Thursday, December 31, 2009

Recalled to Life

The last day of December is here, and snow is finally falling in earnest. This year, instead of greeting us by flinging ample handfuls of snow across our rooftops, Winter clenched his fists and blew long, icy breaths over the wheat fields, leaving the landscape grey and parched. He blasted the streets and yards with dry, bitterly cold wind—the kind that freeze dries your lips when you inhale; the kind that quite literally takes your breath away, sending it skyward in toothpaste-scented clouds.

We spent the first weeks of Advent wrapped like mummies in layer upon layer of apparel, our scarves, like unraveling grave clothes, trailing behind us in the lifeless breeze. During those frigid days in early December, when my fingers and toes felt as cold and lifeless as those of the walking dead, my heart miraculously kept up its warm and merry march somewhere underneath all those wrappings.

Here, in the bleak midwinter, we are all dead men walking; we are all Lazarus come from the tomb, with warmth and breath and lifeblood in motion where no motion should rightly be. What a shock to find ourselves alive and on our feet, our shame covered and our limbs warm. What can account for it? None of our wilting fig leaves, however artfully arranged, could have held up against the wind rising from the valley of the shadow. We have been recalled to life, and we step out of our tombs, blinking from the brightness, wrapped up in apparel not of our own making, clothed in skins not our own.

Lazarus's grave clothes may not have been the bright blue parka and striped wool scarf that I wear, but to live and breathe is nearly as startling for me as it was for him. Finding life in winter is like finding a shiny quarter on a muddy street; a red cardinal on leafless branch; a sudden peal of laughter on a sleepy afternoon; a Bethlehem star and a chorus of angels in a black sky. It's an orange stroller, a blue coat and five pairs of pink cheeks splashing color along an icy sidewalk.

I am surprised to discover that the dark and deadly cold outside is no match for the warmth I and my children carry with us. There in the midst of December's biting breath, we could laugh in the face of the cold and dark and step confidently out the door, armed with nothing but coats, gloves, and life itself. Even so, when the temperatures dipped below zero, I wrapped my scarf a little tighter and stepped a little faster as the dry winter wind wound serpentine trails close upon our heels.

And then came the rain. The iced melted, the mud softened, and a mock-Spring arrived. But no birds sang. And nobody was fooled. December can dress himself like April, but he cannot make the flowers bud.

Christmas arrived, and a white one, at that—white in the way a chocolate cake dusted with powdered sugar is "white." And all the warmth and color and brightness of that festal day sent true Spring-like hope through the frozen earth. How fitting that we spangle the streets with white and multi-colored strings of stars; no other time of year is in so much need of color and light. Christmas is nearly the darkest day of the year. And yet, save one other day, it is the brightest. In the midst of wintry death, we find life of the truest kind.

Now, as December draws to a close, snow is falling at last. It covers the yard and the trees and the roof over our heads. Although it is growing dark outside as I write this, I know that tonight will be bright with six-pointed stars. And in the morning, the earth will be clothed in a white shroud, waiting to be recalled to life. On the first morning of the New Year, the earth will be wrapped in a pristine blanket, waiting for color and warmth and laughter to burst upon it, to roll across it, to breathe life into the glittering air.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Eine Kleine KidMusik

A couple of videos of our budding musicians.

In this performance, Paul (age 3) is perfecting his musical skills on a K'Nex banjo. Note how he incorporates elements of J.S. Bach & Johnny Cash with the postmodern lyrical storytelling style of Bob Dylan. This video includes a post-performance interview in which Paul discusses his artistic inspiration. (This is from August, but it still makes me smile.)

Paul's "Banjo" on Vimeo.

And on a slightly more serious note:
We had another successful recital on Tuesday, thanks to the boys' terrific (and patient!) piano teacher, Lydia F.
Jonah (7) plays "Humming Song" by Schumann.
Jude (5) and Jonah play "Bingo" as a duet—a picture of what I hope will be brotherly harmony throughout the years.

Piano Recital, December 2009 on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On rummage sales and lilies

This Saturday, our kids' school held a rummage sale fundraiser. I contributed three large boxes of excess shoes and picture frames and sweaters and candle holders that had been stacked for months in storage containers, awaiting a summer yard sale that never happened. It felt good to deposit the contents of those Rubbermaid bins into the school gym. And it felt even better knowing that I was cleaning house for a good cause.

Yes, it felt good. But as nice as it was to open up some closet space, and as useless as those goods now were to me, I still had a voice in the back of my head telling me that each thing I was giving away might yet prove valuable, might come back in fashion, might fit me again. I've always been a pack rat. My blood pressure rises a bit when I relinquish anything that has the remotest possibility of future utility. Shouldn't I keep it just in case?

I (and my mother and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins) grew up with a "waste not, want not" outlook on housekeeping. My grandparents, who, like the rest of that generation, lived through the lean years of the War and the Depression, went on to raise nine children on a dairy farm that eventually went bankrupt. My grandmother had neither the time nor the resources to spend on domestic bells and whistles; she did what she could with what she had. Meanwhile, my grandfather spent much of his time jerry-rigging a whole assortment of machinery to avoid having to replace it. Frugality was a means of survival. Frugality seems to be in our blood on that side of the family; we don't throw things away easily.

Shortly before I was married, one of my mom's dish sponges tore in half. It wasn't one of those "expensive" ones with the Teflon-safe scrubby stuff on one side. Nope. Just a basic, 50-cent yellow dish sponge. But it had scarcely had the chance to perform its humble duty before being rent in two. The average American would, I think, have sent it to an early grave in the city landfill. But we are not the average American.

