Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Taking Inventory

A few years ago after selling my house, I found myself between homes while I waited for the bank to process the short sale on the townhome I was buying. I had to put my belongings in storage and move back in with my parents for three months. The storage unit was chock full of my furniture so I stowed all of my pictures, mirrors and lamps in my parents’ garage. While I bunked with my folks, I decided some things my mother had around her house might look nice in my new house. I went treasure-hunting through her discarded box of pictures and found two French-inspired bird illustrations. I decided her dancing girl figurine lamp would look nice in my new place. I asked her if I could have her hall table. And her yellow chippy kitchen cupboard. Along with a shabby picture frame with no glass, a few pieces of her vintage china and some magazine illustrations. I moved so many of her things to my stockpile that she said if she noticed something was missing, she would just start looking for it in the garage.

Sometimes I wanted things she wasn't ready to discard. Like the chippy pink paint-peeling dresser she had in her guest room but was reluctant to give up. It was literally falling apart but looked nicely shabby on the outside. The sides are split, the paint is peeling, and you can’t open the drawers since they are jammed shut. She finally said I could have it and when my movers unpacked it from my storage unit, I cautioned them to be careful that it didn’t collapse into a pile of boards and nails. One of them stared at its dilapidated condition and said, “You know, it really wouldn’t take that much work to make this dresser usable.” I know he thought I was crazy to keep it. Someday I might get it fixed, but I’ll certainly never paint it. I love the pink peeling paint with bits of green flaking through. The paint tells its story. Remnants of what it might have been. To cover over that would remove its history. I can buy a shiny new painted dresser anywhere. This ramshackle, broken-down dresser is one of a kind.

I often wonder about all of the places in my life where things are a little off-kilter. Those things that I can't seem to get straight. Like how I dearly desire to avoid conflict with friends and family yet get so worked up over something trivial. How I want to extend grace and be tolerant to everyone for just one day yet get so annoyed by people’s quirks and unique habits. How I know in my heart that God wants to work all things for something good in my life yet I doubt his delicate mastery over the details when something unexpected messes up my schedule. Those parts of me that don't quite make me a nice, shiny, new person. The splinters, flaking paint and rusty nails that cobble it all together. I have to realize that all those old, broken parts and pieces are part of me. To work with. To continue trying to smooth out. To accept. It's after all what makes me who I am. I'm grateful. And I'm learning to say it, out loud, to God, because it changes me.

I actually felt pretty good about taking my mother's stuff during my extended stay at her house. I figured that it was just my way of helping her move a few pieces of clutter out. Whether she wanted it or not. Until she said that all my efforts to weed out her overstocked objects only gave her some additional space to bring more stuff in. I guess that means one thing. There will be some new inventory arriving soon for me to browse through.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fear That's Scary Good

A sweet friend gave me tickets to a ballet last weekend called “Vampire’s Ball.” Although I’m not into the current craze of vampire-genre books and movies, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The dancing was fun, exciting and just a little bit scary. Good scary. The dark costumes and set designs were the perfect blend of elegant artistry with a dash of the spooktacular. In one scene, dark drapery panels hung from the ceiling, gathered in the middle, where every so often what looked like a disembodied skull would peek out with ghoulish eyes and stare at the audience. The effect was startling yet so intriguing, I forgot to be scared, wondering how they did it. Then the curtains rose and revealed dancers seated on chairs, wearing the ghostly masks. I was fascinated to see the stage secrets. A little fear mixed with wonder is a good thing.

It’s kind of like stepping out with God. Realizing that every day is a dance of uncertainty, trepidation, daring and exhilaration. When the future seems uncertain and filled with frightening goblins that make me cower in fear. When ghosts of regret appear to taunt me saying that I can never change. That I'll always say things I wish I could take back. That I can't move past small slights without retaliating. I remember that every day is a new opening night. That the curtain could rise on new opportunities. On another chance to be gracious and unselfish. On a future that might be scary but good. So I have fear mingled with anticipation. Fear alongside trust that it’s all in his plan for me. Fear laced with the excitement of something new. When fear of the unknown tries to trip me up, I remember this promise that I am never out of his sight. "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

