Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Cooking

I'm not a big cook--I love to bake, but cooking is a horse of a different color. Ahem. Maybe that's the problem....

But this year, I think I got it.

Recipe for Christmas

Start with one heaping bowl of relaxed expectations.

At this point you may decide to add baking 72 dozen gourmet Christmas cookies. If you leave this ingredient out, you will find your Christmas turns out lighter.

Stir in one batch of Ninjabread men, for flavor.

Ordering Christmas cards too late to be included before Christmas goes in the oven may also make the dish lighter.

Let your children rise to the occasion until their excitement bubbles over and you can see their sweetness.

Marinate the entire family in warm, simple memories like caroling, popcorn and movies, nights with with the lights down and the music on.

Knead the ingredients until they come together. When a soft dough forms, bake in love for as long as possible.
Set aside some of the dish for others.


Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Most Wonderful Time

Last night, I had the privilege of participating in one of my favorite parts of the Advent season.

For the third year, our Girl Scout troop gathered at the local hospice house on a Thursday evening and sang Christmas carols for half an hour. The girls made adorable snowman ornaments to decorate each of the residents’ rooms.

And those short sentences describe my favorite event before Christmas.

I couldn’t help asking myself why I look forward to this so much—because I do. Each year I’ve loved this night!

A small part is simply the ease of it. The girls practice a few songs while crafting and then the next week, instead of our regular troop meeting, we go to hospice. The girls wear their uniforms and Christmas hats, and we're ready. This time of year, anything easy is truly a blessing to me and to our whole family.

And that leads to another part I love—the spontaneity of it. We start with a plan, but we never know exactly who will make it there, due to extra commitments and seasonal ills. And, since Big A. always seems to be out of town, Little A. tags along, as do almost all the parents and many siblings. The whole projects takes on a family feeling, very accepting and appreciative of whatever the girls end up doing, which always ends up being beautiful.

Most of all, though, I love the connection I feel to people—to our amazing girls, to the staff and volunteers, to the family members who step out for a minute to listen, and to the unseen, but very much felt, presence of the residents in their rooms.

The folks at our hospice are wonderful. Our troop has offered them service projects for four years now. Four or five times a year we bring crafts for the rooms, we’ve baked for them, we’ve donated Girl Scout cookies, and we carol at Christmas. It’s nothing much when you add it up, but the staff and volunteers always makes us feel welcome. And, every time, the staff sends a sweet note of thanks to the girls, which really makes them feel good about giving.

Last night, we saw one wonderful volunteer, Ms. Joan, for the third year in a row. She recognized some of the girls and commented on how much they’ve grown, but mostly she couldn’t get over that she’d been there for the caroling three years in a row. We explained that, since we meet on Thursdays, we always carol on Thursdays. She said, “Well, that explains it! Thursdays are my night.” And then she went back to making sure each child—scout or sibling—had a candy cane.

I didn’t have time to digest it then—I could only marvel at her wholehearted delight in seeing the girls—but later I realized what she’d said. Thursdays are her nights—as in, all of them. She volunteers on Thursday nights, from five o’clock on. What a gift of love!

Normally, we sing around the piano in the family waiting room. None of the residents’ rooms are far away, so we know the sound carries. That way, families have the option to make contact with us or not. Well, the girls did their usual beautiful job singing this year. Our oldest scout, who is seventeen, partnered up with our youngest scout, a kindergartner. The middle schoolers lined up behind the elementary girls, who belted out each song with gusto from the front row.

This year, a friend of the troop, a gifted music teacher, offered to practice the songs with the girls. So I felt confident that they could bring their songs home. I let my attention wander a bit as we sang.

The family waiting room has been quiet on our previous visits, but this year, by some coincidence, two mothers brought toddlers through the waiting room. These little ones, who must have been two or less, simply lit up when they saw the girls singing. Their sense of magic took me back to my children’s faces on Christmas morning and my own magic childhood moments.

And it happened so easily for them—what causes instant happiness when you’re two? Bright faces, silly hats, and Christmas songs.