My mom had to restore that sponge to the life for which it was intended; she took a needle and some sturdy grey thread, and with nurse-like care stitched the torn halves back together. And when that sponge got dirty, did she throw it out? Oh, no. She sent it through the laundry and brought it back on kitchen patrol next to the sink. When no longer fit for kitchen service, it did time in the bathroom. How long it remained in this degraded position, I don't know. But in the end, worn, tired, and scarred, it took a ride to its final resting place amongst the tuna cans, banana peels and spent coffee grounds of our fair city. However, none can say that it met an untimely demise. Not at our house.

It's not that any of us thinks we're still living through the Depression. The lean years have passed, but the habit of frugal living hasn't. My parents have always been careful with money, while at the same time keeping an open hand and a generous spirit. My mother, who will sew a 50-cent sponge back together one day, will the next day be cheerfully writing substantial checks or preparing lovely meals to give to people she's never met. Her frugality and her generosity do not conflict; if anything, her frugality has made her generosity possible.

I hope that someday the same could be said of me.

I may not have inherited quite the same degree of waste-nottishness as my mother, but enough of it remained in the gene pool that I still tend to hang on to things that most people would throw out in a heartbeat. When loading up those boxes for the rummage sale, I nearly kept an out-of-date, hand-me-down baby blanket none of my kids had ever used. It had no aesthetic value. It had no sentimental value. It had no practical value. Its only value was in the "just in case" of the thing—just in case I have another baby and our 34 other baby blankets get ruined before the child outgrows them. Ridiculous, I know.

I, of all people, should realize that, on the day when "just in case" actually arrives, we will have all we need—and probably much more. I have never asked for bread and been given a stone.

When we lived in Dallas, our annual household income (including our "income" from student loans) was well below the Federal Poverty Line for a family of 5. When I look at our tax returns for those years, I have no logical explanation for how we got by, let alone for how we lived so comfortably. Not even my über-frugality seems to account for it. The figures don't add up. But the figures didn't add up the time when that boy handed over his five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd, either. The math was all wrong. Statisticians would have predicted significant food shortages. And yet, there were leftovers. When we moved, I gathered up box after heavy box of our worldly goods. We filled a huge moving van full. And even then, with nearly all our belongings out of reach, we continued to live in relative comfort and ease. One pan to cook with. Paper plates to eat on. A few changes of clothes to wear. Running water. A roof over our heads. We lacked for nothing. The experience made me see how much of a luxury all those other things were that I thought I needed.

Today, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, our household income is still many thousands of dollars below the "Low Income Limit" for our county. Low income? True, we won't be buying a vacation home in Bermuda anytime soon. But we drink wine. We eat almost too well (cinnamon rolls and bacon!) Our kids are enrolled in a private school. We have many, many, many toys, games, clothes, gadgets, pairs of shoes.... Low income? Really?

As I said, I donated three large boxes of excess belongings to the rummage sale. I'm sure I could have come up with several more without noticing the slightest change in the way we live. Our "low income" American family has more stuff than we can possibly use. We're wealthy enough to just give it away. If I decided to count my blessings, to name them one by one—even if I limited myself to counting material blessings only—I would have no time for doing anything else.

I will probably always be frugal. I might even catch myself sewing dish sponges back together. (It's in the blood, you know.) But I hope I would do it with a sense of gratitude and with the knowledge that I am, quite literally, rich. Rich in every way. So why waste any more time worrying about the "just in case" scenarios? Better to consider the lilies and start clearing out the closets. They'll be filling up again with Christmas gifts anyway before I know it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday (With Apologies to the Prince of Denmark)

It's not called "Black" for nothing, this Friday. Enticed by promises of unbeatable prices, I ventured out before sunrise, through the rain and foggy darkness, to make my mark on the "Consumer Confidence" charts. (Watch for my percentage point on tomorrow's news.)

When I arrived at the massive chain store across town, the parking lot was already an oily sea of minivans and pickups, SUVs and sedans, abandoned shopping carts and discarded seasonal red paper coffee cups. I had a sinking sensation as I stepped uneasily across that sunless sea. My faith in American capitalism was failing faster than the real estate market in LA.

Nevertheless, I rode the swell through the automatic doors and waded with my squeaky cart through wave after crushing wave of bleary-eyed customers. I sloshed my way against the current toward the sale items that had lured me in. But when I saw the checkout lines stretching around the corner, down the aisle, and away toward the garden center, the sinking feeling left me; I had hit bottom. It's dark down there—Black even—despite all the fluorescent lights. With nowhere to go but up, I swam for fresh air, buoyed by my empty cart. No $3 pair of pajamas is worth drowning for.

Gasping, and dripping, I fell back into the driver's seat of my car and pondered a bit. Defeated. That's how I felt. The native hue of resolution was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. And doorbuster sales of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turned awry, and lost the name of action.

To shop, or not to shop? That was definitely the question. Whether 'twas nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous consumerism? Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by going home for coffee end them?

I considered Christmas. I considered the potential savings on gifts. From the great height of the big-box store parking lot on the hill, I considered the yawning abyss of the mall down below. I considered the coupons stacked in my wallet. I considered the hordes of people crowding the stores in search of a bargain. Last year on this day, somebody somewhere was trampled to death in a shopping stampede. Was it worth the risk? Shouldn't I rather bear those ills I had than fly to others I knew not of?

In the end, I resolved to take my life in my hands and descend to the Macy's parking lot. (Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.) The sun was beginning to rise, and the outlook appeared slightly less bleak as I plunged into the mall. I slid past crimson signs printed with swirly fonts saying "Yes" to Virginia. Perky clerks who'd been up since 4:00 A.M. wondered if I was "finding everything all right." Bing Crosby crooned somewhere over my head, trying to put me in the mood to spend.

