Monday, January 26, 2015

Gloomy January

I'm in the process of quilting this mosaic quilt. I should be done in another ten, fifteen years.

It only takes two or three gray days tied together before you start thinking that this is the gloomiest winter we've had in years. But the fact is, a blue sky winter is the exception to the rule in these parts. Last winter was gray, and so was the one before that (or at least that's how I remember it now).

Really, the only way to get through this time of year is by the judicious yet generous sprinkling of treats throughout the day and week. Peppermint tea when you're feeling dull and listless is always uplifting. Buying used, out-of-print books online for two dollars is nice because you get the thrill of buying something without a huge expense, and you get the fun of anticipating mail. I also recommend interlibrary loans for putting a little pep into your step, especially of expensive art books.

I try to have lunch with friends at least once a week and spend an afternoon over at the fun nonprofit where I volunteer. And unless it's pouring down rain, I get outside with Travis once a day. Together, we survey the neighborhood. Lots of things are beautiful in winter, especially red mailboxes. Who looks at a red mailbox in summer? Nobody except the postman. But in winter, a red mailbox is the belle of the ball.


I'm pleased to report that Jack seems to be 30% less cranky these days. He'll be sixteen in a couple of months, and a friend of mine with older children told me that hers came out of their adolescent funks toward the end of their sophomore years in high school (come to think of it, so did I). I'm sure it helps that Jack is swimming three times a week--nothing like a burst of endorphins to boost your mood. But I also think he's just getting older and a little bit happier.

You know what that means, right? Will is a pill. Yep, sweet Will is a thing of the past. Oh, he resurfaces now and again, mostly on weekends, but Will 2.0 pretty much resents and resists any parental interference in his life. Great. I think I'd almost convinced myself that since Jack's was cranky even before puberty set in, we'd get a pass with Will. Illusion shattered. Lord, help get me through the next three and a half years.


Both boys just got their report cards. Jack got straight A's (yay!), and Will got all A's and B's. I asked Will last week if he thought he could get straight A's if he tried, because I certainly thought he could. He said, "Yeah, but the kids I know who get straight A's study for two hours a night, and I don't want to study that hard."

It's hard to argue with that, and I didn't. Will is one of the most well-rounded people I know. He's bright and creative and a good athlete. He has lots of friends and can talk to anyone (though like the rest of this tribe, he's an introvert and gets out of sorts if he has to socialize too much). While I'd love for him to get straight A's one quarter just so he knows that he can, I can't bring myself to insist on it. He's a good kid. If he stays out of trouble, he'll do fine whatever his path ends up being.

The Man and I did have an interesting talk about internally v. externally motivated people, and how Jack is one and Will is the other. If I told Will we'd get him a smart phone if he got all A's, you can bet he'd have a perfect report card next quarter. But when Jack brought home spottier grades in middle school, no amount of bribery could get him to work harder. Once he was in high school though, he decided he wanted to be a straight A student, and he is. The Man and I have absolutely nothing to do with it.


As I write this, I'm looking out over my backyard garden, which is covered in black plastic. Although the winter has been gloomy and rainy, it hasn't been too terribly cold, which means the sturdier grasses and weeds just keep growing. Covering up the ground is a good way to save yourself a lot of work come spring. But while I'm glad I won't have to spend two weeks in March redigging all my garden beds, a black plastic-covered yard doesn't actually make you want to break out in song.

However, thinking about gardens does, and it's almost time to get planning. I'm sticking to tomatoes and basil this year, I think, plus flowers. What else does a girl need?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Introvert in Winter

I accidentally took this picture of myself the other morning. I was trying to take pictures of winter foliage, but must have hit the reverse button on my camera.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend. A two-and-a-half hour lunch in which we gossiped, discussed the difficulties of raising one's 80-year-old parents, and agreed that it's always important to carry your needlework with you (needlepoint in her case, knitting in mine) at all times, because you never know when a meeting's going to get boring.

Afterwards, I popped over to see some friends at the nonprofit I volunteer at three or four times a month. The staff consists of two women I adore, one of whom is my age, but single and dating and always has interesting updates on her love life. So, yes, more gossip.