At one point, I waited out by the door for a late arrival. While I waited, a sweet older gentleman with a bright white beard began pushing a cart up the walk. As he approached the door, one of our parents held the door for him and one scout’s teenage brother, without prompting, helped him with his rolling suitcase. He gratefully thanked everyone and pushed the cart full of belongings back toward the rooms.

As he walked past, I couldn’t help noticing the things on his cart—deflating balloons, four or five bouquets, a tray of half-finished milkshakes, some shopping bags full of odds and ends. I couldn’t help reading a story in those items, the story of so many things interrupted by this final journey for someone he loves, taken two weeks before Christmas.

And, as he walked past, I couldn’t help hearing how he was humming “Angels We Have Heard On High” along with the girls.

When he reached their room, directly opposite the piano, he left the door open. As we sang, I could see him in a chair, leaning back comfortably, resting his hands on his belly—the perfect image of Santa Claus, off-duty. Or maybe on duty.

When the girls finished singing, the glow in their hearts adding a little extra sparkle to their eyes, the parents exchanged hugs and holiday good wishes as Ms. Joan brought out the candy canes. Then the scouts and siblings ran outside to wriggle out of their good manners and open their candy canes. After a bit, we rounded up the stragglers and piled into our cars.

And I drove the kids home with a Christmas song in my heart.

I can’t tie up my thoughts on this night into a neat package. I don’t seem to have any thoughts as such. And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe caroling at hospice with our girls means so much to me because it’s a brief space of time to simply be, to hold a heart full of feelings, to experience life through senses and emotions, to let the beauty of our loving, growing, giving children guide us into the Christmas spirit and beyond, to share love with all the other travelers passing through this world.

It strikes me that my writing may seem…self-centered for someone entering a place where so much living and dying, grief and joy occur. But I am, in fact, peripheral to that. I wouldn’t presume to know hospice care from any view point but the periphery. I am an outsider, sharing my observations.

The staff and volunteers have told us, and related anecdotes about, how much the girls’ gifts and presence mean to the residents and their families. I’m privileged to be there to support the girls in sharing their love.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013


like infinite eggs
we crack chaotically
in limitless variations

don’t judge
my fractures

don’t withhold
your mending hand
in scorn

like endless vessels
we all aspire to

Just a snippet from this fall.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Long Way

I had the privilege of knowing two amazing ladies born in the 1800s. My great-great aunt used to talk about how she didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity as a child and then she saw men land on the moon. Can you imagine?

Too young at the time, I never asked her about how life for women must have changed during the years she remembered. I wish I had. Now, with S. entering the tween years, I’ve been thinking how much things have changed just within my—relatively short—memory.

S. asked for fantasy books for Christmas. I decided to scan A Mighty Girl’s website for new ideas. Scrolling through the 126 options in Pre-Teen fantasy—all books featuring strong women characters—I came across an old friend, Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure.

When I was the age that S. is now, I read fantasy books about boys, because that’s what existed. Alanna changed all that for me. Our amazing children’s librarian created one of the best YA collections I’ve seen, ever, and she bought a fantasy book with a kick-butt girl for a main character. This changed the world for me. Nothing about the story was fair—Alanna fought boys on a decidedly un-level playing field—but she worked harder and won.

I can’t point to a specific event in my life that resulted from reading the Alanna books. I do know that whenever someone’s told me (or assumed) I can’t do something because I’m a girl, I’ve done my best to prove them all kinds of wrong.

Of course, things aren’t perfect now, but…over 126 books like Alanna? Awesome.

I can keep going. Before I read Alanna, in the time and place that I went to elementary school, it just never occurred to anyone that girls would do two things I wanted to do more than anything: take karate and play soccer. Four years later, one girl in town played on the boys’ soccer teams. Seven years later, my sister played “magnet ball” on a co-ed team. It changed that much, that fast.

And I have studied martial arts since the age of 27. My son now takes tae kwon do in a perfectly coed class.

Not to mention that my sisters and I all attended our dad’s alma mater, which had been an all-male university until six years before I enrolled. One of my sisters brought the women’s field hockey team there to full varsity status, helping to complete the Title IX transition.

Best of all, today, S. excels in science and math and music. She’s tried martial arts and soccer, but she likes circus. She does monkey bars better than anyone I know. She loves puns and sarcasm and, yes, she loves body noise jokes. Her limits (so far, at least) have been defined by her likes, dislikes, and individual talents.

