Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry, Merry

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Fifteen minutes after we took this picture, the Grand Canyon disappeared 
behind a curtain of white

     Last year, for the first time, we took a Christmas vacation.  Well, technically, it was a pre-Christmas trip because we returned by dinner on Christmas Eve.  Our plans were to hike around Sedona, take a van tour all the way up to the Grand Canyon for a day, and perhaps to do some desert stargazing during our quick four days.  We’d relax instead of joining that mad December shopping marathon.
    Within two hours of arriving, though, we were at the Sedona urgent care center because my son had gotten a little too enthusiastic on the hotel treadmill.  Diagnosis for Nicholas?  No hiking on this trip.  But no problem.  We still had the daylong tour to the Grand Canyon with very little walking required.
     Once we passed Flagstaff, however, the snow started and followed us north.  At our first stop in the national park, the guide pointed out Phantom Ranch at the bottom of that giant hole in the ground.  Amazing.  We saw the river.  The trees were green.  There was grass.  And we were up above them freezing our tails off as the snow swirled faster and faster around us.  Soon it created a curtain of white so thick we no longer could even see the giant hole in the ground.  So we continued on our tour and at all the stops our guide described for us everything we could have seen if we hadn’t been driving in a blizzard.  But lunch and the snowball fights were good.  So no problem if we’ve traveled halfway across the country not to see the grandness of the Grand Canyon.

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     We made it back to Sedona where the hotel clerk told me they never have this much snow this early in the winter.  No hiking.  No Grand Canyon.  And no desert stargazing.  It was just too dang cold.  And it would require too much walking for Nicholas.  The closest we got to studying the night sky was eating at Red Planet Diner – UFO central.  At least the chocolate milkshakes were out of this world.  And there was a Star Wars movie marathon on TV that night.

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      Maybe this is the way all Christmas’ should be.  Lots of expectations for something new and awe-inspiring, but satisfaction with the ordinary.  The first Christmas wasn’t just angels filling the sky, heralding a king.  It was a stable, and cattle as witnesses, and uncertainty.  So my wish for you is that your Christmas is filled with the beauty of the everyday and the memorable peace of the uneventful.

If you want to share any of your Christmas memories, exciting or mundane, comment here.



Monday, November 29, 2010

A Turkey of a Thanksgiving?

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The aftermath of our French Thanksgiving

Things in my favor when I decided to cook a Thanksgiving dinner while in Dijon:
    -- I’m in France surrounded by the freshest bread and vegetables I could imagine
    -- I have a new recipe for Potatoes Gratin with French Gruyère cheese
    -- Brad and I have French friends with whom to share our American feast
Things against my plan to cook a Thanksgiving dinner while in Dijon:
    -- Our apartment does not have an oven
    -- Not a single roasting turkey exists in the entire city

Did you know that absolutely the only time the French eat roasted turkey is Christmas week – and then only out of tradition because they don’t actually like it?  I found this out later from my Paris friend, Martine.  I could get rooster, pigeon, pheasant, duck, and practically any other bird I wanted, but it was starting to look like a holiday dinner built around slices of packaged deli turkey, which was all I could find a week before the big day.

On the other hand, how would I cook it in our kitchen equipped with only three small burners, a microwave-convection over (and not the family size, either), and a Le Creuset casserole (dutch oven) large enough to serve as a deadly weapon if I were being chased by a large grizzly bear that smelled salmon on my breath?  I also had only two feet of counter space on which to prepare everything.  If I found my turkey, could I cook it?

While waiting for a turkey to drop from the heavens in a Thanksgiving miracle, I set to work on the rest of my meal because my petite cooking accommodations meant it would take multiple days to ready all the dishes I had planned.  My produce vendor helped me pick the perfect apples for my tarte du pomme, which I made with French feuilleté, or puff pastry. The French green beans were almost fluorescent in color from their absolute, just-off-the-farm freshness. The butternut squashes for my soup (that would eventually be pureéd the old-fashioned way -- by pushing the flesh through a sieve) waited on the kitchen counter to make magic. And I had several baguettes of pain de compagne (delicious hearty wheat bread) drying out on the kitchen counter for distinctly American stuffing.  While chopping, and slicing, and mashing, and mixing I also tried to imagine the scent of succulent roasted turkey filling our apartment.

