Friday, December 30, 2011


I had no idea we had a secret recipe.

I enjoy baking very much, but it is one of the things that has fallen by the wayside over the past few years. Even Christmas baking has suffered, and this year was the worst. Holding tightly to my homeschooling/teaching violin/writing schedule until the week before Christmas and then immediately leaving town meant letting go of virtually all Christmas preparations.

Last week, though, while we stayed with my parents, I helped my dad make sandbakkels. He has made these cookies almost every year for as long as I can remember. Often he makes fudge, too—dense, sweet logs of it that have to be kept in the refrigerator wrapped in waxed paper. My mom makes jan hagels—Dutch Christmas cookies that we all love even though we aren’t Dutch. Other sweets have come and gone, but these three desserts are steady companions at my parents' table.

Sandbakkels are Norwegian cookies (many claim they are Swedish, but I have Wikipedia on my side.) The name translates as “sand tart,” the flavor and texture sort of a cross between a sugar cookie and shortbread. Scandinavians, I am convinced, know the secret to good cookies: you don’t need much more than flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. Also, you cannot skimp on butter, and you cannot use what Youngest calls “fake butter.” Of course, there’s also the presentation. Rosettes, krumkake, kringle—the Scandinavian cookies I grew up on were as much about their beauty as their flavor.

To make sandbakkels, the dough is pressed into special fluted tins and baked. After baking, each cookie must be carefully removed from its tin. This, to me, is the tricky part. According to my dad, we got the texture perfect this year—delicate and flaky—but only about half of them survived being removed from their tins. The survivors, though, are lovely, buttery cup-shaped cookies. The ones made in my dad’s tins remind me of paper cupcake liners, those made in my tins remind me of flowers. Although we do not fill ours, they are traditionally filled with fruit or preserves and whipped cream. The ultimate treat, according to my dad, is to use cloudberries, which are shaped like raspberries, but are yellowish-orange and slightly bitter. I think they sound like something out of a Scandinavian fairy tale.

My dad helped his mother make sandbakkels from a young age. She, too, taught music lessons in her living room, and made all the delicious Norwegian desserts my dad remembers from childhood Christmases only with help from her family. Her recipe for sandbakkels was special, different from the many other recipes my dad looked at over the years. Her grandmother taught her how to make them, and she had the recipe written down without any specific amount of flour indicated. Apparently flour changed so much from harvest to harvest at that time that cooks had to know by texture when they had the perfect amount. But she won a blue ribbon at the North Dakota State Fair for her sandbakkels when she was just ten years old, competing against grown women because there was no children’s division for that sort of thing.

Watching my dad work, I was struck by his slow, careful movements. Scraping butter off a spoon required the same attention as pressing dough into a mold, and all of it was an artistic undertaking. This is the man who taught me how to play violin, but that is by no means the only thing I received from him. There is a rhythm to this kind of work that we seem to share, and it is careful, loving. Our tempo for this kind of thing is decidedly andante.

When my dad was still a child, his mother figured out the exact measurement for the flour and sent her recipe in to Better Homes and Gardens. He does not remember what the contest was for, but she never heard back from them. The recipe became their property to do with as they wished.

My grandmother died when my dad was thirteen years old. Although I never knew her, I have always felt a deep connection to her. I have her name for my middle name. I discovered, during my senior year in high school when my favorite hour of the day was spent on a pottery wheel in ceramics class, that the beautiful handmade pots scattered throughout our house were her creations. When I took up knitting I learned that she, also, learned to knit as an adult, and gave all her friends mittens with elaborate colorwork for Christmas one year. Even my allergies, and the fact that all my life, every cold or flu-like illness I get wants to descend to my chest and linger there, connects me to her. She, however, suffered far more than I ever did, and died from a sudden, severe case of pneumonia during a flu outbreak.

My dad kept her recipe for sandbakkels, written on a slip of paper, for many years. Eventually it disappeared, he does not know when or how.

Years later, he found a recipe in a Better Homes and Gardens holiday cookbook that almost exactly matched his mother’s. Nestled among recipes for “Springerle” and “Berliner Kranser” is a recipe for “Sandbakelser” that may or may not be his mother’s, but is close enough to hers that we claim it as our own. There are things missing from it—small, secret details that my dad wants to keep within our family, anyway—but it is something tangible, an assurance. Sometimes the things which we think are lost are in fact, not.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gifts to Share

Recently a friend shared the name of an unspeakably beautiful piece of music with me, and today I want to share it with you: “Spiegel im Spiegel,” by Arvo Pärt.

Earlier this week, another friend shared her heart on the fourth anniversary of the passing of her 9 week old son.

And earlier this fall another friend, whom I have secretly adopted as a mentor (well, I guess it's not a secret anymore) shared the story behind the picture book as her new story about friendship and loss and love came out. (Making a Friend, by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal, S & S/Atheneum, 2011)

Tonight I get to rehearse for my Christmas Eve job, looking forward to a night when friends and families and strangers will gather together in a church, out of the cold and darkness, to sing and worship and pray.

