Monthly Archives: December 2017

holiday letter 2017

I’m writing this letter in my head as I cut and glue. Earlier today I sat at my desk at work while tuckpointers worked outside my window, grinding mortar out of joints all day long. It felt like an extended visit to the dentist – not a dull background noise, but one that vibrates the body and pierces the skull. By the time I arrived home my senses were dulled. I wanted to curl into a ball under the covers and listen to the sound of my own breathing and the silence of nothing else. I wanted to draw a warm bath and read my book until the water chilled, and then move the book reading to the couch in front of the fire. I wanted a long pause, with warmth and silence.

Instead I started dinner. I emptied the dishwasher while the oil warmed in the skillet. I sliced green onions and minced ginger and poured a glass of malbec as I worked. M tidied up around the first floor, sorted through the mail, folded some laundry. E rested, pale and feverish, and F played quietly in her room. It wasn’t silent, but it was warm, and there was a different sort of hum to the evening. We finished dinner and moved through baths and showers. The girls went to sleep and M joined me for awhile at this table where I’m still sitting. He’s asleep now too, and I’m once again in this place, working late in a quiet house, thinking about this past year and the year ahead.


The idea for this card came to me just after we witnessed the solar eclipse this past August. We had made a lot of plans around the event, traveling out of the city to the family vineyard of close friends, and all the grandparents joined us for the adventure.  We experienced two and a half minutes of totality, and from our perch on a hill we could watch the distinct line of darkness spread across the valley below us. Stars began to appear in the sky, and we all took off our glasses to stare at the moon and the corona around it.

For a moment it felt like the world had turned upside down. But the moon’s location in front of the sun didn’t flip a switch between night and day. It was a movement that occurred over the span of several hours, and during its passage it slowly revealed things that were there all along – the stars, the shadows, the cricket-song. It was experiencing the ordinary in an out-of-order way, collectively, that was so profound and moving. We spin and orbit and travel and turn in ways we never think about, but what magic there is when everything aligns for a moment and focuses our attention and makes the big things small and elevates the little things for all to see and hear and feel.

In September we went camping with friends for the weekend. On our second night there, the four of us walked to the end of the road, away from the campfire and tents. We turned off our flashlights and let our eyes adjust for a few minutes.The sky came alive in front of us. The longer we stood in the darkness, the more we could see above us. More stars than I can remember seeing at one time, the band of the Milky Way stretched out in front of us. There were so many stars that in places it looked like land masses covered in sparkling snow. I thought about the vast number of stars above us, I thought about the vast number of snowflakes that must fall to blanket the ground below us. I started to think about them both together, and decided to paint the stars turning to snow on the page.

I dive into our favorite winter books – Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen and The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. I want to paint large sheets with watercolors and cut out full moons from them. I set up a board and mix up paints in shades of pale yellow to warm gray. I add layers of paint a few minutes at a time – before breakfast, after dinner, anytime I pass by the table and have a moment to pause. I decide to slice a crescent shaped void into the front of the card to reveal a portion of the moon from the outside. I cover the dining room table with a drop cloth, and paint four sheets of black paper at a time – using a toothbrush, I splatter paint in tiny spots, building them up at the base of the sheet into a hillside covered in stars-turned-snow. Each sheet is different, I change the technique some as I go. I work in batches until my hands cramp, and then I stack them up when dry. Regular life moves around the piles, as it always does. I dream about a studio space away from the center of the house as I work, but then I realize I like this setup. The girls set up their own projects now and then next to me. M joins me at the table occasionally. They bake all our gifts next to me, and it smells divine as I work.

I think about what I want to add to the scene. I start with our house, and then I add in more of the neighborhood. I layer the rooftops of other buildings as they look from F’s third floor windows. The buildings give way to trees, and I think of the vastness of Forest Park in the middle of our city. It’s my escape, the place where I run, and the shape of treetops are added in. I highlight the windows in our house a little more, and I add a few trees next to the house. I want a wrought iron fence that marches down the street, but it seems crazy. So tiny and so many pieces to cut, when there are one hundred to make. I save them until the end, just in case I can’t do it. But I know myself – I’ll do it. Somehow I find a way. I find the minutes somewhere, pull them out of the darkness of night. I’ve taught myself to find rest in places other than my bed – I find it in movement – running and lifting and stretching, in the kitchen, in books, in the garden, over breakfast with the girls, at the theater with M. I find it in December with this tradition. It gives me the space to think, to be quiet and still, to dream about the new year ahead.

