Archives

Beauty Break: Welcome Autumn

Today was littered with tiny, ordinary gifts that brought me back to the present moment . . . a prelude to the autumn leaves soon to come. Sharing with you the gift of —

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

* A succulent chicken roasting slow, redolent with the aroma herbes de provence and sliced shallots

* The first cool rains of autumn, washing away the dust and dry of summer

* Sipping the first spiced apple cider this fall

* Making pumpkin honey bread with chocolate chips and pecans, its scent in the oven warming the house

* My son excited, telling me how happy he is with the rain, and the cider, and the bread, and the chicken, and the season

* The voice of my child reminding me that it’s the little things in life that make it wonderful

* Feeling like I could BREATHE for the first time in a very long while

Hoping this day brought whispers and gifts of autumn your way . . .

Ode to Autumn, by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Advertisements

Beauty Break: A Found Poem

Skippy’s up to almost 2 hours a day between piano, electric guitar and acoustic guitar. The house is filled with music and I love it. My favorite part of it all is when he just relaxes and it becomes something other than a practice session. I call it “plinking,” meaning he just goes into the zone and composes or picks a favorite song out by ear. Simply lovely….

Today, I heard strumming on the acoustic behind a podcast I was listening to while cooking in the kitchen, and next:

“Mom, did you hear what I was playing?”

“Yes…it’s a little noisy out here, so yes, vaguely, and it sounded good.”

“I found a new favorite song. . . ”

“You did?” Me, semi-distracted. . .

“Want me to show you?” And he starts singing a song that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. “And the leaves that are green, turn to brown. . . . “

Skippy playing Simon and Garfunkel's "Leaves That Are Green"

Skippy playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Leaves That Are Green”

And he proceeds to sing and play Simon and Garfunkel’s song of the same name, nearly impeccably, by ear. My boy and I are kindred spirits when it comes to music and I love that he appreciates and hears the poetry in a song like this.

If you’ve never heard it, or have forgotten it because its been too long, do yourself a favor and listen now. There isn’t enough poetry in the world today, and we need to grasp it and hold onto it when we find it, wherever that may be.

The Summer Bookshelf

One of my favorite things about summer is the extra time it affords me to lose myself in books. As a child, I remember whole afternoons spent reading after chores were done. Sometimes I hid away in a makeshift tent of blankets. Other times, I nestled for awhile in the tree in our front yard, just high enough so the random passer-by couldn’t see me from the street. I always felt like I was doing something special and secret and wonderful. Then there were days when my friend and I would pack up some snacks and traipse across the street from her small farm in the wash that ran through town and climb to the top of the low hill to find a place under the trees where we’d spend the afternoon reading comics.

The sheer luxury of this type of relaxed reading is now whittled away by the busy days of parenthood and home schooling, work and life in general. I spend most of the rest of the year reading for work — as an English teacher this is both a privilege and a curse. I DO get to read some of the greatest works every written, but I also HAVE to read those works, whether I’m in the mood for them or not. Those days of total freedom to read wherever and whatever the wind blew my way were truly remarkable and while I can look back with greater appreciation now, in hindsight, I have a sense that I realized the gift of those pockets of time and to revel in that freedom even then.

Child Reading, By Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The reason I can say this is because I see the same awareness in my own son. At 10 & 1/2, he is aware enough to realize the gift of being given hours a day to lose himself in books and to look forward to it with great excitement. He himself has told me often that he didn’t hear me because “I was so engrossed in my book.” He has this knowing, this relationship with books, this sense of passing time without worry or care, somewhere far off. For him, one of the high points of every summer is signing up for the Summer Reading Program at the library. Actually, it’s a high point for both of us since a couple of years ago we discovered that I could sign up for the adult program and it was something the two of us could do together. We are fortunate that our main library here has an excellent Friends of the Library volunteer group which hosts a Festival of Folktales every June to kick off the Reading Program. Skippy has me mark the calendar months ahead and eagerly awaits this afternoon filled with games and music, shows and books. It’s a sign to us both that we’re done with the hard work of the year and have a few weeks to relax the pace and spend extra hours turning pages on the patio or on the beach.

This year has been particularly busy and challenging for me for many reasons. So much so that I could hardly slow my brain and heart down enough to dream about what I might want to read. As Skippy and I wandered the stacks on the Festival day, each taking turns hunting out the titles which were to earn pride of place on our bookshelf, I felt bereft and disconnected and unsettled. Nothing was speaking to me. I shared this uncomfortable and unusual (for me) feeling with Skippy.