These are things I love: light in the darkness, feeling warmth when surrounded by cold, the sharing of light and life and hope. The sharing of gifts.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

O Christmas Tree

“Are you ready for Christmas?” The ultrasound technician was just making conversation while she worked, but I had to wonder for a moment if she was seeing something while she clicked on the screen that made her think that after I heard the results Christmas would be the last of my concerns. It seemed cruel, really—after having had ultrasounds where the technician turned the screen so we could see our baby, pointed out everything and explained what we were looking at—to have the screen angled away and to try to make cheerful small talk while what I really wanted to know was, “Is something wrong with me?”

“A doctor will read this, and your doctor’s office should have the results by Monday, or Tuesday at the latest. I would call them if you haven’t heard anything by Wednesday.” It was Friday morning. I waited and tried not to let my imagination get the best of me, even though my imagination really likes to run with things like this. I called Monday afternoon and left a message. I called Tuesday morning and found out that the results were sitting on the doctor’s desk but he was out delivering a baby. I called again Wednesday morning and left another, possibly-desperate-possibly-frustrated-sounding message. I got a call back about an hour later with the assurance that everything was fine. Just a small fibroid tumor that will always be benign and may or may not continue to be annoying.

I am incredibly thankful. I was more worried and distracted than I had thought. But now I can get on with life and attend to that question, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

No. I’m not. My semester is over, though, and I feel like I can finally start to think about Christmas. Except it's almost here. True, I’ve made large amounts of toffee and gotten my family to a record number of parties and Christmas programs, but that’s about it. I have not made a single cookie, I’ve barely started thinking about gifts, the advent calendars are still in the basement, and my husband and I can’t find our Yo-Yo Ma “Songs of Joy and Peace” CD anywhere. (And by the way, isn’t The Wexford Carol beautiful?) Oh, and I completely gave up on Christmas cards a year or two ago.

The tree, however, is decorated.

I love our tree. I am forever a fan of real trees—the smell, the imperfection, the realness of them—but our first year in Minneapolis, when my husband was going to school full time and working almost full time and we had two young children and no money, we switched to a fake one. The year before, when we were living in the U.P. and getting ready to leap into the unknown, we had helped a friend clear some trees and ended up with four fresh, fragrant Christmas trees. That first year in Minneapolis we could not afford the smallest, ugliest tree available. But a student gave my husband a gift certificate to Home Depot and we suddenly felt less miserable. We found the most natural-looking, least-gaudy tree we could and now our tree itself, as plastic and without-fragrance and from a box as it is, has something like hope attached to it.

The lights are my job. I don’t mind at all. I love sitting in the semi-dark, untangling lit strands of lights. It is too beautiful to be annoying, and I’m happy when my hands are busy.

Everybody helps hang ornaments, though. I think all three kids got to hang glass balls this year, which means they’ve all reached a certain level of maturity. Even so, I reserved the small iridescent ones for myself. I bought five of them just after I got married, because they looked so much like the ones my parents had on their tree—like frozen, oversized soap bubbles, and just as delicate. They are possibly my favorite ornaments, ever. One of them slipped out of somebody’s hands last year and shattered on the floor. As disappointed as I was, the way the shards quivered and caught the light was still breathtaking.

Also from my first Christmas after getting married are the 35 tiny folded-paper stars that I spent hours making and have hung on every tree since. Every year, my husband has dutifully checked to make sure all the stars got back into the box, mainly because I love them so much and would hate to lose even one.

This year, though, along with the ornaments from my childhood—the manger scene from a Sunday school teacher, the grasshopper from China that my neighbors brought back for me one year, the wooden duck with the scarf and earmuffs that I received from a Secret Santa in Brownie Scouts, and my husband’s childhood—the nutcracker that comes in its own box, the wooden ones that he painted his name and the year on—my kids have their own ornaments imbued with memories. There are miniature handknit sweaters, paper Norwegian woven hearts (here's a tutorial that shows how to make them), and glittery pinecones from past years when I’ve had more time for crafts and planned ahead better. There are Popsicle stick and construction paper ornaments they made in Sunday School, gifts from people they knew “a long time ago,” and ornaments they’ve received as gifts from friends. It seems that, like me, they love the flash of memory that comes with each one as they take it out of the box and hang it on the tree.

I can’t think of a single, perfect Christmas. There are always the traditions that get lost or forgotten, the worries that overwhelm, the people we miss desperately, the things we can’t have, the confrontations that leave permanent scars, the disappointments, the losses, and the demands. And yet, the beautiful things are still beautiful—achingly so—and even if I can’t experience Christmas quite the way I did as a child, the magic of it is still there. It runs deep.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Small Things

I often forget to check pockets when I’m doing laundry. Which means that I’ve found some interesting things in the lint trap—sparkly stones, acorns, plastic “jewels,” the Playmobil crowns Youngest likes to wear as rings. Things worthy of being slipped into a pocket to keep forever.

But really, treasures are everywhere. Last week Middle woke up with the keys to her journal caught in her hair. The kids get time to read in bed every night after we tuck them in, but after the lights go out Middle often stays awake, telling stories to Youngest, or writing in her journal, or reading by flashlight. Her bed collects books, drawings, stories. She looks tired in the morning, but I know how much that time means to her.