It must have worked. Bing, unlike me, knows what he's doing when he's at the mall on Black Friday.

As I set sail for home through the fog, I brought with me bags full of stocking stuffers and craft projects and games and articles of clothing. I also brought back a much lighter purse and a much lighter head. (Ay, there's the rub.) It had taken me four hours to paddle through the mall. I stayed afloat, and yet, somehow, I still feel a bit soggy and defeated. I managed to avoid getting caught in the Black Friday undertow, but it may take me a few days to dry off and get the sand out of my hair.

I'm no thrill seeker. I wasn't altogether ready to test my strength against the storm surge of bargain shoppers. The only surfing I'm comfortable with is the kind I can do from my computer desk, where I can dip my toes in the kiddie pool version of Christmas shopping. Going out on Black Friday was a true test of nerve. Although I snagged some great deals, I really don't think I will attempt it again.

Well, not for another year, at least.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Martha, Martha

The annual Christmas issue of Martha Stewart Living just arrived in my mailbox, its colorful bulk barely fitting through the slot. As always, the pages are filled with time-consuming creative projects that walk a fine line between kitsch and beauty. I love flipping through the glossy pages, filling my head with ideas for handmade decorations and show stopping desserts and thinking smugly to myself, "Yep. I could make that. Mm-hm. I could definitely do something jazzy with those!" Some of the cookies in this issue are almost pretty enough to dip in shellac and turn into family heirlooms. Martha. She's got tips on how to apply little candy snowflakes with a pair of craft tweezers. Craft tweezers. These recipes are sprinkled all over with nonpareils and faux bois. Their beautiful possibilities give the perfectionist in me a thrill. And who wouldn't love to present friends and neighbors with a plate of candy-coated perfection?

But here's the problem: Achieving the perfect Christmas cookie requires skill and patience. It requires time and quiet concentration. It requires an organized workspace and a steady hand. It requires conditions that are, quite frankly, not to be found in my kitchen. I would be shooing away greedy toddlers, with warnings not to handle, not to taste, not to touch. I shudder at the thought of chubby fingers pressing into my work of art before the royal icing had dried. And if I achieved the perfect cookie, what then? What would be its end? Confinement in a lighted glass case in a hushed gallery? No matter how many careful hours I spent on its aesthetic development, a cookie is still, after all, a cookie; all its yuletide perfection would be ground to mush between the teeth of unwashed plebeians like my children. Like me. How could we eat perfection? How could I think of doing so as anything but a waste?

Martha. Her magazine is crammed with page after page of homemade potential. Issue after issue, I imagine all the great things I could be making—so many great things that I don't know how to begin. Clearly I do not own a sufficient supply of felting needles or snowflake-shaped paper punches or ultra-fine glitter. But I lack more than a room full of specialized craft tools. What I lack is a willingness to fail. Or to see all my work go to waste.

I've been planning on making a dress. Or maybe a skirt. Planning may be too strong a word; I want to make one. For fifty cents, at the Saint Mary's Catholic Church rummage sale last year, I bought some fabric. It is so lovely—has so much promise—that I can't use it for just any old article of clothing. It's from Thailand. It's raw silk. It's the warm orangey-red color of oak leaves in fall. It's embroidered with gorgeous cream-colored vines and flowers. It is beautiful. This is why it has been waiting in a plastic bin under my bed for more than a year. I cannot bring myself to touch this fabric with a pair of scissors until I am certain that I am about to make it realize its full potential. If I were to make something merely acceptable out of this precious fabric, what a waste it would be! Or if I make the perfect skirt and then ruin it with spilled wine, how, again, could I think of it as anything but a waste?

This paralyzing pursuit of perfection has led me to give up on projects of all sorts before I even begin. I don't want to paint a picture; I want to paint the picture. I don't want a decent apple pie recipe; I want an apple pie recipe that will win prizes. I don't want to speak mediocre French; I want to speak it fluently and with no accent whatsoever. If I'm going to take the time to knit a sweater, it must be knitted as though it's the last sweater I will ever finish. (But at the rate I'm going at picking out the perfect yarn and the perfect pattern, it probably will be the last sweater I ever finish.) If I'm going to sew a skirt, the skirt must be lovelier than any I could find at Macy's. If I'm going to decorate a cookie, I want it to be worthy of a magazine photo. Otherwise, why start? If I have the potential to do something with excellence, how could I settle for doing it by halves? Or even worse, how could I settle for flat-out failure? We have potential, people. Potential must be realized. We, too, could become president of the United States. (Yes we can.)

If we don't, how could we think of it as anything but a waste?

If only I had realized my potential, I could have been a graphic designer to the stars. What a waste. I could have been a four-star chef. What a waste. I could have been an ivy league professor. What a waste. I could have been a first-chair violinist (if I had ever taken a lesson). What a waste. I could have been a published writer. What a waste. I could have sewn the perfect skirt or baked the perfect cookie. I could have been Martha Stewart. What a waste and a shame.

