Making Space

My new husband and I have been busy lately, so busy that most of my normal daily activities have fallen by the wayside—including this blog.

We’re combining two households, four home-for-the-summer college kids, a dog, and a cat. To make space we’re finishing the basement of his 1907 home. This means jackhammering the old concrete floor, digging down another eighteen inches, creating new footers, fortifying the foundation, cutting windows and window wells, pouring a new slab, framing, and all of the finishing tasks that turn a cellar into livable space.

At the same time, we’re building a cabin about two hours away in the mountains. We’ve hired a crew to do the actual building, but my husband has been swinging a hammer nearly every step of the way.

You could call us ambitious or crazy, and both would be correct given the untold minutiae that we discuss at the end of every day. “Is the water pressure good enough in the mountains to avoid putting in a pump for the required sprinkler system? Will a 63” bathtub fit in that space? Where will the electrician put the outlets now that there’s a step of concrete running along the perimeter of the new basement?”

Did I mention that while this is happening, I’m readying my house for sale? Um, yes.

I can hardly keep up with grocery shopping, laundry, and pulling a few weeds in both yards. My exercise is sporadic and I don’t see my husband (let alone friends) nearly enough.

We know we’re incredibly fortunate to be able to do these things. These are big dreams we’ve shared for many years. But goodness we’re tired. We’re also disconnected from ourselves and each other lately. Last weekend, I’d had enough.

I wanted to burn our to-do lists and inflate our bicycle tires.

My sweet husband took it one step further and arranged a picnic for us. We took off with our food, huffing up a hill that is not normally so difficult. We arrived at a grassy park and unfolded our blankets under a tree. After a simple dinner, we lay on the blanket under the sky. And it was—every minute, every bit of food, every word of conversation, every color of the sunset—exactly what we needed.

We relaxed into each other’s presence.

For the past year, nearly all of our energy and time has been spent working toward aspirational projects. And while we’re excited about our future, we haven’t listened much to our fatigue or the birds singing beyond the windows.

I wonder if a human life requires equal measure of dreaming and being. Any dream requires an investment of time—graduate school, writing a book, running a marathon, starting a company, building a house.

But how much life can one sacrifice in the process? We live in a culture that seems to prize goals more than picnics. Last weekend my soul knew better. And this time, I listened.

(Artwork by Kelly Henderson.)

Two Kings

In the retelling of the story of Christmas, a detail is often left out.

Mary and Joseph lived under a government led by a tyrannical king, a leader who felt easily threatened and would do nearly anything to preserve his power. King Herod, as all royalty believed, was chosen by God to have dominion over his land and the people who lived there. He ruled with a heavy hand and on the backs of laborers, built opulent palaces that shimmered with gold. He took great comfort in the heavy, intricately carved metal of his throne.

Imagine Herod’s surprise when scholars from the East arrived to visit him, bursting with news of an astronomical anomaly—a new star in the eastern sky. And under that star, the prophesy promised, a spiritual king would be born. “Where is he?” the great men asked. “We’ve traveled far, in the coldest days of winter, to bow before him.”

King Herod knew nothing of the star; he hardly paid attention to the sky. He bristled at the thought of the scholars and his own people bowing before a baby. He summoned his advisors, who identified the birthplace as Bethlehem. Sending the wise men out again on their journey, the king asked that they bring back the exact location of the child.

The king’s court buzzed loudly with the news the next day, but he could hear no more. “I am the chosen one!” he yelled to anyone who would listen, pointing to large maps of his kingdom to calm himself. The palace shook with his rage. Finally, to preserve his position as the only monarch of the land, King Herod ordered his soldiers to the town of Bethlehem to slaughter every child under the age of two.

He unleashed unspeakable violence so close to Jesus’ birth.

But the wise men arrived while the palace slept, led by the quiet light of the star. They found the small family wrapped in blankets, nestled together for warmth by a fire. Imagine Mary and Joseph’s expressions in hearing of the men’s journey by starlight. Imagine the relief they might have felt by their arrival—a confirmation of their highest hopes. The wise men knelt before them, offering gifts that they would need in the days ahead.

At Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth often ends with the peaceful image of a manger under starlight. We are not listening for the hooves of Herod’s soldiers, on a mission to destroy the most vulnerable.

Mary, Joseph, and the wise men however were listening when their dreams once again spoke to them. Surely tired, hungry, and ill-prepared for another journey, the family fled to Egypt and the wise men returned home on a different route to the East.

As I read this story today, I’m struck by hope’s narrow escape. Christ was not born in peaceful times. He was born in the midst of hardship to human parents who relied on the kindness of strangers, the strength of their own hands, and the power of prayers. He required protection. How can we protect hope during our own times of difficulty? Because like the story, our hope will be called eventually out of exile, to stand up for the vulnerable and to preserve what we hold dear.

Only One

I’m making one kind of cookie this Christmas. The recipe comes from my mother’s side of the family. I remember my grandmother bringing the dough to our home one Christmas, carrying it in waxed paper on the flight from California to Utah. Before taking off her coat, my grandmother placed the dough in my mother’s refrigerator to chill. And when it was time, she did the baking herself. I remember her raised brow as I skipped into the kitchen to swipe three from the counter.

My mom’s mom was more judicious than my dad’s mom, who would have told me to take as many as I wanted. This grandmother was not as outwardly generous, but friends, she could bake.

Her cookies were perfect. Light. Crisp on the edges. Soft in the middle. A harmony of chocolate, walnuts, and powdered sugar.