I don't know what it is about the kitchen, but it seems to have a secret life as the Depository of Things Without a Home. People come through and shed bits of themselves. A plaster egg Oldest painted at Easter time appears on the windowsill. Books wait for their readers next to the radiator. Postcards perch on a shelf next to packets of seeds I dreamed of planting last spring.

The radiator cover in the downstairs bathroom is devoted to Things Found on Walks. Agates from Lake Superior, "Indian beads" (fossilized crinoid stems), shells, acorns, beach glass. Pieces of the outside world that had to become part of us.

Our bedroom, too, is full of evidences that children have been there. Notes and pictures from the kids, broken jewelry, dolls and stuffed animals, all of it wanders in and stays longer than we intend it to.

I remember my mother's comments after visiting other peoples' houses when I was young: "It looks like people live there," or, "That house seems so sterile." When I go to homes that are lovely and spare and spotless I marvel at the skill it took to achieve such a feat. I also regret my own housekeeping skills. It turns out, though, that as much as I say I value tidyness, I would rather be a champion of small things, of treasures worthy of slipping in your pocket. Dog-eared books and well-loved toys and things old and imperfect and well-loved.

Proof of who has passed through.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Quiet Girl

She must have been only two years old, that day at the bagel shop when the man behind the counter seemed so taken with a quiet girl I know. He asked her several questions while he worked on our sandwiches, but she refused to answer. She only watched him. When he turned his back to get something a few steps away, though, she whispered so quietly only I could hear, “I’m very shy.”

I don’t know if she meant for him to hear it. But I love that she spoke up.

I try not to use the word shy very often. Get her alone and she has a ton to say, as long as you make room for her to speak. But with a rather outgoing brother and a very outgoing sister, she is the one who will stand back, stay quiet, take up as little space as possible. She is often quiet.

What most people see is a very good little girl, carefully held together, delicate. In her dreams—what I know of them at least—she is strong and fierce and wild.

* * *

There was another girl once, a quiet girl in a Jr. High art class who sat alone because she didn’t really know anybody in the class and because she was there to draw, anyway. Because she was quiet and well-behaved and sitting alone, her table became the place to put the disruptive students. Because she was quiet and busy drawing, the other kids talked as if she was not there, and she heard stories. Of skipping school, and hickeys, and gangs, and the older girl who was found shot dead in the park the quiet girl’s school bus drove past every day.

There is something about keeping yourself partly-hidden that allows you to see differently.

A year or two earlier, in sixth grade, the same girl was pulled out of class one day by a speech therapist, who asked her to read out loud. She read very carefully, and very well, and the therapist told her that no, she probably didn’t have a speech problem, but one of her teachers had been concerned because she seemed to stutter when she raised her hand in class. The girl knew which class this was, because the therapist had let slip that it was a female teacher who had been concerned, and the girl’s only female teacher that year was for English—her favorite class. She thought about the rush of shakiness that went through her body whenever she raised her hand, and how sometimes it was hard to get the words out, and she decided it was easier to stay quiet.

She learned she had other ways to speak.

Writing things down was perfect, because her nervousness was hidden. She could get everything out without interruptions, without being told why she was wrong. Putting her words on paper gave her time to think, and gave her a safe distance from which to speak more boldly.

By high school she realized she could speak with her violin, too. She had been playing as long as she could remember, but she rarely thought of it as more than a daily activity. One day, though, she realized while she was playing that she could close her eyes and speak right through her instrument. And she had a new voice.

* * *

I worry, sometimes, that there is a danger in being quiet, in keeping part of oneself hidden, in finding roundabout ways to speak. The hidden-ness can become a habit. When something breaks open inside of this quiet girl I know—I suspect that’s something that happens to everybody at some point—when she steps forward and starts to speak out loud, will it seem like a betrayal to those who thought they had been seeing all of her all along? Maybe all that practice finding other voices, coupled with the strong, fierce, wild self that she nurtures in her dreams, will serve her well.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notes from a Christmas Play

• Sometimes, even though you had your heart set on being an angel, you get the less-beautiful-but-more-perfect role of cranky camel. And you shine.

• Backstage is magic.

• Waiting to see what the 3 and 4 year-olds will do makes for wonderful dramatic tension.

• Tinsel will always have its place.

• One of the most important things about being on stage is locating the people you love in the crowd.

• King Herod looks awesome in cowboy boots.

• A beautiful voice does not have to be loud to be noticed.

• Imperfection is completely endearing.

• 5 pieces of fudge, Kool-Aid, and “just a few” cookies after the show = light dessert.

Please note the newly-missing tooth.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011


Rest (Lat. pause, suspirium; Fr. pause; Ger. pause; It. pausa). A notational sign that indicates the absence of a sounding note or notes; in traditional Western notation every note value has an equivalent form of rest. (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed.)

Music is not only sound, but the absence of sound. Movement and rest. Song and silence. It is hard, sometimes, to convince students that rests are part of the music, not a break from it. “You have to give the rests the same amount of care you give the notes,” I tell them. They are not to be skipped-over or hurried-through. A rest that doesn’t receive its full time, or lasts longer than its intended amount of time, distorts the flow of the music.

