days away; the presents are under the tree, and I have a few cookies left to bake. I am looking forward to all my family being together under one roof. Last year was supposed to be our Christmas to host, but with all the COVID-19 restrictions, our Rhode Island family couldn’t travel. Additionally, my daughter ended up working her first holiday in the hospital on Christmas Eve. For the first time in our married life, Terry and I were alone on Christmas Eve!

It would have been easy to focus on all the losses of the Christmas season, after all, we were missing our grandson’s first Christmas. Instead, Terry and I chose to make the most of the holiday. We ordered gourmet pastries from our favorite bakery and brisket with sides from a local BBQ joint. Additionally, Terry surprised me with a Hot Chocolate Bomb and a jug of my favorite iced latte from Denim Coffee. We stayed in our pajamas on Christmas Eve, lit candles, curled up in blankets, and read some wintry books. We responded to some texts, listened to Christmas music, and Face-timed with family. But, mostly, just relaxed, discussed what we were reading, and enjoyed the silent night.

I wish I could say that this idea was original, but it stems from an Icelandic tradition called Jolabokaflod. It started during World War II when paper was one of the few things not being rationed. Icelanders altered their Christmas gift exchange by choosing to give books to one another. In 1944, Jolabokaflod was reinforced by the book trade, which published a catalog of books to be released before the holidays. Today, as soon as the catalog is released, Icelanders rush to order the books ahead as gifts. After exchanging the books on Christmas Eve, they find cozy nooks in their homes to read, accompanied by a hot beverage and dark chocolate. This is my idea of perfection, and it helped make last Christmas memorable!

I am aware Christmas is not a joyous season for everyone. Maybe, it’s the first holiday a family spends without a loved one. Maybe, past Christmases have been disappointing, leaving someone feeling like the holiday is overrated. Maybe, it’s been a hard year and choosing to celebrate feels difficult and burdensome. Whatever the reason, Christmas this year may feel challenging and difficult. It is easy to be on the outside and try to encourage people we care about to celebrate anyway, but is that really the best response?

Through a lot of different podcasts and books, especially the works of Curt Thompson, I am learning the importance of validating someone else’s feelings. I remember sharing with someone last Christmas that I was sad about my son and his family not being able to come for Christmas, and the person responded, “Well, it’s probably better they don’t come.” I already understood the wisdom of the decision, but the facts didn’t lessen my loss. The same person went on to talk about their grandchildren and the gifts they would be opening together, knowing my grandson’s gift would remain wrapped.

While that person may have been trying to help, I was left feeling dismissed and invalidated. I had another friend who responded differently. She looked me in the eyes and said, “I know this is hard for you and I am here if you want to talk.” This simple response gave me room to express my loss and that what I was feeling was fair and real. I didn’t have to put on a smile and pretend everything was okay.

 After Mary’s angelic visitation, she was left to deal with the judgmental responses of those around her. Nothing about her situation was easy: an unwed, pregnant woman was going to be the talk of her village. And we don’t even know how long it took for Joseph to make his decision whether to put away his fiancée. This poor young woman was left alone to deal with the gossip and rumors, until she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, through the Spirit of God, recognized that the babe in Mary’s womb was from God, but she didn’t just quietly affirm Mary’s situation. Instead, the Bible says that Elizabeth spoke with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among woman, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth’s response gave Mary the boldness to respond differently to her situation, resulting in Mary’s song found in Luke 1:46-55, starting with, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Terry and I were able to work through our loss and find a resolution that redeemed the holidays for us. But not everyone is able to do that. And that’s okay. Instead, if I have a friend who is having a hard holiday, I hope to offer the same helpful support that I received. I will listen to their feelings, acknowledge that the situation is hard, and be there if they want to talk. And just maybe this will help them work through their feelings and find their own way to redeem the holidays.

And even though my family will be with me this Christmas, I may choose to sneak away for twenty minutes, find a cozy book, and read, accompanied by some dark chocolate!