Without missing a beat, he said confidently, “Mom, read something fun! Why don’t you read something classic? Read something you’ve read before! Books are made to be read again and again. That’s what the classics are for. Read Frankenstein. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before. I’ve read books over again. Read something you WANT to read.”

His words sort of stopped me in my tracks. Was this my son? Where did he acquire such wisdom, and at such a young age? Clearly, the years spent doing exactly what he was now encouraging me to do had had an impact on him. It took seconds for me to reach out then and take Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out off the shelf and add it to my bundle. A classic? Yes. Read before? Yes, nearly 15 years ago. Perfect for a summer read? Yes, absolutely.

Woman Reading In A Cashmere Shawl, by John Singer Sargent

Skippy’s advice broke the barrier for me and opened the door to a better mindset, one open to greeting summer and those delectable hours to be shared together lost in books. The Voyage Out wasn’t the only book I chose. It joined a long list of other happy choices: The Beekeeper’s Lament, A Gift From the Sea, poetry from Ranier Marie Rilke, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. I am also looking forward to (finally) finishing Treasure Island with Skippy and starting The Lord of the Rings together. We’re also planning our first excision into audio books with To Kill a Mockingbird. Finally, a friend and I are hoping to read and discuss Woolf’s Orlando together.

I may get to all or only some of these. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the hours are free to dip in and take my time and luxuriate in turning those pages for yet another summer. That I am able to enjoy this with my son, and that he realizes this gift, makes it all that much sweeter.

And you? What’s on your summer bookshelf?

LEGO, Mother’s Day, Skippy and Me

I told Skippy I didn’t need any Mother’s Day present, because he’s IT.

But that wasn’t enough for him and he got busy in the LEGO area, gifting me with two unique creations — a darling picture frame and a solid LEGO heart — which I then had to search for through two masterfully planned scavenger hunts. I especially like the flowers and the bees he so painstakingly crafted, because he knows how much I love them.

Tonight at dinner, we took a special picture for the frame, which will sit on my desk and act as a record of the growth of the best Mother’s Day gift of all — my child.

A blessed, joyful, and happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

Gifts of Grace, Hope, and Beauty in the New Year

The new year opens with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 8) and the bestowal of gifts from the three Magi to the Christ Child, which calls to mind not only the hope and promise in the gift of a new year, but reminds me that my life is meant to be a gift as well, both to God and to others. Sadly, I am apt to forget this.

I’m not much for making New Year’s resolutions. But I noticed, when examining and thinking back over 2011, that as the year progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to be mindful of beauty in my daily life. Juggling home, job, and volunteer work along with my writing became a whirling abyss of speed and busyness that threatened to overwhelm me. When my life feels like I’m “going down the rails on the crazy train,” beauty eludes me. Giving becomes taking and I know it’s time for a reboot.

Clearly, some changes need to be made in 2012 and I’ve come up with a list that I’m hoping will help me regain my balance and make beauty more prominent.

1. Take Along My Trusty Blanket

I need to acknowledge when things are spiraling out of control inside me and put myself on a time out in a soft, safe place — preferably with my trusty purple blanket. There’s a very good reason why little ones have their blankets, thumbs, and binkies along for the daily ride. I would do well to learn from their example. Paying attention to the inner signs that signal the need for a time out will help me to avoid  becoming a destroyer of the beauty around me.

2. Plan for Extraordinary Family Time

This means two things especially: travel and music.

For Christmas I gave my husband this great book of themed California itineraries. Being that the three of us love the open road and have an eccentric streak that would lead to the moon and back again, I’m thinking this is the year we plan for manageable travel. Maybe we will each pick a trip from the book and try to do one every few months. They’re simply awesome and have adventure written all over them. Two of my personal favorites: the Alice Waters’ Culinary Tour and By the Book: Literary California. Of course, pondering A Burrito Odyssey has many possibilities, as well.

And about that music. . . . well, for Christmas, Santa brought a record player. We have inherited the record collections of both sets of parents, plus some from the grandparents, and we still have all of our own, from our childhood through the 80s. Some of our favorites are old radio theater recordings of The Shadow and Suspense, which Skippy has never heard but which we used to amuse ourselves with long ago when we lived in San Francisco and had an old turntable. Let’s just say we have a lot of records and, until Christmas morning, no way to enjoy them. This is the year of the record player! Skippy is enthralled and says over and over “Records are just so amazing.” Every kid should be so lucky.

3. Make Time to Experience the Arts

I find beauty and joy in experiencing the arts.  Unless I plan I am not exposed to nearly enough of it. The arts help me to keep life in perspective and to remember and enjoy the many ways human beings have been blessed with the gifts to create beauty in the world. This year, I plan to nurture this love by attending plays and concerts, planning museum outings, sitting in at literary salons, and watching art films. It may be in the company of a like-minded friend, relative, or my husband, but I plan to make time for these experiences even if it means going alone.