In other words, the absence of sound is as meaningful as the presence of it.

Pay attention to the silence.

The silence at the end of a performance, before the clapping begins.
The silence of not wanting to say the thing that will hurt.
The silence within a hug, the things a touch can say without words.
The silence of listening.
The silence of eyes that meet and understand.

I grew up in the world of classical music, which is very much bound to the page. Improvisation is beyond my comfort level in many ways, although I have tried it from time to time. Here, though, is what I know about improvising: don’t try to fill up every space with sound.

It is a different sort of listening, taking note of the silences.

The silence of having a million things to say but not knowing how to start.
The silence after the thing that should not have been said was said.
The silence that descends when one group is allowed to speak and another is not.
The silence of not knowing.
The silence of being at peace.

Back to that definition from New Grove: “…in traditional Western notation every note value has an equivalent form of rest.” One quarter note = one quarter rest, one half note = one half rest, one whole note = one whole rest. And so on.

What if for every word there was an equivalent form of silence?

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Monday, November 28, 2011

A Week of Thanksgiving

A week off and a chance to regroup. New paint in the bathroom (“Valley Mist,” a blue-green-gray hue that reminds me of water and glass and all things transparent.) Burned-out light bulbs get replaced by new ones. I get the haircut I’ve wanted to schedule since August. A small thing, but I feel refreshed.

I go running in a light rain. It sounds like Pop Rocks. At home I do laundry and sort through clean clothes. We have been richly blessed in hand-me-downs, and I want to pass along the things that have been outgrown. Stacks of fabric, clean and colorful and still-warm from the dryer, grow and teeter all around me. My husband helps the children clean their rooms. I meet a friend for coffee.

Today while running I notice the wind chimes. At one point, one particular set pings out notes from “Swan Lake” (see the moment here--particularly at 1:50--but then make sure you stick around for the sunrise at the end.) I wonder if the chimes do this accidentally or by design. More laundry. More room-cleaning. I commit to making a pumpkin-chocolate tart to add to tomorrow’s desserts. I make cranberry sauce and pour it gleaming into a crystal bowl. Every year the brightness of the red strikes me as surreal.

Family. My parents arrive from Minneapolis with baked goods and other lovely things. My mother-in-law brings the turkey and sweet potato casserole. My children have been thinking all month about the fact that Thanksgiving is at our house for a second year in a row, instead of in Lincoln with my grandma. It doesn’t seem right to them to stay home. I miss her, too. I have celebrated Thanksgiving in many different places and ways through the years, though. Some of them just couldn’t feel right, didn’t seem real. A year ago we celebrated in the midst of what I will probably always think of as a year of loss, but it felt very real. This year was different again, but also real. No doubt being with people I love is the key.

A full day with my family. Also Black Friday. I have been thinking all week about this video“Everybody wants to live a life of meaning. And today we live in a money economy, where we don’t really depend on the gifts of anybody, but we buy everything. Therefore we don’t really need anybody, because whoever grew my food or made my clothes or built my house, well, if they died or if I alienate them...that's okay, because I can just pay someone else to do it.” I first saw it here. I encourage you to listen, even if you don’t think you agree with everything you’ve heard about the movement.

I take part in a 5K run/walk sponsored by our local YMCA. It is cold and raining, but I so enjoy the sense of community, my family cheering me on, the act of making myself move forward when I want to quit. I had no illusions about being particularly fast, but am pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t quite as slow as I thought I would be. I hope I never stop setting goals for myself, never stop stretching.

Quiet days are good. Rest is good. Tomorrow I will jump back in to a schedule, and I know how easy it is to forget what I’m trying to be about. Doing, creating, giving, loving—being in the middle of all of it doesn’t mean I always keep my focus. It is good to step back. To give thanks. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. May we all carry that—the giving and the thanks—along with us as we move on through the coming weeks.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving at the Retirement Home

“You have such pretty eyes,”
he told my three year-old daughter.
“And your hair’s real pretty, too.
I think you’re just about perfect.
If you were mine, you’d tell me what to do
and I’d do it, just like that.
I’d do whatever you wanted,
and we’d have fun.”

My daughter listened, wide-eyed,
squirmed her feet a little.
“Pink shoes! Oh, you’re uptown!
That’s what a girl needs, pink shoes.
I tell you, you’re a real doll.
You’re so pretty.
You’ve got pretty eyes,
and your hair’s real pretty, too.”

“What’s your name?”
She asked him, bold with beauty.
He told her, “Marvin,”
and when he asked her name in return
she pronounced it perfectly—
the first time I ever heard her do it.

My grandma told me later that Marvin
never had children or grandchildren.
Saying goodbye,
Stephanie gave him a hug.
I smiled and took his hand
and wished we were his.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trust the Work/Love the Work

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about the SCBWI conference I attended earlier this month. To be honest, though, I'm still processing.

The conference was wonderful. Exciting. Inspiring.

Overwhelming. I seem to be using that word a lot these days.

