Category Archives: holiday story(ies)

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.

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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
2017

gratitude cake

I started this post several months ago, and for some reason I just never finished it. Last week, in a series of serendipitous events, I remembered it, and so now I’m sitting down to finish the first story, and start the second one.

The last thing I made for my grandfather was this cake. It was several years ago, and we were visiting over the Labor Day weekend, and I brought a plum torte with me. It was sort of a birthday cake, although I’m sure we probably also had homemade ice cream that my parents made. It’s probably one of the few things I ever made for him to eat. I didn’t cook much as a kid, and I’ve lived away for all of my adult life. When we visit family we are usually fed, not the other way around. When he would visit us in the early years of our marriage we would always eat out somewhere around town – his treat! – and I wasn’t much of a cook in those years either.

Still, so many of my memories of my grandfather center around the table. There are holidays and birthdays and all the food traditions of home, of course. But the ones that I think about when I think of him are simpler. At least once a week over the course of my summer internships during college, I’d leave the office at noon and cut through a few neighborhoods to his house for lunch. My grandmother would make me a sandwich, and my aunt would fill one of their tupperware tumblers (avocado green with a white rim at the top) with ice and water from the front of the refrigerator. The water would smell like tupperware and my grandparents’ kitchen. I took a drink from a plastic tumbler the other day and it all came rushing back – it’s such a signature smell to me. 

There are just a couple of weeks when Italian prune plums are in the stores, and I’ve learned to buy them all when they arrive. They show up near the start of September, right before my grandfather’s birthday on the 4th, and my niece’s birthday just a few days later, on the 6th. This year I bought over 150 of them, and I started making a couple of these plum tortes a night. The house smelled delicious for a week or more. I began to think of them as a gratitude cake. Each year, to honor my niece’s birthday, we do acts of kindness in her memory. I brought this torte with me everywhere on her birthday – sharing it with people that are special to me, people doing work we appreciate, people we love.

I made so many tortes that I decided to freeze a few. I served a couple at the Open House reception I throw each year in October. They were a hit. I love to share food with others. I love to watch people smile when they eat it, to turn and tell their friends to grab a slice before it’s gone. One third grade boy started hanging out with me after he finished his slice. He asked me a lot of questions about the ingredients, and how I made it. He told me it was delicious. He brought his mother in to share a slice. She’s a new friend to me, and I love that we stood together for a few minutes and talked while she ate. She mentioned the cake again at a birthday party last month. She’s still thinking about it, and that makes me smile.

We had two cakes left in the freezer, but when M picked up some pasta orders from a school fundraiser last Friday, our freezer got very, very full. He sorted and rearranged everything, and managed to fit it all in. But when I opened the door later that weekend, I noticed the cakes sitting on the top of the pile, and thought I’d put one in the refrigerator to thaw. Maybe for a Tuesday night, post parent-teacher conference treat. Maybe to throw in the car for our trip to spend Thanksgiving with family. Maybe for a little bit of late summer in November.

Tuesday night conferences never happened. M called me around four that afternoon and told me that he was headed to radiology for a CAT scan for a suspected ruptured appendix. Suspicions were confirmed, and our evening plans and travel plans and holiday plans all came to screeching halt. I raced around to pick up the girls, rushing to get us all back to the hospital to see M before he was taken into surgery. But the surgery had to wait – there are necessary interventions first. We sat up most of the night, piled onto a tiny hospital bed, and then a second one. Later, the girls and I climbed into one bed at home to sleep for a couple of hours. I snuck out before dawn to return. Hospital minutes drag on and on and on, and just when you nod off for a moment, someone comes in to wake you up and talk some more. There was little sleep, and little eating.

Two years ago our Thanksgiving travel plans to visit M’s family abruptly changed when my grandfather fell ill and entered the ICU. We decided we needed to be there, and to provide some support and relief for my parents and my sister and her family (which included a newborn). We packed quickly, and I scooped up a stack of cookbooks on the way out the door. During the drive I mapped out a meal plan for the rest of the week, enough food to feed eleven people as they moved in and out of hospital watch and through those foggy first weeks of infant care. I wasn’t sure how much we could to do ease the burdens of those days, but I knew that I could make sure that everyone was fed, and had a table to sit down to each evening. I wasn’t cooking for my grandfather, although I longed for him to be sitting there at the table with us. But in a way I was. When we visited him in the hospital, my mother was telling him all about the food we had feasted on the night before. My husband was feeding him scrambled eggs, and coaxing him to drink some water, and he was listening to the description of our thrown together Thanksgiving while he ate. He seemed the most alert during that time. I think he knew we were all together, and understood the significance of that gathering.