4. Nurture the Artist Within

“Do something creative every day.” That is the motto of my favorite stationary store where I purchase many supplies. I find I am more attentive to the beauty in daily life if I nurture my own artistic gifts and talents. While the list of things I need to do every day as a wife, mother, and teacher is literally endless, nurturing my own creative life is just as important as any of those things. And I find I am a happier wife, mother, and teacher if I don’t neglect those gifts. I will make time this year to write every day, cook interesting and healthy meals, and plan for and work in my garden — all essential things that feed my heart and soul, but which often go neglected in the mad rush to get other things done.

5. Curl Up More Often With Good Books

Reading relaxes me and feeds my mind and my soul. Other moms ask me how I have the time to read. I always wonder how can I NOT read? It’s easy to feel guilty for taking time out to read, but this isn’t a luxury. It’s a sanity preserver that helps me to maintain my equilibrium. Most often, my personal reading is done in bed and is the very last thing I do for the day. Some people nap; I read. This year, I also want to make it a priority to spend time each day reading aloud to Skippy. When we don’t make this a priority, days and weeks can go by before we get back to our read-aloud. It’s time we both treasure and too soon it will be gone.

6. Appreciate and Learn From the Gifts of Others

My friend, Christina, had the inspired idea for her New Year’s resolution of reflecting on the people closest to her and asking herself what qualities in those people she would like to try to learn from or emulate — this struck me as genius. Everyone has gifts and brings something unique and beautiful to the table. No one currently in my life is there by accident, but for a very particular reason. This year, I’d like to follow Christina’s example and ask myself: what particular gifts and qualities is God trying to share with me through the people whom He has placed on my path? And along those same lines, what is it that I am supposed to be sharing with them?

7. Cook My Way Through France

Many people I know have hobbies or other creative pursuits. Cooking is mine. I love to cook, eat, and feed people. I read a cookbook like any other regular book and I especially appreciate literary cookbooks. For my birthday, my husband gave me two: Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan and The Way To Cook, by Julia Child (both culinary heroines and beloved writer friends). I find that cooking is a good time for me to slow down and reflect, to be mindful of the foods I am using and where they came from, to be amazed at simple tools, to revel in scents and textures and the nearly miraculous transformations that happen when ingredients are brought together just so.  France and especially Paris have been beckoning to my heart with increasingly intensity over the last few months. So I’ve decided to give in to the inspiration, embrace my inner Collette, and embark upon an armchair cook’s tour!

8. Practice Mindfulness Throughout the Day

If I do not make an effort to find beauty, it will elude me. Everything is a grace and everything is bestowed by God for my benefit. I will find beauty in the ordinary circumstances of my daily life to the extent that I am willing to put in the effort to look for it. Brother Lawrence was a simple Carmelite monk who taught the practice of the presence of God in daily life. He writes: “The most excellent method of going to God is that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing people but purely for the love of God. We ought not to grow tired of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”  While it is extremely difficult for me to do, I find I need to redirect my attitude and efforts towards their proper end. God Himself is the author of Beauty and every good thing. It is this mindfulness that will allow me to perceive beauty in everyday events and to receive the gift of beauty He wants to give to me, as well as enabling me to hopefully share that same gift with others. But I cannot give what I do not possess.  It is my hope that taking the time this year to nurture the different things I have listed here will help me to make my life more of a gift to those around me and to the One to whom it belongs. 

Do you have plans or resolutions for the new year? Please feel free to share them here!

Wishing all my regular readers and new visitors a healthy, peaceful, and blessed 2012.

Proud . . .

. . . . of my son and his choice to wear his great-grandfather’s naval uniform for Halloween this year. (You can see his great-grandfather, wearing this very uniform standing with my grandmother, in the picture Skippy is holding below)

My grandfather, Jim, was a Quartermaster on the U.S.S. Thatcher destroyer (Little Beaver Squadron) in WWII. He was a proud patriot and gave up a lot to serve the country he loved. With so many of the brave souls who fought in and experienced this war passing on, it is important to us that Skippy know and understand the sacrifices made on his behalf. Interestingly, while out trick-or-treating Skippy met another Navy man. He served on the Midway. We need to remember…..

I know my grandfather would have been thrilled to see Skippy wearing his uniform, and I know my mom would have cried. . . . here’s to you, Grampy. . . .

 

 

 

 

Postscript: Thanks reader David Navarre for pointing out this article on Wikipedia on the USS Thatcher!

USS Thatcher, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.