Category Archives: Musings

Why Moms Love Downton Abbey

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From my latest article at CatholicMom.com:

It’s here: the final season of Downton Abbey. I’m going to miss it when it’s gone. This show has brightened my Januaries since its premiere five years ago, letting me slip away from my suburban Silicon Valley existence and immerse myself in a world of tea trays and titled gents.

I’m not alone in my love for this series. It has a broad base of support, appealing to viewers of all kinds. But I happen to think that moms have a particular affinity for the saga of Lord and Lady Grantham, their family, and their servants. I think it appeals to the mom-demographic for a few very specific reasons.

1) We moms harbor fantasies of living like Lady Grantham. I don’t know about you, but I dream of a world where I have breakfast in bed every day, not just on Mother’s Day. I fantasize about being able to ring a bell and have other people bring me anything I need (or, more to the point, anything I want), be it a cup of tea or a freshly-ironed dress. And don’t even get me started about living in a beautiful house that I don’t have to clean myself. Downton Abbey lets us vicariously indulge in a pampered life, one that looks mighty appealing to the modern mom.

2) The show reflects our much-less-glamorous reality. As much as Downton Abbey feeds our fantasies about doing nothing more pressing than deciding what to wear for dinner, it also reflects what our lives really do look like. We moms can relate to the servants who zip around below stairs and behind the scenes, keeping the house running smoothly. We understand the frazzled feelings of Mrs. Patmore as she frantically bangs lids onto pots and tries to get dinner done on time. We all know that feeling of having to drop what we’re doing and help someone else. We don’t answer to the ding of a bell calling us to the drawing room, but we know how it feels to be summoned by the newborn who needs to be fed or the child who desperately needs help with a math problem. Putting others’ wishes above our own? We get that, we moms. We know how it feels to live a life of service.

And when Downton Abbey shows the servants in a rare moment of relaxation, sitting down and reading the paper or enjoying a glass of something in Mrs. Hughes’ office, I almost want to weep with happiness for them. They’ve earned it. We have too, moms, and let’s not feel guilty about occasionally putting our feet up or escaping to a café or the mall for a little time alone. (Even the servants get one afternoon off a week; isn’t it only normal for us to want the same?)

You can read the rest at CatholicMom.com!

What I owe Alan Rickman

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When my radio alarm woke me this morning with the news that actor Alan Rickman had died, I found my thoughts turning to his most memorable role.  It wasn’t the maniacal villain in Die Hard, or the inky-haired Severus Snape, though those are surely the first images that came to mind for many.  I immediately thought of Colonel Brandon in the film Sense and Sensibility.

It’s one of my favorite films.   Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, did so beautifully, turning Austen’s first novel into a movie that (in my blasphemous opinion) is even more engaging than the novel itself.  And when I saw it the first year after I graduated from college, I liked it so much I saw it three times in the theatre (and countless times on VHS – boy, that really dates me, doesn’t it?).

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Rickman in action.  I’d seen Die Hard, and I’d enjoyed him immensely in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where he stole every scene he was in (it was one of the first movies I could cite where the villain was way more appealing than the hero).  And I knew that he’d starred in the stage production of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses; his role in the movie version was played by John Malkovich, who wasn’t bad, but nothing to what I imagine Rickman could have done in that part.

But in Sense and Sensibility, he played a role that opened my twenty-something eyes to a truth about dating that every woman has to learn: Don’t overlook the quiet guys who fly below the radar.  Still waters run deep.  (I should add here that if you haven’t seen S&S, don’t read any further, as I’ll be indulging freely in spoilers.)

In the movie, his character Colonel Brandon loves Marianne (Kate Winslet) instantly.  Remember the first time he sees her, playing the piano and singing?  It’s such a beautifully-filmed scene, catnip for a romantic like me.

 

But Marianne – like many young women, honestly – doesn’t give him the time of day.  She wants the dashing  hero who sweeps her off her feet.  She finds it, quite literally, in Willoughby, the guy who carries her home when she sprains her ankle and woos her with poetry and knows exactly what to say at all times.  He drives a fast carriage; he’s thrilling and a little dangerous.  She’s nuts about him.  But the romance ends in heartbreak, passionate tears, and an awful social snub at a ball that shows the guy’s true colors once and for all.  (There’s also that bit about him seducing another woman and leaving her alone and pregnant.  He’s just a bad boy all the way.)

But Colonel Brandon is the opposite: he is steady, devoted, ethical.  He cleans up Willoughby’s messes, stands by the woman he jilts (women, I guess), and is at all times courteous and kind.  There’s a great scene where one of the busybodies tries to throw Marianne and Brandon together by suggesting that they play a piano duet.  Marianne immediately says rudely that she doesn’t know any duets, a pointed response mean to show her lack of interest in Brandon.  Rickman’s face falls; he’s felt the snub.  All the same, a second later he pulls out a chair for Marianne as she sits at the table.  A gentleman to the end.

