Thursday, December 19, 2013

Let Freedom Ring in the New Year



I’ve been thinking about choosing my one word for 2014. My word for last year was aspire. It reminded me of possibilities, of hopes, of a pursuit. 

Like taking a pastry class at a Manhattan bakery during my spring trip to New York City. And joining a Facebook group of professional women, linked by the website (in)courage, where we shared our thoughts and encouraged each other. 

And pursuing God. Who was actually pursuing me.


So I’ve been thinking about the year ahead. 

2014. And I’m thinking about freedom. 

Freedom from the vise-like grip of perfection. Freedom from the tentacles of fear. Freedom from the slippery slide into self-recrimination. Freedom from the intensity of self-focus. Freedom from the commentary inside my head. Freedom from discouragement.

I know it seems like a lot to ask of just one year. But maybe I can have the freedom to release what weighs me down. Maybe I can have the freedom for some flexibility. Some elbow room.


Freedom to move forward. Freedom to embrace new opportunities. Freedom to seek God more deeply. Freedom to create. Freedom to write. Freedom to be all that God wants me to be. 

And I want freedom to be brave and bold and fearless and kind and compassionate and understanding too.

So I want freedom in 2014.

So I can freely welcome all that is waiting for me on the brilliant brink of another new year.  

   
If you’re interested in choosing a word for 2014, visit myoneword.org for inspiration and to connect with others who are choosing a word.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Gift Exchange



When my friend Diana and I spent an evening shopping last week, she invited me to choose a coffee mug for my Christmas gift. 

I loved this idea. She said she already had my gift bag (with my favorite holiday motif of skates), but she just hadn’t gotten the gift yet. 

We often exchange gifts of coffee and mugs since we both have a penchant for them. I gave her a ruffled white mug with a fancy silver spoon I found over the summer. 

So as we shopped, I spotted an adorable mug with a Santa hat that said “May all your days be merry.” She gift-bagged it for me on the spot.


As I unpacked it at home and looked at my holiday coffee mugs, I thought about gifts. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose all sorts of gifts? Like the gifts of our strengths and skills that come wrapped around who we are. 

Sometimes I have an easier time thinking of what I’m not instead of recognizing who I am with the specially chosen gifts that God instilled in me. 

And instead of wishing I were different, I want to learn to treasure those gifts. The gifts that are my own personal characteristics. 

That I sometimes would rather return for something better, newer, brighter, more dazzling. When I wish I could have chosen my gifts for myself, I start to think that I know better than God does who I am and what I need. 


What if I looked at who I am differently? What if the gifts I try to cover up and change are the very ones that help me appreciate grace? 

The grace given to me and the grace that I should give to others. My unsparing honesty, my intense temperament, my strong-mindedness. 

Maybe I could also look at them from the other side. To see where the strengths are. I could see them as truth, passion and determination. Good things. 

And if I recognize these characteristics as gifts maybe I can trust that they are all I need to fulfill God's purpose for my life.


I'm sure I’ll still probably spend some time wishing I could exchange those gifts for some others I think I’d rather have. 

But instead I'd like to recognize, enjoy and learn how to better use what I've been given. Because they help me see what God has called me to do in my life. 

So as I drink coffee from my new mug, I’m going to try to make the most of my merry days. 

I don't think anything I could get in return would be as valuable as the gifts I already have. 

No refunds. No exchanges. I'm keeping all the gifts.


Which strengths of yours are the gifts that you’re appreciating this holiday season?

I'm linking up with Emily's Tuesday's Unwrapped at Chatting at the Sky.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Need a Little Christmas Now



My halls have been decked for a few weeks. I bought my tree, put it up and decorated it, all before Thanksgiving. 

I’d never done such a thing before. It seemed wrong somehow to see the Christmas lights blinking from my tree before I’d eaten any turkey, watched Thursday afternoon football, and made sure Santa arrived safely at Macy’s front door during the Thanksgiving day parade. 

I’m a traditionalist. Except for when it comes to avoiding a little stress. It seems as if I race around the weekend after Thanksgiving to have my house adorned before December 1. 