I’m thankful for the manuscript critique I got, and I feel like I have some concrete ideas about what needs work and how to proceed. Even though (I admit) I was hoping I didn’t have so much work left to do.

I’m thankful to get to hear and meet keynote speakers who were full of insight, and encouragement, and wisdom. They made me want to do and be better.

I’m thankful to have gotten to spend a day with people who are writing and illustrating and creating for children, and, by extension, their families. It is amazing to think of the kind of love and energy and work that goes into a book.

I drove home literally buzzing with ideas and plans, faces and conversations. I got home to my family and received the best round of bear-hugs ever. Pretty much immediately after that, though, a question smacked me between the eyes: When, exactly, are you going to do all this? Because I’m willing to do the work, but I don’t know how it’s going to be anything but impossibly slow. And done in stolen moments—while laundry is piling up, and dinner needs to be made, and people I love need me.

I’ve been giving myself pep talks: No. You will NOT collapse into a quivering heap of despair. I keep telling myself to trust the work and know that it will produce something.

While I haven’t yet collapsed, I’ll admit that things have been up and down since then. They are the usual kinds of ups and downs, swinging from loving how I get to spend my days to frustration with a schedule that seems to constantly demand. How do I clear the time and space to do this work? Do I have the right to even try?

Trust the work.

Every week I send families home from violin lessons with assignments about what to work on and how to do it. I don't tell them how to make that work in their busy lives. I offer suggestions, sometimes, but ultimately it is for them to figure out. My best advice is, “Do some work every day if you can, and work out from there.” I encourage them to trust the work.

I feel like I can do that because I’ve experienced the results of that kind of work, myself. I remember how hard it was to chart my own progress on violin. Most of it was slow, over the course of months and years. But looking back I could see: every etude book, every exercise, all the metronome work and the hours spent on scales, did in fact increase my technique, give me more tools to communicate and express myself. Keeping at it really does make a difference.

By Wednesday, I felt like a wreck. I was convinced everything was suffering: It seemed like either the house was in chaos because I took some time to write, or else I was so busy taking care of everybody and every thing that there was no room for writing. I was caught in a spiral of frustration.

In the middle of all that, I sat down to read Youngest a book. And oh, I love it when a book speaks right into your life. In Crossing the New Bridge, by Emily Arnold McCully (Putnam Juvenile, 1994) the old bridge into town collapses. The mayor and townspeople call on the Jubilatti family to build a replacement, and the mayor believes all his problems are solved. His plans for a triumphal march across the new bridge are crushed, however, when an old woman reminds him of the town’s tradition: the first person to cross the new bridge must be the happiest person in town. If anybody else crosses first, they will all be cursed. The mayor searches all over, looking for the happiest person, but everybody he encounters, although each seems like s/he should be happy, has a complaint. It finally becomes clear that the happiest people in town are the Jubilattis, themselves, because they love their work and do it well.

Love the work.

I know this well, but I forget more often than I’d like to admit. I looked around me again on Wednesday, and saw Oldest, still glowing from a 95 on his math test. He really is learning how to work, and he’s seeing results. Middle was in my office writing with gusto. She recently googled ‘writing prompts for 4th graders’ and is in love with the list she found. She wants to write every day. Youngest was down in the basement, completely absorbed in painting. She has announced to the family that she is an artist.

There are plenty of things my kids have to do every day that they dislike, but there is also work they do--maybe work they were born to do--that they know how to lose themselves in. This has to be one of the great joys in life. How can I not join them? Doesn’t everyone say it’s all in the journey?

Maybe I haven’t fully found my voice yet. That’s a painful thing to admit. Trusting that there is a voice to find, and having joy in the process—these are both fuel and comfort. Seeing my children looking for their own voices, helping them, watching them discover ways to develop them—these things spur me on. We are indeed fellow travelers.

Sometimes I am able to step back from a day I thought I didn’t know how to live and see that it is chugging along just fine, anyway. How good to get the chance to jump back in and join it mid-swing, trusting and loving the work.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

A Path through the Woods

As many Fridays as we’ve been able to manage this fall, we have visited this spot. For the most part, our nature walks have been on the same path, mostly because I want to pay attention to how it changes with the weather, the time of day, the change of seasons. I suspect it changes with our moods. Maybe it will change us, as well.

We take fewer notes, these days. I find myself hoping everything we see and hear and think will simply soak right through our skin, instead, and stay with us, even years from now when we no longer visit this place.

I fell in love with these steps the first time I saw them. They are perfect in their wildness and ruggedness and age. They are also steep. Youngest stumbled on them last week. She refused my help when I offered it. “Don’t worry about it, Mommy. I’m strong.”

The very things that make this spot so stunning also make it a little tough: the hill, the uneven steps, the very ruggedness. Funny how that is. I love those characteristics on a hike, but I rail against them in my life.

Youngest is strong. She continually impresses me. But I went back down to her, and we held hands the rest of the way up. Just because.

