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

how much God loves me quotaton


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.

front entrance-001

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):


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 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



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


Listening is for the birds

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.


How to ditch the grading and take a French vacation

Maybe it’s because of the Oscars, or  because our local classical station has been playing listeners’ favorite soundtracks, but movie music has been on my mind a lot lately.

Grading has been on my mind too, alas.  This past weekend, I was like the Wonder Woman of essay-grading, and the sad fact is that I’m still not done.  Piles  of papers await my attention, and more will be added to those piles this week.  It’s enough to make one count the days until summer vacation.

And since it’s only March, darnit, I’m going to channel the spirit of vacation with a gorgeous two-and-a-half-minutes of movie music.  This is “Les Vacances,” one of the themes from the 1962 movie “Jules and Jim.”  Georges Delerue wrote the score, and it’s wonderfully evocative of carefree summer days.  I was playing it on my computer just yesterday, in fact, when the boys suddenly trotted into the room, drawn by the tune.  “It sounds like an ice cream truck!” said my five-year-old.

So if you want a two-minute escape into a vacation frame of mind, take a listen above. Guaranteed to do you good.

It takes a village to make a romantic getaway

It’s a curious irony that an intimate romantic getaway between two parents can’t happen without a lot of other folks involved.

I was reminded of this last weekend, when Scott and I went to picturesque Healdsburg, CA ( in the wine country) for a night.   This beautiful little sojourn would not have happened — or would not have been nearly as nice  – without the following people.  G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “thanks are the highest form of thought,” and in that spirit, I’d like to share my gratitude here.  (I’m including links too, in case you ever find yourself in Healdsburg someday.  I hope you will.)

So I’m thankful for:

1) My parents, for being reliable, enthusiastic, and free babysitters.

2) My children, for detaching so easily.  They leapt joyfully into the grandparental vehicle, with barely a look back.  (They were going to the children’s bookstore and to see a play with Grandma; we were going wine-tasting.  Win-win!)

3) Harold at Wine Country Walking Tours, who took us to three wine tasting rooms, the Oakville Grocery, a tea shop and a chocolate shop — oh, and to an olive oil tasting — while sharing his enthusiasm for wine, food, and trivia about the local area (did you know that there are a fearsome number of wild boar around Healdsburg?).  I’m not a foodie, by any means, but now I could do a good job of playing one on TV.  Thank you, Harold!

4) The folks at Portalupi Tasting Rooms, for these delicious treats which were paired with equally delicious wines.  (That sausage that you see in the middle of the plate is our attempt to help control the boar population.  It was surprisingly good.)


5) The lovely Dragonfly Tea Shop for having a tea selection a mile long.  Tea-head that I was, I was in heaven sniffing the various blends and facing the delicious agony of having to choose.


6) Zin Restaurant, for Mexican beer-battered greenbeans.  (How do people come up with these recipes?  I don’t know, but I’m glad they do.)


7) The Geyserville Inn, for a super-cozy room overlooking vineyards and hills.   It had a fireplace and a patio and was made even  cozier by the fact that — wait for it — it RAINED on Sunday morning, for the first time in ages.  This is literally the answer to drought-stricken California’s prayers.


8)  Scott, for giving me this promised getaway for Christmas.  I never realize how much we need time alone until we have it, and find ourselves relaxing into conversations that we just don’t have the chance to get into in the normal hubbub of our chaotic family life.


So that was our getaway:  a perfect storm of helpful people and lovely places and delicious food and wine.  (And rain, glorious rain!).

Again with Chesterton: “The critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  I hope I always remember to choose the second option.

What are you grateful for today?

“Downton Abbey” and the secrets we keep


“Downton Abbey” has been a bit more like “Downer Abbey” lately. There’s the aftermath of Mattthew’s death, and Anna’s rape, and Tom’s troubles.   I know many viewers have strong feelings about (or against) the second plot point mentioned above, but I’m not going to debate that in this post.  Instead I’m going to talk about a motif (yes, I’m getting all English-teachery on you!) that I’ve noticed this season.

It’s the motif of keeping secrets versus letting others into our troubles.