It is a waste. Unless I have wasted my life for the sake of others. And if that is the case, then all that wasted potential is not a shame at all; it is a glory. It is costly perfume—perfume worth a year's wages—wages with the potential to do much good—poured out with love and with tears. A lifetime is not enough to pursue half of what I want to do. But a lifetime is not all I've been given. So I am free to waste my potential on my friends, my enemies, my neighbors, my husband, my children. My God. I am free to begin a sweater and never complete it. I am free to let muddy shoes run across the clean floor. I am free to be an amateur, free to burn the pie, free to press delete. I am free to spill glitter, to write wordy blog posts, to let little fingers smear the icing. I am free to let the wine spill over my perfect skirt. Free to eat perfection.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Take, eat. Perfection is meant to be eaten. Take the cup. Wine is meant to be poured out. Christmas is coming. I will sew. I will bake cookies. I will raise a toast to one with all the potential in the universe, who "made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remembering Saint Crispin

One of the best things about moving back to my home town is that my sons now attend school at my own alma mater. Because our town is small and my husband's job hours are somewhat flexible, we try to meet our boys every Friday at school to eat lunch as a family. It at first brought on a strong sense of dejà vu to be munching potato chips in the same room where I had spent so many lunch hours as a kid. Some of my own teachers are still there, patrolling the tables, conversing with students, and drinking half-pint cartons of milk. I can only imagine how many thousands of peanut butter sandwiches my old teachers have seen devoured in that room over the years. And after a couple of decades in the classroom, those teachers must have a hard time remembering our names, let alone the blurred succession of individual events that made up our lives during those years—events that stand out clearly in our own memories as momentous, even formative.

So I was pleasantly surprised recently, on Saint Crispin's Day to be exact, when of my teachers from high school strolled up to me at the lunch table to chat about old times. He informed me that one of his current students had just come close to winning the "Hannah" award. I looked blank. He continued, "Yeah, the 'Hannah' award! For the best Saint Crispin's Day speech ever delivered in one of my classes." I raised my eyebrows. He added, "I still have my students recite that speech on this day every year, but your speech set the gold standard. This is the closest anyone's come yet to matching your presentation. All others pale in comparison."

Well, hurrah for Henry V and all that. I, being human, am not one to disbelieve high praise such as this. Deride me for my shortcomings, and I am likely to shrug, to argue, to disbelieve. But laud me for being the "gold standard," in however minute an achievement, and I am happy to believe what you say. I might be startled, at first, by the compliment. I might half-heartedly protest. But I will relish it, and I will quickly decide it must be true. Pride feeds on trifles. I do like to have others think well of my accomplishments...

...unless I did not, in fact, do the thing for which I am being congratulated.

Memory is a mystery. How judges can determine guilt or innocence, based on the testimonies of witnesses that happen to be human, is also a mystery. Where were you on the night of November 5, 2009? A year from now, a month from now, maybe even on the morning of November 6, 2009, the recollection might be hazy. It will certainly be biased. It may even be gone.

As a mother, I am asked at various times each day to be judge (or jury or prosecutor or sometimes defendant.) But discerning what happened, even when I'm the one who did it ("Did I really say you could have another piece of candy?") is not easy. When one child lies howling on the floor, one child stands pointing a finger, and one child talks incoherently at the ceiling, piecing together the truth of what took place can seem impossible. Each child recalls the incident differently; each saw the moment from a unique angle, and each has interpreted the event in the light that shines most favorably upon himself. The memories of all three are suspect. I may not be wearing a black robe, but I preside over these little court cases everyday. Maybe I should ask my kids to address me as Your Honor. "Honor thy father and thy mother" has connotations I never considered before becoming a parent. I want a gavel for Christmas.

If young children, with steel-trap memories, cannot be trusted as reliable witnesses, how can we grownups, with our multiple commitments and distractions and our longer lives, hope to get the details of our stories right? My husband read one of my blog posts from last month, and commented that I had left out some important details. But, I maintain, those details were not so important. Forgettable, really. I am sure I will forget them. And then we will wonder someday, as we recount the circumstances to one another, whether we are speaking about the same incident at all.

Of course I understand that not all memories can be so haphazardly kept; some truths must never, at the peril of body and soul, be forgotten. And some truths must not, at the peril of soul, be remembered. But all those truths and fictions in between are, as far as I can tell, a collection to cherish and bequeath, or a heap to relinquish and neglect, at will. As a parent I often wonder into which category my children will stash the events of their own lives.

My husband has carried on an agreeable disagreement with his brother for many, many years now. The question is: Whose bike was it? What happened to the bike and how is another story. But the laughable argument arises at family holidays, when each man adamantly maintains that it happened to his bike.

My brother and I also grew up in the same house. But at times, you'd never know it. I realize now that my parents had little control over what experiences we would carry with us. We lived in Warsaw for a bit when I was 13, and what stands out in memory is not what adults might expect. We visited some palaces and walked through some Polish museums. But those memories are cloudy. What I recall clearly is playing with Legos on the floor, next to the funky couch that folded out into a bed but wasn't a futon. And unfiltered coffee with grounds clogging the bottom of the cup. And the pastry we thought contained chocolate filling but turned out to be packed with a solid layer of poppyseeds. And I remember the day the Pepsi bottle smashed on the slushy train tracks, when the meat fell in the mud puddle, and Mom came home and cried. Many of my brother's childhood memories are probably the same. But I know that some are more different than I would have expected. We knew the same people. We took the same vacations. We went to the same school. I think. I was there. Or so I remember.

My teacher, I am certain, was there as well. He was an eye witness. And he remembered my Saint Crispin's Day speech to be the best ever delivered on the lunch room stage. But I do not recall it. I am certain I did not do it. I never memorized any portion of Henry V. I wish I had. Against my teacher's repeated protestations that it was me, I maintained that I had no memory of that day. I would like to be remembered well. Of course I would. But only for what I have actually done.

