The outdoors saves us all

Just when I think we’ll just try again tomorrow —

That the volume is too high;

The spirits too low.

That the whining is but a record stuck on repeat,

We emerge through the smudged backdoor.

Mis-matched socks,

backwards shoes,

two yellow dogs eager to jump and lick

into a world where no screen can emulate

the awe of nature’s playground.

And in this space, almost magically —

the one who was crying has now found a stick,

the ones who were squabbling have now crawled under a box that’s really a boat — oh, wait, now a cave,

And my mind is stilled.

My ears now attuned

to the subtlest of sounds in the winter trees —

And just when I thought it was a day for the birds,

The outdoors saves us all.

DSC_0119

DSC_0054

DSC_0115

An encounter with grace

Her name is pure grace.

Katherine means “pure” and Grace means, well,  grace — a name that we chose before she was born on a rainy Tuesday afternoon a little over 5 years ago, before I was induced with her at 37 weeks, before I ate those rainbow colored Popsicles, before we knew she had Down syndrome.

Webster’s Dictionary says grace is the free and unmerited favor of God. St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Grace is nothing else but a certain beginning of glory in us.” And the pink bottle of “Amazing Grace” shampoo that sat in my shower caddy weeks after Kate was born read:

“Grace is compassion, gratitude, surrender, faith, forgiveness, good manners, reverence, and the list goes on. It’s something money can’t buy and credentials rarely produce. Being the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, the richest, or even the poorest, can’t help. Being a humble person can help.”

Which is why Kate’s name fits her to a T. Humility just comes natural to her. And I think it’s sort of contagious.

Her 6-year-old brother suddenly forgets he was pestering his 3-year-old sister when Kate comes bolting around the couch offering an unexpected kiss. The stoic man at a party turns into the most gentle of souls as he asks her repeatedly if she needs anything else: more drink? More cake? You sure? The crotchety grandfather in the grocery store suddenly gets a twinkle of tears in his eyes — who knows why, but my guess is that he has had an encounter with grace.

Kate teaches me that you and I, too, are each on our own timelines in becoming who we are supposed to be and will become. And that we should have patience and faith in that — what’s all the hurry? She shows me that every day is a time to 1. celebrate, 2. dance, 3. make someone smile. She reminds me that we exist for each other. She forgives and apologizes as easy as the sun rises and sets.

The world, at times, sees in her a deficit of sorts — but I see an incredible abundance of what we need so much more of. Compassion. Gratitude. Forgiveness. Surprise kisses.

And pure grace.

Portraits_33

My Word of the Year

I wiped the dry erase calendar clean next to our pantry and wrote in pretty black letters:

January 2016

A New Year is here. Isn’t it strange that we’re almost to the Roarin’ Twenties once again? That throw-back radio stations now advertise the “best of the 90’s”? That my children have no concept of screens that don’t obey you simply by swiping your finger across them? Time is a strange sort of thing.

It is also the crux of the mother with young children: the days can feel long, the years are so short. And as I try to fully grasp these little ones in front of me, wrap my arms around them, hold them tight, they keep slipping past — suddenly bigger, suddenly more “grown up,” suddenly able to get their own cups of water.

Last night, on a date night in the livingroom, my husband and I watched Michael Pollan’s PBS special, In Defense of Food, based on his book of the same name (which was one of my favorites last year). It occurred to me, while watching the special, that for our family 2015 was very much about the subject at hand:

FOOD! (But also, much more than that.)

We completely changed the way we ate last year — and went on a voyage to eliminate (most of) the processed food from our life.

It all started when I received the 100 Days of Real Food cookbook (which I love) as a gift, which introduced me to Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food — and from there I went on to read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules. Based on my enjoyment of his books, I stumbled upon Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (which I have reviewed here before) and during this time, I also read French Kids Eat Everything by Karen LaBillon, which offered a very interesting insight into French food culture while also sharing tips for parents of picky eaters.

The books were all very different — but had many of the same themes — and in the end, they inspired me to do what I had been itching to do for awhile: Cook more from scratch and try to grow a lot of our food ourselves.

