Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Invoking Janus

Looking foward, looking backward.   Like Janus, we stand at the gate of the new year, and reflect while gazing ahead.

Here are two poems that make me think about that certain kind of retrospection that makes you look ahead with hope, too.  

The first is by William Stafford, from his collection Even in Quiet Places.  

You Reading This: Stop

Don't just stay tangled up in your life.
Out there in some river or cave where  you
could have been, some absolute, lonely
dawn may arrive and begin the story
that means what everything is about.

So don't just look, either:
let your whole self drift like a breath and learn
its way down the trees.  Let that fine 
waterfall-smoke filter its gone, magnified presence
all through the forest.  Stand here till all that
you were can wander away and come back slowly,
carrying a strange new flavor into your life.
Feel it?  That's what we mean.  So don't just 
read this.  rub your thought over it.

Now you can go on.

The second poem is by Linda Pastan, from her collection Carnival Evening.

The Happiest Day

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn't believe.  Our children were asleep 
or playing, the youngest as new 
as the smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed 
their roots would be shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn't even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee.  Behind the news of the day--
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere--
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then...
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected 
color of the lilac.  Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

With each of these poems, my thoughts skip like a stone across the pond to a future me.  My mind whirls when I imagine the bright rings left behind in the skittering path of years, glittering like the sun on the water.   

Wishing you a bright new year.  May your 2009 be filled with hope and light and bright shining moments.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bokeh, baby

I'm not really a gadget person--I have a pay-by-the-minute cell phone, and that says it all. But I do love, LOVE my camera, which is a Canon Digital Rebel xti. I am the farthest thing from even a hobbyist as a photographer, but I take so many photos I think I will burn out my hard drive. The digital camera just begs to take shot after indiscriminate shot, and so our photo file has almost 8000 photos, lots of which I could discard, but haven't.

All of that aside, many of photos I take are just experiments with composition or light or subject, whatever. Here is my latest experiment, and I thought I'd share it with you.

Bokeh is the light effect of blurred little hearts that you see in this photo of Ada.  Bokeh is not really the blur, but describes the character of the blurred elements behind the object in focus. There are many great websites that talk about the nuances of bokeh, including this one by Ken Rockwell.  Bokeh can be the way the points of unfocused light blur naturally, or you can make your own bokeh lens hood to create different shapes with the light.  I used hearts, but you could come up with whatever you like.

I love the way you can create bokeh with Christmas lights in the background, and so I tried to make a few shots myself, using my little handmade bokeh lens hood. I learned how from this site on DIY photography.

Here is my lens:

As you can see, it is the sloppiest handmade thing ever.  I used dark paper, some scotch tape, and I cut the heart out with a scissors.   I traced the circular lens and cut a circle from the dark paper.  I cut a strip to go around the lens.  Then I cut a heart in the center of the paper circle.  I taped it all up.  Then I slipped it over my camera's lens.  Making this took me all of 2 minutes, obviously.  
To my credit, I made a neater second one with a cute little Martha Stewart heart-punch, but it was too small, and didn't let enough light in to get a real focused shot.   My first slop-job did the trick with the light, and so it was good enough.

The lens I used is the one I use most: A Canon 50mm 1:1.4. It takes some really nice pictures in low light. I almost always hate a flash, and this lets me do what I want without one, for the most part.

To get the photos, I had to get the blur, or bokeh, far enough into the background, so by trial and error I found that Ada had to move some distance (maybe 5 feet) from the tree to be the object of the focus. Then the background of the lights naturally fell out of focus, and caught the light in the shape of the lens hood hole.

Here are a few more shots I got later at night. This time I had problems getting a good image of the object in front of me, probably because I wouldn't turn on lights. 
And because our tabby kitty kept moving toward the lens to be petted. But I do like these hearts floating behind her silhouette, and while I'm sure I'm alone in this, I love this softy shot of our favorite quilt on my knee. 

If you still have your Christmas or Hanukah lights up, you should make a little bokeh experiment for yourself. Very fun, very cheap, and only takes a few minutes.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Five on Friday

A holiday redux:

1.  It is wonderful to live in a town where you get Christmas carolers on your doorstep, and receive plates of cookies neighbors on all sides. It is not a good idea to eat too many of the cookies you receive, as by Christmas, you will feel more like Santa in a really tangible and pudgy way. 

2.  One of the best parts of my Christmas weekend was the midnight prep the night of Christmas Eve. My sweet husband and I, in our matching pjs, clandestinely filled stockings by the dim lights of the fireplace.   As we carted in the surprises, we had a moment to ourselves to savor the quiet and the magic glow of Christmas.

3.  Christmas cards are so fun to receive. Each day of going to the post box is like getting a little treat. That said, it's with some shame that I admit we didn't send them this year. Instead, I'm resolving to send some kind of cards early in the next year--New Years? Valentine's Day? Sometime before March would be good! 