I hope this place and these times sink through to the bone.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Rules Every Time

Every move, actually, and only one person ever knows what they are. Sometimes there’s even a mid-game board spin. I love stumbling across things like this, especially during a rough, tired-out week.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Exuberant drawings
2. Face paint
3. The smell of crayons
4. Messy hair
5. Paper scraps
6. Grass stains
7. Continuous humming
8. Invention journals
9. Books falling off beds in the middle of the night
10. “Mom, I really need staff paper!”

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Friday, November 4, 2011

What do You Think?

Please like it. Tell me it's amazing. But also tell me the truth. Somehow truthfully tell me that this is perfect, the best you've ever seen. But yes, of course, assuming it’s not perfect, tell me what I need to work on. What needs polishing. Are you getting ready to tell me it stinks? You’re wondering what I was thinking when I came up with this? You’re trying to figure out how to gently-but-clearly tell me that I’m completely deluded and should go home immediately? I’m ready to work, really. Just tell me what to do. And please tell me you like it. If you like it, that is. Because I only want to hear the truth…

Tomorrow I’m going to my first-ever writer’s conference. It’s not a huge one as far as they go, I think--for a regional chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators--but for me it is a big deal. I sort-of-but-really-don’t know what to expect. I’m looking forward to meeting people, and hearing speakers, and being on my own for 24+ hours. But most of all, I am looking forward to a 15-minute, one-on-one manuscript critique.

I had weekly violin lessons for more than 20 years. I’ve been teaching in one capacity or another ever since then. I’m very used to the idea of regular feedback, and I’m well aware of how difficult it is to judge one’s own work. I can’t count how many times I felt satisfied with my playing only to find out I still had a long way to go. There were just as many times, though, that I felt miserable about a performance only to be told that it went very well. It’s amazingly easy to latch on to one good or bad thing and allow that alone to define the entire work or performance.

Tomorrow I’m hoping for something similar to a short violin lesson for my writing. Part of me, naturally, wants to hear only wonderful things, but I know too well how helpful the this-might-hurt-right-now-but-it’s-the-truth stuff is. I’m trying to be prepared for anything, but my head is spinning.

Is that passage in tune? Does this phrase make sense? Is my sound projecting? Am I making enough of the dynamics at the end? Where do I need to focus my attention? What works?

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Monday, October 31, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. A book and hot coffee
2. Rose-colored mums
3. Frost-glittered grass
4. Marble sky
5. Leaf skeletons
6. Smell of wood smoke
7. Sliver of moon
8. Roasted marshmallows
9. Quiet
10. Down comforter

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Friday, October 28, 2011


When I was four I spent a night alone in the hospital in an oxygen tent. I remember very clearly the pink plastic butterfly attached to the I.V. in my arm, the way it rested on top of the white tape the nurse had wrapped carefully over the needle. I remember the view from my bed, walled off by clear vinyl, and wondering what I was supposed to do when I had to go to the bathroom. I remember, too, patiently explaining to somebody (a nurse?) that no, I wasn’t having trouble sleeping, I simply slept with my eyes open. What else could be the explanation? All I ever remembered from the night before was lying in bed, eyes wide open, waiting to fall asleep. Something told me this was a strange explanation, though, because I also remember pretending to be asleep every time somebody walked past my partly-opened door. Open-eyed sleeping would be hard for most people to understand.

*          *          *

There is a certain clarity to the hours I’ve spent awake at night. The moments that stand out are dream-like; an understandable thing considering their close proximity to sleep. They carry the understanding and detachment of dreams. The vividness, too. They are marked by the darkness and quiet that surround them, framed by solitude.

*          *          *

Another hospital bed, in the middle of the night, holding a newborn who looks up at me with eyes that are impossibly dark, alert and wise and deep.

Huddled in bed between my parents after a bad dream, safe only here, under these covers, no matter how cramped or hot it is. My own bed is cold and dangerous.

Leaning over the crib railing, dizzy with exhaustion, stroking silky-fine hair and singing, praying that each of us would soon find sleep.

Sitting on the couch in the living room in the middle of the night, knitting a scarf for my mom. There is nothing else I can do, nowhere else I can attach my mind or heart. The tiny new flicker of life inside of me has turned to ash, and everything else threatens to come unbound and drain out of me along with it.

A dorm room late at night, and lots of reading left to do. The satisfaction of underlining things I want to remember is palpable. So, too, is the feeling that my mind is changing shape, making room for new ideas, stretching itself wide as a single phrase pulls everything into focus.

Farther back, in high school, finishing an art project. Realizing that this—the process of creating something—is the one thing that can keep me happily awake all night, fully absorbed.

Lying in bed and unable to sleep because of a first first night alone at argument with my mom...the night before my wedding.

Standing in the hallway listening to the rhythms of three sleeping children, feeling that as much as I love them I have once again failed them completely.

A cabin in northern Minnesota the summer before my 11th birthday. My first time at overnight camp, and the two weeks have covered a lifetime. A younger girl is crying because she is homesick, and I let her sleep next to me for comfort. I miss my own parents fiercely.

*          *          *

I’ve always considered myself a morning person. I like to be up early, and even though I enjoy sleeping in sometimes, I get restless if I stay in bed too long. Daylight is what feels real; I wear it as naturally as my own skin. But these moments at night give off their own light. In the darkness, when everything around me is still, the things I fear and the things I love are illuminated, and everything shifts into focus.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Pilgrim to Another

How often do you hear yourself saying something instructive to a child, only to wonder who the words were really meant for?

