PAAS be with you

Ahhh, the memories ...

Ahhh, the memories …

I was at the grocery store the other night (people think I’m crazy to go at night, but trust me, it’s easier than taking two small boys who accidentally push the cart into large standing displays of merchandise) when I realized something.  I realized that there is a time to be born and a time to dye, and the time to dye is almost upon us.

I added a box of PAAS and a carton of eggs to my shopping cart.

The first time I dyed eggs as an adult, I was awash with memories.  My mom used to buy one of these kits every Easter, but I hadn’t seen one in twenty-plus years.  Then, all of a sudden, I was standing at the dining room table in my own house, doing a ritual that was exactly the same as it always was.  Every year, you did it exactly the same way.

First, you gathered the mugs from the back of the cupboard.  Then came the filling of the mugs with vinegar, and then the ceremonial dropping of the tablet into the mug, where it would fizz and spin like a thing possessed and the vinegar would turn a vivid brilliant color.

Then you’d take the mugs to the newspaper-lined table, and carefully drop a hardboiled egg into each one.  The PAAS kit came with an ineffectual little copper wire holder, meant to use to dunk the eggs, but it was always far easier to use a soupspoon.  You’d lean over the mugs, looking at the eggs, occasionally lifting them out to check their done-ness.  This was where patience paid off: if you were too quick to remove your egg, it was a disappointing pastel, but if you had the fortitude to leave it in the mug for a long time (and if you could fend off the sibling who really really wanted to use that color), you were rewarded with an egg of brilliant turquoise.   It was always worth it to wait.  (Good life lesson right there.)

The kits would come with a wax crayon, too, and sometimes you’d use it to write your name on the egg before dropping it in a mug.  You couldn’t see the name on the white egg; you just had to trust it was there, and sure enough, when you extracted the egg from the dye, there was your name (more or less) written on the side.

When I was a kid, the kit also had these little transfers you’d rub on the side of the egg — a bunny, a chick, a flower —  and then peel off, holding your breath, hoping the whole image would take.  It never really did, which should have been a lesson in the impossibility of applying a flat transfer to a convex surface.  (Now the kits have stickers, which are slightly less frustrating to work with.)

And at the end of the ritual came the grand finale: the discarding of the unused dye in the sink.   You’d dump each mug in turn, and the splash of color was so bright and pretty for a few split seconds before it gurgled away down the drain.  You’d turn on the water, and it was gone altogether.

But you were left with eggs: some dark, some light, some cracked, some whole, some personalized, some blank.  They’d sit in a bed of fake grass and you were never sure whether to eat them or not, but even if you never did, they looked so pretty and the making of them was so fun that they had more than fulfilled their purpose.

And now, as I gear up to share this ritual with my own boys again, I love that some things never change.   It’s a simple thing, dying eggs … but it’s the simple things that we remember.

 Do you have fond Easter egg memories, too?  What are other springtime traditions you love?

A Book That Helped Me Grow: Karen Beattie on “Little House on the Prairie”

It’s Friday, and what better way to kick off the weekend than to celebrate the power of books?    Today’s guest-post in the series A Book That Helped Me Grow comes from Karen Beattie,  author of  the terrific book Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost.  She reflects on Laura Ingalls Wilder and other Midwestern writers (and if you’re anything like me, her words will make you want to re-read the whole Little House series).   Thank you, Karen!

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As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

–My Antonia by Willa Cather

I am 10,  sitting in the deep valley of the two hills between my grandfather’s brick bungalow and my family’s house, which is a 100-year-old white clapboard four-square with a wide front porch and green shutters.

The deep summer grass feels like velvet under my skinny legs, and I watch as the wind gently blows across the hills, turning the grass into waves. I have my journal and Strawberry Shortcake pencil. I look out over the Des Moines River valley, the vast landscape of rolling hills and big blue sky. Here, it is quiet, and vast, and empty. I am writing my story.

I grew up on the prairie – in the countryside of Iowa. My four siblings and I roamed the hills and explored the creeks and took hikes through the cornfields. We built stick forts, found baby rabbits in the fields, collected ladybugs, and searched for arrowheads in the plowed fields in the spring. My dad told us about the Woodland Indians who lived there long before us. We kept our arrowhead collection in a glass case in the living room. We spent evenings sitting outside watching the sunset or storms roll in from the west.

