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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Carols you aren’t sick of hearing

I have a mad love for Christmas carols. Even so, I find that some are egregiously overplayed.  By December 3rd, I have already heard “Sleigh Ride” often enough to last me comfortably through the rest of the month.  So I have a fondness for the slightly more obscure Christmas carols, the ones that you don’t hear piped into malls and on the radiowaves.

Such as the Wexford Carol, an Irish carol of extraordinary beauty.  Here it is, sung by Alison Krauss with accompaniment by Yo-Yo Ma.

Another lovely carol is the Basque carol called “Gabriel’s Message,” about the angel’s visit to Mary.  It’s been covered memorably by Sting, but I like this particular group’s rendition for its simplicity.

For a more secular change of pace, there’s the catchy “The Christmas Waltz.”  Bing Crosby sings it here, in a production number that is the height of 60s retro awesomeness.

“Mary’s Little Boy Child” is also a moving song that I’d love to hear far more often.  Here it is, sung by Harry Belafonte. (Andy Williams also did a beautiful rendition.)

 

“The Sussex Carol” is lighthearted and lovely, and it’s sung here by The Priests (three guys who really are priests).  It always makes me feel like I should be wandering around in the snow with holly and ivy and wassail.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the English composer John Rutter, who has penned some astonishingly beautiful carols.  Here’s my favorite of them,  Angel’s Carol.  It’s not the Christmas season for me until I’ve heard this song.

What are your favorite underplayed Christmas songs?

Our Lady of the vulnerable times

Our Lady of Guadalupe shine in Healdsburg, California

Our Lady of Guadalupe shine in Healdsburg, California

I think many of us are feeling vulnerable these days.  Tragic world events shake us; political fighting unsettles us; wild winter weather keeps us on edge.  On a personal note, recent changes in my own workplace have left me and many of my colleagues feeling disempowered.  Being vulnerable takes a lot out of you.

But tomorrow is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that makes me happy.  Just like her son, she’s a champion of the vulnerable.  She singled out the little guy, Juan Diego, and encouraged him.  She appeared not to the wealthy and powerful but to a representative of the disenfranchised and vulnerable, reminding him of his own innate dignity.

I love that about her.

Here in California, you see many images of Our Lady of Guadalupe: on truck decals, T-shirts, sides of buildings.  The fact that she is so ubiquitous just underscores her availability.  You don’t need a ticket or a background check or a sponsor to approach her.  She’s always there and ready to listen, any time life is roughing you up a bit and you need a little comfort.

Years ago, walking with my husband after dinner at a restaurant in a nearby city, I remember passing a Catholic church.  There was a shrine to Our Lady of G. in the parking lot, and in the dusk a young man was standing there.  He was alone, and silent, just pausing in front of her shrine.  It was clear that he was praying.  I was touched by it, this moment where vulnerable human need sought strong  maternal love.  If my own experiences are anything to go by, I suspect he left that shrine feeling heard.

I think this is why Our  Lady of Guadalupe is so special.  I think it’s why her image is fixed in our memories, just as surely it is on Juan Diego’s tilma.  She keeps on bringing us roses in winter, affirmation in the bleakest times.   And that’s worth celebrating, tomorrow and always.

My Imperfect Advent Wreath (subtitle: Take That, Pinterest)

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It doesn’t look like an Advent wreath, I agree.  It has none of the traditional greenery, fresh and piney.  It has only one squat candle in place of four gracefully lovely tapers. It does not have the decorative pinecones or ribbons or glitter or faux snow that one finds on other, superior Advent wreaths made by crafty-er women than I.

But it’s still an Advent wreath, and it was the best I could do at six o’clock on the first Sunday of Advent.  It represents the labors of my husband, who gamely stopped what he was doing and hauled large Sterilite bins of Christmas decorations down from the rafters of the garage so I could find the little gold circlet for the candles.  It represents the labors of yours truly, who dug through ornaments and Nativity sets while the kitchen timer was going off, hissing at the kids, “No!  We are not decorating for Christmas yet!” as my son started pulling nutcrackers exuberantly out of the bins.  The turkey meatballs got overcooked as I searched in vain for the Advent candles, only to be reminded by my husband that I threw them out last year when, after years of use, they were bending outward in banana-like curves, which is disconcerting, especially when they are lit.

The wreath represents last –minute scrambling, in other words, which pretty much defines my life these days.

But you know what?  It all turned out fine.  I found an old purple Yankee Candle under a thin layer of dust on the back of the TV armoire, and I pressed it into service (“At least we only need one candle,” Scott said.)   With a helpful little book of Advent reflections and two willing boys to read it (actually, one willing boy and one who was more interested in making a telescope out of paper with which to view the flame), we all four gathered around the table for a few moments of quiet candlelit reflection redolent of Garden Sweetpeas, which I know is not a traditional Advent smell but which is nice all the same.