So I’ll gladly give up tradition for a little peace and tranquility.


I decorate a live tree because I somehow never feel like buying an artificial one after the holidays. I’m not really sure where I would store it and it seems like it would be dusty when I’d pull it from a box year after year. 

So I buy a live one. I go after work, making sure I’m in a skirt and high heels. I look helplessly around and usually within a few minutes, a man with a saw shows up at my elbow. 

This tree-man is different every year, but every year he does the same things. He asks what kind of tree I want. I tell him very skinny. He stares at me for a second and says that’s different since everyone usually wants a full tree. 

I tell him I must be able to haul it to the curb by myself when the holidays are over. He pulls out skinny-looking trees for me to assess. He usually ignores other shoppers’ pleas for help, even though they've arrived before me. 

Maybe it's because they aren’t wearing a swingy skirt and high heels. 


So this year since I was shopping so early, the tree lot was empty. My tree-man told me he’d just started selling trees that very day and gave me his undivided attention. 

I felt a little silly hauling my tree home a full week before Thanksgiving. I put it up and decorated it that very night. 

I told my mother my tree was up and waited for her to laugh and say that was ridiculously early. But instead she said what a great idea and she should get hers out of the way too. 

Because that’s the way I felt. I wanted it out of the way. I wanted the decorations done. I didn’t really even want to pull them out. 

I get tired of moving my rest-of-the-year d├ęcor to make way for Santas and angels and tiny houses. 

I get tired of figuring out where I put things last year and if I should do the same thing this year. 

I don’t like how it takes me two days to put things back after New Year’s because I can’t remember where they were to begin with. Before I decked the halls.


But then I opened the box with the ceramic Santa that my grandmother made.

She took a ceramics class after she retired and painted dishes and figurines and a Santa Claus. 

I remembered all the years he sat on her table as I took him down to my mantel. I filled his sack with vintage postcards and decided he would be the perfect centerpiece this year. 

I had the mantel cleared and adorned for the holidays in no time. I like looking at his jolly face every time I walk through the living room. 

I think having my tree decorated before Thanksgiving and seeing Santa for an extra week this year won’t be so bad. 

I might even do it again next year. 

And I think I'll make it my new tradition.



Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Big Blue Poem Book



When my sister and I were little, my mother read to us every night from a big blue poem book. 

It was actually called Favorite Poems: Old & New, edited by Helen Ferris. But to us it was filled with magical stories told in the beautiful, musical language of poetry. 

We loved the poem about the Plumpuppets by Christopher Morley, the fairies who hovered and plumped up our pillows while we slept. 

We loved the adventures of Wynken, Blynken and Nod by Eugene Field, as they sailed off at night in their wooden shoe. 

And we loved the story of Peace and Mercy and Jonathan and Patience (very small), as they celebrated the First Thanksgiving of All, told in the wonderful words of Nancy Byrd Turner.


We had so many favorites that we’d beg my mother to read us just one more poem before we went to bed. 

Learning to love poetry might have had something to do with the fact that my mother is an elegant storyteller, lending her own unique expression and drama to them. 

These poems are forever a part of my life. 

When my sister got married, she gave me a gift of a keepsake photo collage of us as little girls, along with snippets of these favorite poems framed with the photos. 

Before my nephew Nathan was born, I bought my sister a copy of the poem book, now with a red cover, and hoped that my niece and nephew would love them as much as we did. 

But I don’t think they do.


I read Devon the Plumpuppets one night when she was staying at my house. I asked her if she wanted me to read it to her and she said politely, “If you want to.” 

She nicely listened but much prefers for me to read the mysteries in the Nancy Drew Notebooks to her before she goes to sleep. 

I have to realize that not all traditions get handed down. 

Not everything will be loved like I love it. 

The next generation gets to pick and choose their favorite memories and fond attachments to take with them from their childhood into adulthood. 

But maybe what’s important is giving them a lovely medley, a varied assortment, even a sometimes motley collection of rituals and memories and traditions to choose from.