A Whirligig Christmas

“And she shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21 NKJV

Every family has its own Christmas traditions. Some families have matching festive pajamas, others watch certain movies, and some may even love fruit cake (although I have never met this particular family). The Collins are no exception to traditions. We bake Dishpan Cookies, watch the movie “Holiday Inn”, and listen to “The Cinnamon Bear”, an old radio show. We have one tradition that I am confident no other family shares, on a biannual basis we would read, as a family, Whirligig House, a children’s book written by Anna Maria Rose Wright.

I can say this with confidence for multiple of reasons. First, the book was published in 1951 and it is no longer in print. It also hasn’t won any awards and I’ve never seen it on a list of books every child must read. It only has two reviews on Amazon, one of which is from my husband. Yet, despite its lackluster reputation, this old beige book is a treasure in our home. It sits in our blue library cabinet protected by glass doors. It is the one material possession of ours that both my children want, which is why I hope someday to procure a second copy.

Terry was the first person to discover this book as a library page in Junior high. Opening the pages, he grew fascinated with the family of five children and their adventures. The story starts near Christmas Eve, with the children learning that their mother is seriously ill with tuberculosis. She is sent to a sanatorium for a year, and the kids learn to pull together and self-govern themselves to avoid their dreaded Aunt Tatty’s schemes to divide the family. The book ends with a Christmas scene of the mother returning that rivals the final scene of “It’s A Wonderful Life!”

Photo Credit by Terry Collins

Terry told me about the book shortly after we started dating. I could tell that this book would make an amazing present, so I began to hunt for the book in antique and bookstores. This was before eBay was popular, or Amazon had Prime, when dial-up was the only way to connect to the web. I searched for months for the book, even calling his old school to see if they would be willing to sell the book. Despite these obstacles, I finally managed to purchase a copy of the book for his birthday in December our first year of marriage. As he unwrapped the book, the look of joy he had on his face has only been surpassed with the birth of our children and grandson. We started reading the book together as a couple that year and have since shared the love of this book with our children. About six years ago, we read it aloud with our kids one last time during the Christmas season, realizing that this era as a family was ending. Hopefully, we will pick up the book again with our grandchildren, sharing the delight of the Christmas Eve feast, Buster joining the choir, and envisioning what a licorice bed looked like!

 If you looked in our house, you would find other items that appear with more glitter or look more valuable. You would likely miss Whirligig House on the shelf, surrounded by beautiful copies of Pilgrim’s Progress and Les Misérables. Yet, of all the books in our home, next to the Bible, this book is probably at the top of everyone’s list. It’s worn, beige with simple lettering, and plain. Nothing about it indicates the value it holds for our family.

But isn’t that the same with the story of Christmas, nothing about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth seem valuable or special. He was born in a stable with animals instead of a palace and had shepherds as visitors instead of a royal procession. The only hints that there was something extraordinary about this birth were the angelic visits and gifts from the wise men. Yet, this tiny baby held the hope for the whole world. His chubby little fingers would later perform miracles for the masses. His tiny little mouth would speak words of encouragement, teach principles, and fulfill prophesies. His little feet would walk many miles to meet with sinners and the broken-hearted, and later walk to his own death. His little body would grow to healthy adulthood only to be broken on the cross, not because of his own actions, but because of my sinful actions. And three days later, his resurrected body would give me a hope that someday my broken life would be fully restored.

We all have traditions, and our family traditions become more valuable to us at Christmas. They unify and define us. They might be wrapped up and put away to open year after year, or like mine, they might sit in a bookshelf all year. But as much as I value Whirligig House, the birth of Jesus grows more precious to me year after year. I echo C.S. Lewis: “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” And I believe what John wrote: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Yes, Jesus’ birth may have seemed “less than” to those around him, but, to me, this baby being born in a stable is more precious to me than any mere possession!