The piles of black silhouettes are complete, and I’m ready to glue. I move through the stack but something is missing. I try a wreath on the house, greenery on the fence. It’s not right, and the color distracts. The moon seems to glow on the sheet, and I wonder about pulling the yellow light down below. I make a rough cut star and try it on the tree. That’s it. I cut ninety-nine more and I am done.

I’m in my favorite bookstore on a Sunday afternoon working at a book fair. In between greeting customers, I read poetry. I work through several thin books as I stand. I gravitate towards poetry for the resistance – I want to read poems that speak to protest, that lift the vulnerable, that fuel the fire. I read Denise Levetov’s Making Peace for the second time, but this time it sits with me in a new way because of the card idea I’m working on. I read it as I think about process, as I think about diving into something new and challenging and hard even when I can’t clearly see the finished product in my head. The fourth stanza sits with me as a charge for the days and years ahead.

I think about peace all the time, and I think about it in the context of this city, in times of protest, in the fight for justice and equity. Our desire for peace can seem holy and good on the surface, but too often its call is a mask for oppression. Peace can be a system put in place to quiet the noise of rancor and protest and pain. Keeping the peace can be easier than talking about difficult things. Desiring peace keeps us out of the streets, even when that’s the only place some voices are ever heard. Pushing peace lets us off the hook, which is in direct opposition to so many of the religious teachings of this season. Peace is offered to overcome fear. With less fear, we can speak up, speak out, fight for justice, and center equity in everything we do.

Ah, but the end of that poem!  “Each act of living one of its words, each word a vibration of light – facets of the forming crystal.” I recite it in my head again and again as I splatter paint across the pages, stars to snow. The finished cards are no masterpiece, but the process of making them was a gift. I share this challenge with you in the coming year – may we all find the courage to stand for what is just and right, and let those acts – and those words – open the way for peace to appear.

To the work ahead –
Kristin, Marcus, Ella and Frances

sad gate / happy gate

We’ve been knocking out a lot of smaller to-do lists on the existing house while waiting for the bigger project to start. One of those nagging items was replacing our front gate. The photo above was taken during the first full summer we lived in the house (2001) – look at that pitiful mansard and sagging dormer, yikes. You can see two of the four original fence posts in that photo, along with a slightly sagging front gate. The rest of the “fencing” was a temporary wire fence that had been put in place to keep out animals? Look nicer than no fence? Who knows.

The story we were told was that the original fence had been stolen. This was not uncommon in these old neighborhoods where properties stood vacant and architectural relics were worth good money. There’s a street on the southern end of our neighborhood called Cherokee Street that was known as Antique Row, and it was a really booming place in the nineties and early 2000’s. So if you were missing something on your house, that was the first place to check. (I wrote about the structural stars in an old post here.)

We used to spend a lot of time in these stores, looking for old doors and hardware or mantels or other items we needed during those early stages of renovation. I was digging around the courtyard area of one place, and I saw these really beautiful old fence panels leaning up against the fence. After measuring how many linear feet there were – and getting the price for the panels (only $300, which seems crazy cheap to me now, but was really expensive at the time), we bought them. We contacted Eureka Forge and met the head blacksmith there, Todd Kinnikin. He made two new intermediate posts in that long run of fence, and divided the salvaged fencing into three equal sections for that area, plus one smaller section to the left of the existing gate. The tops of the salvaged fence were bent over and pretty beat up, but he straightened everything out, cleaned them up, painted, and installed them. He also made our steel front porch, and the post details there match the intermediate posts on the fence.

It looks really pretty in the snow.

But back to that old gate. You can see how junky it looks next to the fence. It leans, and those hinges are rusty and shot. The rusted chain is a good look too. There’s this pipe that sticks out of the ground to provide a place for the gate to latch, which makes the whole gate look like a cobbeled together afterthought. It doesn’t swing out anymore, and gets caught in odd angles when swinging in. We’ve tried several times over the years to get Eureka Forge to make a new gate for us, but Todd has passed away, and his son runs the business now and they are always swamped with work. It just never seemed to be a huge priority.