4.  A good sneeze is ofen a cure for a terrible cough. This sounds like a Yogi Berraism, but it's true. I found it out accidentally while suffering from a nasty little cold we've been enjoying this Christmas. My coughing fits were absolutely relieved by a sneeze. For real. The other thing that helps is a gargle. Or a snifter of Cognac-like drink--Nivan is our favorite choice. 

5.  The week between Christmas and New Years is a gift in itself. Free from deadlines, purpose, obligation, and built-up excitement, each member of our family is visibly more relaxed. I, personally, am going to take a few naps, long baths, and read a few of the books on my list. One of the first on my list of books is the one I got from Uncle E: Serena, by Ron Rash. 

However you celebrate this season, I hope your week was beautiful, and that the next one brings you peace and ushers you into a wonder-filled new year.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

A poem for Christmas

little tree

by: e.e. cummings

Little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you're quite dressed
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they'll stare!
oh but you'll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we'll dance and sing
"Noel Noel"

Merry Christmas!

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Ho ho hold on a minute

Cue the music: "It's the most wonderful time of the year." And it's one of the craziest. Regardless of how much planning I do, how much ahead of time finding and wrapping and making, I am invariably behind. It's like a rule of nature.

Of all my lists (and there are many), my list of Christmas projects is usually the longest, and the most involved. And every year, I fail to complete about 50% of it.

I should put it on the calendar:
December 19th: Have a small breakdown because today you will realize the "great Christmas list" will not be finished. Feel sad, feel overwhelmed. Worry about how Christmas will not happen because of incompleted (fill in blank here).

I know I'm not alone in feeling the pressure to "make" a good Christmas for our family. The holidays do indeed conjure ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

For me, the ghosts of Christmas past seem to urge me to control every element of the whole season with deadly earnestness. As one might guess from my accounts of my own childhood holiday seasons, parts of my childhood were chaotic. Christmas was, for most years, a fun though limited blip on the screen of our family, something to be experienced in its entirety in the space of 36 hours, including the decorating, cooking, and gift-preparation. I am the cliche of the rebellious adult child, and I have shaped my own family life in the mirror image of the compressed holiday. Ours is a lingering, slow experience, with presents or small advent events each day of December. It sounds lovely, and it is. But I've also fooled myself into thinking that the perfect Christmas is a handmade Christmas, from the gifts to the decorations, And it's this misconception that gets me into trouble every single year.

Though I'm not sure you'd know it if you saw me, there is some part of me that shudders with fear at the thought of not making good on all my Christmas plans. Seriously, I quake at the thought of not finishing the stockings for each of us by Christmas eve. Where will Santa put his gifts? Never mind that we do have store-bought stockings that work quite well and look cute. I've dropped the ball--and I'm "ruining" Christmas.

Don't forget the handmade mouse (with babies), the flannel pjs and matching pillowcases, the embroidered felt ornaments for each of the girls, the collaged bookmarks for each of us, the gumdrop chain for the tree, the Santa outfit for Mr. Mouse, the Christmas pjs for Ada's babies, the matching Santa sacks for us to use each year, and the holiday skirt for Ada and the corduroy jumper for Esme. There is much more to add to this list, but I will stop boring you and overwhelming myself with it now.

This is where I stand today, and where I stand on so many Christmases, surveying all of the unfinished things, each in some form of progress, stacked around my studio and serving as reminders of my inadequacy. I just can't do enough.

But wait, I said I had conjured the ghosts of Christmas present and future, and this is what they tell me:
This whole month of December has been full, so full, of beautiful moments for our family. And there are gifts aplenty, even homemade ones, to give to our family. My husband would tell you, as sagely as Dickens' ghosts, that the best present I can give him and myself is to be present. For his ideal image of Christmas, I am calm and with them on Christmas eve, not fussing about the perfect wrapping, shiny bows and the best frosted cookies, etc.

The ghosts of Christmas future will forgive me if I don't finish all the great homemade projects. So will my kids. What they won't forget (or perhaps forgive) is the frantic and manic mommy that emerges on December 19th each year, fitfully aiming for a phantom ideal that eludes her each time.

I have made my lists, and the list is as long this year. But this year is different. This year, I give myself and my family a present of being. Just being, and being enough, too.

I'm signing off now to laze on the couch and watch Grinch with Ada, and then make messy, frosted cookies for Santa.

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Sugar plum tuckered out

This is after a long weekend of a "staycation," in which we visited a local town, stayed at a hotel, saw the movie Desperaux, and shopped. Time for resting!

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sneak Peek

My dear friend Bari, who is the artist behind Bari J., has been at work on a bag for me.  She recently sent me this sneak peek of the design, and I had to share.

Bari and I know each other from way back when we were pre-teens, and she has always been an amazing person, from the way she sees the world and translates it into art, to the way she dedicates herself wholeheartedly to anything she does.   I've used the phrase "force of nature" to describe her, and it fits.   She's got an infectious smile, a wicked sense of humor, and she is honest, honest, honest.   Did I mention she can sing?  I'm gushing, I know, but I just love her, and I'm so pleased to see her make her dreams come true.  And now she's making one of mine come true with this bag she's making in the "three chickies" theme.