My grandmother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse until she married my grandfather. I never met her because she died of cancer a few months before I was born, but she gave me a beautiful gift. She instilled in my father, who then passed on to me, a love for books.

I have vivid memories of my dad gathering us kids onto his bed at night and reading poetry. “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree….” He would read from the Joyce Kilmer poem. From him I learned to love language, and the rhythm of words.

We had a collection of Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in our house, and I devoured them. I played in the fields during the day, and at night I read those books and imagined travelling with Laura and her family as they moved from the big woods in Minnesota to the prairie of Kansas, and then the Dakotas in a covered wagon. I imagined going to sleep with the sound of Pa’s fiddling. I imagined riding horses across the rolling prairie hills.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie books were my gateway books into other Midwestern writers. In high school I read Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneer and My Antonia. Later it was Jane Smiley’s 1000 Acres and then Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.

Midwesterners who live in “flyover country” often suffer from a deep insecurity. We fear that all of the important things are happening on the coasts. That if you’re smart and talented and want to be someone, you need to live in New York City or Los Angeles, or someplace exotic.

But these female authors who wrote about the prairie, of the landscapes I knew, understood my love for this land. They wrote about the emptiness, the subtle beauty, and the understated way Midwesterners navigate through the world. They acknowledged that the prairie where I lived was more than flyover country, and that the people who lived in it were important too.

These books helped me to grow because they told me that my story—the story of an introverted, shy, insecure girl who lived on the prairie—mattered. 

 

Beattie_photoKaren Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost (Loyola Press). She has a Master’s Degree in journalism and has written about art, faith and culture for many publications. You can read more of her writing at KarenBeattie.net. She lives with her husband, daughter and geriatric cat on the north side of Chicago. 

 

 

My interview with Cara — and a giveaway! Woo hoo!

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I love getting to know other bloggers — reading their stuff, guest-posting on their sites, hanging out at their places.   It makes this whole wide Internet world seem very cozy.

And today, I’m delighted to be hanging out with the ebullient Cara Meredith of Be, Mama. Be.   She interviewed me about motherhood, faith, my book Random MOMents of Grace, and how I do it all (hint: I don’t.)

I should add that I was also at Cara’s place on Tuesday, guest-posting in her ongoing series.   I guess this makes me the blogger equivalent of the friend who shows up and crashes on the couch and is still there a week later.  (Thanks for not kicking me out yet, Cara!).

Oh, and here’s the best part– she’s hosting a giveaway of my book!  Check it out!

And be sure to come back here tomorrow for the second post in my new guest-post series on A Book That Helped Me Grow.  (I won’t identify the book yet, but if you’re a female between the ages of ten and sixty, odds are pretty good you’ve read it.)  See you then!

There’s something to be said for the “artist date”

I have yet to take a selfie that does not look slightly maniacal.

I have yet to take a selfie that does not look slightly maniacal.

In her  book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the power of the “artist date.”  She maintains that writers need to schedule frequent “playdates,”  chunks of time where they go off alone and do something fun in order to fill the creative well.  It’s just you and your inner artist, no one else allowed.

Last week, on my spring break,  I finally gave her idea a shot.  I took my inner artist to Filoli, a gorgeous estate and garden in Woodside, California.

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If Filoli looks familiar, it’s no doubt because you’ve seen it before  (the house has starred in numerous movies and TV shows).  You can tour the inside of the gorgeous Georgian-style residence, taking in the library (my favorite room):

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You can also visit the ballroom, my second-favorite room because of its color scheme and beautiful murals (there was a man playing piano during my visit, which added a wonderful ambiance).

ballroom

ballroom mural

Wandering through the rooms, you can indulge in a little fantasy that you are at Pemberley or Downton Abbey instead of a California estate built by a gold mine owner in 1917.  It’s the perfect setting for period-drama loving Anglophiles like me (the gray, drizzly weather was an evocative touch,too).

