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…]

Reclaiming Peace

“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
Etty Hillesum

I find myself returning again and again to Etty Hillesum’s words, absorbing them, hoping they will take deep root and live in me during this holiday season.

As I sit in my kitchen on this gray December morning, so aware of time passing and so wishing to make the most of each shared family moment, the idea of cultivating peace at home and in my heart seems particularly apt.

These are short, dark days. Much of the world is in turmoil. Our country feels divided, split by cynicism and falsehood. In my own life, I’m feeling the weight of having too much to do and never enough time to do it all. No matter how early I get up or how late I go to bed, I don’t get enough accomplished. There are no Christmas cookies this year, no handmade gifts, no special things to place under the tree. My writing is stalled, my concentration jagged – I keep thinking of all the loose ends I’ve left dangling, keep wondering where, exactly, I’m meant to be and what I’m really meant to be doing, keep being distracted from the slow, painstaking work of crafting sentences and returning instead to the ever-expanding to-do list. Neither place feels quite right: I “should” be working on my manuscript, and I “should” be creating Christmas for my family, but instead I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, feeling as if I’m failing at both.

Yesterday, my son Henry turned twenty-two, a fact that fills me with both pride and wonder: how did we get here so fast? Wasn’t it just a few short years ago that he was a week old and we dressed him up in a tiny velour Santa suit and posed for our first family portrait? Wasn’t it only yesterday that he spent the days before Christmas sitting upstairs at his desk writing college applications? Now, he’s just months away from graduation, months away from having to find a job, a home, an adult life of his own. The years fly by, faster and faster it seems. This week Jack was accepted at Boston University, his first choice for school. I’m thrilled he’ll be close to us next year, but stunned to realize he’s actually old enough to go to college. Over the weekend, my husband pulled out a pile of old photographs of our boys when they were little: all fat cheeks and cuddles, innocence and giggles. Tiny beings that live now only in pictures and in our memories. Amazing to think that our lives have already had such breadth and span, that we have lived through our child-rearing years, raised sons to young adulthood, watched them leave home, and then eagerly awaited their return, knowing that soon they will leave again.

Tomorrow night, Henry will arrive and our family will have two short weeks together. Today, I’m preparing for his homecoming by clearing all my books and papers out of his bedroom, where I’ve been working these last few months. But I am also taking some time to prepare myself. Instead of getting started on a new chapter or running around doing errands and last-minute shopping, I’ve decided to stay home and just sit in stillness for a while. Today, I need to cast my lot with “being” rather than with “doing,” and to trust that being is enough. To believe that reclaiming large areas of peace in myself is perhaps the most urgent, most necessary work I could do.

I feel inspired, most of all, by a moment on Saturday afternoon at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. Jack and Steve and I had attended their four-year-old’s Christmas pageant, an epic musical production performed by sixteen nursery schoolers in full costume. Afterward, as the whole extended family sat around in the living room enjoying a late lunch of chili and cornbread, little Gabriel accidentally whacked his grandfather’s dish from his hand; a direct, home-run hit. Food flew everywhere – an entire bowl’s worth of chili spattered on the beige wall-to-wall. There was a moment of stunned silence in the face of the disaster. Gabriel’s eyes filled with tears. And in that instant, as chili seeped into the rug and everyone leapt into action, a choice was also made for peace. No one shouted. No one scolded. No one got upset or delivered a lecture about little boys who ought to be more careful.

“It’s all right,” Gabe’s mom said, as she went for the Resolve and paper towels. “It’s all right,” my brother reassured his son, as he got down on his knees and began to clean up the mess. You could feel the tension in the room dissipate as quickly as it had come. Peace reclaimed and reflected back into the world. Peace as moral duty. Peace as the true lesson of the day. Peace because Gabriel, too, will be all grown up in the blink of an eye, and soon enough his own parents will be looking back at his vanished childhood, wondering if they’ve taught him well, if they’ve prepared him to bring peace into this troubled world. Small moments; big, lasting impressions. I like to think that, as the big sister with the grown-up kids, I’m the one who can teach my younger sibling a few things about being a parent. But just as often, he teaches me.

I know that what matters most this week is not how much I manage to get done, how many words I write, or how many presents I wrap, but how I choose to be. And that what brings our sons home to this house, my parents to our hearth on Christmas morning, family and friends to our table for dinner, is surely not just a sense of duty and tradition but a universal longing for connection and love, acceptance and peace.

Peace is what we all yearn for, and peace is the gift that we can offer one another – in a word of forgiveness, in a smile, a hug, a kindness done, a gratitude expressed. Even in the ease with which a huge mess of chili gets cleaned off a rug.