It's too late to order from her for Christmas, but you should think about being your own post-holiday Santa and look at her work.  She has lovely, detailed handbags and accessories, and she'll soon have her own line of fabrics available.  Did I mention she's amazing?

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Friday, December 19, 2008

In Just One Year--a note to Ada

Thursday was a big day for us.   Ada's end-of-semester assembly, for the end of her first-ever semester.  As I watched her, sparkling on the stage in her pink sequins and shiny voice, my eyes welled up with pride and amazement as I reflected on how much she has done in a single year.  Allow me to share an open letter to her with you:

Oh Ada, you are our shiny star.  Here is some of what you have done since last Christmas:

You can now read!  You started reading in February, and you took to it like a duck to water.  You read everything you see, and scour our shelves for new books, and delight in the library at school.   You love narrative, and you love when we read to you.  James and the Giant Peach, Cherry Ames, Desperaux, and the Bobbsey Twins have been so fun to discover and rediscover through your eyes.  All of this reading is thrilling for your dad and me.   It is a pleasure you will never tire of, and one that will enrich your life immeasurably.   

You can swim!  For you, getting into the water was not as easy as getting into a book, but true to your strong self, you tried and tried.  This year, you not only shed your "floaty suit," but you also managed to get your face in the water.   And then at your lesson this Thursday, you swam real strokes, face in the water, no floaty needed.   Better yet, you wanted to stay and swim and swim and swim!  Oh dear girl, you are proving to yourself you can do anything you set your mind to.  We are so proud of you!

This September, you stood up to your fear of meeting new children, and you strode bravely into school.   Again and again, you proved to yourself and all of us around you how grown-up you are, how caring and outgoing and wise you are.  You not only made friends with all of the kids in your class, but you've become known as a go-to gal, a real friend.  You help G. with his shoelaces and N. with his rowdy behavior.   You comfort friends like G. when she is sad.  When E. was rude to you on the playground, you stood up for yourself, strongly and politely , saying "I will speak to you when you apologize, E."  E apologized, and you forgave her easily, explaining to me, "E just had a rough day. She won't act like that to me again."  And you were right.   Your generosity extends beyond your forgiveness, too.    If you have something nice, you love to give it to someone else, too.  You share your snacks and bring treats and pictures for friends (and their dogs, sometimes too).  

There are a million other things you have shown us in the past year  Here are a few more:
  • You care for creatures smaller than yourself.  We were impressed with how you cared for your pets, the snails.
  • You can take amazing photos.  You already know how to share your beautiful viewpoint with the world!
  • You are brave!  With school, with swimming, with trying things new.  This year you were brave enough to talk to Santa.
  • You are responsible.  You can get yourself ready each morning, including brushing teeth and putting on a headband!  
  • You take a commitment seriously.  You get to work on your homework first thing, even on a playdate.  You know that when the work is done, you will be free to play.

Ada, you are a wonderful girl, and once again, you have given us a wonderful year.  Your daddy and I know that each year will bring you closer to adulthood, and those years seem to trip away at an ever-accelerating speed.  I remind myself all the time to stop and feel how much beauty you bring to my world and to everyone you meet.  

love, Mommy

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poetry for a Thursday

On my "treasure plan," I'm finding treasure all over, every day. One of the best places to look is in my collections of poetry. Here's a gem by Debra Spencer in her collection Pomegranate.  

"First Decade"

Water is not always warm.
If you lean too far out of the high chair, the floor will hit you in the head.
The leaves of geraniums smell better than the flowers.
The safest place to be is in my father's arms.
Every word has its own color.
Singing is like flying.

If you tell Candace Fields a secret, she keeps it.
Sometimes there's nothing to eat but turkey soup.
When they fall into the bathtub, library books make a big splash.
It takes a lot longer to fill a coffee can with shelled walnuts than it does to eat them.
It's worth walking all the way around the block to avoid Timmy Weems.
A baseball card over the hole in your shoe keeps your sock clean.
Everybody else asks their mom first.

No everybody wears the same kind of underwear.
No matter how stuck the bread is, you can't stick your knife in the toaster.
A baloney sandwich smells like lunch at breakfast and garbage at lunch.
If you're only as big as Taro Inoke, they can sew the finger back on.
If you beg hard enough, you'll get the white Keds.
Michael Gilroy's lips feel good against my cheek.

Even Taymor Johnson gets sunburned.
If you're one of the Schumtzes, you have to spit out your pomegranate seeds.
Boys like Louis Trachtenberg make fun of you but give you their cupcake.
I can think anything I like, and no one will ever know.
I'm going to die.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Girls and Dolls Tea Party

The tea party was a success. It was all the things a tea party for dolls and girls should be, I think. Real paper invitations, real tea, real china cups, real linens, real bears and dolls.   I filled plates and plates with cookies and little sandwiches. The girls filled themselves with candy canes, sticky ribbon candy, and hot chocolate and whipped cream.