After a luckless week of searching, I again trekked to my butcher on the last market day before the dinner, resigned to choosing one of the large chickens staring out at me from the butcher cases with its feather bedecked head and naked body.  Then voilá, as if on cue, I saw two turkey leg quarters isolated in a distant corner of the cold case.  Their sudden appearance made me think that my favorite meat master knew the importance of this week for his American ex-patriot customers.  I rushed them home and stuffed them into an already overpacked dorm-sized refrigerator, leaving them to await their cue to center stage.

Here’s a handy hint for shopping at French markets: say oui to whatever your butcher suggests.  On Thanksgiving afternoon I realized that my stovetop oven, even as large as it seemed, would not hold my two turkey legs.  So that was what Monsieur Butcher meant when he pantomimed cutting off the bony joint at the end of the leg, to which I replied with a smile and a no, merci because I didn’t have a clue what he was trying to say.  And now it was only a couple of hours before dinner, with no heavy knife of my own to perform the surgery on that miniscule section my butcher could have eliminated in seconds.  With fifteen minutes of cramming, twisting, turning, and attempting to loosen and bend the joints of the quarters I finally managed to squeeze them in, fitted tight like shoes in a shoebox.  Oh, Monsieur Butcher, I’ll never doubt you again!

What a wonderful meal this would be, I thought as I patted myself on the back.  I puttered and cleaned and set the table and anticipated our French guests’ experience of their first Thanksgiving feast.  Then I went to peek in the pot at how dinner was progressing.  Mon dieu!  Where was my roasted turkey?  What I had here was turkey soup, swimming in an inch of liquid.  When my landlady gave me 30 seconds of instructions for using this casserole, it seemed so simple. “You put the vegetables in, comme sa (like so) and then you put the meat in comme sa and then you add liquid un peu and set the flame comme sa.  It’s simple. C’est tout.  That’s all.”  Exactly how much liquid was “un peu”?  I thought I had put in the minimum amount to prevent sticking, but apparently the turkey had its own supply to contribute.

Only one hour until guests arrive and I had not a golden bird but a pale pot of turkey soup!  I cranked up the flame to boil off the liquid as quickly as possible.  Maybe I could salvage the meal by achieving a minimal amount of golden crispy skin on the centerpiece of the dinner.  If I couldn’t do that, what would I use to create that most essential delicacy for the meal – turkey gravy?  It was a tense thirty minutes as I waited for another turkey miracle.  But eventually the apartment filled with the aroma of the bird’s drippings (which would produce gravy ambrosia), and stuffing laced with onion and obscene amounts of sage, the mingling of cheese, cream, and potatoes in my first-ever gratin, and the first spoonful of the sage-infused (if slightly lumpy) squash soup.

Somehow in a kitchen smaller than a modern spa tub I had succeeded in replicating a traditional Thanksgiving with a bit of French flavor.  Travel – c’est l’aventure, toujours!

What is your favorite Thanksgiving story?  What dismal failures or rousing successes have you experienced?  Click to share it in the comments box.  And I hope your holiday weekend was wonderful.
 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Birthday Wisdom

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I know I've posted this before, but it's one of my favorite photos.  Tonya never had a bigger grin in her life than on her first birthday in the United States when she found out about this wonderful tradition of showering birthday girls with love and attention and presents.

“Today is my birthday and all that I want
Is to dig through this big box of pictures
In my kitchen ‘til the daylight’s gone”
-- Kristian Bush/Jennifer Nettles “Very Last Country Song”

     Yes, today is my birthday.  But not just mine.  My daughter and I have shared this special day for the last fifteen years.  Being born on the same day made us so much alike (a blessing and a curse), but we absolutely stand at polar opposites when it comes to the menu for our birthday feast.  She wants steak and a plain cake with minimal or no icing; I want the dinner my mother always fed me – fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy – plus a gooey, sweet Black Forest Cake or something similar with enormous amounts of sugar.  As a good parent, however, I made the ultimate sacrifice for my child and usually gave up my favorite food for the sake of her birthday dinner.