A few days later, my teacher found me again to inform me that he had, indeed, made a mistake. He had replaced another girl's face with mine, because he had been talking, with another of my old teachers, about a thesis paper I had written on "Bad Words." I do remember doing that. But some other girl had made the gold-standard Saint Crispin's Day speech. And she will be remembered for it. And I have a feeling that I will remember this amusing mix-up whenever I hear the Saint Crispin's Day speech in years to come. Some things are worth committing to memory.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

When the party's over

White flakes were drifting to the ground outside my window yesterday morning, and the soggy leaves heaped in our front yard wore a silvery trim of frost. It looked festive, but nobody was tempted to play in that heavy mass of foliage. When the weather was still dry, the boys had raked a pile of enviable dimensions, and they had waded through the crisp leaves, buried each other in them, jumped into the middle of them, tossed them above their heads in handfuls to flutter downward like excitable birds and alight on the brown lawn. But when rain fell (as it always does in October), the autumnal celebration ended.

Tuesday night marked the end of my boys' soccer season, and I can't pretend that I am sorry. This weather has dampened my team spirit. The trees in the distance were pale with snow as we stood huddled on the sleet-saturated grass to watch red-cheeked second graders chase a very wet black and white ball. Jonah complained of numb toes. Paul and Jude, retaining precious body heat with a blue fleece blanket, slouched in the double stroller to keep out of the wind. Asaph's nose ran. I could not feel my fingers. We cheered and clapped, but not with the usual energy; our applause were stifled to lifeless thuds by winter gloves.

That soccer game ended not a moment too soon. But then we raised our eyes above the muddy grass and saw that, against this dim and chilly fadeout of the season, the sun, as it sank, was shooting a blast of pink light across the sky, setting the gray clouds and the snow-dusted hills on fire. The unexpected gala of color overhead seemed to revive a bit of the celebratory spirit as we vacated the darkening field. The whole scene reminded me, just a little, of that sense of anticlimax, when the last shower of sparks fizzles to black; when the show is over; when the crowds quietly prepare to leave—and then, out of dull silence, the echoing barrage of canon fire pounds against my rib cage, and the night explodes into a pyrotechnic grande finale.

Which just goes to show that you should never hang up your party hat too soon.

Two weeks ago, when an early freeze threatened our garden, I thought the end of this year's ingathering had come. I had finally resigned myself to the untimely demise of my tomatoes, picking the last of the green orbs from most of the withered vines. But one tenacious plant was still in full, flourishing leaf and laden with so many unripe tomatoes, I couldn't bear to strip it of its fruit and leave it to die. (One can only stomach so many fried green tomatoes.) I dug it up with its roots, transplanted it to a roomy red pot, and moved into my living room. There it went into shock; its leaves shriveled and grew brittle, and again, I thought its time had come. But it stayed, weighted down by the unrealized crop on its branches, and I waited. During the days that followed, an unanticipated second harvest ensued. Every one of those lovely tomatoes took on a pale orange hue—and then a promising pink, and then a flaming Roma red. The second ripening seemed more robust and welcome than the first. It took me by surprise.

When I turned the insignificant age of 31 last week, my family gave me some of the presents I'd had on my wish list. My husband took me out to dinner—just him, me, and a couple of plates of enchiladas. We had some good conversation, some decent margaritas, some fried ice cream. Fun, but nothing fancy. When we returned home, my husband held the door for me, and shouts of "Mommeeee!" sounded from the kitchen. With a screeching of chair legs on tile and a stampede of small feet, my sons rounded the corner and bombarded me with strawberry cupcakes and packages of chocolate and licorice and cards scrawled with misspelled birthday greetings. My sons were breathless with delight at having caught me off guard. The whole birthday was perfectly pleasant, and the party ended with a cheery bang.

My mom-in-law was still staying with us last Friday when my parents left town for the weekend. My grandmother, who lives with them, had just returned from a long trip, so my husband suggested that we go out to dinner one more time while we had our free babysitter and should stop to visit Grannie on our way to the restaurant. Sounded like a well planned evening to me. How well planned I little suspected.

When we arrived at my parents' house, instead of meeting my grandmother, I was greeted with shouts of "Surprise!" and with the laughing faces of some of my oldest and best friends. What began—and ended—as a birthday of little importance blazed back into life to become a birthday I will savor and smile about for years to come. Bursts of fiery color filled the vases on the table. Unanticipated gifts rested on the hearth. Ruby wine filled our glasses. And the food! My husband had conspired with one of our multitalented acquaintances* to present the twelve of us with a stunning eight-course Japanese dinner. I will not describe it, except to say that I cannot imagine enjoying a meal more. And is there any table fellowship that compares to the easy company of friends kept since childhood?

The snow may be falling, but lately I am starting to wonder if an unforeseen Indian Summer might burn through the clouds at any moment. This has been a week full of unexpected gifts. Of waking from sleep. Of gaiety revived. Of beauty for ashes. Don't put away your party hat just yet.


*Lisa B, for those who want to know

Monday, October 19, 2009


Today is my birthday. Not a birthday of any great significance; no special legal privileges are newly mine, and the number doesn't end in a zero. It's just another year gone. Today, as usual, I staggered out of my warm bed early enough to squeeze in a morning walk before the kids woke up to to pull my attention in 4 different directions. I didn't even brush my hair before going out. The sun was hardly up when I came in the front door to find my three-year-old running to greet me with wet pajamas. Again. My 19-month-old stood rattling the sides of his crib, waiting to be dressed. "All the shirts in his drawer are too small," my husband informed me as he deposited the baby, wearing a shirt two sizes too big, in the high chair. As I reached for an apple, my eldest complained of three loose teeth and requested that I pack his lunch with soft foods. Meanwhile, my five-year-old ran laps through the hallway in a panic, wondering where his socks and belt could have gone. Apparently it never occurred to him to check in his dresser. Then, halfway through dishing up seven bowls of yogurt, I realized that I'd forgotten to have him do his math homework for the second time in a week.