Exhibit A in this, of course, is Anna.  I don’t know about you, but when I watched the episode where she insisted that she was going to keep quiet about the rape, I wanted to yell at the TV in the manner of a rabid sports fan.  “Tell someone!” I wanted to shout.  “Tell Bates!  Tell the police!  Tell the Granthams!”  It is almost physically painful to see her keeping the trauma to herself (at least Mrs. Hughes knows and is in her corner).

Then there’s Tom, Exhibit B.  I found it telling in this last episode (I’m writing this before the latest one has aired) that he felt he couldn’t tell anyone about his Edna-shaped shame.   “If you knew, you would despise me,” he tells Mary at one point.  The poor bloke goes for most of the episode with his guilt locked inside, looking progressively more miserable until he finally tells Mrs. Hughes (who in another century would have made a wicked good therapist).

All this got me thinking about how easy it is to keep mum about things that bother us.  Maybe it’s easier for some than for others; it could be a personality thing, I suppose, this fear of sharing the things that weigh on us. And, of course, the reasons for our silence can vary  Poor Anna is the victim who feels the need to protect others with silence.  Tom, by contrast,  has complete ownership of his own problems, resulting in profound guilt (admittedly, alcohol plus Edna’s tenacity are a pretty potent cocktail).

As a mom, there have been times where one of my boys  has something weighing  on his mind.  Often, it’s a worry about something he saw on TV; sometimes it’s guilt over a minor little kid transgression.  All I can do in those moments is tell him that he’ll feel better if he  shares what is on his mind, and keep repeating that he can’t tell me anything that will change how  much I love him.  It’s not easy for him to open up, but when he does, the relief is instantaneous and obvious.

It reminds me of my own childhood, when I had a hard time sharing things with others.  Notably, as a teenager, I  started to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, with distressing thoughts playing on a loop in my mind.  It was hard to open up to others about it, which meant that I wasted a lot of time before addressing it in any significant way through counseling. It’s not that I was chronically miserable, by any means; the OCD ebbed and flowed, worse at some periods than others.  All the same, I went far too long with a diminished quality of life, having those thoughts and and their resulting guilt preying on my mind.  Letting others into my troubles was the key that opened the door to a new, much improved life.

So as much as I hate to see all this happen to characters I like, I can’t help but feel that there is a great deal of real-life emotional truth in the human desire to keep things hidden.  It rings true to me.

I’m grateful that, in the most recent episode, Tom finally unburdened himself to Mrs. Hughes.  (Let me take this opportunity to say that I love her.  Let me rephrase that: I looooooove her.)   I hope Anna shares her secret too, for her own sake and the sake of those who care about her.  And it may sound cheesy, but if this season of hidden pain makes a viewer realize that he or she has a secret burden that can be shared with others, then that’s a great and beautiful thing.

 What do you think of “Downton” these days? 

“Sherlock” and empathy

Are you addicted to “Sherlock”?

If you are, check out my new article “Sherlock and the limits of logic” at  (And if you aren’t, get your hands on Season One and get started on the addiction.  You won’t regret it.)



What’s special about January








Ten days ago, when I packed up our Christmas things, I was — I won’t lie — in a bit of a funk.  There’s something inherently depressing about taking down the tree, packing those ornaments and the stockings and the decorations away for another eleven months.  It was like that when I was a kid; it’s like that now that I’m forty.  After the colorful chaos of a living room full of red and green and holly and holiday folk (elf, Santas, snowmen, reindeer, Dickens doll, singing penguin –we’ve collected quite a lot over the years), January feels sort of … sterile.

And yet there is more space in our living room without the Christmas tree and the decorations.  It’s a small room to begin with — our little postwar house was not built with “palatial rooms” as a guiding principle — and when we moved the tree out and put the armchair back into its usual place and arranged family photos on the mantel again, something inside me breathed deeply and was happy.

January isn’t a banner month, really.  It doesn’t have the festivity of December, the spooky excitement of October, the hearts of February or the bunnies and baskets of April.  With the exception of New Year’s, there’s not much happenin’ in January.

Interestingly, that suits me this year.

What January offers, maybe, is not sterility but space.   Without a whole lot going on, holiday-wise, we’re invited to create our own meaning.   We can fill the space left by the tree and the holiday decorations with our own hopes and imaginings.  It’s a new year, a new month, and it invites us to look at the openness and think, “What do I want to put there?”