    Now, with my daughter several hundred miles away at school, I’m going to have myself a carb-laden fried chicken blowout for my birthday (and yes – to answer my sister – there will be lots of gravy).  But I’ll also be thinking of T on our special day.  Since one thing we have in common is a love of music, I’m sending her some words from our favorite singers to live by in the coming year.  And you might find something that hits you just so as well.

Help me if you can/ I’m feeling down/ and I do appreciate you being round
-- John Lennon/ Paul McCartney “Help”
Just remember, T, it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.  The world is full of people with wonderful experiences and bucketfuls of knowledge that mean we never have to reinvent the wheel.  If someone gives advice, that doesn’t mean he or she is trying to run your life.  Let someone else carry part of the load sometimes.

Guess what, honey, clothes don’t just wash themselves!/ Neither do dishes, neither does the bathroom floor// So, now if anyone asks, not that they would/ I’ll be down in Mississippi and up to no good
-- Kristian Bush/Kristen Hall/Jennifer Nettles “Down In Mississippi”
Keep this one in reserve for when you have a child of your own.  For myself, I’d change it to “I’ll be at a Keith Urban concert and up to no good.”  But you already know that.

And speaking of KU –
Days go by/ I can feel ‘em flying/ Like a hand out the wind as the cars go by
-- Monty Powell and Keith Urban “Days Go By”
We sang this at so many concerts.  Don’t get so caught up in making all your plans for the future that you forget to roll down the window and stick that hand out.  Right now is just as important as tomorrow and next year.  Don’t be too impatient; you’ll get there soon enough.

I know you can hear me/ You don’t have to say a thing/ My love is stronger, lasts a lot longer/ Than your anger or your pain
-- Radney Foster “I Know You Can Hear Me”
During that first year after the adoption when we were learning to be a family, your dad was trying to make you sit on the stairs for a two-minute time out.  You fought every second of it – refusing to listen, testing our commitment to you, and daring us not to love you.  You later asked your dad in a jumbled mix of English and Russian if we were going to send you back because we were angry.  Well, like it or not we’re in this for the long haul.  But the road has gotten less bumpy, don’t you think?

Life is short/Even on its longest day
-- John Mellencamp “Longest Day”
This will mean a lot more thirty years down the line when you’re my age.  So hang onto it for the time when you’ll need it.

     After I make a phone call to my favorite birthday partner today, I’ll put on some music and heat up the oil for my decadent delight.  I’ll think about past years and perhaps pull out those pictures.  And I’ll start planning for many more.  Happy Birthday to me.

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Please don't retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.

Italian actress Anna Magnani

They say that age is all in your mind. The trick is keeping it from creeping down into your body.

Anonymous


If you have any great birthday quotes or words of wisdom passed on to you or that you tried to share with your own children – or any great birthday story – share them in the comment box here.  Thanks for reading and sharing.
 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Serendipity

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Somewhere in the Loire Valley of France.  Don't ask me where because I was completely 
lost at this point

There are two kinds of people in this world – highway people and blue highway people.  Whoever designed the mind-numbing, butt-numbing stretch of I-70 between Indianapolis (or anyplace in Indiana, for that matter) and St. Louis were highway people to the extreme.  It’s strictly Point A to Point B driving.  The engineers forbade deviation on this path by erasing even the most gentle curves, making it 250 miles of Indianapolis 500 straightaways.  They built bridges where the road might feel an inclination to dip down with the natural undulations of the Midwestern landscape  and glance sideways at a creek.  They put up small signs in green just so you’ll know you’re passing over the Kaskaskia River or Big Walnut Creek since you’re too high above and passing by too fast to notice the riches of this land.

More and more I desire to get off the highway.  I’m not in a William Least Heat Moon kind of blue highway mood, but some days the destination just has to wait a bit so that I can enjoy the drive.  There’s that certain road.  You round a curve that opens to a sea of sunflowers.  You need to stop and you need to pull the car over.  It doesn’t matter if you should have been someplace an hour ago.  And it doesn’t matter that you really have no idea where you are right now or how to get where you want to be.  All you know is that you need to stop and you need to look.

Maybe you’re the first person who ever saw this curve in exactly this light.  Maybe a thousand people have stopped in this exact spot to fill their eyes and absorb the million little suns that exuded so much energy in that field – awakening the senses more than three cans of Red Bull.  Like you, they then drove on, certain now that the detour (intentional or not) was worth it.