If, at age eighteen, I could have seen myself at 31, I might not have recognized the somewhat disorganized mother of four I have become. I would certainly not have been pleased with what I saw. I've grown softer and rounder in all the wrong places, and the dark circles under my eyes seem to be a permanent fixture. I've never been the owner of a single item advertised in Vogue. I have never lived in Paris. I've traded art museums for coloring books; urban Shakespeare productions for grade school plays; dinner at eight for Happy Meals at noon. I never saw this coming. I'm not even a "kid person." As I look back, I ask myself how this could have happened to me. What became of all my ambitions?

The answer is: They died.

Thirteen years ago I was a college freshman with big plans and little foresight. I was going to study French, and then earn a Master's degree—probably a PhD as well—in Art History from some red brick institution on the East Coast. If I had asked my 18-year-old self what I would be doing now, I would have seen myself traveling to sophisticated places and delivering lectures to sophisticated students and reading sophisticated books and wearing sophisticated clothes and painting sophisticated canvases to the delight of my sophisticated patrons and dining in sophisticated restaurants with my sophisticated husband, whoever he might be. I would have a brilliant career. I would name-drop cities. I would know people who knew people, if you know what I mean.

But something—let's call it grace—happened to all those sophisticated plans. Today, on my 31st birthday, tiny, unsophisticated fingerprints stipple the lower halves of the windows and the French door to the living room. Sticky drips from unsophisticated sippie cups pepper the hardwood floors. The upstairs trash can is overflowing with unsophisticated diapers. I read unsophisticated stories to unsophisticated children who can't sit still long enough to hear the ending. I have a family-size bag of highly unsophisticated chicken nuggets in the freezer for those nights when we get home late—and muddy—from unsophisticated soccer games. I sing along with unsophisticated songs while attempting to accompany them using my unsophisticated piano skills. And I live in my unsophisticated home town where I push an unsophisticated double stroller while wearing the unsophisticated tennis shoes I purchased at a church rummage sale. And the strange thing is that I know this life, although I sometimes live it poorly, is a far better life than my 18-year-old self could have understood.

It's difficult to discern how my perception of "the good life" altered during the intervening years. But if there's one thing I've learned during that time, it's that a well-lived life means dying well—over and over again. I have not done it as often or as willingly as I ought. Not nearly. Sometimes I think that leaping in front of the oncoming train to rescue the baby in the stroller would be the best way to go—all at once, in a blaze of selfless glory. But where would be the challenge? Or the reward? Until I see that I must die daily, a little at a time, sometimes imperceptibly, I will never learn to truly live.

My husband's mother is staying with our family right now, and I think she has known this for a long time. She has given her years to teaching English to teenagers on their last stop before jail; helping kids with special needs learn to read; giving hours and days of every week to students and grandchildren and friends in need. She's been a mentor to people with addictions. She walked 60 miles this fall to raise money to find a cure for the cancer that took her little sister's life. She's planning a trip to volunteer in an orphanage overseas next year. She drove alone 1200 miles to see her son's family here in Idaho and will drive alone 1200 miles to get home to her other son's family in Arizona. She gives her life away. That is to say, she has found it.

We went with her down to the river this week when the weather was warm. We ate a picnic on the levy and watched the boys play on the rocks near the water. She and my husband climbed down with the kids and peered between the stones with them in search of lost treasures. They returned with a broken pink fishing pole, two golf balls, and an orange water pistol. They also returned with smiles and dirt on their hands. My hands were clean. Sophisticated people do not get dirty.

As we packed up our picnic, my husband told the boys to throw the remains of their sandwich bread into the river. When they did so, a pair of gulls plummeted to the surface to snatch the floating pieces, leaving a lone duck to seek vainly for the leftover crumbs. The bread was gone. But somehow the news got out that food was being distributed, and the gulls and ducks from across the river came in a mass to find what we had to offer. My oldest son turned to me and asked for more bread to give them. I hesitated. I had just packed it away. There were sandwiches to be made during the week ahead. I paid good money for that loaf and didn't want to waste it on an assembly of dirty, ungrateful birds. But I am slowly learning that my own plans must die and give way to something richer; I passed the loaf between my sons, who broke it, throwing it riverward.

The cries of the hungry fowl filled the air as piece after piece descended toward their waiting beaks. We all laughed at their enthusiastic response to this unexpected bounty. Broken bread may have been wasted on these filthy crowds, these shepherdless flocks. But what we gathered from it was something much more. Something multiplied. Twelve baskets full.

We took a stroll along the levy and then down its steep green slope toward the road. But looking behind us, all the boys knew that a grassy bank like that is not to be experienced by mere walking. Back up they all went—even the baby on hands and knees—to roll down in dizzy giggles. I stood apart to watch, with the stroller between them and me, giving way to a dignified smile. But then my husband broke away up the hill after the children to take part in their game. And after him went his mother, who reached the summit and came twirling toward me, calling to me to join in. I hesitated. Sophisticated people do not roll down hills.