I haven’t made formal resolutions this year; I never really stick to them, anyhow. (My one exception:  I have this quixotic idea that everything else in my physical life will improve if I eat more vegetables, so eating them I am.)  What I do have are a bunch of dreams and hopes.   I’m letting these dreams and hopes dance around in the spaces of January, and seeing what happens.  And, somehow, lovely things are being born.

My garden is one example.  I love flowers, but somehow I never get around to planting annuals until spring.  But this year, something nudged me to get out there and dig.

So the boys and I picked up some primroses a week ago, jewel-toned blooms that smell  faintly like grape jelly.  We added pansies for variety, and  we planted them around the little angel and girl figurines that sit directly opposite our bedroom window.  Whenever I sit at my prayer desk now, I see not a bare patch of dirt, but vivid, glorious color.  It makes me happy, every time.

This is what January offers: space for us to fill with something beautiful.

How is your January going?  What are you filling your life with this month?



Get your Joyce on: Three great (and short) Epiphany reads











Okay, off the top of your head, name three Christmas stories.  Fairly easy, right?

Now name three stories about the Epiphany.

For most of us, that’s significantly harder.

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is when Christians commemorate the visit of the three wise men (or Magi) to the infant Jesus.   It’s a lovely event to celebrate, these three very learned men going all that way to bring gifts to a baby. If you’re like me, though, this day tends to get somewhat overlooked in the transition from Christmas/New Year’s  to Life As Usual.

But it’s worth reflecting a little on this day, because the day reminds us that after Christmas, life does not go on As Usual.  Any encounter with God changes us, right?   And that personal change, that shift into a new way of being in the world, is what the Epiphany is all about.

So here I offer three great Epiphany-themed works of literature.  The three pieces are all short (ish), and they’re all available online (click on the title of each one to find the online text).  Each one, in its own way, makes January 6 — the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas — more meaningful.

So brew a cup of tea or coffee, grab a few minutes to read, and let the Magi become more than just the three most exotic-looking guys in the manger scene.

1) The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke (1895)











My aunt gave me a paperback of this book approximately twenty-five years ago, as part of a Christmas gift.  I’m not sure why, but it took me twenty-five years to read it.  (The fact that I kept this book all that time, moving it from one home to the next, shows that I knew I’d get to it eventually).    I just finished it the other day, and oh, what a beautiful story.

It’s about a fourth Wise Man, Artaban, who sets off to find the new King.  He plans to join the other three, but is waylaid on the route by encounters with people who need his help.   And I don’t want to be too spoiler-ish, but let’s just say the journey to the King takes  longer than he’d expected, and the slender little novella (you can read it in about an hour, easily) is a reminder that the interruptions that come in life do not have to be distractions on our path to find God.  Maybe, says this beautiful little story, those distractions are where we find God.  As a mom who frequently sees her efforts to pray interrupted by a small boy needing something, this is a message I need to learn and re-learn.

2) “The Dead” from Dubliners, by James Joyce (1914)











Yes, let’s get past the title, which sounds like a real downer.  And let me acknowledge up-front that “The Dead”  is not, strictly, speaking, a story about the wise men.  It’s about a dinner party in snowy Dublin on what appears to be the Feast of the Epiphany, and it focuses on Gabriel Conroy, who is  attending with his wife Gretta.

Joyce himself used  the word “epiphany” to refer to moments of revelation, moments  when his characters have sudden, powerful awareness about life and themselves.  And when you get to the end of this story, you realize that Gabriel has discovered certain things  – including that his wife has had a tragedy in her past that he never knew about — and that he can’t go back to the way he was before.  It’s a subtle, powerful story.

“The Dead” also has what I think is the most beautifully-written ending of anything I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot).  Anytime I see snow fall, I find myself  thinking, “Snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain …”   (There is also a very good 1987 movie adaptation by John Huston.  It’s a hard story to make a movie out of, but the film succeeds beautifully.)

3.  “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot (1927)


The Magi Journeying by James Tissot









...And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet….