The blue highway moments don’t have to be about jaw-dropping vistas.  I’m only ninety minutes from home after my visit to the Indiana State Fair with friends, but I know that if I don’t get off I-70 right now I’ll never survive this last stretch stuck in a tunnel of corn stalks and big rig trailers where the scenery never changes, just the truck stop chains promoted on the mud flaps and the bumper stickers explaining just who is and who isn’t an American.  So for no particular reason I exit to see what Altamont, IL has to offer besides relief from the hum of the highway.

A hand-lettered sign taped to the pole of a stop sign points me toward the antique stores along Main Street.  Stretching my legs in the aisles of one, I visit American history among the shelves lined with heavy depression glass of ruby reds and cobalt blues, well-used Boy Scout manuals, handmade lace doilies that adorned a grandmother’s dressing table, and the playful Shawnee pottery of Midwest corn stalks, pigs, and watering cans.  My reward for taking a break in my rush from Point A to Point B is a Blue Ridge Southern Pottery maple leaf-shaped cake tray painted with pastel flowers the color of spring – something to cool me off on this sizzling August afternoon.

The large man at the counter, sweating in the heat of the unair-conditioned antique mall, chats about his shop’s singular honor of having the cleanest bathrooms out of the five antique stores in town and his longing for a small refrigerator in the back to stock with cool drinks for these dog days of summer.  I tell him I hope Martha Stewart never discovers Blue Ridge pottery and puts it in her magazine or I won’t be able to afford it ever again.  He laughs, saying places like his live and die by Martha whims (a modern circle of life?).  I celebrate my find on the way out of town with a chocolate soft-serve cone at the Altamont Dairy Bar.  Sitting at the picnic tables between the walk-up window and the gravel lot, slowing sweeping my tongue around the mound of cold, chocolatey goodness, I count two cars driving by and three yellowjackets checking out the ice cream drips that coat the brown tabletop.  It’s now time to hit the road and make my destination before dinner.

The trick, of course, is finding the balance between highways and blue highways every day.  Charging through from morning to night might seem like moving closer to a goal, but I always have to remind myself doesn’t matter how fast I go if I’m going in the wrong direction.  On the other hand, watching a youTube video of a dog doing the samba – that’s not a blue highway moment.  That too easily becomes an endless loop of hitting the road with no map and no plan of ever getting anywhere.  Reading a bit of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or chatting with my husband about our days or pulling a few weeds – these are definitely detours that invigorate and set me up to keep moving toward my destination.  It’s on those backroads that I find many of my treasures.  I just can’t forget, though, to point myself toward the on-ramp eventually.

My Blue Ridge pottery cake plate treasure
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What is your favorite detour -- literal or figurative?  Please share it in the comments.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Let It All Hang Out

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Laundry day on rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
I’ve lived with a constant concern on laundry days that I would lose my underwear into the private courtyard two stories down and never be able to retrieve it.  If I did, I just hoped it was some of my new stuff that would show me in a good light.  At least the blue ones, something with color, and not the practical white Jockey ones.  French women are neither shy nor practical when it comes to what is underneath – just barely.

I’ve felt practically puritanical while in France because my foundation is both ecologically sound (made from quickly renewable bamboo fibers) and meant to cover and be covered.  Before leaving home I went shopping for a new bra with straps appropriate for wearing with the cut of tank top sleeves.  And the saleslady convinced me to choose the “nude” (ugly no-color) one because it would be invisible under light-colored tops.

 Was that ever a wasted afternoon because none of those practical, American, rules apply to lingerie in France.  Bra straps were red, purple, brown, white, black.  They had bows and flowers.  Forget those smooth Playtex cups we were taught to covet because they were invisible under the tightest top.  In France, the elaborate appliqués and topstitching couldn’t possibly be hidden unless under a heavy wool sweater.  Wearing white pants with blue underwear?  No problem.

The fashion faux pas that seem to grip my American psyche disappear when seen through the filter of a new culture.  After a few days here I became less concerned about the times my bra straps were showing and more envious that they weren’t more beautiful and worthy of display.  But that doesn’t mean that this is an environment of  “anything goes.”