But this summer one of the brackets gave out on the shorter fence panel to the left of the gate, and M took the whole panel off to make sure that it wouldn’t “walk away”. So it looks really bad now with the missing fence panel and sad sagging gate. It was the kick in the pants we needed to get this work done.

I contacted two ornamental iron companies, and after a few weeks I received quotes back from both. They were pricing the repairs to the brackets and installation of the missing panel, and we also asked for a newly designed gate that would match the details of our existing fence. Both quotes were pretty similar (and both left me longing for those 2001 fence prices!), but we went with Classic Metal Craft because they had the most detailed quote and also didn’t look at me cross-eyed when I asked for shop drawings. The catch was they were 14-15 weeks out on their schedule, so we’ve been looking at this eyesore for months.

Two weeks ago they picked up the missing panel, and did final field measurements, and last week I received the first round of shop drawings.

It was pretty exciting to see just how GOOD the new gate was going to look compared to that old one. They had done what we asked – matched the details of the existing fence for the gate design. But when we looked at all the other wrought iron fences/gates on our street, we noticed that all of the gates had something different that helped to distinguish it as an entrance – an arched or pointed top. Since we have an arched top window detail on the house, I sent back this sketch with a revision idea. I also noted that their drawings were missing the bottom detail of the fence.

They revised the gate drawings and they look amazing. We inquired about the need for a cross brace, and they showed it on the drawings, but they said there are enough welds on the gate to prevent sagging over time. But we’re going to leave it there as an insurance policy. It’s a detail on most of the gates on our street.

Look how good the gate looks in the context of the rest of the fence. I can’t wait for it to be installed.

I optimistically bought the pine roping this year for the fence. We might go ahead and install it on just the long part of the fence for now, but I’m hoping that the gate and missing panel might get installed before Christmas. We’re planning some projects for the front of the house next year – historic replacement windows and erecting scaffolding to repaint the trim. It’s been sixteen years since we last did that, so three cheers for good prep work and paint! We’ll have to rip out the bushes, and so I’m also hoping to get a landscape plan in place for what I want this front yard to look like. I’d also love to remove the neighboring chain link fencing and install a simple black iron fence on the sides at the same time. It’s a snowball thing, I know, but I can imagine how much it will enhance our curb appeal, and how good it will look for our Thursday night blues gatherings when it’s done.

leslie meets frances, and we all flip out

After inundating Instagram with photos Sunday night, I thought I should probably take the time to write down what happened so that we could read it later and remember all of the details. It’s not likely that we’ll forget that night anytime soon, but it’s a fun story to share as well, so here goes.

M’s parents gave us an early Christmas present this year. They bought us some really special VIP tickets to see Leslie Odom, Jr. in concert with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I was first discussing this opportunity with my MIL, I waffled a bit about the whole VIP thing. The tickets were very pricey, and I wasn’t even sure if children would be allowed. I knew that the girls would enjoy the concert regardless, but their grandmother called the Symphony’s office to chat about the details, and ended up going for the whole shebang.

Since I was the only one with any real knowledge of the details (although I had blocked off the time on our shared calendar in September), I knew there was an extra sting to our cancelled Thanksgiving trip. It was our opportunity to open the tickets together as a family. Instead, they packaged them up, sent them (insured!) through the post office, and we set up an evening to open them over Skype. Frances squealed, but Ella had the most profound reaction. She raced out of the room in tears, and came back barely holding it all together. It was pretty cool to watch.

Sunday rolled around and we ate an early dinner and got dressed up for the show. E put some fantastic French braids in F’s hair, and there were zero complaints about fancy holiday attire or dress coats. I always think the girls are pretty cute, but I will say that F was looking particularly adorable in her dark blue twirly dress with tiny gold stars and I’ve missed those braids now that she prefers to do her own hair in a simple ponytail. She also stood out from most of the crowd because of her size. There were definitely other children there, but most were older elementary, middle or high school students. In the first three rows where the VIP’s were sitting, she stood out as the only little one, almost dead center on the stage, and just feet from the microphone where Odom was about to stand. You should have seen our faces when we walked down to find our seats! I think that’s when it really started to sink in – Aaron Burr was going to be right smack in front of us for the next hour and a half. We were already over the moon and the concert hadn’t even started.