And Rickman’s performance – which is amazingly subtle – makes this good-guy-ness extraordinarily compelling.  (By contrast, when I later read the novel,  I found the character of Brandon very stodgy and dull – a testament to what an actor can do to bring a character to life.)  Even at the age of twenty-two, I felt that Rickman’s Brandon was infinitely more appealing than Willoughby, and far more engaging than Hugh Grant’s genial and adorably tentative Edward.  In the character of Brandon,  Rickman made decency extremely attractive.  With his inimitable voice and his perfectly-modulated expressions, he showed the virtue of a dependable man who does not up-play himself, who can weather disappointments without losing his innate decency, who is willing to ride all night to help the woman he loves, even if she hasn’t yet given him any shred of hope that she returns his interest.  He showed us that those traits – not, God forbid, a smooth-talking insouciance — is what’s really sexy in a man.

Marianne takes a while to figure it out, but by the end, she does.  And maybe what makes the finale of that movie so extra-wonderful, even among Austen movie finales, is that we’re just as thrilled that the guy ends up happy as we are that the heroine ends up happy.  We care about him just as much as we do about her.

So while I, like everyone else on Facebook, mourn the passing of a truly great actor, I’m grateful in a way that goes beyond my appreciation of his talent.  I can’t say this about too many actors, but I think that perhaps he gets some of the credit for the current happiness of my personal life, for helping to sharpen my antennae about what really matters in a man.   As Colonel Brandon, he showed countless young women that the guys who fly below the radar are worth another look. And thanks to the eternal magic of film, he’ll keep on doing so for generations to come.

What happens when you pray in an empty room (and I do mean empty)

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January is a good month to think about creating.  With the turn of the year, there’s a new blank slate of possibility in front of each of us. What will we create in 2016?

I thought of this yesterday morning, as I sipped my cup of coffee and did some morning prayer.  The first reading I came to was Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.

Not the first time I’ve read these words, but something in them spoke to me in a new way.  I love this story of how there was nothing, and out of nothing came something, prompted into existence by the will of the Divine.

It helped, maybe, that I was reading these words while sitting on the floor of a brand-new room in the back of our house, a room that did not exist a few months ago.

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To contextualize this, I should explain that our house is a teeny postwar one. It has closets so miniscule that it makes you wonder whether people in the forties walked around mostly naked.  The fact that it had only one bathroom wasn’t a problem for the first few years we lived here; at first it was just Scott and me sharing it, which was doable.  Then we had a baby, but as babies take a while to get to the point where they need a toilet, it wasn’t too big an issue.

Then we had another baby, and then both babies grew up and began needing private bathroom time, and for the past few years having one bathroom has been a challenge, particularly in the morning when I am rushing to get out the door and Scott is rushing to get the boys to school and thence to work.  (And when company is staying over, we practically have to put in one of those red Please Take a Number dispensers you find in delis.)

So last October, we started work on a long-cherished dream: to add a second bathroom.  We also reconfigured our bedroom and added in a little more closet space.  And now, it’s almost completely done: a compact but lovely second bathroom and a bedroom where the paint is new and the floors unscuffed and where, driven by a desire to sit in its light-filled loveliness, I sat to pray yesterday morning.

Before last fall, I’d never seen home construction up close before.  It was a fascinating process.  In order to expand into the backyard we lost a gorgeous Japanese maple whose passing I mourned, as well as a spidery mildewy old shed whose passing I celebrated.  Every day I loved coming home from work and seeing what had been done: ditch, foundations, walls, roof, electrical wiring, plumbing, etc.    You realize how important it is to have a good contractor (luckily, we did) as there are so many little things that need to come together.

And as I sat there in the empty room that will never again be this clean and read the first few lines of Genesis, I thought again about creation.  Isn’t there something amazing about creating something that never before existed?  To go from a mere idea to finished product – to know that you brought something into being that literally was not there before – that’s a heady feeling.  I can’t take credit for our addition; that belongs to the contractors and the architect. But to be able to witness the process, to be a part of it, is exciting because it affirms that creative impulse and lets me share in the satisfaction of making something from nothing.

That’s one thing that has always appealed to me about writing, too.  To know that there is something in my mind that does not exist outside of my brain, and then to get that to the point where it becomes a blog post or an article, or something even more tangible like a book (2016 being a big year for me in that regard!) – well, that’s a deeply satisfying feeling.  That must be how artists feel about creating a sketch, or how a composer feels about composing music, or how a seamstress feels about creating a dress, or how a programmer feels about writing code.   There are so many different ways to bring something new into being, and even if we can’t relate to the activity itself, we can all understand that satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

As I sat in the empty room, I thought about how that impulse to create comes from a holy place.  Our Scripture begins with creation, with something from nothing.  Our God shows us that it is good.  And in January, it’s a good feeling to look at the eleven months ahead of us and start to plan – or at least,  begin to discern — how we’ll put our own unique creative impulses to use.