These were cookies that could break you, so that before you knew it, you’d eat six and want two more. These licentious morsels defied my grandmother’s strict and dignified demeanor. They begged indulgence with each successive bite.

And try as I have over the years, following her recipe carefully, each step measured precisely, I have never baked them quite the same. They’re still tasty, but I’ve never gobbled up my own cookies impulsively. I’m left to wonder what secret essence she possessed that defied her reserved and principled nature to make her cookies unlike any others?

If I’d asked her this myself, she would have looked at me quizzically and told me to follow the recipe.

My grandmother raised four girls, including my mother. Like many women in the 1950s, she kept an exceedingly organized home. But I understand that she also played sports, climbed tall ladders to hang her own Christmas lights, and piled her girls into the car for weekend camping adventures alone. She was an artist and a sculptor. Out of a sense of duty, she recycled tea bags. A master gardener, she taught me how to compost banana peels by cutting them up into small pieces and burying small batches in the soil of my own garden.

In spite of these things, I didn’t know my grandmother well. She was a reserved and private person. I know she had impeccable integrity, but I know very little about the wild, delicious spirit that came alive in her cookies.

My grandmother Myra passed away two days ago. I’d planned weeks ago to post her recipe, but when I learned of her passing, it took on another meaning entirely.

Maybe you’ll find yourself devouring these cookies as I did when I was a girl. Maybe you’ll catch a secret, tantalizing essence as you bake them. I can’t help but think if I capture it, I may find the same ingredient in myself too. And perhaps I can bring it to life in a way that she, a sensible woman of her time, did not allow herself to exude wholeheartedly. This one’s for you, Myra!

Myra’s Chocolate Crinkles
(makes 48 cookies)

½ cup butter*, softened
1 2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
2 1 oz. squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1/3 cup milk
½ cup chopped walnuts
confectioner’s sugar

Thoroughly cream butter, sugar, and vanilla. Beat in eggs, then melted chocolate. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add alternately with milk. Add walnuts. Chill three hours. Form 1-inch balls and roll in confectioner’s sugar. Place on greased cookie sheet 2-3 inches apart. Bake in moderate oven (350°) for 10-12 minutes. Cool slightly; remove from pan.

*Update: I have recently learned (after posting!) that Myra likely made these cookies with margarine instead of butter. I haven’t bought margarine in years, but for the best texture (crisp edges, chewy middle), I’ve been told it’s best. I’ll try it next time, and if you try it, let me know how they turn out!

Coming Back

For me it happens when my attention is directed outward for too long, when my first instinct upon waking is to reach for my phone to read news or email. When I concentrate solely on events and people outside of myself, I forget to take my vitamins and drink enough water. The morning becomes rushed. My imagination shrinks. I have only a vague idea of how I feel.

I forget that I love spacious and silent mornings, drinking my coffee at the dining room table after my daughter has left for school. And how—when I step away from electronic distractions—I’m aware of the sun rising over the mountain, shining through my window, warming my back. I remember that in the early morning, ideas and discoveries come easily to me.

My blog partner Kelly is especially good at keeping spacious mornings. An idea came to her recently, to create a painting that she would send to a community garden she admired. The executive director, after receiving it, called to ask if Kelly could design a t-shirt for the garden. They met, and Kelly will soon volunteer her time and talents in other ways for them too. Her instinct, to create and send a painting, opened a door to working with an organization that she truly believes in. The idea came straight from her heart.

Tend the Garden
by Kelly Henderson

The word courage comes from the French coeur, which means heart. In the words of the poet David Whyte, “To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.”

If you don’t know David Whyte’s poetry, and if you have two and a half minutes, listen to him read “Stay Close In.” Whyte often repeats lines when he reads, making the poem a kind of spoken meditation. Enjoy!

Dark Skies

The season of Advent—literally “arrival”—is upon us. In the Christian tradition, this is a time of darkness, expectation, and waiting.

We don’t hear much about Advent from advertisers. It’s easier to jump straight to the celebration.

Let’s just arrive.

I get it. Waiting seems almost impossible given the reality of 2017: political upheaval, mass shootings, natural disasters, environmental degradation, nuclear arsenals.

On good days, I try to remember that 2017 has spurred more civic action than I’ve seen in my lifetime. Newspapers have been resurrected. Women’s voices are being heard in a new way.

But, my hope for our country has seen better days. I’m tired of waiting for a course correction. Everyone I know is just as tired.

And still, Advent invites a childlike willingness to wait with open arms for a better reality than the one we occupy now.

One Advent, when my daughter was six years old, she began coloring bright yellow stars in dark skies. Gone were ballerinas, princesses, and family portraits. She was preoccupied with stars. I sensed her wonder as she handed me her creations, the dark night illumined by far away light.

That memory makes me want to ditch my 2017 dread and replace it with a dose of wonder. I’ve begun stepping outside after dark to witness the night sky. I want more silence. I want to listen more than speak, and observe more than act. I want to count my blessings and be kind to myself.

Author Wayne Mueller says, “The human spirit is naturally generous; the instant we are filled, our first impulse is to be useful, to be kind, to give something away.”

In this spirit, during Advent and the inaugural month of our new blog, we’re going to post about simple kindnesses for the self. We invite your thoughts and ideas, and when 2018 dawns, we’ll widen our discussion of kindness—we hope—with a renewed sense of purpose.

We’re curious: how do you show yourself kindness?