That doesn't sound very introverted, does it--two-hour lunches and popping in on friends after for another hit of talk? Well, of course I was exhausted aftewards--that's the real test of an introvert, isn't it? And I was engaged in what I called Introvert Winter Survival Strategy. When the days look like this:

then it's time to get out and about. I find that one good day of socializing inoculates me against the winter blues for at least two days afterward.


I am in a cooking mood. Now, I cook every day, whether I'm in the mood to or not. But when the prospect of chopping an onion strikes me as fun and a little exciting, that's when I know it's about to get interesting in the kitchen. Conversely, when I can't stand even thinking about mincing a garlic clove, then it's time to make a big pot of hearty soup that will carry us through several days. Or else order a pizza.

But right now I'm in a mood. I always love to cook this time of year, and now that I have a new oven AND a new chef's knife (a very scary 8" Wusthuf that I got for Christmas), why, I'm practically Julia Child.

In fact, I'm reading a book about Julia Child right now, called Provence 1970 by Luke Barr. It's about a moment in time when a group of some of the most exciting American cooks and food writers (Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Richard Olney) gathered together in an informal culinary summit. It's lots of fun.

I'm also reading a book I got Jack for Christmas called Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell, a chef at Chez Panisse. Peternell got the idea for the book after realizing his eldest son was about to head off for college and didn't know how to cook the basics. I really got the book for both Jack and me, since I'm not always sure I know how to cook the basics. The recipes are wonderful, and for the first time in my life I can fry an egg with confidence.

This morning I spent thirty minutes in front of my S.A.D. lamp. That also helps keep the winter blues away. What do you do (those of you experiencing winter--I know some of you are in the throes of summer!) to make this time of year not only bearable, but downright enjoyable?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year! Happy New Oven!

So I got a new oven the week before Christmas, which was perhaps the closest thing to a Christmas miracle I've ever experienced.

My old oven--my old, cruddy, much-hated oven--started giving up the ghost in mid-December. The oven itself still worked, but its computerized control panel was slowly losing its way. Instead of turning a dial to set the temperature, you hit numbers on the panel, and one by one the numbers had stopped working, until I was down to 3, 4, 7 and 0.

You can do a lot with a 3, 4, 7 and 0. You can set your oven temperature to 347, which is practically 350, or 374, or 400 or 430. That covers a lot of territory. But every day the threat loomed larger--what if we lost the 3? All would be lost. And Christmas was coming! What if we lost the 3 on Christmas Eve? No Christmas pudding! No Christmas roast beast!

Why not just get a new panel put in? Because the panel for this particular model is no longer made. At some point, somebody at GE realized what a horrible little oven it was and stopped making replacement parts. Can't blame them, really.

Okay, so why not run down to Home Depot and buy a new oven? 1) The old oven was a 27" oven. If I was going to get a new oven, it wasn't going to be a tiny 27" job, and 2) to put in a new, reasonably sized oven, we would need to reconfigure the oven space. Which would mean a carpenter and an electrician and a gas man. Which would mean finding a contractor. Two weeks before Christmas.

Enter the Wood Nymph. Yep, that's his name, and carpentry and contracting is his game. He came over, looked around, said "We can make this happen, and we can make it happen before Christmas." He quoted an entirely reasonable price. He recommended we buy our oven at a local dealer that he liked instead of a big box store. When the local dealer told us he couldn't get the oven we liked to us before December 22nd, the Wood Nymph laughed, made a phone call, and our oven was delivered on the 18th.

Not only that, but the WN's crews--the carpenters, the electricians, the gas guys--all showed up when they said they would. The oven was delivered on time, and the installation crew arrived about fifteen minutes later.

As I said, pretty close to a Christmas miracle.

And what joy to have a new oven! It is a 30" oven, which seems huge to me. I roasted a whole turkey for the first time in seven years, and it was delicious. I baked cookies on standard size cookie sheets. I baked multiple items on multiple racks. I put rolls in the warming drawer and they stayed warm.

It wasn't convenient, of course, to put in a new oven the week before Christmas, or to have work crews in the kitchen the week before that, but doing things this way was almost like ripping off a band-aid--better to be quick and decisive about it. Who knows how long it would have taken us to decide what to do if we'd had a choice about it.