I know the playing field isn’t level yet, but if she can start by believing all people get the same chance, she’ll know right away when someone tries to limit her. If we can make strong human beings in all shapes, sizes, ages, and sexes the norm for her, she’ll see prejudice as abnormal.

I hope both my children see, feel, and know that all of us begin with the same awesome opportunities to be individuals in all our unique glory. If we can raise a generation with that norm, that status quo, that starting point, how will the world change in the next forty or eighty year or hundred years?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

sing. Sing. SING!

sing. Sing. SING!
The title refers to the Peter, Paul and Mary’s In Concert album. If you know what I’m talking about, you’ll hear what I hear. If not, check it out. It’s a super fun concert—even in a recording and almost FIFTY years later. The quote above is from the beginning of “It’s Raining.”

I’ve always loved vocal music—singing. Certain songs just reach in to seize my soul, stretching it outside of my body, up and up, leaving a hollow, yearning place inside me. Hearing them—or my private, fumbling attempts to sing along with them—feels to me like becoming a living poem. All that emotion, wisdom, and power that can be distilled into a poem runs through the singer, heart, mind, body, and soul, escaping in magical sound.

All this love and yearning lingered in me as unformed potential until I had to write a report on a Broadway musical in junior high. I went to the library and brought home records (yes, records!) of West Side Story and Camelot. It was love at first sound. So much passion, such amazing stories, and all that beauty encapsulated in music—wow!

A friend introduced me to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The two of us spent a couple of months transcribing the lyrics on to notebook paper by hand—this was before the internet. I still have my “book” for the show, written in ballpoint. After that I dove into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work and never really resurfaced. Of course, I discovered Les Mis not long into high school and you all know how much that affected me. I dreamed a dream long before Susan what’s-her-name!

So this seems like the beginning of a story straight out of Glee—I seem headed toward musical theater geekdom, living for auditions and solos.

Except I “can’t sing.”

Mostly, I think I was painfully insecure about singing in public. I had a few—quite a lot, actually—discouraging experiences early on and, of course, the more discouraged I got, the worse I sang. Singing at camp (because you have to), at church(because they can’t complain there, right?), to babies (what do they know?), and in the car kept my soul alive for years.

Learning to sing well has had the number one spot on my bucket list for a long time, though.

Then came August 24, 2013. I bet you all remember where you were that night. No? I don’t either, really. But I do know what happened that night. At her Hollywood Bowl concert, Kristin Chenoweth picked a voice teacher named Sarah Horn to sing “For Good” with her. A friend of Ms. Horn’s videotaped it and the video went viral.

I fell in love all over again. First I loved the experience—watching my dream come true, even if it was for someone else. The unknown audience member steps up to have the moment of a lifetime and does amazingly well. At the end of the song, Kristin gave her a hug that truly said “thank you” and “that rocked!”

Then I fell in love with the song. Wicked, like many other musicals—and movies, books, albums, cultural events in general—happened during the black hole created by having small children. So I’d never really gotten to know it. But the song found me at the perfect time, speaking to me about so many things in my life right now.

And then I had a light bulb. Sarah Horn—this amazing singer who just had this amazing experience—is a voice teacher. She teaches voice lessons. I could take voice lessons. Wait, what? Yes, I could. I could learn to sing!

So I did it. I signed up for voice lessons. And it has been…hard. I’m not going to be ready for the Hollywood Bowl any time soon. As I learned each new element I need to focus on, I got more and more tense. I stopped enjoying singing—even in the car. I wondered if it was worth it.

Then my sister sent me a video. This video. (I put in the long video because the context just makes it better.) I love Pentatonix but I definitely love this performance the most. I can see why Avi didn’t want to let it go—the magic happened. These five people connected with each other and the music and the meaning. They embodied poetry in motion. And I said, “That is what I’m after!” [Editor’s note: I realize I’ll never sing like Pentatonix. I am not delusional.]

So today, I decided to go down singing. If I’m going to mess up, it’ll be because I was singing my heart out, not because I’m cautiously, tentatively trying to match each note perfectly. I’m going to let that poetry pour through me. And then I thought something so profound that I surprised myself.