And I thought about how, so often, life presents us with a choice.  We don’t have the time or resources to do something perfectly, so we have to choose either to do it imperfectly, or not to do it at all.  And it is mighty tempting to choose the second option.

I fall into that way of thinking, often not just during Advent.  I don’t have lots of time to spend on writing a letter to a sick relative, so I don’t send one, when in reality a few simple lines on a card would mean a great deal to her.  I’m too tired to sit down for a long session of prayer, so I skip it entirely, even though a brief decade of the rosary or a few quiet moments in God’s presence would mean a lot to God, and even to me.

Advent is just starting, and I know that – like every Advent prior to this one – I won’t be able to engage with it as fully and completely as I would like.  But rather than making that  a reason to write off the season entirely, I am going to remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and good is good enough.  My Advent evening prayers may be brief and I may fall asleep while doing them, but I am going to do them all the same and forgive myself when I nod off.  My Advent wreath may be spare and bare, but we’re going to light it anyhow.   We may not be able to gather around the wreath every single night for a family prayer, but we will do it on Sunday at least, and the gathering and praying, imperfect as it may be, will be holy.

Because at the heart of all Advent traditions is the desire to prepare for the birth of the Savior, a baby who came into this world in the most humble, imperfect, non-Pinterest-y way possible.  He was a baby whose parents had to cobble things together as best they could, in that cold unfriendly foreign place, and yet – in the end – all that mattered was the encounter with Love incarnate.

May that truth guide me this Advent, and beyond.

Stressed or not, a mom’s just gotta read

Busy as I am, I always find time for books.  Here are some of the highlights of the last two months (or however long it’s been since I did my last book pile post?).

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The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book.  First of all, how gorgeous is this cover?   I just want to eat it up. If the cover hadn’t hooked me, the author sure would; this book is by Vinita Hampton Wright, my editor and friend, whose books on spirituality are always edifying.  And the subject is the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila, the fascinating Spanish saint who was a steely reformer with a mystic side.  This wonderful little book offers a biography of the saint, as well as information about her spiritual influences, but the core of the book is a week of morning and evening prayers centered around topics close to St. Teresa’s heart (“God With Us,” “Always Humility,” “Patience in Our Prayer.”)  Each day offers “prayer liturgies” made up of St. Teresa’s own writings, as well as Gospel readings, psalms, a prayer by a saint whom Teresa herself would likely have known, all arranged around the topic for the day.  It’s a wonderful approach that highlights the saint’s unique spirituality while still showing how her prayers centered on universal Christian themes.  (Thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy.)

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There are not a lot of authors whose books I’ll buy in hardcover, but Kate Morton happens to be one of them.  The Lake House has many of the same delicious ingredients as her other novels: an evocative English setting, a fluid movement between past and present, a mystery that unfolds gradually, a wonderful sense of atmosphere.  This one, interestingly, took me a little longer to get into than her others — why, I’m not sure — but once it got spinning I was hooked, and it reached a most satisfying conclusion.   It’s a great book for that rainy or snowy weekend where you just want to block out the world and read.

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Heather King is a terrific writer, and her new book — Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture, and Christ – is a darn good read.  She writes about her experience navigating the terrifying diagnosis of breast cancer (as well as how it fits with her Catholic spirituality) with laser-like insight and humor.  This is a book that raises so many big questions about suffering and healing and hope, and as someone who (like many of us) has seen friends and family members dealing with cancer, I appreciated King’s frankness and vulnerability.   Whether or not cancer is currently a part of your life or the life of someone you love, this book is worth reading for the way that King wrestles with the most essential questions about our bodies and our souls.

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The decorative endpapers for Vain Shadow (all Persephone books have a plain gray cover and unique endpapers … just one of the things that makes this publisher so special.)

Persephone Books, the marvelous British publishing house that revives “forgotten classics,” has another winner with the book Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey.  First published in  1963, it tells the story of a family gathered at an English country home for the death of the patriarch.  Following the old man’s demise, the family dynamics begin to reveal themselves, and the various layers of conflict in the family make for engrossing reading.  It’s not a book with a lot of action, but it is a book with well-drawn characters, flashes of dark humor, and utterly realistic human drama, if you like that sort of thing (and I sure do).

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Did you know that Christopher Plummer loathed the part of Captain von Trapp?  Were you aware that a massive part of the movie’s success belongs to the  screenwriter, Ernest Lehman?  Did you know that the reason the Mother Abbess has her back to Maria when she sings “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is because the director felt it would be too corny for her to be singing it right in Maria’s face?  (good call).  All this and more is revealed in the book   The Sound of Music Story, which is extraordinarily detailed and recommended for the movie’s diehard fans.  I guess I can come clean here and admit that I’m one of them.

What are you reading?  Do tell!