I have a pair of ballet slippers hanging from my dresser that I bought at a vintage shop. Even though I’ve never been a dancer, I like to look at the ballet shoes. They’re worn from use, but I think they’re pretty. They speak to me of hard work, courage, strength and determination. And a lot of grace. I’d like to have the effortless grace of a ballerina, dancing through the scenes of life. Especially when it’s going to be a little scary but so worth it. Scary good.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Falling for Pumpkin Cookies

When the calendar says it’s fall – or when the nighttime temperature drops below 70 degrees in Florida, whichever comes first – I think about baking pumpkin cookies. They were one of my grandmother's specialties and she would send a batch of them to me every Thanksgiving, stacked in a sweater box, separated by layers of wax paper. The cookies are delicate, more like tiny little cakes than cookies, filled with raisins and topped with a caramelized frosting. They’re so light that the first bite just melts in your mouth. Then just as you’re savoring the next two bites, the cookie is gone and the deliciousness is just a memory. You have to have another. And another. The cookies remind me of fall, the holiday season and my grandmother.

She didn't use cookbooks or have a recipe box. She kept her often-used recipes in her head and never wrote anything down. When my mother cleared out her house after she died, there was a worn Metropolitan Life insurance envelope with the words “favorite recipes” written on it in her handwriting. I leafed through it, thinking in there would be the secrets to her favorite dishes. But that’s not what was in the envelope. Instead, it held recipes clipped from the newspaper from the 1960s and 70s. They weren’t really any dishes I remember her making. I think she must have cut out recipes she thought she might try one day. There were several recipes for sauerkraut as a key ingredient. A few recipes for jello, pies and cakes with strawberries. There was even one in her handwriting for ginger cookies and she noted “delicious” at the bottom. She baked from memory and experience. Thankfully, the recipe for pumpkin cookies was well distributed throughout the family, as I remember my mother making them for Halloween and my aunt making them for our Thanksgiving dinners. 

My niece Devon and I made pumpkin cookies last weekend. She couldn’t wait to taste them, sniffing the pumpkin, vanilla and cinnamon as we mixed up the batter. Since she only likes chocolate chip cookies, I was pretty sure pumpkin would be an acquired taste for a five-year-old. She took one lick of the icing and a tiny nibble of the cookie and proclaimed it the worst cookie she’d ever tasted. I told her that someday she just might like pumpkin cookies when she was a little older. She frowned and said she sure doubted it. She walked off leaving me with the plate of pumpkin cookies all to myself. As I savored the heavenly little puffs of deliciousness, I knew I'd keep the recipe for her. Maybe she'll remember the smells of fall and pumpkin and warm gooey frosting in her aunt's kitchen. And I hoped that maybe someday in the not too distant future, she too would fall head over heels for pumpkin cookies.

Pumpkin Cookies
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup pumpkin
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
¾ cup raisins
1 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter and sugar well and add the egg. Beat in the pumpkin and salt. Cream well. Sift together rest of dry ingredients and add to mixture. Add vanilla and raisins. (Plump raisins first by soaking them in a bowl of very hot water for 10 minutes.) Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.

Mix 4 Tbsps. butter and 4 Tbsps. milk and ½ cup brown sugar in medium saucepan on stove. (I use ¼ cup of dark brown sugar and ¼ cup of light brown sugar.) Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Let cool (place in freezer for a few minutes.) Add 1-2 cups of powdered sugar (depending on thickness) and 1 tsp. vanilla. Beat well. Frosting should be medium thick (not too thin or it will drip off the cookie). Spread frosting while cookies are still warm. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A New Frame of Reference

I can’t believe I’m so crazy about it. 

The Eiffel Tower. 

I’d gotten used to seeing its image everywhere -- from notecards to dish towels to wrapping paper. 

I wondered what was so special about it. I certainly didn’t expect to be so impressed by seeing it in person. 

But the minute I caught a glimpse of it, even from a distance on my first day in Paris, it took my breath away. 

I couldn't wait to get closer to it. To experience the scale of it. When I stood under it, looking up at the ironwork, it was beautiful and remarkable and extraordinary all at the same time. 

I was stunned by its magnificence. And the enormity of it. 

It looks so small from a distance. And it especially looks small on notecards and dish towels and wrapping paper. 

Even though I knew it was one of the world’s tallest structures, I couldn’t imagine the beauty of it from photographs until I experienced it.