My nephew now spends Thanksgiving at a hunting camp with his dad in Georgia. 

He thinks sleeping in a trailer and stalking deer is the most fun he’ll have all year. 

Devon spends Thanksgiving with us girls (and my dad) in St. Augustine. She says it has her most favorite shops of anywhere. 

Which is high praise indeed, since the only place she likes to shop in Orlando is the grocery store Publix, because she gets a free chocolate chip cookie.


So this Thanksgiving, I carry on my own tradition. 

I set out my three special candles – two pilgrims and an Indian girl, with the wick as the feather in her headband. 

My mother had these same decorations when I was little, but after moving several times, they disappeared. I was delighted when I found replicas of them in a vintage store. 

I stand them on my table and I open the big blue poem book. 

I read about Peace and Mercy and Jonathan, and Patience (very small), as they give thanks on their first Thanksgiving of all. 

And I give thanks. For all in my family who came before me to help make my holiday rituals my best-loved memories. 

And I’m so very grateful to God for the chance to make new traditions with those I dearly love who have arrived to walk this life alongside me.


First Thanksgiving of All by Nancy Byrd Turner

Peace and Mercy and Jonathan,
And Patience (very small),
Stood by the table giving thanks
The first Thanksgiving of all.

There was very little for them to eat,
Nothing special and nothing sweet;
Only bread and a little broth,
And a bit of fruit (and no tablecloth);
But Peace and Mercy and Jonathan
And Patience, in a row,
Stood up and asked a blessing on
Thanksgiving, long ago.

Thankful they were that their ship had come
Safely across the sea;
Thankful they were for hearth and home,
And kin and company;
They were glad of broth to go with their bread,
Glad their apples were round and red,
Glad of mayflowers they would bring
Out of the woods again next spring

So Peace and Mercy and Jonathan,
And Patience (very small),
Stood up and gratefully gave thanks
The first Thanksgiving of all.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mountains and Molehills



I spent last weekend lunching and shopping in Mount Dora, a small town just outside of Orlando. 

The name is a little misleading because there’s not really a mountain there. 

The mount is more like a hill. Or a gently rolling slope. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where there are a lot of hills. Steep ones. And very few of them are called mountains. 

My aunt Charlotte lived in a house perched at the top of one hill and the bottom of another. Driving to her house was an adventure, full of curves and hairpin turns. 

Near her house was a hill so steep it gave me the strangest sensation that the car could tip right over backwards. I still have nightmares about that hill. 

So I really like Florida. It’s flat, the streets are straight and there aren’t many hills. Unless you want to count Mount Dora.


I often wish I were someone who takes things in stride calmly and steadily. Someone who has an easygoing demeanor. Who doesn't get excited about incidental, inconsequential and inconsiderable things. 

But instead I tend to make mountains out of molehills. 

I know I have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of all things trivial. 

When I talk about these paltry happenings that seem so significant and important to me, my friends stare politely, waiting for more. 

I imagine they’re expecting me to end my story with, “AND he asked me to marry him! Isn’t that remarkable?” 

And it certainly would be. But the chances of having such a monumental ending to what I’m relating could not possibly live up to that standard of amazement.

St. Genevieve sits at the top of a hill in Paris.
When I ran into a man I kind of liked and his date in a restaurant, I thought it was so amazing that I had to immediately call a friend to go over every spellbinding detail. 

She was putting her kids to bed and politely listened to me. But as I continued to talk, I realized the details were riveting only to me. 

I felt deflated since I knew I was interrupting her and I wondered what on earth possessed me to think this was so enthralling. 

So I thought about changing my ways when I ran into another old friend. I resisted my usual urge to text, call or email immediately. 

As time wore on, I become rather unexcited about it. I downplayed the details. 

After all, it wasn’t really that compelling. A hello exchanged. Some small talk. 

Finally, I emailed a friend who I thought might be interested. She didn’t answer for several days. 

Which supported my suspicion that it really wasn’t worth sharing.

Steep street in Paris leading to the Pantheon.
But I like to wonder what these seemingly insignificant interactions mean. 