Here is what I learned about tea parties for seven-year olds:

  • Fifteen girls at an inside party is equal parts exciting and exhausting. 
  • Seven-year-old girls do not serve themselves tea and cookies. They wait like sweet baby birds for someone to serve them. The little tea table I set up with sugar bowls and cream and various pots of flavored tea remained untouched.  
  • Tea is not the drink of choice for a group of little girls. We went through a gallon of hot cocoa, and two cans of spray whipped cream. One cup was filled with tea, and that was Ada's.
  • Candy is a must, but not all candy will be eaten.  In fact, most candy will be tasted, or simply licked to see if it is good, and then disposed of--whereever.   Based on the number of sticky bits we found about the house, ribbon candy looks much yummier than it tastes.
  • If you serve hot chocolate, you should use chocolate milk and then just heat it up in large quantities.  What you should not do is this: have your poor husband make cocoa from scratch, heat it on the stove, and serve it from china pots, especially when he will need to make and pour a gallon of it in 30 minutes.   If he does all of this, including adding whipped cream to each cup multiple times, he deserves a reward, like your undying love.  Or something else good.

  • Tea time is quiet time. Quiet as in "what-are-we-doing-here?" quiet. For some reason, I had the crazy notion that they would talk to each other while they ate and drank tea, like some facsimile of Victorian ladies. No. They were ladylike, but super quiet, save for the munching of cookies. A few of them shot me strange glances over their teacups, as though they were biding their time, waiting to be done. "Just get on with it, lady," I imagined they thought.
  • Don't serve sandwiches, especially not ones made with smoked salmon and cream cheese, unless Ada is your only guest, in which case you should have many on hand.
  • Because not all little girls are Francophiles, don't call quiche by its French name. It prefers to be called "cheesy egg puff with bacon." It is much more popular that way. 
  • Sugar cubes are as good as candy, and much more fun to eat when picked up with silver grabby tong thingies.  When dispensed this way, fifteen girls can eat almost one bowl of sugar cubes in an afternoon.
  • Crafts are good and necessary for large groups of girls at parties. In my elegant planning, I had envisioned that for our 15-minute craft, I would supply each girl with a wool felt stocking, which they could embellish with sequins, buttons, and felt. 

  • Free form crafts are best.  In my not-so-elegant reality, I actually only finished 4 stockings, so that changed my plans. The embellishments became the craft, and I just dumped bunches of craft materials onto our dining table. The girls then could make their own ornaments, using cookie cutters as shapes, and adding the sparkle as they wished. As things so often do, this worked out much better than my original thought, as the girls were more than ready to be done with tea, and they needed to fill an hour with crafts. Our family room was filled with cookie cutters, glitter, sequins, buttons, and giggling, and it was clear to me that 15 uniform stockings would have been a disaster.
  • Lay out the rules ahead of time. Even the most ladylike and well-dressed girls can be lured into thinking doing gymnastics is a good and fun thing to do in someone's living room. Near a glass cabinet. Using the cushions from the couch.
  • Parents can and should be encouraged to stay. Some parents did stay, and that made a world of difference for the craft time, when we needed many hands to help trace and cut felt into shapes of gingerbread men, stars, and candy canes. It also meant that someone besides Ada could enjoy the smoked salmon and tea.

  • Six types of homemade cookies is overkill. While the frosted citrus sugar cookies were a huge hit, the girls were oblivious to amazingness of my gingery, crispy palmiers (with homemade puff pastry--high fives to me!). In fact, they did not touch them. I reveled in my cookie-baking prowess alone. 
  • Tea cups as favors is a fun and good idea. I scoured thrift stores all week to find cups and saucers for each girl. Sitting on the table, waiting patiently for their guests to arrive, they looked lovely.
  • Seven-year-old girls speak their minds. The teacup favor was refused quite plainly by two girls, who said "I don't like tea, I don't want your cup." Okay. Got it. 

  • It is good to save your favorite cookie and teacup for yourself, to enjoy after the party is over.

  • Post-party tables and tablecloths make great tent-houses for girls.
  • Final lesson: Ada and Esme love having parties. They were amazing hostesses, and their smiles lit the room. Taking all that I learned into account, this should be an annual event.

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Taking a moment

I'm a master at stating the obvious--I've been away for a few days.  So much of the past week has been fun--making treats for the tea party, preparing for Christmas, and getting ready for a visit from my parents.  And yet all of it has been tainted with a deep sorrow for my friend, Kim, and her family.   It hasn't felt right to just prattle on about all the trivial joys of my day.

It's a time of year for this sort of juxtaposition--endings and beginnings, happiness and great emptiness, togetherness and loneliness.    Even the religious celebration of Christmas is actually celebrating not just the birth of Jesus, but also his ultimate gift: his death.   

And so it is that I am feeling those contrasts vividly.  I feel compelled to take a moment from the fun and cutesy photos and writing to acknowledge it.   I feel that sticky mixture of happiness and loss, and I embrace it as part of being human. I will breathe. And be. And be awash in the morass of feelings for just a moment... 

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Crossing to another shore

For Kim. 

When a Friend Dies

When a friend dies
the salmon run no fatter.
The wheat harvest will feed no more bellies.
Nothing is won by endurance
but endurance.
A hunger sucks at the mind
for gone color after the last bronze 
chrysanthemum is withered by frost.
A hunger drains the day,
a homely sore gap
after a tooth is pulled,
a red giant gone nova,
an empty place in the sky
sliding down the arch
after Orion in night as wide
as a sleepless staring eye.
When pain and fatigue wrestle
fatigue wins.  The eye shuts.
Then the pain rises again at dawn.
At first you can stare at it.
Then it blinds you.

--Marge Piercy, from The Moon is Always Female

You Know Who You Are: This is for You, My Friend

You went west to where the mountains stop,
and did not stop, but built a home
a whole new life that was not new
to you but real as Kansas loam.

Always in you mind was that far 
place whence you came and that far place
where you  were.  Distance you would bridge
--root trunk limb--all the ways

you could say Friend and mean it such
a way no stream could be denied.
The door stands open in that home,
the special chair for us reserved.

Friend, take this small token, if you
will, as tribute from all of us 
who have too long remained silent
about your heart and human trust.

--Jim Barnes, from The Sawdust War

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Because we aren't busy enough at Christmastime

We decided to plan a tea party. For fifteen little girls.
It's going to be the real deal, with china cups and doll companions, and various sweets and cakes and sandwiches, etc.
At least, that's the plan.

So we are whipping this thing together now. And while it's a time-eater, look how happy Ada is about the idea.

Here she is in front of a tea tableau I composed. Now if only the rest of my house looked so orderly...

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Book List with Uncle E. Part 2

In my last post, I talked about fiction and poetry--some great picks for gifts for yourself or someone else.
Because I am so long winded, I needed to continue into today, so I could mention some of my recent favorites from other genres.

While I am picky with which books I label as "great," with genre I don't play favorites. I really do read everything, from fiction to philosophy to history, to sci-fi, and sometimes even (yikes!) cozy mysteries and pop "chick-lit". (You won't find any of those on my best list, I must say).
Anyway, I would be neglecting a huge section of my bookshelf if I didn't talk about biographies, non-fiction, and mysteries. So here goes.

When it comes to history, I am making up for lost time, so many of the biographies I read lately are helping me fill in the blanks. I also appreciate the nuances of what goes into writing a biography, and especially an autobiography. For biographies, I'm recommending:

Brave Companions, David McCullough
I'm a huge fan of McCullough, and this was the first book of his that I read. It was actually a gift from Uncle E.
Brave Companions is a series of short biographies of lots of famous Americans from all types of disciplines, from art to politics. If you had to read one biography, I’d pick this one. It’s accessible and, like all of his books, very well written and researched. And once you read this, like me, you'll be eager to get the other biographies McCullough has written. Don't even get me started on how much I loved Truman.

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H.W. Brands. I'm reading this now, and it's great. Brands can really write, and his research is very good. Jackson's rise to power has so much to tell us today...

Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Greeley
Autobiography and memoir are tricky subjects to write--wily memory, the need to impress and embellish--these are the frenemies of the writer attempting to write about himself or herself. Now, with the controversy surrounding the pitfalls of overly ambitious memoir writer (I'm talking about you, Mr. Frey), the era of the memoir is waning, I think.
Published in 1994, Lucy Greely's autobiography is an example of what a memoir can be. Her story is wrenching and her writing was shining and beautiful. I learned a lot from reading it, not just about her, but about what a well-told self-portrait can look like.
Again, this is a book my husband stumbled on and felt I needed to read. Amazing. You should check it out it if you haven't already.

Non- Fiction

Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf.
I seem to discover many of my favorite books from interviews on NPR. This one is no exception. On Tom Ashbrook's show On Point, Dr. Wolf spoke about her book so eloquently that I rushed to get it the next day. Wolf's thesis is that the human ability to read not only changed the way we pass information between generations, but also that it actually changed the way the human brain evolved. It is fascinating and well-written. Definitely on my top 10 for this year.

Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell
Since Outliers is at the top of the bestselling lists in a few categories, you probably have already heard about this one I'm including it anyway.
Gladwell is one of my heroes. He's a great researcher. He's also writes like a real person. Smart, glib, humble, and a bit of a wisecracker, he's like a kind and chatty docent leading you about the museum of living ideas. His previous books, Tipping Point and Blink are all the things the reviewers said they were: engaging, provocative, influential. If you haven't read them, do. Don't resist. These are popular, yes, but they are also great. There is a reason that "tipping point" widely entered the vernacular shortly after this book was published.
Outliers fits neatly with the other two, and not just because of the matching cover design. Pick this one up and be part of the next social conversation Gladwell influences.

I'm confessing. I do love mysteries, from the cozy ones with recipes, to character-driven series from people like Sue Grafton and the Kellermans, to the stark portraits favored lately by some Scandinavian writers. I have some ideas about why I like mysteries so well--but it's much too involved for this post. Another time...

Back to the list. If you have a taste at all for mystery, here are a few that I think are worth it.

Sun Storm, by Asa Larsson
The main character in this book is weird. She's a loner, a smartie pants, someone reaching to her past for reasons she doesn't quite get herself. I like her. She feels a bit like me--though smarter, with a real paying job and some bigger problems.
I also like the landscape of Sun Storm. I have an affection for Sweden and I've admittedly romanticized the countryside there. There is a growing section of my bookshelf dedicated to books that transport me to that place, and Sun Storm fits there neatly.
Did I mention that this is a mystery? It's bloody, and strange, and so character-centered the nasty events almost seem out of place, but in a good way. Larsson spins a good tale, and I was sad to turn the last page. I was glad to see her character, Rebecka Martinsson turn up again in the followup book, The Blood Split, which is just as good.

In the Woods, by Tana French.
The first thing I noticed about this book was how catchy and beautiful the writing was. I say catchy because I was completely drawn in by the timing and expression of Ms. French. She can write. I caught myself saying that again and again as I read.
The main character in this book is vivid and likable and unpredictable. In fact, that sums up the whole story itself. I say that because the unpredictable nature of the story itself makes me add this disclaimer. While I LOVED the book as a whole, the ending was utterly unsatisfying. But really, the beginning of this book was so good, I was ready to put it on my "best book shelf," which is a very difficult place to get onto, I might add.
That said, In the Woods did not make it to the special shelf. It did make it to the "keeper fiction" section, though, and I won't be donating my copy to the library or trying to pawn it off at the next yardsale. I have given a copy to a friend who I think can appreciate the difficulty of loving a book that doesn't end tidily, and I recommend it to you now in hopes that you might understand such a special creature, too.

That the list. It's not nearly comprehensive of everything I've read this year, and it certainly doesn't include everything that I've read and loved. But it's a good combination of the two, and it's a good place to start when thinking about gifts this year...

Uncle E, are you reading this? I hope so. Does this help? Probably not. Tell you what. Next time you are home, let's make a plan to go to the bookstore together and have this chat in person. DH and I will buy the books, you can get the check at dinner. Deal?

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Making a List with Uncle E.

*Uncle E fixes Esme's new backpack

Almost every year, Uncle E. and I have a conversation about what books should be on the shopping list for the readers we know. This year, Uncle E is away, and our conversations are all via email, so I'm writing this post as a substitute for our yearly list-making.

Because I have so many on the list of recommendations, I'm going to divide it into two posts. Today, I'm putting up fiction and poetry. Tomorrow, non-fiction, biography, and mystery.

First, let's think fiction:
I found some books I absolutely adored this year for my summer reading. Among the best: Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. It's set in the Mississippi Delta, and deals with family disfunction. The story is so layered and rich--it's a book you'll want to read again.

In an earlier post this year, I also raved about City of Thieves, by David Benioff. I am still raving. This is a story that sticks in your mind and follows you around. That's the best kind.

While I'm rehashing things I've already recommended, let me add this to the list:
Ursula Under, by Ingrid Hill. This is a sweeping epic novel that starts in modern day Wisconsin and takes you all over the world and the past. I was sucked into it and was so sad to see it end. I still think of many of the minor characters, and I read this book 4 years ago. As I said, those "following" stories are the best.

I also loved Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier. It's a story of an orphaned boy raised by the Cherokee in the mid-1800s, and I was captivated by it. Live in Will's skin for a bit, and see the world anew.

The Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, Debra Weinstein
Quietly dramatic, with a love triangle, artistic characters, and a great sense of humor. If you like poetry, you may really like this. This was a gift to me from my sweet husband, who always knows what book I will love.

Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
This is an oldie but a Goodie! Another semi-western theme, tied firmly into a love story and a dramatic tale of an singer’s rise to stardom. Very, very good.

Another classic that I can't read enough times: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
Do you know Wallace Stegner? It took me a long time to discover him, and when I did, I was hooked. He is a quintessential American writer. His focus is on the whole “westward ho” mentality, and he gets right into the hearts of his characters, who are flawed and strong and beautifully interesting. This is the first one I read of his, and it’s still stuck in my mind, nearly 10 years after I read it (meeting the test for my top picks, clearly). Any of his books are wonderful. I think this one is a good place to start.

Time and Again, Jack Finney, and from Time to Time (the followup novel)
I love, love, love these. Sweet and thoughtful, they are about a guy from modern times who gets back to the late 1800s. So fun and engaging to read.

And just because I'm smitten with the idea of time travel:

The Timetraveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Among my very favorite books. A great book to get lost in. I can’t believe this is her first novel, but it is. Wow!

As for poetry:
New and Selected Poems, Mary Oliver
My favorite poet. Her poem “Wild Geese” is a mantra for me

Carnival Evening, Linda Pastan
Her poems shock and thrill me, and I love sharing them with people when I find someone else who loves poetry.

Garrison Keillor’s edited collections of poetry
If I had the money and time, I would send everyone I know a copy of one of these: Good Poems or Good Poems for Hard Times. It's not that I'm a diehard GK fan like my dad. I like Keillor okay (I’m an National Public Radio junkie), but I love the choices he makes as an editor of poetry. He chose so many that I would have. I love that there are so many contemporary poets that aren’t in many anthologies, and some of them are just amazing.

Speaking of amazing poets, I got myself a Christmas gift, which arrived in the mail yesterday! It's Irene Latham's collection of poetry called What Came Before. You might recognize her name from the poem I posted here. Generous as well as talented, she wrote this poem after being inspired by my work on Ada's Giselle dress. Irene was named Alabama's Poet of the Year in 2006, and What Came Before was chosen as the 2007 Book of the Year by the Alabama State Poetry Society. This collection of poems has a voice as clear as water, and just as powerful.

Was that enough? Well--I forgot a few that I've heard would be good, but haven't yet read...Uncle E, these are also ones to look for:
The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McKracken
So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger (author of the fantastic Peace Like a River)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer (I've resisted the popular wave long enough. I'm going to give this one a read)

Whew! And there are more for tomorrow in non-fiction, biography, and mystery! (These Uncle E. conversations take a long time, you know.)

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What I learned from failure: NaBloPoMo

Okay, I don't really feel as though I failed, but technically, I didn't complete the assignment.

Wow. Looking at what I just wrote, I recognize it as the kind of excuse I used to get when I was teaching freshman English. Excuses like this I usually met with a firm look, a gentle scolding, and not infrequently, an extension. I was always a proponent of learning from mistakes and accepting writing as a process, and so....I'm giving myself the same benefit of the doubt.

The bottom line: I didn't post every day for a month for National Blog Posting Month. And I'm okay with it. I was going to just let it slide by and make no comment about it, but I wanted to articulate what I got out of it anyway. I love the idea of writing every day, and my writing-teacher self clucks motherhen-like and reminds me that it's really the right way to write.

I joined NaBloPoMo because I thought it would light a fire under my rear to get me writing more frequently. A public commitment is exigence in itself, a great motivator and shaper of writing. I also joined for the community, and also because I don't have the wherewithal to attempt the other public writing experiment that takes place in November: National Novel Writing Month.

Honestly, I don't think I took it that seriously. I wasn't going to beat myself up if I missed a day or two, and I didn't feel like posting just anything to meet the requirement. Because of the temporal nature of blogging, I like to post entries that are reflective of what's happening in the now in my mind and in our home. Some days in November this year were so full of NOW that I literally did not have time to write. I do think I succeeded at the exercise in one important way: I found that because I was thinking about blogging every day, I gave myself the space to think like a writer every day, to shape and swim through my morass of ideas, and that made a difference for me in how I experienced the month.

So, writing daily or not, thank you to NaBloPoMo for the opportunity to give writing a bigger space in my life, whether it's the writing I'm putting online, or the kind that's just happening in my journal and my mind. I'll be participating again soon. And maybe next time I won't be asking teacher for an extension...

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A long Christmas post for a long Christmas season. Part 2

I will start by saying that there is no tragedy here. I didn’t fall out of the attic hatch, I didn’t get freeze or starve up there. The “adventure” was over before it started. Still—the memory stays with me for a reason.

I was always a good climber. Family legend says that when I was 11 months old, I was found on top of a Danish credenza/bookshelf at the dizzying height of 6 ft. According to the story, my mom plucked me off the highest shelf just as the whole thing was beginning to sway.
As a toddler, I was into countless things tucked safely into the tallest kitchen cabinets, and as a kid I routinely climbed trees all over our neighborhood. Even now, as we were building our current house, I climbed the chimney several times to sit in the top rafters of the attic and look down at the site. This is all a long way of saying I’m not afraid of heights.

But that December day, as I peered over the attic frame, I did feel a bit dizzy. I was giddy with defiance, then unexpectedly struck with a sudden lack of confidence. I had no idea what I was doing, and the clock was ticking—my parents would be home soon. The plans I had thought of so carefully before went from building a tower to the end result of dazzling decorations perfectly placed all over the house. As for the middle—nothing. I was in the middle of the plan, now, and as I realized its failure, I felt the kind of eight-year-old shame that makes you hang your head with tears. That’s what I did, up there in the attic.

Through my tears, I came up with the unsatisfying idea of tossing the boxes down. This plan I modified when I saw I could use the twine on a few of the boxes to sort of dangle it down through the hatch. It didn’t reach the floor below exactly, but it was better than an 8-foot drop. This I did, with the two boxes that had twine. With the other three, I took my chances and just let them drop. One of them made a crunchy rattle on impact, and my confidence dropped further.

Finally, I took a deep breath and thought about getting down myself. In dangling the boxes, I had hit the tower of books and stools, and it tilted even more precariously. The stool had slid completely off the stack, and to even reach the phonebooks, I was going to have to hang by my fingers.

Climbing down the tower was less a climb than it was a decelerated slide down books and leather. Once I had the momentum started of launching myself down and backwards through the hatch, my toes hit the books, which slid, and I was pulled down with the remains of the tower. I ended up on the floor between a twine-tied box and the Danish stool, my legs splayed out on the phonebooks.

I wanted to rest and let my hands stop shaking, but I had wasted too much time already. I did my best to weed through the tissues and twine and shattered glass ornaments (yes, there were many). I found my most beloved ornaments—thickly-scented candles molded into Santas, snowmen, and angels. These I set ceremonially around the room. Using the broom handle as a lifting pole, I nudged the macramé Santa onto its hook in the living room, the macramé snowman onto the front door. The red felt stockings I hung on the mantel, making sure our gold rick-racked names were all facing the right direction.

To my dismay, I realized I hadn’t gotten the aluminum tree down. The now-dissolved tower of books just made me mad, now, and I was too tired to try to go back up. I made do by pulling out my favorite tree ornaments, plastic bears and reindeer, Santas and snowmen, each flocked in fake snow, or fur, or both. I propped these beauties up among the candles on the stereo, making sure the Santas, snowmen, and reindeer were properly mingled with each other in the right combinations.

As I recall, I was in the middle of this very particular arranging when my parents came home. Of course, it had been my intention to have it finished by the time they came home, but I thought it was close enough to done that I shouted, “Surprise!”

Surprise doesn’t begin to describe what they must have felt. Here are my parents, the very definition of harried. Here is me, a bouncy eight-year old in the thick of “decorating” and “helping.”
At that moment in time, our worlds and values were galaxies apart.

I will preface this by saying that my parents are good people, kind people, and they loved me. Poor and just starting a business, they were also were struggling to keep our family in clothes and food. That year in particular they were so burdened with work that they must have dreamed of simply skipping Christmas altogether, with all the work involved with cleaning and taking out and putting away, preparing and planning. I’m sure they saw the Christmas season as one more thing to do on a long, joyless list of chores.
I, on the other hand, was a dreamy little girl, single-minded, and lonely. I wished I could always have the magic of the Christmas season, with all its shininess and possibility. How could Christmas be a burden?

You know what happens in this part of the story, the part where my parents enter the room. As in some fairy tale, the “beauty” of the scene was visible only to my eight-year-old eyes. Far from noticing the magical ornaments and the Christmas possibility they brought, my parents saw instead the flaws in my plan—the broken ornaments, the candles on the dusty mantel and tables, the pile of books and stools, boxes, twine and tissue. They were furious at me for climbing on furniture and irritated that the open attic hatch was leaking all the cold air out. They were angry about the extra mess I had caused and the work it would take to put it back. Mostly, they were baffled about why I would do such a senseless thing. “What was the big idea?” they asked.

I don’t remember what I told them. In fact, my memory of that afternoon is vivid, but only up until the time my mom and dad returned. I have little memory of what happened after that. I imagined I was punished. I imagine there was yelling. I imagine I probably helped put away some of the mess. But how I explained my big idea? I have no idea.

So let me tell you now what I might not have been able to say then.

The big idea was this: I loved Christmas with my family. That day was the most special day in the world to me. I loved spending the day with my mom and dad at home, playing with the toys I received, eating the food they cooked together. It was the single day of the year they did not work, and it was one of the only meals we ate together at home. The hush that fell over the house when there was only fun to do was magic.
Eight-year-old Kirie believed that that magic came from the trappings of Christmas. The ornaments, candles, shiny trees and carols—the power was there, and I longed to bring it out from the attic boxes and into my house. I wanted the calm, and the togetherness, and the possibility, and in my child’s mind, I associated those things with the flocked snowmen and macramé Santas.
To get this feeling then, to feel in control of my world and able to harness such special power—of course I would risk a climb to the attic. Looking back, I would have risked much worse, I believe.

Now I am a grownup, and with my own family, we celebrate Christmas all December. I notice each year that I am filled with an excitement similar to what I used to feel as a child. I notice also that am still trying to untangle some of the childlike associations I’ve made over the years. I still grapple with how I might best control my environment and bring calm and peace to my family. I am working on letting go of that need to control things outside of myself. Even as I realize this, I know that my letting go brings a peace in itself.

These are some of the things I think about as Christmas comes. Of course, there is the magic that the symbols bring—and I see it played out again on the faces of Ada and Esme when they play with the elves and toys in their Santa house. Their smiles light the room when they dance with the same flocked tree ornaments I used to play with. “Christmas is like magic,” Ada says.

I’m letting them feel the magic, and I’m also going to keep pointing out that it’s coming not from outside, but from us ourselves. The decorations are fun, the glittery things are pretty, but the real beauty is in the calm we feel together. Now when we put out the decorations, that is what I focus on.

Thanks for indulging one of my Christmas memories....Kirie

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Promises promises

Loyal readers (all three of you!), I must postpone the second section of the attic memory for one more day--unwieldy thing, it's taking more time than I thought to untangle it and make it coherent... Keep your eyes out for it in a day or so.

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