But what surprised me is how much I would love the process.

I never realized how soul-stirring this journey would be. Or how beautiful.

Even from a simply aesthetic standpoint, my heart is full when fresh, flour-dusted bread is rising in the oven and the smell of yeast, salt, oil, honey and whole-wheat grains wafts through our hallways. I love letting the loaves cool on the wooden cutting board before tucking them away to rest in a ceramic bread box. I love the uneven bread slices, sawed with a serrated knife. The way real butter melts into the warm, spongy texture.

I delight in snipping rosemary from a pot on the back porch in barefeet — and the way fresh-pressed garlic stays on my fingertips. The choreography of dancing from cutting board to cast iron skillet, the sizzle and pop of sauteing red peppers.

I love walking by the tower of fresh produce that sits in the middle of the kitchen island. What a work of art! A pile of bright yellow lemons, neon key limes, ruby red tomatoes (or sometimes a deep plum). Food this gorgeous begs to be eaten and enjoyed and cared for. It is thoughtful food — food for thought. And oh my, what about divine dark chocolate or rich whipped cream. A little truly does go a long way. (As Karen Labillion’s French mother-in-law said: “I only need a little or I won’t enjoy it as much.”)

It’s not a surprise to me that cooking shows have skyrocketed in popularity and restaurant-goers post their plates all over Instagram — we live in a world saturated with cardboard boxes and artificial additives; authentic, robust, and wholesome nourishment is longed for.

And maybe that’s the point of it all anyway. The authenticity. It’s always the most nourishing. In romance, in friendship, on our plates. For in this efficiency-focused world of convenience, it is all too easy to substitute a quick and fast version of all sorts of things, only to be left wanting more.

Some people make a “word of the year” for an upcoming year — and I’m not so sure I have one yet for 2016. But it’s easy to see clearly looking back. The word for last year was nourishment. Focusing on slowing down to fill up — on family and friends and food and faith and love. And I suppose, really, it is a theme I will carry with me for every year, forevermore.

May your 2016 be filled with people, places and plates full of nourishment.

***

A handful of favorite recipes you may enjoy this year:

This is the bread recipe that I make every other day on average. I have tweaked a couple of things, but it’s delicious.

I love these 5-ingredient granola bars for a quick snack.

I love all of the recipes out of the 100 Days of Real Food cookbook. And there are tons of lunchbox packing ideas and snack ideas for kids.

For whole wheat pizza dough, I use Ina Garten’s recipe, but sub whole wheat for 2/3 of it and add extra honey. (I love all of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.)

 

The handwritten letter: dead or alive?

I used to sit in the back row of my university math class — or in the corner of a quiet coffee shop — writing poetry in a Mead 5-Star notebook.

Writing that way — inky pen to paper — was as much a part of the poetry experience as the words themselves, my inner voice overflowing to the page in quick, staccato sentences or pouring out slowly in deliberate, inky curves. Sometimes sideways, sometimes straight, sometimes with a doodle or a scribbled out passage. It was all part of the art.

Now, with the ease of a lap top and a more modern typing habit, I haven’t written that way for years. Sometimes I miss it — the slowness of it, the effort, the way thought leads to thought without the perfection of a delete button. The writing being an end in itself.

Author Wendell Berry says, “At first glance, writing may seem not nearly so much an art of the body as say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands.”

And we do — like potters at a wheel, the writer who prints with a pen grasped by bent fingers — is leaving a history of themselves. Handwriting stays with us: I can still close my eyes and picture the handwriting of almost all the people I love, even how my best friend wrote in 6th grade. Berry continues, “All good human work remembers its history.”

I thought about this last week while shaking my hand in the air. It hurt. I had been addressing Christmas card envelopes with a nice, slick pen, and my hand was out of shape. But the handwritten letter — which some have said to have died — is one of the most alive things I can think of. It lives on, even after its author has passed. I have many, in fact, stored in a box in my drawer that seem to speak to me in the voice of the author, like those Hallmark cards that sing when you open them.