Sophisticated people do not know how to live. I stepped from behind the stroller and jogged to the top of the levy, lay down on the grass, and let myself go. Over and over. A whirl of colors spun around me. Gulls cried overhead. I slowed to a stop at the bottom of that grassy bank and lay, arms outstretched, breathless, with a thousand-thousand friendly blades against my back. And I died. Laughing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It runneth over

Yesterday, at high noon, I marched boldly into the kitchen to face ranks of sticky wine glasses and crusty forks and Sunday plates plastered with dry salad leaves. Dirty dishes advanced in rows across my counter. I threatened them with a damp pink dishrag—an empty threat at the time, and I think they knew it. I had been waiting all morning for an ally to arrive and help me break through these enemy lines, to save me from from inglorious defeat at greasy, unwashed knifepoint. I was, in short, waiting for the plumber.

This would be, if I'm counting right, his eighth visit to our home in six months. We take pains to show hospitality (as the echelons of dishes could attest), frequently inviting guests to share our table and our conversation. Nevertheless, the plumber, I am ashamed to say, has been ushered in through our door more often than any other visitor this year.

Earlier this spring, a basement that refused to stop filling with water was what first brought him to our front step. By the time we realized we were living above a small flood, we were forced to dispose of twenty square feet of moldy green shag carpet, nine sodden wood pallets, an armload of mildewed baby items, and two foully discolored mattresses. Hoping to locate and put an end to the problem, we transferred all of our surviving items from the basement to the shed. But we failed to find the source of the leak; the walls continued to seep and drip and run onto the floor. This clearly called for the deployment of special forces. Hence the plumber.

First, he came and assessed. Not surprisingly, the leaking continued. On the next visit he installed a new shower drain. More leaking. He arrived a few days later to rummage around and perform minor surgery in the crawl space. Still leaking. After that, he replaced a huge chunk of knee-shaped pipe in the basement itself. That seemed to do the trick. Mostly. Even experts must sometimes work by trial and error. After four house calls from the plumber—and one from a gutter specialist—the copious leakage has been reduced to a trickle, which is, I suppose, as good a state of affairs as anyone could expect in a 114-year-old coal cellar. At least we now know better than to trust any important belongings to that dank and musty cave. If only we were collectors of fine wines.

We invited the plumber for the fifth time—as a far more welcome guest—in June to install a lovely new dishwasher.

With the leak in the basement more or less stopped, and the dishwasher performing its function dutifully, we had a few peaceful, plumber-free months. And then last week our kitchen sink quit draining. Or rather, after filling up both sides of the sink, it drained sluggishly into our dishwasher and from there onto the floor. So I plunged. I ran the disposal. I set the dishwasher on "pot scrubber" and let it scrub away. But my attempts only made the overflow worse.

Back came Mr. Plumber again with metal snakes and heavy wrenches and rust stained towels to investigate the unpleasant bowels of my home. It's a grimy, sleeves-rolled-to-the-elbows, belly-on-the-tiles kind of job that this Lysol-wielding housewife would not want to touch. I prefer to let others do my dirty work for me. After hearing a good deal of grunting and rattling from under the sink, I expected to eventually hear a victorious swishing of water through open pipes. But apparently the snake wasn't long enough to reach the clog.

Our now familiar friend came back again the next day with a longer and more venomous snake. This one was plenty long, but it lacked the flexibility to slither past the sharp bend in the pipes underneath the house. To make amends for the defeat of the snake, the plumber installed a vent in our kitchen drain and replaced an aging piece of pipe with something shiny and white. That night I averted countertop takeover on my own; I served dinner on paper plates. (I learned from my high school basketball coach that defense is sometimes the best offense.)

On the following day the plumber returned with a complete arsenal, ready to do battle with the retrofitted guts of this stubborn old house. The noises coming from below our lunch table were promising: something like the concussive chatter of jackhammers and the report of gunshots. And this time, the promising noises delivered. Oh the joy of a functional drain!

And yet...

Three days later, I noticed that the dishwasher still contained a puddle of cloudy water. And when I ran the garbage disposal, the puddle grew deeper. Soon after that, the disposal made a wretched crunching sound followed by a subtle buzz. And each time I rinsed a dish, the dishwasher puddle deepened and the sink drained more slowly. On Sunday night, the sink would no longer drain, and the dishwasher was once again spilling its murky contents onto the mismatched towels I had wadded beneath its door.

And so yesterday afternoon my faithful ally in dirty blue jeans and steel-toe boots came to my aid once again. No matter that he tracked mud across the just-vacuumed rug. No matter that he sloshed puddles on the recently mopped tile. In twenty minutes he had my disposal grinding efficiently through chunks of stale bread and bits of zucchini peel. And that daunting army of dishes now lies overturned on the rack of my perfectly draining dishwasher. A greasy knife is no match for a fully functional sink.

I waved my pink dishrag in triumphant farewell to our plumber, hoping that I will never have cause to invite his help again. As a certain former president might say, "Mission Accomplished."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Last Enemy

I am pleased to report that I removed this post because it has been accepted for publication in the upcoming issue of Relief.  If you want to read the essay, I suppose you'll just have to purchase a copy when it becomes available. (Woohoo!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's All Facebook's Fault

Well, now that soccer has returned for its fall session, I remember that the last time I blogged, soccer was in full spring swing. So that got me thinking: It must be time to make an attempt at blogging again. When I first received Facebook into my life this year, I had no idea how quickly it would supplant my desire to blog. It's easier to upload photos, easier to post comments, easier to keep track of what people have been doing. Nevertheless, I must not forget that some of my dear friends and family have managed to avoid that virtual "community," and so I will try to resume blogging occasionally for any of you who may still be checking this neglected web log o' mine. Plus, it's great to be able to post an update in as many words as I feel like writing. Facebook turns out to be the Headline News of online communication—not much in-depth coverage to be found there. So here's my attempt at returning the blogosphere. Wish me luck.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Spring Soccer

The boys have spent their evenings playing soccer during the last several weeks.