As I crisscrossed the city, walking from one tourist attraction to another, every time I saw it peeking through the trees or hovering over a bridge, my heart skipped a beat. 

There it was. 

I took tons of photos of it. From far away. From a boat on the river. From right underneath it. 

During the day with the sun glinting off of it. 

At twilight with a sliver of the moon just visible rising over it. 

Sparkling with white twinkling lights at night. 

I am reluctant to admit it, but I’m in love with the Eiffel Tower. 

Now I’m the one buying the notecards, the dish towels, the wrapping paper. I can’t get enough of the Eiffel Tower. 

My experience changed everything. I stood under its shadow. I was surrounded by the intricate web of its latticework. When I saw the tower in person, it changed how I thought about it. 

I saw God from a new vantage point this year, too. 

In fact, I don't think I would have found myself standing under the Eiffel Tower if I hadn't said yes to looking at things differently. 

I’d always known God but the way I thought about him was transformed. I grasped how I could have a deeper relationship with God. 

To understand how he wanted to work in my life. To discover how he could take my faith and make it stronger, richer, bolder. 

A changed perspective helped me see God in everything and trust that he will bring good from the events and experiences in my life. Even when things don't turn out as I think they should. 

God sees my life much differently than I view my life. He sees above and beyond, deeper and wider than I ever can. 

A verse in Psalms says God is our refuge, like a strong tower against what we’re facing in life. 

I want to stand in the shadow of that tower. In awe of his wisdom. 

His beautiful graciousness. His remarkable faithfulness. His extraordinary mercy. 

I am stunned by his magnificent love for me. And I'm crazy about it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Are Your Assets?

With rates at historic lows, I’ve decided to refinance my townhome to a lower interest rate. On a conference call with a loan processor and a bank representative, they asked me all sorts of personal and income information. It felt a little invasive. I wondered why they couldn’t just look it up since I’m refinancing with the same bank. Nevertheless, they proceeded to ask me questions they clearly already had the answers to. Credit score. Employment verification. Then they asked me, “What are your assets?” Hmmm. Well, I have a savings account. Two, in fact. A 401k account I never look at since I can’t do anything with the money anyway until I retire. Hmmm. Not much, I jokingly tell them. But what I really wanted to say was that I had fine investments. They just happen to be in beauty products.

If they could only see that I have a treasury of MAC eyeshadows in every color combination in the rainbow. I have Trish McEvoy’s newest planner in a spiffy pink quilted case, with a specially fitted silver bag for foundation and lipstick. And my newest acquisition straight from Paris, a sweet little Dior touch-up kit for my purse. This particular ensemble is endowed with a secret resource of three lip glosses under the tiny Dior door. What value! I wonder if they would be interested to know that I do plan to make an addition to my makeup portfolio with a Chanel red lipstick just as soon as I raise enough capital. At $34 for the shade of Coromandel, I can wear a color named for the famous lacquered screens that graced Coco's Rue Cambon apartment in Paris. I must liquidate some funds, though, if I want it before the fiscal year ends.

I wanted to tell them that I have accumulated all the best hair products on the market. I have giant-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner that promise a great return on my investment to make me look like a fashionista on the catwalk. As an extra bonus, these top-notch products also make my hair smell like blueberries. I have an excellent repository of hair paste to separate my hair into pieces for an edgy style, oil from Morrocco to make my hair super-shiny, and hairspray that is made from fresh kiwis. I want them to know I spent my research and development funds carefully before selecting this light, brushable spray that does not leave hair feeling like it’s glued. This value on the balance sheet is important.

I wish they could see my collection of perfume, like liquid silver and gold in the form of flowers from Vera Wang and blackberry and vanilla from Trish McEvoy. However, for this division of my portfolio I look for other investors. I am prudent with my funds by asking for the perfume for holidays and birthdays. I even assist my investors by forwarding the necessary financial information from the discount house of to help them purchase the items at a reduction. Whatever I choose to call them -- assets, strong points, blessings, resources -- I actually do have lots of them.

So I’d like to tell the finance gurus that although I might not have a portfolio of high-yielding investments, I do indeed have assets. But maybe they're more of the intangible sort. I have an unending supply of grace. I know where to find overflowing peace. I can opt for unlimited joy. And all free for the asking. From God who generously lavishes these blessings on those who ask. And I think that might be the most valuable investment I can make.