But lovely as the house is, the gardens are the real star.

back terrace

house, side view

 

sunken garden pool

 

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The tour brochure refers to the parts of the garden as “rooms,” and that’s essentially what they feel like.  Everywhere you look you see hedges or walls dividing one part of the garden from the others, creating a wonderful Secret Garden kind of feel.  What’s waiting around the next bend, or through the next archway? It might be a mass of deep pink tulips

huge tulip beds

or it might be flowering dogwood

pink dogwood

 

dogwood arch

or it might be a circular pool in the middle of a lawn

reflecting pool

Or a little camellia in a vase, put in this little niche by a detail-loving gardener.

camellia in wall

 

Or — and this stopped me in my tracks — you might find lilac bushes in bloom along the apple and pear trees.

lilac and orchard

 

I really can’t be held responsible for my behavior when I see lilacs.  It’s rare to find them in California, so when I do I bury my face in the blooms and breathe in like I’m wearing an oxygen mask.  If you need further proof that lilacs do something to my brain, let me say that I actually entertained the fleeting thought that maybe if I hid under the lilac bush no one would find me and I’d be able to stay even after Filoli was closed, smelling lilac all night long.  (“Would you at least have called home and let us know?” Scott asked when I told him of my fantasy.)  But seriously, how do you NOT love these beauties?

bush lilac

I have to say, I like this whole artist date thing.  It was blissful  to be somewhere entirely on my own, with no formal agenda, able to savor the sights and smells  without having to follow anyone else’s schedule or keep two small boys from playing ninja in the tulip beds.  Solitude is renewing, no doubt about it.

And yet at the same time, I felt I was in good company.  A hymn my mom used to sing kept floating through my mind:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses …

In the song, Jesus shows up and joins the narrator as they walk throughout the garden:

And he walks with me, and he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

That was how I felt: alone, but not alone.  And it was just what I craved, and needed.

And I think that if heaven looks like anything on earth, it probably looks a lot like Filoli.

back terrace tulips

 

So … Lent.

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Liturgically correct nailpolish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What (if anything) did you choose to do for Lent this year?  And how’s it going?

As for me, I couldn’t decide what to do.  It wasn’t until the day after Ash Wednesday that I thought of the perfect Lenten practice to try.  Several weeks in, I’m happy to report that it’s making me a more engaged mom, wife, teacher, and pray-er.

You can read all about it in my new column Lent and the Path of Most Resistance.

P.S.  Honesty compels me to add that no, I wasn’t thinking of Lent when I chose the purple nailpolish.  But I am considering going gold for Easter ….

A Book That Helped Me Grow: Pamela Jay Gottfried on “Forever”

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that childhood and books are two of my favorite topics.  So a while back, I had the idea to do a guest-post series that would combine the two.   I asked  several writers to think back over their childhood and adolescence, and write about a book that helped them grow.  

Today, I’m thrilled to kick off the series with a post by Pamela Jay Gottfried.  Pamela is a rabbi, blogger, and wears many other hats as well (see her complete bio at the end of the post).  She writes about being in middle school and wanting to read a “daring” book, and what she learned from her mother’s response.  Thank you, Pamela!

 

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It seems like forever ago.

I am in seventh grade, and everyone is reading Judy Blume’s new book, Forever. We are reading in class—hiding the paperback edition inside our textbooks and pretending to pay attention to our teacher at the front of the room. Aimed at older readers, the book contains explicit descriptions of a teenaged couple’s first sexual encounter. It is 1977, and the publication of Forever has stirred up a fair amount of controversy.

I am 11 years old. An early and voracious reader, I skipped second grade, so I’m more than a year younger than all of my classmates. I am simultaneously unprepared to rebel against my parents and desperate to fit in with my sophisticated peers. Most girls I know are reading this book without their parents’ consent, but I can’t imagine sneaking around school with a contraband copy.

My mom, who is completing her MA in Education at Monmouth and preparing to be a student teacher at my school, possesses a professional interest in which books Middle School kids are currently reading. Soon after Forever becomes a cultural phenomenon, my mom sits me down for a heart to heart. More than 35 years later I cannot recount her exact words, but I recall her earnest tone of voice; I can hear her desire to be an open-minded, modern mother.

