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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