This one is a poem, and if you’ve never read it, take five minutes and check it out.  (Then take five more minutes and re-read it.  If you’re like me, it takes several readings before you feel you know a poem.)

I blogged about the poem a few years back, so I won’t repeat what I said then.  I will say that I love this poem because it acknowledges that birth and death are sometimes so closely linked that you can’t separate them.  One experience can hold both, at the same time.  Seriously, it’s a great poem.

Do you have other good Epiphany stories to share?  Do you recognize the day with any traditions or customs? 

New Year’s Day: The perfect day to think about Mary (and moms in general)



Painting by Carlo Maratta


January 1st — as anyone with a TV, calendar, or hangover knows — is New Year’s Day.  It also happens to be a big day in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

It has occurred to me that the timing of this celebration is absolutely brilliant.  Seriously, when it comes to honoring Mary as mother, there is no better time than the first day of the year. The real, historical background for the feast can be found here, for any interested parties.   But I personally think there are two major reasons why it makes sense to celebrate Mary on January 1st. They are not the historical reasons, true, but they are ones that I suspect every mom will understand.

Reason One: January 1st is one week after we celebrate the birth of Christ.  I don’t know about you other moms out there, but frankly, one week after giving birth, I was not at my best.  I was horrendously sleep-deprived, which led me to do bizarre things like take a shower with my wristwatch on (this was a novel experience for the watch, one that led to its tragically premature end.) My chest felt like it was on fire from the pain of constant nursing, the sort of pain that makes you curl your toes and grit your teeth in agony. Due to my throbbing C-section incisions, I could not even laugh without grimacing, and I had to execute a series of intricate gymnastic maneuvers to do something as simple as get out of bed.   Yes, I was basking in the glow of my sweet little babies, but my body felt like it had been taxed to the breaking point.  Throw in the inevitable post-birth hormonal fluctuations, and I was a royal mess.

Let’s just say that it would have been the perfect time for the world to honor me with a big celebration.  That would have cheered me up considerably.

So I love that we remember Mary one week after the day that we celebrate the birth of her son. She didn’t have to deal with water-logged wristwatches or C-section staples, but she had her own period of adjustment to this new little person in her life. Every mom does, after all. And it’s nice to have this solemnity to honor her and her motherhood, to celebrate the vocation that she embraced, with all of its unexpected joys and unanticipated challenges.

Reason Two: January 1st is a new year, and a new start.  It’s a lovely clean slate: past mistakes are forgotten and the future awaits, pregnant with promise, full of second chances. I think that all moms — Mary included –  really get the importance of giving second chances.  Frankly, we moms are pros at this.

To cite an example: one Sunday morning, your toddler zealously sweeps the coffee table clean of Annoying Things That Are Not Thomas the Tank Engine Toys. Unfortunately, one of those things happens to be a water glass, which breaks all over the floor.  The toddler instantly knows that he’s made a big mistake.  You, in your infinite mercy, do not flip out at him, and instead turn it into a teachable moment (after you’ve sequestered him safely in his room and spent fifteen minutes obsessively vacuuming the crash site, that is).  The repentant toddler is then free to return to his Thomas toys.  See?  Second chances. (And if you DID flip out and utter harsh words, the good news is that you, Mom, get a second chance, too.)

I’m betting that Mary had to give her own son a bunch of second chances. Yes, he was sinless, but even sinless kids have accidents that require mom to step back, breathe deeply, and learn to let it go. It’s just part of the experience of mothering. And thus far, I’ve only had to deal with minor mishaps, small-kid transgressions. As moms of older kids will tell me, the giving of second chances doesn’t slow down as the children grow up. It intensifies, in ways I can barely begin to comprehend.

But through this lifelong process of helping our kids learn from their mistakes – as through the sleepless nights and the aftermath of childbirth and everything else that makes up the experience of motherhood – we’ve got a rather amazing woman in our corner. If there’s one thing I keep learning about Mary, it’s that there is never any end to her relevance in my life. And I love being part of a faith tradition that honors this mother on the very first day of the year, a day when we ponder how profoundly she has shaped the past, and how much we can learn from her in the future.

A version of this post appeared on back in 2010.  (By the way, check out their brand-new design!)