Then he was there. People went mad. The electricity in that place was unreal. He walked out of the door and straight to that mic and our whole family was just giddy. He immediately started to sing “Wait For It” from Hamilton, and that’s when it finally hit me how special this night was. We had this whole concert ahead of us, Odom, his musicians, the entire orchestra, and then, when that was through, we were going to meet him in person. I knew we’d never forget this night.

And then, after singing some of his own music – (“Winter Song”, “Autumn Leaves”, good gracious, so beautiful), the whole night changed. E noticed towards the end of the third song that he had locked eyes with F and gave her a little nod and smile. E said she knew then that he’d say something about his smallest fan. (I was oblivious to this because I was convinced that he was really just singing to me the whole time.) E was spot on.

He looked right at F and asked her for her name. Clear as a bell she answered “Frances.” The whole theater ahhed. He put his hand on his chest and said “Frances. I love that name.” (Melt.) “How old are you Frances?”

“Eight.” She wasn’t shy, she didn’t hide her face or cling to her dad. She just looked right back at him and answered. He teased her that she must be so bored with all those LOVE songs, and was wondering when he was going to get to more Hamilton already. She cracked up and he laughed with her, promising her they were coming, just you wait. He continued to talk to her between songs, and then intermission happened, and the four of us just stared each other with our jaws dropped. It hardly seemed real.

We headed to the lobby to get something to drink – F was VERY excited about this because we also had VIP drink tickets, and she had a Shirley Temple on the mind. That’s when we realized that we kept hearing the name “Frances” around us. Everyone was talking about that lucky little girl, and trying to come over to talk to her. She giggled when she realized that she was “famous” now.

My phone had buzzed a few times during the show, so I checked it and found a slew of messages like these:

We thought it couldn’t get any better, but then the orchestra filed back in, followed by Odom’s musicians, and then the lights dimmed and he walked back in to thunderous applause, waving, and pointing a phone to record the crowd because “his social media manager said he needed to post more.” The crowd went wild, and then he walked to the center of the stage, paused, pointed directly at our row and said “Frances. How are you?” The crowd erupted. “Good,” she answered.

“Did you take a power nap during the break?”

Giggling. “No!”

“Did you eat some candy?”

Again, “No!”

M and I stared across the girls at each other in disbelief. The night was young, and it just kept getting better and better and better. He continued to check in with her, referenced her age when telling the story of the first Broadway musical that changed his life – his “Hamilton” – the musical Rent. He thanked the crowd for supporting the arts. He looked right at me, at M, and thanked us for bringing our girls tonight. He sang a bit of “Forever Young” to her. He sang “Dear Theodosia”, and I seriously thought I might lose it at that point.

Then it was time. The orchestra was at attention. The musicians were alert. The lights changed. And Leslie Odom, Jr. looked right at F with a knowing nod and launched into “The Room Where It Happens.” Full force Hamilton, just as promised. The girls’ faces. M’s face. My goodness, let me remember this bit the longest.


We were one of the last people to head downstairs to the lounge where we were scheduled to meet Odom. There were maybe 20-30 people in the room, and no other children. We waited a few minutes, and then the door at the top of the stairs opened and he came downstairs. F was standing on the landing, and he stopped, smiled and said “Frances – how did I know you’d be here?!” stooping over to hug her around the shoulders. Then he greeted the room and started meeting people one by one.

It was fun to be at the end of the line, because we got to watch him interact with everyone. He was hilarious and sweet and exactly as we imagined him to be. When it was our turn, each girl talked to him on their own, posed for several photos, and had him sign something special to them. F had him sign her lanyard, and E brought our big Hamilton book. He asked her if she had a page in mind, and she flipped open to a full page head shot. “Wow, that’s one handsome man,” he said, pulling out the marker to add his signature. “Well, I prefer the one of King George, but this one will do,” she teased. He cracked up and they talked for another minute of two. She seemed so cool and calm and it was just amazing to watch her charm one of her idols. Kids are just so cool sometimes.

We posed for a few family photos, and M shook his hand and thanked him for a night we would never forget. He thanked us again for coming, and we gave a shout out to the grandparents for the amazing Christmas gift. “Thank goodness for Grandmas!” he yelled, and we floated up the stairs and out of the quiet theater (pausing for a final celebrity Frances sighting and photo op!) into the night.

In the words of a favorite book we used to read years ago –

Wow. All I can say is wow.