Reading the newspaper each morning, it is easy to despair, easy to see how readily seeds of hatred and fear grow into crops of violence and cruelty. But I take my cue from my brother and sister-in-law’s loving patience with their children, and solace in the faith of a young Dutch woman who could envision the possibility of peace even as she awaited her own certain death at Auschwitz in 1943. This is the Christmas spirit I aspire to embody, the truth I will try to remember as we light the candles, serve the meals, play the music, and celebrate this time together: peace begins here, right where we are, and peace is always possible.

Soft Opening

In the restaurant business they call it a soft opening: the tables are set, the staff is fully engaged, and the chef’s family and friends arrive at the door, full of good will and prepared to sample the menu while the kinks are still being worked out in the kitchen.

I think of today’s blog post as my own soft opening, here at this revamped website that I’m just learning how to manage (thank goodness I have two techno-savvy sons at home this week to lend a hand as it goes “live”). I don’t feel quite ready to invite the public at large, but I do hope that my regular readers, friends, and family will show up and check things out here in the newly designed digs. And please, let me know what you think — whether I’ve got it right, whether it still needs a tweak or two, and most of all, whether this feels like a place that will draw you back.

When my son Henry and I sat down to create my first website, a few weeks before “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” was published, I had never even read a blog before, let alone written a post. I bought a basic package, he set up a couple of pages for me, and, at my publisher’s behest, I began to type, not at all sure what I had to say or whether anyone would ever find their way to katrinakenison.com.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, I’m finally ready to admit it: I love pausing here for a few hours each week to reflect on the ups and downs, the lights and shadows, of everyday life. I love the discipline required to shape some of those thoughts into words, and I love most of all the fact that it is always a two-way conversation. In sharing a bit of my own story, I’m rewarded many times over by your willingness to write back and share your own.

How blessed I feel, to be part of a greater community of fellow writers and readers, a grateful participant in an ongoing on-line dialogue about life, work, books, parenthood, growth, and change. It’s a conversation that continually reminds me that, different as the details of our daily lives may be, we are all connected, and we are all asking ourselves some variation on the same questions: “Have I loved well? Am I caring for the people around me, for my community, for the earth, to the best of my ability? Am I paying attention to the things that truly matter? Am I grateful enough, awake enough, to appreciate the life I have right here, right now, just as it is?”

A few days before Christmas, I set up a little private altar in our living room — a candle, an apple, a framed print of angels in flight given to me by my neighbor Debbie, and a prayer tucked into a sealed envelope. With a holiday to create for my family, a succession of meals to make and clean up after, the agendas of two grown sons to negotiate, various visits and commitments here and there, I knew how easy it would be to get so caught up in the “doing” of Christmas that I would miss the “being.” Our boys are home for just a couple of weeks, the days are flying by, soon the house will be quiet once again, and these moments will be memories. And so I prayed for the presence of mind to be present. To have the grace to set aside my own expectations for this family time and to be, instead, the mother my sons need right now: loving without condition, flexible rather than insistent, grateful for what is right in front of me rather than judging each moment and finding it lacking, blessed with faith in my childrens’ best selves and with enough wisdom to act from my own.

I know I’m not the only parent who enters into the holiday season with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation, not the only mother who concocts some “ideal” of the way things should be, only to lose sight of the beauty of things as they are. But I sometimes think that I must be the slowest learner on the planet. Why else, year after year, do I need to learn the same old lesson all over again? Writing it down, putting my request for help and guidance into the hands of angels and the universe, helped me feel a little less vulnerable to my fears and a little closer to peace. And peace is what I am trying each day to cultivate in my heart. Such a small shift, really, from nameless fear to spacious peace. But what a difference in the way I relate to my husband, our sons, the unexpected twists and turns of the day. Living in fear is like being frozen. Relaxing into peace is like turning a face toward the sun, moving from frigid paralysis into warmth, love, life. As Mary Oliver has written, “When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.”

On Christmas Eve, it was just us four here, the first time we’ve been without my parents, my brother, his wife and children. Steve and I had colds, sore throats, coughs. It was not the festive celebration I’d envisioned; we were too sick for that. So quiet, I thought at first, such a letdown, to be sick and home alone on Christmas Eve, rather than surrounded by family or friends. But Henry and Steve did the supper dishes. Jack helped me put presents under the tree. And then we sat down together in the living room and read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” passing the book and taking turns, voices cracking. I loved listening to my sons read aloud. Presence was the present. It was, in fact, a perfect evening. Snow is falling here this morning; it has been snowing all night. There is nothing that needs doing, nowhere to go. The holiday is over, quiet reigns. And I’m realizing that my heart this week has been undergoing its own soft opening, thanks to angels, and to sons who are growing up to be good men, and to a family that reminds me, daily, of the simple joy of giving love and being loved in return.