I thought, “I need to stop being so careful that I’m not even here.”

Yeah, that resonated in my life in a big way. I’ll let you know when I fully comprehend its impact.

So guess what happened?

Today I sang my whole song in tune. First try. In tune.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Today, if you had asked me, “How are you?” I would have said, “Fine.”

And that would have been the “Fine” that starts with “F” which rhymes with “Eff” as in “Effin’ Horrible.”

Then you might have said, “What’s wrong?” And I would have said, “NOTHing.”

And that’s the “NOTHing” that definitely means “Something.”

It was a pretty busy, rotten day and I’m not kidding. But it peaked at carline. Here’s a transcript of an actual text conversation between Big A. and myself, after I drove home from school with my odiferous son in the car and found a little surprise in the bathroom.

Me: Little A. had an accident in carline and S. clogged up the toilet this morning and left it that way. I’m adding Drano to the grocery list. [Expletive deleted.] <-- This translates as, “Too many bodily fluids!!!! Aaaagh!”

Big A: I’m sorry. You’re not supposed to put Drano down toilets. <-- This is SO not the point.

Me: Whatever. There has to be something. <--This translates as, “If you can’t be nice to me, leave me alone.”

Big A: I think you need a plunger or a plumber. <-- Still SOOOOO not the point.

Me: Besides, who says the Drano’s for the toilet? Maybe it’s for the clogged tub or the slow sink. Maybe I was going to drink it…. <--This is the part where not even “NOTHing” cuts it, especially in light of two related “Honey Do” items left undone. I’m making references to Heathers—or possibly Adventures in Babysitting—for crying out loud! And what IS it with 80s movies and using cleaning products as murder weapons anyway?

So, yes, a little later, after I cleaned it all up and picked up S. from the bus stop, I spent ten minutes trying to decide if I wanted coffee or beer. I picked coffee, in case you’re wondering. And not spiked with Drano, either.

I want a raise.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Driving Me Crazy

Hey, there! I’m writing to you from a whole new era. A very good friend once described being the full time parent of kids between the ages of five and sixteen as being a “stay in the car mom.”

Hello, new job title!

I nearly fell out of my driver’s seat one day this fall when I realized I’d gone 70 MILES in the 24 HOURS since I put gas in the car. How do you drive seventy miles without going anywhere? The farthest I ever travel from the house is ONE 18-mile round trip to school a day. That leaves the remaining 52 miles for trips less than five miles from the house.

Audio books, here I come.

And, as expected, my schedule has shifted now that Little A.’s settling into big kid school. There’s the brutal morning marathon from 6:00 when I wake up to 8:45 when the bus picks up S., then I have a relatively peaceful five and a half hours alone. And, I admit, I have been going wild with all that time!

I mean—five and a half HOURS? I can’t remember the last time I had that kind of time. I know when it was, but I don’t actually remember it. Occupational hazard! Anyway, I went crazy this fall. If crazy means getting a huge backlog of doctors’ appointments and such things out of the way. I also did a little DIY home improvement. But I may have mentioned that….

So what is the biggest change in our day? The hours between school and bedtime.

I really believe that most of us modern Americans are overscheduled. In our house, we really try to keep it simple, but…holy moly! Both kids are involved in church activities one night a week, S. has scouting one night, piano one night, and circus most Saturdays. Little A. has clubs at school one afternoon and tae kwon do twice a week. Nothing unusual at all there, but…holy moly!

And, to top it all off, the kids change every time I look around! S., possibly the messiest and most creative kid ever, spent one weekend effectively cleaning her room for the first time ever—voluntarily! I mean, has she already left behind her childhood of collecting rocks, leaves, scraps of paper, scraps of yarn, and old cardboard boxes because “I’m going to make something out of this”? Is she already into the pre-teen “arranging” phase?

Little A. is “stealth reading”—as in, he can read just fine, but he doesn’t want to say so. Yet he points out jokes to me, like Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame making a speech while standing on the “speech” center of the brain. He read “speech” all on his own, folks. And he made a sign for his room that said, “Doo not entr.” Apparently, he’s going straight from kindergarten to age fifteen!

Maybe he can drive next year….