I kind of enjoy pondering how these incidences fit into the puzzle of my life. 

I imagine that maybe they’re sent from God as a personal message just for me via an unsuspecting participant in his plans. 

Like the compliment from a stranger who says she likes my hairstyle. 

The surprising email from a nearly forgotten grade-school chum who said she’d been hoping to reconnect with me. 

The postcard from an acquaintance I met just once who wrote that she thought of me and was praying for me. 

If I consider these daily happenings as nothing at all, then I think some of the joy, the surprise, the marvel, and the wonder of it all will be missing from my life. 

And I don’t want to lose that. 

So I’ll continue to contemplate my mini-dramas and reflect on the minor productions in my life. 

They may turn out to be just hills or slopes or bumps in the road of my life. 

But maybe some of the molehills will turn out to be mountains that I can clamber up. And who knows, maybe when I get to the top, I’ll find that the view was much more than I imagined. 

The expanded perspective may show me that what I thought was nothing might be something after all. 

Because who wants their life to be filled with meaningless molehills? 

Not when I can view the surrounding panorama while I'm looking for the noteworthy, extraordinary and exceptional happenings that make up my very ordinary days.

The view from the Eiffel Tower of Montmartre in Paris.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bringing Our Lives to Life



I’ve been shopping for holiday flowers and greenery for the garden planter that belonged to my grandmother. 

This cement planter now sits in my living room and was one of a pair that resided on her front porch for as long as I can remember. 

Now my sister and I have them. We drove my brother-in-law’s enormous pickup truck from Florida to Pittsburgh when my grandmother’s house was sold after she died. 

We packed the two cement planters, a green metal chair that always sat on the porch, her rusty porch glider and a whole lot of other stuff in the truck. Stacked precariously and covered by a blue tarp in case of rain, we rolled down the Atlantic coastline with our precious cargo. 

I stored the glider for many years in my parents’ garage until I very reluctantly decided to let them haul it to the curb for the trash. I had dreamed of making the glider into a couch, but I never had the space for it.

My grandmother had lived in her house since the 1940s but after she died it was sold to a contractor. It had been difficult for her to keep up with repairs and improvements through the years and was badly in need of renovation. 

Recently I stumbled across new photos of the house online and discovered it was sold last summer. 

Although I knew the house had been remodeled and strangers now lived there, looking at the photos was definitely eerie. 

The original hardwood floors were replaced with laminate. The beautiful old wooden doors were gone. The kitchen had new laminate counters and cabinets. 

But the kitchen curtains in the photos could have been my grandmother’s. The sunflowers on them were so similar to the curtains that hung in her kitchen for years that at first I thought the new owners had kept them. 

Then I realized that couldn’t possibly be true.

My mother (far right) and her three sisters in the front yard of their house.
My mother in front of the fir tree.
Looking at the online photos, I noticed that the yard was different too. 

The sloping front yard was leveled and the tree was gone. A giant fir tree had stood in the front yard for more than 60 years. It had Christmas lights hidden deep inside its branches that had been there since the last year my grandfather strung them before he died in the 1960s. 

The old stone wall that lined the driveway and went all the way to the backyard was removed. 

On my last visit to the house, I pulled out one of those stones from the wall and took it with me. The stone reminded me of everything about my grandmother’s house. 

I jumped from that wall from the time I could walk. 

I sat on that wall, dangling my legs, while I kept an eye on her next door neighbors. 

I clambered up and down that wall, running around the yard with my cousins, while grown-ups talked on the porch.

My grandparents, mother and relatives on the back porch.
Even though I’m glad the house has been given a new lease on life, it’s hard to think about someone else making it their home. 

But that house is just a frame. 

For the lives of all who lived inside it. 

For my mother and aunt who roller-skated down the halls. 

For my grandfather who yelled at them from the living room to simmer down. 

For my grandmother who made nut roll and ham salad and apple pie in the kitchen. 

Without them, it's just wood and nails and shingles. 

Doors and windows and stairs and walls. 