My mom tells me that she knows many of my friends are reading this book against their parents’ wishes, and reassures me that she doesn’t believe in censoring my reading choices. She has already purchased a copy of Forever and will permit me to read it. But she wants to read it first, in case I am confused by its content. Then, if I have any questions at all, I can ask her.

I don’t tell her that I’m not going to have any questions. I know about the mechanics of sex. When I was four and wondered where my brother came from, she gave me an age-appropriate book to read. And I’d read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret a year earlier, long before I could relate to Margaret’s yearning to grow breasts. I realize that I may not be ready to read about Katherine losing her virginity, but I feel confident that I’m not going to discuss Forever with my mom.

Long after I’ve forgotten the details of the book’s plot, I remember our having this conversation before we both read it. At the time, I was unaware of how significant this moment was in my early adolescence. Today, as a mother of two teenaged daughters, I am struck not only that my mom granted me permission to read Forever, but also that she recognized and validated my desire to do so. Whenever I face similar circumstances with my own girls, I remember being in seventh grade, listening to my open-minded, modern mom take a stand against censorship. Her approach to the Forever controversy continues to influence me as a parent.

 

PGPamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom. She credits her love of words to her parents, who encouraged her to develop her vocabulary through reading and using the dictionary at an early age. Connect with her at www.pamelagottfried.com.

 

 

Listening is for the birds

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So much of spirituality is about paying attention.  It’s about mindfulness and not ignoring the things that are right in front of us.

And yet here’s something I’m realizing about myself: when it comes to paying attention, I use my eyes far more than I use my ears.  As a result, I tend to miss a lot.

This hit me two  weeks ago when I was out on a Sunday morning walk around the neighborhood.  I love taking solo walks at this time of the day; not a lot of people are out yet and the light is gentle and lovely.  As I walk around our little postwar neighborhood, I look at the new leaves on the trees, the yellow daffodils, the lavender wisteria, the rosebushes that are unfolding in sunset colors.  It’s a feast for my gardening-loving eyes.   I get a lot of ideas on these walks.

But on that morning a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized that there was birdsong in the trees above me.  Unseen birds were conversing, saying whatever it is that birds say, and it was arresting and beautiful.  There were no traffic sounds or voices around me; all I heard were the trills and chirps and melodies filling the morning silence.

It was a happy sound, a sound that made me think instinctively of springtime and Easter.  I started to think about how birdsong is a sign of life, of an entire world and community operating within our own.  It’s a community that we (or at least I) take for granted and rarely acknowledge in my thoughts.  And yet how beautiful those sounds are, and how impoverished the world would be without them.

Then — English teacher nerd that I am — the John Keats poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” sprang to mind as I continued along the sidewalk.  I thought of how the haunted and betrayed knight keeps wandering through the countryside, even though the sedge (grass) has withered from the lake, “and no birds sing.”  Keats repeats that line twice, and it’s the final line of this poem.  It’s as if he recognizes that a world without birdsong is the only fit setting for the knight, who has been seduced and abandoned by the beautiful woman without mercy.  The silent, birdless countryside is a dead world for a dead soul.

But a world where many birds sing: that’s the world we live in.   There is life all around us, in the trees and on the telephone wires and nesting in the eaves.  We don’t always see this graceful and beautiful life, but it’s there, making springtime even more glorious than it already is.

And if we train our ears to be as alert as our eyes, we can’t miss it.

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What we talk about when we talk about prayer


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I’m always on a quest to understand my own spiritual life more fully.  Lately, I’ve been trying to understand my kids’ spiritual lives, too.

This came up in a big way last Wednesday, as I drove my preschooler to meet Grandma, who was going to watch him for the day.  As we sat in the inevitable line of cars snaking off of the freeway, I looked at him in the rearview mirror. He seemed in a reflective mood, and we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry,  so I suddenly had the idea to engage him in a conversation about prayer.

“Sweetie, do you ever pray?” I asked.  “Do you ever just talk to God?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you ever say, Thank you, God, for the good things in life?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

English teacher that I am,  I felt a specific illustration might enhance the discussion.  “You know how we pray before dinner,  and we thank God for the food, or the fun weekend, or our family ?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Well,  you can do that any time of day.”   Warming to the theme, I looked at the green hillside next to the highway, which was full of yellow wildflowers in bloom.  “For example, I can say, Thank you, God, for the green grass and the yellow flowers, for all the things I love.  I can do that anytime I want,” I told him.