My favorite this week:

Honey, writing the words “Cowgirl Shirt” on it with a crayon will not make it a cowgirl shirt.

I think I’ll be chewing on that one for a while.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:











What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Power of Community

It's not about turning out prodigies or wunderkinds. It's not about living vicariously through your children. It's not even about playing violin (or piano, or harp, or flute, or cello, or guitar, or viola, or bass.) It's about how we raise our children, it's about community, it's about truth and beauty and excellence and nobility.

The older I get, the more I realize that this was a crucial element of my childhood, and it influences in more ways than I can count what I am working to do with my own children and with my students:

Monday was the 113th anniversary of Shinichi Suzuki's birth. This week the Suzuki Association of the Americas is working to get the word out about his vision, as well as raise funds for their continuing work. To learn more about the SAA, please follow this link.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. E –A – D – G (same as a violin)
2. Admitting it would be fun
3. A birthday surprise
4. Trying
5. In spite of feeling silly
6. In spite of feeling awkward
7. Sore fingers
8. Delicate, crystal sound
9. Finding stolen moments to practice
10. Developing a new voice

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Friday Morning

This schedule is becoming part of us—life all mixed up, one thing blending into another, seams overlapping, as we all work to grow, expand outward, learn to love a little better.

Friday runs are complicated by Oldest’s newest activity. The boy with the habit of breaking into song has finally stopped claiming he hates to sing and joined the before-school choir. He loves it. And because I can’t manage to get up earlier, I’ve worked my run around his schedule: wake up Oldest, make sure he gets out of bed. Run two miles while he gets dressed and starts breakfast. Return home, wake up the girls, drive Oldest to the school. Park. Oldest goes inside for choir, I run twice around the path that circles the local schools, and we meet up back at the car to go home again.

Running this morning, I realize the sunrise is a friend I’ve come to count on. The thought that in a few weeks the time change will leave my entire run in the dark is a little daunting. The discouraging lines that run through my head some days (“But can she keep up the pace? Does she have the endurance?”) are challenged by the fact that I have recently worked myself up to running five miles most mornings. If I can build up my physical endurance, I have hope for my emotional and spiritual endurance, as well. The emotional meaning to the physical discipline is not lost on me. I feel strong these days, and—nice bonus—my rear is smaller. I will simply have to run in the dark, brace for the cold, find warmer clothes. Quitting isn’t an option this time.

On our way to the school, Oldest is full of plans for selling magazine subscriptions and cookie dough—fund-raisers for band and choir. This is a new concept for him, and he is enthusiastic. In fact, we have added a lot of new experiences this fall, and his enthusiasm for it all is amazing to see. He is flourishing. I drop him off at the door, park the car, and finish my run.

A fifty- or sixty-something gentleman coming towards me on the path smiles and tells me I’m in great shape—keep it up. When we pass each other again on the opposite side of the circle, he asks how many times I’m going around. I hold up my fingers, say “twice,” and he grins. “Wow! You’re doing great!” I’ve never been a particularly strong or fast runner, but I eat up the encouragement. I feel strong, healthy, maybe even almost fast.

I am determined to keep running because I want to be stronger, yes. Also because while I may argue with you that middle-aged is whatever age my parents are, (hasn’t it always been that way?) it’s hard to escape the fact that in less than a year my 30s will be behind me completely. I remember being a little puzzled that my grandma would say she felt the same as she did when she was 25, or that she always referred to her friends as “girls.” Shouldn’t you, after all, be comfortable referring to your peers as “women” by the time you were in your 80s or 90s? But it is becoming ever clearer to me how these things could be. I, too, feel like I could still be somewhere in my 20s. And I am always a little dismayed when college-age men call me “Ma’am.” I may be getting older, but I am determined to fight feeling old.

I am almost finished with my run when I see a crowd of people on the sidewalk ahead of me. I had noticed them gathering at the park down the street my first time around, but now they are walking past the high school—adults with children—some in strollers, a few weaving through the group on bikes. It occurs to me that maybe I know what this is, and the chills that go through my body are hard to manage while running.

One week ago, on another lovely Friday, an 11 year-old boy was found in the woods nearby, apparently dead by his own hand. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that these people are walking in his memory, showing their love and grief. I see nothing in the news about this later, hear nothing in the community. But the possibility is there.

There are other reasons I run, too. The reasons I don’t talk about. There are days when I am running to throw off the frustration and anger that sometimes want to overwhelm me. To release those feelings that come up from dark, hidden places and show themselves in the light of day. “How could somebody do something like that?” people say sometimes, when they hear a particularly terrible news story. I always wonder, “Do they really not know?”

I look towards the parking lot, and there is Oldest, my own precious 11 year-old boy, leaning out the drivers’ side door, a flash of bright blue waving at me. I cut towards him across the lawn, leaving the sidewalk to the walkers. I don’t want to pass them, I don’t want to turn away, but giving them space seems appropriate. Besides, Oldest is waiting for me to take him home. I try to imagine him feeling the kind of pain the other 11 year-old boy felt, and I am in tears by the time I get to the car.