Thanksgiving morning felt pretty heavy last week. We were all exhausted and disoriented. The fridge had been cleaned out in anticipation of our travels. We had planned to be fed for five days, and now we were home from the hospital, tired and off schedule, with no real appetite for anything. We thought we should get some fresh air, find some coffee (for me), stretch our legs a bit to get the blood pumping again. We went to the garden and stayed for a few hours until mid-afternoon. We searched for a few places that might be open on the holiday, but struck out everywhere. We headed home to make peanut butter sandwiches and call it a day. Everyone traipsed upstairs to watch the recorded Macy’s parade, and I started to dig through what was left in the fridge.

The first thing I saw was this cake. I put it out on a cake stand, and set it in the center of the table. The sunlight was streaming in the back window as I dove back into the fridge for more inspiration. I turned the oven on and tossed some squash and brussels sprouts onto a tray for roasting. I started some water to boil, and pulled out some of that new pasta in the freezer. I diced up a lone pretzel roll into bite size pieces to share. Raw veggies came out of the bin and into dishes. I poured pear juice into wine glasses for the girls. I called them all downstairs for sandwiches and surprised them with this.

And there in the center was that plum torte. One of a dozen or more. One that I first made years ago for my grandfather. One that I share every fall with others. A gratitude cake that showed up just when we needed it most.

home (christmas) : holiday message 2016

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I had two competing ideas in my head as I moved into this holiday season. The first was centered around the idea of time, and how much of our (free) time has been spent on the design and drawings for our upcoming house project. I had ambitious expectations at the start of the year that we’d be able to get through that process by fall, but the complexities of the work and the various approvals and hearings we had to prepare for and get through, meant that the work continued through the late fall and even into this holiday season. After Thanksgiving passed, I had to make a decision – do I stop working on the house project for a period of time and dive into the holiday card making process, or do I forgo that tradition (now seventeen years long) and stay in house project mode? Neither option seemed appealing.

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Then I remembered an earlier goal of 2016 – that I wanted to build a physical model of the original house and the new additions. I had purchased the supplies to do so, but I never made it past that point. The various boards were repurposed throughout the year – for science projects and art posters and soiree signs – all of those things that keep us busy and active in any given year. There’s more than one lesson there, but the clearest takeaway for me is that my time is finite and I can only do what I can do and no more. It’s been a good exercise for me – understanding where I can do good work and am needed, and focusing my attention there, but also letting some other things go.

sectin

This is a good practice for the holiday season, and I took the time to think through all of the joys – and demands – that there are during the month of December. I selected the ones that were important to our family, to me, and that I could contribute in a meaningful way, and I put those on the calendar. And then I politely declined on the rest. The cards were at the top of that list, and so I decided that maybe I could incorporate my work on the house into the work of the cards with the idea that sometimes efficiency can yield beauty. The tradition of card making is accepted in our family – I’m granted the space and the freedom to immerse myself in the process, and over the years that has become my favorite gift of the season. It connects me to others in ways that they may never understand, but it’s important to me. Having that space to work quietly and creatively is a respite in the bustle. So I decided to build a model of the house and then share those images with others.

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The second of those two competing ideas was the idea of finding comfort in a season (and year) that has been very uncomfortable. I could approach the idea of this year’s card as a symbol of comfort and peace – our home – but that idea felt like it was turning away from the real stress and worry and discomfort of the world around us. For as I focused this year on simplifying things – commitments, acquisitions, relationships – I also worked to broaden the narrative as well – to get out of my comfort zone and push myself into work that is important and needed. Much of that work will happen outside of my house, my family, this life that we’ve created and love. So I didn’t want to create a card with such an insular focus.

I remembered the card I had made in 2007 during another period of uncertainty and stress. It featured an ink drawing of the front of our house. I cut out strips of paper to add some dimension to the cornice and mansard roof details, and I made a stamp of a Christmas wreath and added it to the center of the house. I included this message on the front:

peace

it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.

it means to be in the midst of these things and still be calm in your heart.

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Reading that message again hit right at the heart of what I was trying to do – how I connected the idea of the work of home branching out into the work of the world. We can do both, we try to do both. M and I view this project as a way of bringing to life the work that we do in our professions for our girls at home in a way that they can see and touch and experience. We want to instill in them the idea that there is a process to making things – space, a home, a life. If you take the time to understand the things that are important and are worth celebrating, then the work has a focus and a drive that can help you get through the work ahead of you.

But we also want them to understand the other work that we do, and that they can do, in the world outside these old (and new) walls. I want the girls to understand that we can make a strong commitment to our neighborhood (by planting firm roots within it), to our schools (by being active supporters), to our church (by participating and volunteering in important social justice and education work), to our city and nation and world (in a list too lengthy to include). There is noise, there is trouble, there is hard work. There is so much of it. It overwhelms me at most times.

I needed this card this year. I needed this process. I needed to spend the advent season reflecting on the corners and moments of our home that make me feel calm. I needed to think through and understand how I can energize myself to do the work ahead.

It is my greatest wish for you that you find both the energy and calm within yourselves and your homes to do this work ahead as well. I wish you peace in the coming year, and I look forward to working with you all.

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