“I just farted,” he said.

And so it goes.

But you know what?  I’m going to take my own advice here.  Thank you, God, for  the gift of this  irrepressible, sweet, hilarious little boy.

And if he ever becomes a priest, I’ll make sure this post goes viral.

Why this mom loves “Let it Go”

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The song “Let it Go” has grown on me.

When I first saw “Frozen” in the theatre, I thought “Let it Go”  was a visually impressive number.  I loved the images of Elsa gliding through  the bluish snow and the ice palace rising around her.   But for some reason the song itself didn’t grab me, though I did mentally applaud the singer for her impressive range. (I also thought, “Wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘fractals’ in a song lyric.”)

But since then, I’ve heard it many times.  I’ve had an increasingly hard time getting it out of my head.  Just a few days ago I heard it playing in the pediatrician’s office, and I started singing along, which caused my seven-year-old to say politely, “Mom, could you stop singing?”

Because while he enjoyed the movie, he is sick of the song.  ”The girls ALWAYS sing it at recess,” he complained.  I’m sure he’s right, because from what I hear from my friends who have girls, they love this movie with a passion that goes beyond the popularity of most Disney films

I’m a forty-one-year-old girl, and I can relate.  This song gets me; it really does.  And here’s my theory: Females understand this song in a way that guys don’t.

What’s the song about?  It’s about a girl with a unique power she’s been told not to use.  She’s different and her power can cause problems, so she learns to hide it.  Then her gift accidentally comes out, and it’s scary and upsetting, but then she finally says the Disney equivalent of “Screw it. I’m tired of holding back.  I’m going to let it rip.”

It’s a far cry from the Little Mermaid who, as a college friend of mine  once memorably explained, gives up her voice to have the perfect body so she can get a man. “Let it Go”  is about female empowerment.  You actually hear a Disney princess singing, “That perfect girl is gone,” and it’s a good thing.

I love that.

We women have come a long way, but it’s still so easy to get into a “don’t rock the boat, don’t be a troublemaker”mode.    I’m not saying women should stop  being sensitive and compassionate, because sensitivity and compassion are qualities that I wish more people (men included) possessed.  I’m saying that you can be sensitive and compassionate and cause trouble.  (In fact,  compassion for others is probably the catalyst for most social justice work.)  

A lot of the positive change in this world has come about through women who did cause trouble, who grew tired of being someone else’s  idea of what it means to be perfect.  You see this in the suffragettes, in the women of the Civil Rights movement, in so many places in history.   These women probably each had to have their own “Let it Go” moment where they realized that they could no longer live the careful, fearful life they’d had before.  I’m grateful they had the courage to smash through the expectations that held themselves and others back.

Now that I think about it, maybe boys can relate to this song more than I thought at first.  My kids are so young that they haven’t yet started expressing pressure to be “the perfect male,” but I’m know that pressure does exist, especially as they reach the teenage years.   But as a former girl,  I know why this song is so popular with Matthew’s female peers.  Even at a young age, girls can sense the need to fit into a narrow definition of “perfect,” be it in their behavior or their weight or their dress.  I think there’s something in Elsa’s liberation from that that touches a chord, and powerfully.

Just recently, Matthew and I attended a birthday party for one of his female classmates.  An hour or so in, two costumed and bewigged young women arrived, one dressed as Elsa and the other Anna.  They gathered all the kids together and played the soundtrack and invited them to sing along to “Let it Go.”  (they also supervised a fake snowball fight and painted faces.)  I sang along too, and loved it, and  I noticed several other moms doing the same.

It’s a message we can’t hear enough: When the perfect girl is gone, the real woman can come out.

Wordsworth isn’t the only poet who wrote about daffodils

daffodils

I came across this lovely poem on the blog Everything to Someone a few days ago.   I simply had to borrow it for today’s post.  Happy first day of spring!

By the way, the photo above is a picture of the little phone nook in my hallway. (Why use it as a phone nook when it can be a shrine to beauty?)

Daffodowndilly

She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
“Winter is dead.”

-- A. A. Milne