And I do find myself at times, whether it’s dramatic or not, sort of grieving the mainstream loss of handwriting for my children.

Not just handwriting, really, but mostly, the more intimate, personal communication that comes with it. For as a generation growing up with courtship by text message and friendship by Facebook, I long for them to understand the anticipation of snail mail, the joy of a thank you card, the palpable thrill of a love letter, the nourishment of crafting words that don’t just disappear in a scrolling feed, but that stain the smooth surface of empty paper, waiting to be held, smelled, touched, folded, kept and read again years later. (My husband and I did write most of our early love letters via email, but even that seems to be dying in the wake of text short hand.)

My son penned a letter last week to a big fat man in a red suit.

He wrote the letter himself, addressed it to the North Pole, folded it up, stamped the corner and put it in the mailbox. I kicked myself when I realized I had not snuck out in the night to acquire it for keeping.

It was not spell-checked and clearly legible in Times New Roman. It was not fussed over and perfected. Rather, it was a misspelled, wrinkled hand-written note in the 6-year-old font of my first-born. And in looking at that letter and all that it contained when he handed it to me, it was as if time froze. I was able to see him as he is at this very moment. A part of his heart was captured on that paper with the carefully penned words he wrote and crossed out and then wrote again.

It is the same with the post-it note stuck above my sock drawer with a few simple words scribbled by my husband. And the note card that was tucked inside the heirloom necklace my grandmother gave me for my high school graduation. The inner front page of a book my mom saved from my childhood where she gently noted my name and the date I received it. Or the yearbook message from an old friend I no longer keep in touch with, but can still vividly recall in the dramatic loops of her L’s.

Those hand-scripted words are more than an art, but an artifact of the time and place they were written, an extension of the person who wrote them. Perhaps that’s why, even with the typed form letter, we still write (or at least copy) a hand-written signature at the end — as if to remind a world reading in print that the words come from a breathing, warm human.

As if to peek from behind the page and say:

I am here.

santa

The cat who chases the sun

Every day, in the middle of morning, he asks me to open the door. He has a date and he does not like to be late.

I oblige and crack the door just enough for him to run past my feet in anticipation of his partner’s arrival. Soon, there she is — in all her glory as beautiful as he ever remembered:

The 10 o’clock sun.

She floods through my bathroom windows, reminding me they need to be cleaned, and peeks through the half-shut bedroom door, resting in the shape of a lopsided triangle upon my bedroom carpet.

He saunters over as if he had forgotten she would be there. Oh, hello — fancy meeting you here. Mind if I just have a sit?

Then the plump, grey house cat — who has either a head too small for his body or a body too big for his head — curls up like a croissant with content, squinted eyes and settles inside his golden triangle for a sunbath.

This is serious business; this sun chasing. His courtship is not subtle.

He chases her from their mid-morning date by my bed to a noon rendezvous on the piano room rug. I may find myself wondering where Sam the cat is — and all I have to do is find her.

With all the eagerness of a young lover, he puts himself in the most precarious of positions to attract her affections. His belly bellows over the side of a too-small window sill; he perches on the corner of the couch like a laying hen.

In his self-aggrandizing way, he peers flatly with a bored yawn through the back window at our golden farm dog who killed a rabbit and left it outside her dog house as a gift. How barbaric, he muses with a turned up nose, sniffing the air.

For as a Creature of Leisure, he doesn’t have time to think about such frivolous endeavors. When he sees a lone spider scampering about the wood floors, he barely has the energy to turn his head in its direction. If it’s close enough, he may extend a paw for a simple pat. But the spider escapes him once more. He has better things to do.

And so he does.

He waits for me to take on a knitting project, so he can lay on his back and flail about, immersing himself in a tangled blanket of yarn — an experience both thrilling and infuriating for him.

He waits for me to feed him.

He waits for me to fold laundry so he can sit on it.

He waits for me to sit so he can sit on me.

And then, he looks for her. His familiar friend who he pursues with all the ambition of a creature in love. And when he finds her, he rests like one who has reached the end of his journey — only to find an hour later, she evades him once again.

IMG_9647