Their lives brought the house to life. 
My aunt Terri, my grandmother holding my cousin, and my mother in front of the tree.
And it's up to me to bring my house to life. 

When I flip chocolate chip pancakes in the kitchen for my niece's Saturday morning breakfasts. 

When I put on my party hat and light firecrackers in my driveway to celebrate New Year's Eve with my nephew. 

When I set out steaming mugs of coffee and pull chairs up to my counter when a friend stops by with her new baby. 

When I invite my colleagues to an after-work gathering of desserts set out on my dining room buffet. 

I'll be bringing my house to life as I decorate for another year's holiday season. 

And I think I'll start by placing a wreath of frosted winter berries on the rim of my grandmother's planter with a snowy white fir tree tucked inside.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Frightful Trifle



I’m not sure why I’m always so optimistic about experimenting in the kitchen because my creations usually flop. 

But I take to heart the counsel of culinary experts to be adventurous, forgetting that I’m not a professional chef. 

I offered to make a chocolate sheet cake for my sister’s Halloween party last weekend. I had a brilliant idea to spell out the words “Trick or Treat” and “Happy Halloween” with my new alphabet cookie cutters I hadn’t used yet. 

I figured I could cut the cake into squares, carve out the letters with the cutters and pipe cream into the indentations to spell out my words. 

But I didn't want just ordinary buttercream so I found a recipe online with ingredients of cream cheese, whipping cream and Cool Whip. 

I was kind of concerned it might not be firm enough to stand up to piping but it sounded scrumptious and I wanted to try it.


I ran into my first snag with the chocolate frosting. 

The recipe is my aunt’s from-scratch icing that I make on the stovetop, and I’ve made it dozens of times. But as I spread the frosting on the warm cake, it was too thick. 

I wasn't worried because I figured I’d be covering most of it with the cream for my letters. I tinted the cream orange and although it tasted good, it was pretty runny. 

But my chocolate frosting was more like cement. I pressed the “T” (for "trick") cutter into the icing. 

It didn’t budge. I pressed as hard as I could and still only saw the barest outline of the letter. 

I took a paring knife and scraped out the frosting into the outline of a T and piped my cream. 

I had less success with the second letter and only ended up squashing flat my cake square. 

I gave up on the cutters and thought I’d just pipe the letters on top of the frosting. 

When I was finished, it looked like a preschooler’s art project. I couldn’t ask my sister to serve this mess at her party. 

I considered throwing the entire cake out. But instead I laid on my couch for a few minutes. 

And my trifle bowl popped into my head. It was my only hope for salvaging the cake.


I cut it up into bite-sized pieces and layered the cake and the orange cream in the trifle bowl. 

I didn’t have enough cream to cover the top layer so I just showered the cake with chocolate sprinkles I found in my pantry. 

I had no idea what the trifle tasted like. I took it to my sister and told her to put candles in it and use it as a centerpiece. 

She called the next day and said it was a hit. She said two of her party-goers stood over the table eating spoonfuls, saying it was addictive and they couldn’t tear themselves away from it. 

She told me I better write down what I did to create my improvisation so I could repeat it.


I guess my baking escapades are not all that different from what makes up the rest of my life. 

I create, repurpose, salvage. 

I do this all the time with my flea market finds – I use shutters designed for windows as display boards. 

I use an ironing board intended for laundry as a sofa table. 

I use containers meant for plants to hold cosmetic brushes. 

I feel inspired and artful when I find a use for something different than it was originally intended. 

And I shouldn't be afraid to do the same with the experiences of my life. 

When I think I don’t have what it takes, I actually find that I have all I need. 


To get back up after a failure. 

To move in a different direction when I hit a dead end. 

To salvage the things that happen that aren’t quite as perfect as I'd like. 

Because my life is filled with those times. 

When the writing piece I labored over didn’t get accepted. When the guy I liked didn’t ask me out. When the owner of the townhouse I loved rejected my offer. 

These experiences turned out differently than I wanted them to. 

But I reworked the writing piece and posted it as a mass-post day for bloggers. 