When it’s good to be a packrat

My grandparents with my sister and me, 1975

My grandparents with my sister and me, 1975

Last fall I read the bestselling book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.  It came recommended to me by a good friend, and I read it with a growing feeling of what can best be described as relief.  My small house is perpetually cluttered; nothing ever seems to change that.  But Kondo’s unique strategy of assessing and discarding actually made me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I would be able to get rid of things I thought I’d keep forever.  She is what some might call ruthless in her approach, but there are times when I think I need that.

But this Christmas, I realized anew that there is something to be said for being a packrat.

On Christmas morning I opened a large square package from my parents, only to find this box.

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When I opened it, I was surprised and delighted to discover that it was full of cards and drawings that I had given my Grandma and Grandpa Kubitz over the years.  My grandmother had saved them all, in a huge envelope with my name on it, and I had no idea this collection even existed.

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Inside the box were cards I’d made for my grandparents, for birthdays and Mother’s Day and anniversaries.  There were pictures I’d drawn — some nothing more than crayon squiggles, with my grandmother’s careful date (“Ginny — 1975″)  in the corner.  There were all sorts of photographs with white borders, the kind you don’t see anymore, of different occasions involving me, at a variety of ages: newborn to kid with bangs to awkward teenager.  Many of them are snapshots I’d never seen before, photos my grandparents took and are thus different from the ones in my mom’s albums.

They were all there, in the treasure trove, saved by my grandmother.  She died in 1989; my grandfather a few years later.  According to my parents, the bulging envelope of Ginny memorabilia, compiled carefully over time by Grandma (there was one for my sister as well), ended up in my aunt’s house in a box of things she’d packed up after we sold my grandparents’ house twenty years ago.  She recently rediscovered the envelope, gave it to my parents, and they passed it on to me.

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It’s hard to put into words what this gift means to me.  I still haven’t gone through everything, but the things I have seen have made me smile, get teary-eyed, and even laugh.  (Take, for example, the “potholder” I made of two pieces of fabric.  Just to make sure my grandma would be safe, I included a warning note.)

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There was also this darling little picture of a May basket, with a verse on the back.  (I think it’s obvious why poetry is not my genre of choice.)

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The homemade cards are precious in the way that kids’ cards always are; no wonder my grandmother tucked each one away to keep forever.  My pictures are awkward, my handwriting messy, but I remember the way Grandma and Grandpa would exclaim over each one; an original Monet could not have pleased them more.  I always felt so loved by my grandparents, knowing that I was cherished by them.  And now, as a forty-two year-old woman and mom, who last saw her grandmother at the age of sixteen and her grandfather at the age of nineteen, I am so humbly grateful for the childhood memories.   It is an amazing thing to be able to open a box of your past, to see before you the witness of two people whose love for you rendered everything you gave them precious and worthy of keeping.

Did Grandma intend to give these all back to me, someday?  Did she keep them for herself, or for me?  I’m not sure.  But either way, this collection of crayon and Pentel drawings and homemade cards and 1970s photos is a witness to the power of keeping things, even at the risk of being a packrat.  It’s a testament to the fact that even though you last saw them a quarter-century ago, the people we loved as children never really leave us.

And it’s also a reminder that the gifts we create for others can sometimes come back to us, in ways we never expected.

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Moodchangers

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Man, sometimes life seems so complicated and stressful and dark.  I’m all for modern technology that enables us to communicate quickly and effectively, but it means we have more information coming at us than ever before, and a lot of the time that information is just too much.

I listen to the news far less than I used to, not because I’m an ostrich with her head in the sand, but because as I get older I find I’m more sensitive to the harsh stuff.  Even a few minutes on Facebook can inject all kinds of conflict into my day; people argue about politics and religion and red cups at Starbucks, and while I believe in healthy discourse and disagreement, a lot of the information streaming at me these days doesn’t feel healthy.  It just sort of wears me down.

You too?

So I thought I’d compile a list of moodchangers. These are things that can help me push the mental “reset” button on those days when there’s just too much conflict or stressful stuff coming at me.  They work for me; they just might work for you, too.  (And please share your favorite moodchangers below.)

*A brief walk, especially morning or evening when the pace of life seems a little different (slower).  It is meditative and renewing, even if it’s just around the neighborhood.

*A baby to hold or admire or smile at.  (And if the baby smiles back, well, that’s just the best.)

*Sitting at my prayer desk with a scented candle burning and a rosary in my hand. I  don’t even have to be praying the rosary; in fact, I usually don’t pray it the conventional way.  Just holding onto it grounds me.

*The ocean.  I don’t get there nearly often enough, but when I do, it puts a new spin on everything.

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*A cup of tea.

*Flowers, in a vase on my table or in a garden outside.  Even a photo of pretty flowers can make me feel better.

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*A song like this one, by John Goodall (it happens to be the theme song from the British series “The Vicar of Dibley” — another thing that can instantly lift my spirits).  This melody has soothed me and calmed me I do not know how many times.

*A butterfly, or a hummingbird.  Catching a glimpse of these little winged creatures make me stop whatever I’m doing to watch, and makes me instantly happy.

*Hugs from my boys.  I love it, the feel of their skinny arms and little bodies.  I think it’s the best moodchanger of all.