When he was a preschooler and getting braver about venturing out away from me, I always tried to make sure Oldest was wearing a brightly-colored shirt when we went to the playground. I was so worried about losing him. Perhaps the bright color—orange or yellow or blue, usually—would help me keep track of him while he played, make it harder for him to wander too far away from me.

My back is to the walkers now. They look so normal, the children all moving just the way you would expect children to move when they are going for a walk outside with their parents. Oldest has been singing for half an hour, and he is still full of music. He asks why I am crying. He is oblivious, I think, to the kind of pain that makes a person feel like they have no options left. But I don’t know if it will always be that way. I struggle to explain how I can hurt for a stranger simply because he hurt, or how I can feel tied to him because he is the same age as my own son. Does he know how terrified I have felt at losing him, even months before he was born? He is solemn for a moment. He is a compassionate being, a deep-feeling soul, but this is a little beyond him. That’s probably a good thing, I think. 11 years old should be too young to understand some of these things.

                                                 “Come away, O human child!
                                                 To the waters and the wild
                                                 With a faery, hand in hand,
                                                 For the world’s more full of weeping than you
                                                          can understand.”
                                                                  From “The Stolen Child,” by William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Free Music and a Challenge

This isn’t new, but it’s new to me, and definitely worth checking out: violinist Tasmin Little’s free download (with sleeve inserts you can print out for the CD case, even) and her Three Step Challenge (listen to her spoken introduction to each work, listen to the music, and then attend a concert, buy a CD or write to her and tell her why you can’t/won’t do either.) Click here.

The CD is called “The Naked Violin” and consists of three works for unaccompanied violin: Partita No. 3 in E Major by J. S. Bach, Luslawice Variations Op. 50 by Paul Patterson, and Sonata No. 3 in D minor “Ballade” by Eugène Ysaÿe. A chance to hear and respond to some beautiful music. Do take the time to listen, kids and adults, alike.

Monday, October 10, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Sudden shower of leaves
2. Deep blue sky
3. Tang of dry leaves
4. Woods lit gold
5. The crackle underfoot
6. Flashes of red
7. Seed-head silhouettes
8. Swaths of bronze grass
9. Tree-branch lace
10. Moments of utter quiet

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Refrigerator-climbing and Other Noble Pursuits

“Does this music make you want to dance?” I felt like dancing, and Youngest was hopping around restlessly nearby while I made lunch. “No, it makes me want to climb up the refrigerator,” she answered.

At first I took this as a perfect illustration of the great difference between us, the introverted play-it-safe mom and the extraverted wild child. But maybe not. The more I think about it, the more it strikes me that maybe it was a better illustration of a shared personality trait.

When I go to a museum, I return home with itching fingers and a head full of the things I want to make. When I read an amazing book, I want to respond in kind—to capture thoughts, feelings, moments, maybe even light itself—in a perfect stack of bound paper you can hold in one hand and call up at will just by opening the cover. When I hear people making music, I don’t want to sit and let it wash over me; I want to join in, to be in the middle of that swirl of sound, adding my voice to the texture.

I wonder sometimes if this isn’t a condition for which people are encouraged to take medication. There is so much I want to do, so much I want to read, to see, to hear, to create, to play, so many challenges I want to take. Then there are all the opportunities I want to give my kids, all the things I want to say yes to. How does a person not explode with all of it? Or climb a few refrigerators, for that matter?

Then again, how many times have I been in complete dismay over the mess? The chaos? How many times do I have to force myself to let go and allow water to spill, paint to be splattered, Play-Doh colors to be mixed and (heaven help me) all the supplies to get used up, dried-out, or cut to pieces? It is a hard thing to want to be good and safe and responsible while also desiring to nurture some sort of familial hotbed of creativity. Sometimes I recognize the creative goodness all around and revel in it. Other times it sort of looks like a disaster.

How easy to forget that these three are actually quite a bit like me. My kids don’t play or create or imagine in straight lines and neat piles any more than I do. It makes for an interesting home life and yes, a messy house.

Sometimes I think the biggest challenge we have right now, as individuals and as a family, is to learn how to channel all that energy. I wonder who will grow up first, Mom or kids? And what would that actually look like? Is it possible you the reader are reading this and thinking that we’re all actually right where we’re supposed to be, learning and growing together?

So far, I haven’t found anybody on top of the refrigerator, but I have to say: these three mysterious beings I live with are in the habit of surprising me quite often. Who could possibly say what is waiting around the corner?

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Monday, October 3, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. An opening that shimmers
2. Violin line that plunges and soars
3. Low brass
4. Light against dark
5. Contrast of spare sound with lush
6. Thundering timpani
7. Brooding melodies
8. Moments where time and movement are suspended
9. Full-out, passionate everything
10. Overlapping power and delicacy

Listen to the Sibelius Violin Concerto performed by Itzhak Perlman

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

What I Saw

What a blessing that we "have" to take a weekly nature walk these days. The woods are full of treasures: