Celebrating Valentine’s Day (stories, music, & two irresistible cookie recipes)

hearts“And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”   ~ Paul McCartney


When my sons were young, we always made Valentines.  It was a joy for me to join my boys at our old Formica table in the playroom and, for a few February afternoons each year, devote ourselves to frilly matters of the heart.

Of course, we went all out. Our supplies were bountiful: stacks of construction paper, doilies, paper hearts, pink ribbons, lace, glue sticks and lots of sparkly stuff.  And the lavish creations borne of our efforts pleased us greatly.  Valentine’s Day was easy to celebrate: cozy, hands-on, messy fun.  Love made visible.

I still have our old box of Valentine paraphernalia in the basement, though it’s been over a decade since the three of us made cards together and the glue sticks have no doubt turned rock-hard.  I considered the box briefly the other day: should I carry it all upstairs?  Sit down by myself and cut up a few red doilies for old times’ sake?  No, I realized, that would just feel weird. [continue…]

A glorious granola recipe (plenty to give & some for you, too)

jarsMy grandmother Kenison crocheted afghans and made the world’s best doughnuts, two skills I still wish I’d learned from her before it was too late.

She was also the first person I ever knew who made her own granola, back in the days when “health food” was considered a fad, “organic” might as well have been a foreign word, and the cereal boxes in our kitchen cupboard at home ran from Raisin Bran to Cap’n Crunch.

At least, on a visit years ago when I was newly married, I did have the foresight to write down Grammie’s recipe.  recipeAnd although I can’t present every member of our family with a hand-made afghan this Christmas as she once did, I am following in her footsteps. With the exception of books (I always give books!), most of the gifts I’m getting ready to wrap this year aren’t coming from stores.  They’re coming from me.

My granola isn’t exactly like my grandmother’s. I’ve taken some license with her original recipe over the years.  It’s fun to play with new combinations of ingredients, and it never turns out quite the same twice anyway.  (She liked carob powder in hers; lately, I’ve been experimenting with cardamom in mine.) The one thing I always do, though, is make a lot.  And it’s always delicious.  I think of my grandmother every time I start gathering the ingredients, and I feel happier creating something simple from scratch than clicking a “buy now” button on my computer or wandering through stores looking for the “perfect” gift.

As I type these words, the smells of maple and cinnamon and cardamom are still lingering.  [continue…]

The Soul of Solstice

dreamstime_s_31289215One December when our sons were little, I hung a piece of paper painted a deep dark blue in our kitchen.  “A sky,” I told them.  I painted another piece of paper gold, cut out about a hundred small stars and put them in a basket, along with a glue stick.

My hope was to distract the boys a bit from the idea of “getting” things for Christmas, and to shift the emphasis instead to the kinds of simple acts of kindness that actually make us feel good inside ourselves.

I knew I wouldn’t have much luck telling them that the shortest route to happiness isn’t paved with possessions.  (Try explaining that to a six- year-old who has been trying to prioritize his Christmas list.) They wouldn’t believe me if I suggested that more stuff doesn’t ever equal a better life.  Or that a sure-fire antidote to restlessness and craving is to do something nice for someone else.

I wanted them to discover for themselves the joy of giving, the deeper meaning of the season.

And so, for every random, unsolicited act of kindness anyone in the family did during the day, we placed a star into the sky.  Each night at dinnertime, we turned off all the kitchen lights, lit candles in an Advent wreath on our table, held hands and said our grace.  And then, as the painted sky filled with stars, we talked about opportunities we’d each found during the day to do good deeds.

The December of Good Deeds was such a long time ago.  For some unknown reason, we only did it once.  And yet it is one of my favorite holiday memories, ever.

Last night, Henry and Steve and I grabbed the afghans and lined up on the couch together to watch a couple of Tivoed episodes of “The Daily Show.”  The clips of shoppers mauling each other in a race to claim discounted printers, dollar DVDs, and Rachel Ray cookware on Black Friday were more horrifying than funny.  Jon Stewart didn’t need to say much about the stabbing in Virginia over a parking space, the shooting at Kohl’s, or the mayhem at Wal-Mart.  There was no need to comment on Sarah Palin’s claim last week that she loves the commercialization of Christmas, because it reminds us all that this is the “most cheerful holiday on the calendar.”  All he had to do was play the footage.

This morning, I woke up early, still haunted and disturbed by those scenes.  We are warm and dry and safe and well-fed here.  There is nothing anyone in my family needs or wants so badly that we would line up outside a store at 6 a.m. to get it. No one went shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

But I also realize what a luxury our comfort is.  I don’t want to take any of what I have for granted – not the food in our refrigerator, not the heat rising from the grates on the floor, not the laptop on which I type these words, nor the fact that, at 6:30 in the morning, I am privileged enough to be sitting on the couch in my pajamas writing a blog post, rather than driving through darkness to get to work on time.  I can’t even begin to know what it’s like to live in a constant state of not-enough.

And yet, I’m certainly not immune to the pressures of the season.  [continue…]

A bit more about Gracie, gratitude, and you. . .

IMG_5604 - Version 2“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”

— from E.B. White on Dogs

I almost didn’t write about losing our beloved dog Gracie last week. My grief felt so raw, so private, and so painful. I wasn’t sure I could put it into words or share it in public. Our family was in mourning, tender and sad. My first impulse was to turn inward, to hunker down in my house and have a long cry.

On the other hand, for the last four years I’ve made a practice of writing here about both the joys and challenges of my life, reflections that are always personal but that also, I hope, touch something universal. I had written about our Gracie while she lived. It seemed only fitting to let you know she was gone.

IMG_3556Each day this week, I lit a candle in the midst of a makeshift Gracie altar in the middle of our kitchen. We have taken some solace in having lots of photos of her propped up along the shelf. Her empty collar is here. Her leash. Her tennis ball and ball flinger. A bit of her white tail hair, tied in a ribbon. It feels both good and sad to have these things, and to have a place to go when we wonder why she isn’t where she belongs, curled up in a tidy oval shape on the rug or sitting, alert, on her favorite rock in the back yard. [continue…]

The View from My Window

IMG_5681The Christmas gift I remember most vividly from my childhood wasn’t one I received myself. Early one autumn, just over forty years ago, my father purchased a rusty, decrepit antique sleigh and set about restoring it to present to my mother.

As a teenager and young woman, horses had been her passion, a passion that had no place in her adult life as a busy mother and full-time partner in my father’s business. Yet as she entered middle age, I think my mother began to worry that if she didn’t climb back on a horse soon, she might not ever do it again. Her greatest joy in life would be nothing but a passing memory, relegated to her unfettered past, a time before marriage and children and working for my dad conspired to ensure that her own hopes and dreams took a back seat to everyone else’s needs.

And so, on the cusp of forty, my mom bought herself a horse and proceeded to fall hopelessly in love all over again — with her spirited three-year-old Morgan and with the smells of sawdust and grain and fresh hay and saddle soap. Of course, the horse needed a place to live. We left the modest in-town house attached to my dad’s dental office on a busy road, where my brother and I had spent most of our lives, and moved out to the country, to a remote 1765 cape with a barn, deep in the woods and surrounded by trails. A house of low ceilings and wide, sloping floorboards, steeped in silent history.

For months, most nights after his last patient, my father slipped away to work on that old sleigh, rebuilding it from a broken down skeletal form, cleaning and polishing the runners, refurbishing all the parts, upholstering a new black leather seat, priming and painting and detailing the bright red panels and the glossy black trim. He raced against the clock, working late into the night and every available weekend hour, to make sure it was finished, perfect, by Christmas morning.

Many of my childhood memories are hazy. The horses, the sleigh, even the barn itself are long gone. But I can easily recall the dazzlingly bright Christmas morning when my dad hitched up my mom’s horse, lifted her up into the seat of the sleigh he’d made for her, and took her for a ride.

What I remember, of course, is this great labor of love on my father’s part; how, in giving her this extraordinary gift from his own heart and hand, he was really saying: “I see you. I know who you are and I know what you love, and I honor that.”

This Christmas, my husband Steve gave me the equivalent of my mother’s sleigh, a gift that is so much more than the thing itself.

I knew, over these last two years, that I was writing a book; in fact, it was never out of my mind. Even when I wasn’t working on it, I was working on it. Of course, I was also living my life, taking care of my family, spending time with my friends, writing this weekly blog.

I began the blog the week before The Gift of an Ordinary Day was published, back in the fall of 2009. My publisher had told me I needed a website, and that I should write something for it. But until the day I wrote my own first blog entry, I wasn’t exactly sure what a blog was; I’d never even seen one.

Once I started writing, though, I didn’t stop. I loved taking time out of the busyness of life to sit quietly and reflect on the meaning of the living, loved gathering up my thoughts and trying to make some sense of them, searching for the story beneath the story, the one that would give depth and shape to my experience and perhaps begin to illuminate the experiences of others as well.

Even more, I loved the conversation that soon got underway here, the thoughtful comments from you, my readers, the glimpses you’ve offered into your own lives and passions and predicaments, the heartfelt support you’ve extended to me as I’ve shared mine.

And yet, I’ve never thought of these pieces as much more than parts of that ongoing conversation, temporal and fleeting, musings that are very much of the moment in which they were written.

Turns out, my husband saw things a little differently. Perhaps he understands, even better than I do, what matters to me and why. And so months ago, unbeknownst to me, he began to gather these three years worth of pieces into a book. The result is the beautiful 350-page illustrated hardcover volume I opened on Christmas morning.

He titled the book The View from My Window, and for the jacket he shot a photo of our mountains, as I see them every single morning from my spot at the kitchen sink. He chose photos, wrote captions, assembled and re-read and copy-edited three years worth of my posts. He hired a proofreader, designed the pages and the cover, and asked a printer friend in Minnesota to produce a print run of thirty elegantly bound copies.

To say I was surprised on Christmas morning to find out I’d written not one book but two, would be an understatement. Realizing that my husband had been laboring for months, in hours when I’d assumed he was working on his own stuff, to produce a book printed and published just for me, reminded me of the long-ago efforts of my dad.

At the same time, this gesture is entirely in character for my husband, who shares my passion for books and who is at heart a publisher himself. We met, after all, at work, back when he was the marketing director at Houghton Mifflin Company and I was an aspiring young editor there. Little wonder then, that all these years later, the gift from his heart was this: to lovingly collect my words and give them back to me between two covers.

I’m not sure what to do with these books. I will give them to a few close family members and friends and save a couple for my sons and their families. But I also know that without you, the readers of this blog, The View from My Window wouldn’t exist. I would have stopped writing here long ago if it weren’t for the connection and sense of community we’ve created in this place — together.

And so, with the publisher’s gracious permission, I’d like to give away two copies of this (very) limited edition to you, the readers who show up here week after week, to read and respond and share your own stories with me and with one another. (To enter to win, just leave a comment below. I will draw two names at random on January 8 — publication date for Magical Journey!)

Today, as the snow fell softly outside, I opened my new book and began to read. It seemed right somehow, that as I bid good-bye to 2012 and prepare to welcome a new book into the world just a week from now, I pause to look backward as well as forward. Here, then, are a few of my posts from the past. Perhaps you will remember them. If you’re new to this space, perhaps you will be happy to read them for the first time.

Blessings to you and yours for a joyful new year. May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.

“Adulthood for Amateurs,” Oct. 26,2009

“Good-byes,” Jan. 3, 2010

“Asking for Help,” Feb. 4, 2010

“You Have What I Want,” Jan. 7, 2011