I discovered the man I wanted to go out with wasn’t really who I thought he was. 

I found a different townhouse I liked even more that better fit my style. 

So I shouldn’t be so quick to despair and discard. 

Because it might just be the trick that turns into a treat. 


For a Halloween treat, I've included my recipe for the cake and cream. 

Aunt Shirley's Chocolate Sheet Cake
Bring to a boil 1 cup of butter, 1 cup of water, 4 Tbsp. of cocoa. Remove from heat and add 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, and 1 tsp. of salt. Add 2 well-beaten eggs, 8 oz. of sour cream and 1 tsp. baking soda. Pour into cookie sheet pan and bake for 20-22 minutes at 375 degrees. 

While the cake is still warm, spread with frosting. Put 1 stick butter, 6 Tbsp. milk, 4 Tbsp. cocoa and bring to a boil. Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 box powdered sugar. Beat until smooth. Spread over cake. Chill cake until served.

Cream
Beat 6 oz. cream cheese and 1/3 cup sugar until smooth. Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 cup heavy cream. Whip until increases in volume and thick. Fold in 4 oz. Cool Whip.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Power of Words



I'm surprised sometimes by the words that linger in my head long after they're said. 

They keep replaying in the background as if they were spoken yesterday instead of years ago. And often it's the critical words I remember rather than the affirming ones. 

I have always loved books and grew up savoring words written on a page. Words that were mostly woven into fiction stories. Classic books that spoke in beautiful imagery, and modern books that told an exhilarating story. 

I liked this genre of books until after college, when a boyfriend told me he thought I lived in a fantasy world. He was very concerned that I would live my life inspired by fiction and believing in fairy tales. (I wonder if what he might have meant was that perhaps I would discover life with him wouldn’t have a storybook ending.) 

But I haven't forgotten his words. And I took his critique to heart. 

As the lone relic of our relationship, I started reading biographies, memoirs and non-fiction. 

I found that I liked reading the true stories of real people. 

I liked accompanying these authors on their real-life literary journeys. 

Because sometimes I recognized a sliver of myself as I shared their experiences with them, peeking through a window at their lives. 

Now my bookshelves are lined with books about skating, cooking and Paris. Biographies about famous people and memoirs by ordinary souls just sharing their lives. 

The books are absorbing, enduring and welcoming. I feel at home just looking at their familiar covers.


Years ago when my sister moved out of our shared condo to get married, we had a custody battle over our books. 

As she packed up her belongings, I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. She would take her books. I’d keep mine. And we’d split the rest. 

Then we started sorting the stacks. 

We couldn’t decide who would get our favorites -- a series of historical novels written in the 1940s and 50s by Elswyth Thane, and a series of juvenile novels called The Keeping Days by Norma Johnston. 

She let me make the choice. 

I thought about it for weeks because I loved them both. Finally, I opted to keep the Elswyth Thane books. 

The charming hardbacks with tattered dust covers were long out of print, and I thought it might be more difficult to find replacements. So my Keeping Days books that sat on my bookshelves since middle school, departed in the boxes of my sister’s belongings. 

I missed my old books. And I felt like I’d lost my best friends. 

Not only was I missing my sister living with me, I no longer had The Keeping Days to cheer me up.


For Christmas a few years ago, my sister surprised me with a set of my own Keeping Days books. 

It seems they had become a hot commodity since they were out of print and it took her months of online shopping to track down the entire set. 

I welcomed them back to my bookshelves like old friends. These words on a page tell a powerful story. 

Whether it's fiction or non-fiction that I'm reading, the stories help me make sense of my own. 

To understand that no matter how different someone's experiences may be from my own, they're still a lot like me. 

To appreciate that everyone has a unique and interesting story to tell. 

To admire these gifted writers that have a skill and talent that I'd like to emulate. 

It's the power of the story that speaks to me. 

With experiences that are true or words that are scripted into imagined sparkling dialogue. These are the stories I love to read. 

The stories that inspire me to pick up my pen. Or open my laptop. And write the powerful words that will eventually turn into my story.