Cupcake Delights

And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47

 Years ago. visions of sugarplums danced in my head whenever my mother would take us to the Wonder Bread/Hostess store. We strolled among racks of Ding Dongs, Twinkies, and Ho-Ho’s amazed and delighted at the bounty before us! I passed by all these confectionery delights looking for my favorite: Hostess Cupcakes. I fantasized about the two chocolate cupcakes filled with sweet cream in the center, topped with chocolate frosting and the trademark vanilla swirl stripe. My mother would typically add a few of these to her basket, and I couldn’t wait to get home to peel off the plastic wrapper and start devouring my cupcake!

Forty years later, my tastes have changed, and Hostess cupcakes no longer impress me. I still love cupcakes, preferring upscale bakeries such as Georgetown Cupcakes. This tiny corner bakery is located on M Street outside of Washington DC. This intersection is busy, filled with little shoppes and restaurants, surrounded by historic brownstones. My wonderful husband deals with the crazy traffic and narrow side streets, dropping me off at the corner, while I wait in line for cupcakes. Rarely does he complain but indulges me by driving around in circles while I make my purchase. We then drive home, and two hours later, I squeal in delight over flavors like the Chocolate Peppermint Ganache cupcake, savoring its sweetness.

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

Christmas is the season for delight: twinkling lights, decorated trees, wrapped presents, and Christmas carols. In my home, you often hear Andy Williams bellow “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” while I bake Christmas cookies or write out cards. Even Maxwell House Coffee tugs at your heartstrings with its sentimental commercials, usually a homecoming, that warms your soul. In general, the world feels calmer, at peace, and full of hope. Harlan Miller, a 20th century columnist, said, “I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month.”

This same sense of delight and wonder is found in the story that makes Christmas possible: the birth of Jesus. This year, I am choosing to read the Biblical account repeatedly throughout December. I want my “soul to magnify the Lord” as Mary embraces her miracle. I want to be obedient to the voice of God, putting aside all my pride, as Joseph did when the angel spoke to him on three separate occasions. I want to stand in awe with the shepherds as the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest.”  I want to lift my eyes up to heaven with Simeon declaring that “my eyes have seen your salvation.” I want to thank God for my redemption as Anna did in the temple. Finally, I want to fall and worship with joy as the wise men did when they saw Jesus, recognizing his royalty.

The word “delight” is recorded multiple times in the Psalms, encouraging us to delight in things like the law and commandments of the Lord. But this word is also found in prophecy. We don’t know much about the prophet Malachi except that he prophesied at a time when Israel was returning from exile. Although the remnant was glad to be back in Jerusalem, they knew that this wasn’t the final plan. God had foretold about a Messiah who would come to redeem and restore the people of God. In Malachi 3:1, he prophesies, “Behold I send my messenger…in whom you delight.”  This future messenger is Jesus, and we are supposed to delight in Him.

There have been a lot of challenges this past year. We switched churches, dealt with a serious injury, faced the unexpected deaths of two uncles, contracted COVID-19, and suffered a recent job loss. These are just the surface challenges; additionally, we’ve had to work through some emotional and relational issues. I could look at this list and easily fall into despair since I am still waiting on some resolutions. But I would miss some of the highlights this year has given me: my daughter’s engagement, feeling connected to a new faith community, growing in God, celebrating our 25th anniversary, watching my grandson grow, and quality time spent with family and friends.

 Yes, I delight in cupcakes, but even if I eat slowly, this delight lasts for only a few minutes. Soon, the memory fades, making this feeling of delight a temporary situation. But just like the cupcake, my challenges are temporary. Over time, they will be resolved one way or the other. Even the memory of my highlights will fade because they, too, are temporary. But, If I keep my eyes on the messenger like Malachi suggested, and celebrate His birth, the delight I will find in Jesus is eternal. And maybe this eternal hope in Jesus is the feeling Harlan Miller wanted to open monthly, making every day “the most wonderful time of the year!”