New Year's resolutions? Stand up straighter and stretch more (though not always at the same time).

Will gave me a lovely notebook for Christmas, and I'm going to try to use it as a daybook, where I record what we ate for dinner, and maybe one or two things about the day (worked on a quilt, walked the dog, etc.). I did this once many years ago, keeping up the practice for a couple of months. It was neat to have a record of the small things that don't merit a journal entry and are easily forgotten. We'll see how I do this year.

Here are the things I want to focus on this year: dailiness and showing up. Sometimes when I think about the time that may or may not be left to me--let's say thirty years, bar accident or illness--I get a panicky feeling. That's hardly any time at all! But if I take it one day at a time, paying attention to the day at hand, why, it's practically an eternity.


The quote the Wood Nymph gave us included new countertops and backsplashes, a project we'll get started on in the next couple of weeks. What's you advice on the best sort of (reasonably priced) countertop? We're having a hard time deciding, and I'd love some input!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Pause in Advent #3

 I'm joining Angela and a gaggle of other fine folks for a Pause in Advent. 
By accident I have stumbled on a wonderful book for my Advent reading: C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath. I've read one other Lewis biography and have read and re-read Surprised by Joy, so I was excited to discover this relatively new look at Lewis's life. I find him to be a hugely sympathetic figure, in part because he's one of those Christians who stays ever-mindful of his own wretchedness, and I find that comforting.

I'm a wretch; are you? I'm prideful, ambitious, judgmental. I hold a grudge. I am in many ways a thoroughly crappy human being. Those of you who know me in person might think I'm being hard on myself, but I'm not. I have my good moments, and I have good manners, and I do genuinely like and love a lot of people, which probably makes them think more highly of me than they should.

Here's a quote from the book that had me nodding: "One of the major themes of Till We Have Faces (1956)--arguably the most profound piece of fiction written by Lewis--is the difficulty of coming to know ourselves as we really are, and the deep pain that such knowledge ultimately involves."
It's a horrible thing to really look at yourself--to look beyond the carefully constructed facade and the blue ribbons and the perfectly organized pantry, the shiny resume, the A+ report card. I try not to do it very often. But something has happened in the last six months. I am finding myself completely unimpressive, and while it's kind of a bummer, I also recognize it as a good thing.

God comes to us in the form of a baby born to a poor woman. God comes to us in the most deeply humble way one can imagine. I think to appreciate such a god, we have to also appreciate our own humble state, our own poverty. If you worship power and status, you're not going to worship a god who seems to have no interest in who has the most toys or guns or money.

But if you understand that your poverty is no different from that of the tax collector or the prostitute or the leper, then you might be happy for the birth of a savior who finds you--wretched, messed up you--worthy of redemption.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Pause in Advent: 2


 I'm joining Angela and a gaggle of other fine folks for a Pause in Advent.

I'm having trouble coming up with something to write about this week. There are all sorts of things that I could write that would sound good--inspirational sorts of things, spiritual tidbits. But for some reason I don't have it in me.

Do you ever get tired of words? I don't often get tired of reading words, but I get tired of hearing them. Right now I'm very tired of opinions. I'm tired of people telling me how I should feel in in the face of Ferguson and the Eric Garner non-indictment. You know how I feel? Sad. I feel really, really sad. And tired.

We talk, talk, talk. We talk past each other and over each other. I'm tired of talk. Talk doesn't change anything unless the talk is between two or three people who are willing to be generous listeners.

I heard a story on NPR tonight about a group of people, black and white, who have been gathering regularly in Ferguson, MO, ever since August to talk about what they can do to make things better. I like their kind of talk. They seem like they're trying to be truthful and open-minded. They seem like they've learned to trust each other enough to tell the truth about their experiences.

That's the kind of talk we need. We need talk that builds relationships. We need talk that builds trust. If there is no trust, there is no love, and if there is no love, there is no change.

What does this have to do with Advent? I'm not sure. Except that maybe one thing we need to keep talking about is the fact that God is with us, and if God is with us, all things are possible. Even peace. Even love.

Those people who meet in Ferguson to talk about how to make things better? They close their meetings with a prayer. I believe God is with them, and that change will begin with them.

Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday in Advent: My Poverty

I have joined Angela and others in a Pause in Advent. Check out Angela's site for a list of other bloggers participating in this annual event.

"Advent isn’t a holiday party. It doesn’t pressure us to conjure up a hopeful face, ring bells, and dismiss the foulest realities we face. Advent isn’t about our best world, it’s about our worst world."
                      --Christina Cleveland (for her full post on Advent, go here)

Last year, I didn't start writing about my poverty until the third week in Advent. This year I have a cold, so I'm going to write about my poverty right off the bat.

First, I should say that as colds go, this isn't a bad one, just a very congestive one. Still, I'm missing church on the first Sunday in Advent, and that's a bummer. I was looking forward to going to the all-congregation "Let's Get Ready for Advent" meeting at 9:45 and to the service afterward. Instead, I'm sitting on my couch with a box of Kleenex and a cup of peppermint tea, blowing my nose every three minutes.

And I'm sort of laughing at myself, too. A couple of weeks ago I was thinking that maybe this year would be different. I'm more organized this year. I've already baked eight dozen Christmas cookies and popped them in the deep freeze. I've already come up with a satisfying list of presents for the boys and sent it to the Man, who will do the ordering and shopping. So maybe, just maybe, I'd end up enjoying Advent this year, really get into it.

This year, I'd be all about the light.

And then I got this cold--it showed up Thursday night, interrupting my plans for a productive weekend of sewing, cleaning and yardwork--and thought, nope, nothing's changed. I get a cold or some kind of bug every Thanksgiving. I thought this year might be different because I'm much more diligent about washing my hands whenever I come home from the library or shopping, and besides, I had a bug in October. Shouldn't I get a pass until the new year?

Nope. No pass. And I suspect that whatever I do, however organized I am, the next few weeks leading up to Christmas will be a slog. Maybe I'm wrong. But it doesn't pay to get optimistic this time of year, not for me at least.

So you can imagine that I found the quote above helpful. Advent is a time when we watch for the light--but the light isn't here yet. It's a dark time of year. It's easy to lose hope. This has been a dark autumn for a lot of people I know--unexpected, terrible deaths, cancer, broken relationships. The fact is, it's a dark world.

In her post on Advent, Christina Cleveland goes on to write, 

"So, this Advent season, let’s engage and lament darkness as we seek the Light. In doing so, we participate in the ancient longing of the coming Messiah, a longing that began when the earth was still formless and empty, persevered in the hearts of Anna and Simeon, and continues today."

Having a cold isn't a big deal, but it's been a useful reminder that when we put our energy into making a perfect weekend, holiday, Christmas season--a perfect anything--our energy is misdirected. The darkness is too big. Advent is a time to remember just how dark things are and little we can do to change that. We don't have it in us. 

But the Light does.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Little Gift I Gave Myself

The notes I took last year after the Christmas madness was over

I have a Christmas notebook. It looks like this:

It is the best thing I've ever done for myself, other than marry the Man. In it, I write down what we gave our various relatives for Christmas and what they gave us (so we can write our thank you notes). During the year, I keep notes on gift ideas or the boys and the Man. Given that I can forget a great idea in the time it takes me to get from the shower down to my desk, there's no way that in December I'll remember that inspired thought I had in May.

Today I had the brilliant idea to write down where I've hidden the gifts I've already bought. I have spent more than one Christmas eve tearing through the attic and my study closet looking for stuff I know I bought but can't for the life of me find.

As I write this, I'm printing out calendar pages for November and December. This year I will conquer Christmas. I will stay ahead of it. I will create space--mental, emotional--to observe Advent and not give up by the second week of December because I feel overwhelmed by everything I have to do.

Right now my big plans include:

1. Start making Christmas cookies next week. Freeze them, don't eat them.

2. Have gifts for relatives mailed by first week of December at the very latest.

3. Take annual Christmas card photo of Travis over Thanksgiving weekend and off to the printer the following week. Cards out by the week of the 8th.

4. Have all my gifts bought and wrapped by the 15th.

Can I do it? Well, I've got my notebook to remind me what supplies I need and don't need. I've got my calendar pages ready to be filled in with deadlines and chores. I have many years of Christmas misery to spur me on. Stay posted. I'll post my official calendars soon.