Jonah takes the game pretty seriously, and has learned a lot of new skills this season—especially dribbling and passing.

He'd still rather just kick it straight at the goal from half way down the field!

Paul always finds something to do on the sidelines.

Jude's always having fun—sometimes getting silly—on the field, but he still plays hard.

Jude usually has a smile on his face while he's playing.

Jude's team has a lot of friends from school, plus his friend Theo's dad is the coach.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Spring Slideshow

Check out some of what we've been up to during the past couple of months:

Monday, March 30, 2009

The birthday boys

Paul turned three and Asaph turned one this month. Where, as they say, has the time gone?

One candle for Asaph, 3 for Paul.

Mmmm. Cake.

The new cowboy hat.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Piano in pyjamas

The boys had a recital, but we failed to push "record" on the camcorder. So we recorded take two at home:

Friday, February 27, 2009

Winter pictures

I thought I'd post some pictures to make up for the lack of blogging during the last two months:

Jude's preschool class made these "goofy goggles" while studying the letter G. He was unbelievably giddy (another good G word) when he got home, and couldn't wait to show me.

Jonah's class, meanwhile, was studying ants. And they performed a very informative play about the insects for their elementary assembly. Jonah was a scout ant. (Back row, second from right)

Paul enjoying the heaps of snow in our front yard.

Jude and Jonah doing the same.

Jonah loves to get out and shovel. We have to stop him from shoveling the entire block. I hope this useful hobby will last well into adulthood. But I have my doubts.

And then, at last, an escape from the snow. Christmas with my husband's lovely family in Phoenix, AZ.

The newlyweds (hey, what's nine years?) in front of an Arizona Christmas "tree".

My sister-in-law Karen took us out for a family photo shoot. Here's one of her great pictures: Grannie M with her boys, daughters-in-law, and all her grandkids.

Jayson and Asaph hangin' out with Papa Jay

Back in Idaho, we celebrated Christmas and New Year's on the same day with my family. I got the boys a digital camera for Christmas ($2 at a yard sale. Shhh.) which was a huge hit. Jude went around taking pictures of everything and everybody. Here he is snapping one of G.G.

In Phoenix, my niece Sydney and I made hats on knitting looms one day at Grannie M's house. Paul thought this hat was pretty great, so he started wearing it around. Here he is with my dad, looking like his goofy self.

And my brother Ethan, with his lovely wife, Christina, inspecting one of Zach's nifty gifts.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Christmas travel debacle

I know I promised more of a story about our failed first attempt at a trip to Phoenix for Christmas, and I never followed through with the promise. So in case anyone's still curious, here's what happened:

We were supposed to catch our flight out of Spokane, the day after we had just experienced a whopping winter storm. This was the AP report from the day before we left:

SPOKANE — The winter storm that has paralyzed Spokane set a record for the amount of snow dumped in a 24- hour period, the National Weather Service said Thursday.

The weather service recorded 17 inches of snow at Spokane International Airport in the 24 hours that ended at 4 a.m., 4 inches more than the record of 13 inches set in 1984. Records have been kept since 1881.

More than 3 inches of additional snow had fallen on the city since 4 a.m., the weather service said, driving the total to more than 20 inches.

I didn't have my camera with me, but this photo, taken by Bill Church, who we know from, er, church, captures the road conditions pretty well.

So I dutifully checked the highway and airport reports before leaving, and (Spokane being used to this sort of onslaught) the airport was already sending flights out on time, and the WSDOT page reported "Patches of snow and ice: Moderate impact on travel." Sounded like we were in reasonably good shape for departure, so we allowed for an extra hour to get the airport, just in case.

Right. I don't know how the WSDOT defines "moderate" or "patches" of snow. The snow was packed quite solidly on the road, and three cars were off in the ditch (right at a bend in the road where we lost cell phone coverage, incidentally...) Also, WSU apparently had just had its last morning of finals before Christmas break (although they probably don't call it that anymore), and we found ourselves amidst thousands of twenty-somethings heading home for the break in cars ill-equipped for winter roads.

It took us two solid hours to get to the little town of Colfax, which normally would take less than 30 minutes.

The kids had to go the bathroom, so we pit-stopped at the Colfax Arby's. And as we sat in the parking lot, watching the cars crawling pitifully by at 4 mph, we determined that, even if we drove 60 mph the rest of the way, we would still miss our flight, which was leaving Spokane right on schedule. (Too bad the Spokane airport is so shockingly well prepared for snow burial.) And, because all flights had been cancelled the day before, every flight leaving for the rest of the day and the next several days following was completely booked.

We made the obvious decision to call the airline to tell them we wouldn't be coming. Silver lining: we very probably made somebody's day by opening up 5 seats on a very full flight for which several people had been waiting on standby all night. And thus, with heavy hearts, we drove back home.

Well, long story short: We rebooked flights for Christmas Eve, after paying MORE to reschedule our tickets than we had paid for the original tickets. (Thank you, US Airways...) And we also had five additional days at home to relax, attend a couple of Christmas parties, and be far better prepared for Christmas Vacation, take 2. We even went to Spokane and spent the night at my sister-in-law's parents' house before our flight, to ensure a stress-free departure. Our whole Phoenix adventure involved an amazing amount of packing and unpacking and repacking suitcases for six people at each stop (First attempt. Home. Second attempt. Night in Spokane. Phoenix, Brandon's house. Phoenix, Marilynn's house. Spokane motel. Home.) So I am very, very glad to not be traveling again for a while!

And we had a fabulous Christmas in Phoenix with Jayson's family, enjoying, among other things, the complete absence of snow!

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