French women may sunbathe topless at the nearby lake, but they remain fully covered the rest of the day.  They may have some part of their undergarments showing, but it’s calculated and coordinated and colorful, not a dirty bra strap showing under a baggy tank top for that “I’m-just-running-into-the-grocery-store-so-I-don’t-give-a-crap” look.  And lingerie shopping is serious business, with more than one male standing outside of a dressing room curtain, holding a selection of bras on hangers and not being shy about giving his opinions to the unseen female on the other side.

I’ve mastered the French autoroutes and winding country roads.  I think next time I’m here I’ll finally have the courage to navigate the lingerie section of the department store or any of the dozen lingerie shops in downtown Dijon.  After all, travel is sometimes just about taking risks, throwing caution to the wind, and letting it all hang out.  Or at least peek out from where I used to hide it.

Lulu, one of my neighbors (which has nothing to do with my story)
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What do you think will be the next risk you take?  Share it here in the comment section.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tournez à droite

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C'est France -- what else can I say?

Tournez à droite à la deuxième sortie!  Tournez à droite à la deuxième sortie!

Yes, this was a battle of wills between one determined traveler and a GPS tyrant.  “Ignore the prescribed course at your peril,” clearly sounded in the tone of the Renault oracle.  But sometimes I just didn’t want to turn right at the second exit, or instinct (or an actual paper map – you remember those, don’t you?) told me that the navigator didn’t always know the best route.  I would not be bullied, but I was willing to compromise with this overly-confidant French know-it-all.

In this country, if a road doesn’t lead to Paris it’s hardly worth consideration on maps or navigation programs.  For my first solo drive to visit my friends, Martine and Christophe, in the Loire Valley near La Roche-Posay, however, I wanted to head west out of Dijon and not take the rapid, but boring, autoroute system that led me first north to the City of Lights and then south to where I wanted to actually go.  With a good map of the country, some time, and the help of a great internet website I charted a course in which my kilometers would be marked not by forgettable highway rest stops but by cows that changed from white to brown as the French regions changed, hillsides of grape vines giving way to fields of sunflowers, and stone villages that believe you can never have too many purple petunias on a bridge.

And so sometimes that disembodied voice would grow insistent that I turn and head back toward a large autoroute like any sensible person would do.  I would fight its urgings, and after a few kilometers, it would give in and reconfigure its course to fit my desires.  But to show me who’s boss it would seek revenge by saying, “Ok, if you don’t want to take A77, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  Then it would send me down single-track roads not on the map.  It told me to turn onto “streets” no wider than a single car driveway and make me maneuver hairpin turns then scream hysterically “Passer impossible! Passer impossible!” when it guided me down blind alleys or roads that, quite literally, ended at the river edge.

So on this adventure I encountered “route barrée” signs with no further directions for how to otherwise escape a maze of medieval streets and tailgated giant farm combines hogging the two-lane roads at a leisurely 25 kph.  I relished the McDonalds I found with its quick service and clean bathroom as much as I enjoyed my travel respite at the bar with decorations just this side of a classy bordello.  I slammed on the brakes for two horses grazing beside a church in an unknown town.  And nothing can compare with driving through a tunnel of giant sunflowers dancing in the breeze, even if it is the wrong road.

This more complicated route that took twice as long as the mapping directions estimated just felt so familiar at this point in my life.  I know the destination I want to reach in my life right now, i.e., to earn the title of “writer.”  But I’ve definitely shunned the short and sweet route – that’s for those who start young and keep to the main road.  My way takes me down long, empty roads temporarily without a town in sight.  While I went the wrong way down a one-way street only once on my drive, I seem to do it on a regular basis as I reach for my goal.  Some days I’m lost in a country where I don’t speak the language well enough to even ask for directions.  Other days it seems life is screaming at me “passer impossible – route barrée!”  But every time I think about getting back on a straight highway I find a stone cabanon in a field of sunflowers and I don’t care how long it takes to get me where I want to go.

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Friday night petanque tournaments in La Roche-Posay

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Castles of the Loire -- Angles sur l'Anglin

What has been your most memorable drive?  Share it in the comments section here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Selections from a French Life

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Everyone goes to market on Tuesdays

-- I saw a man wearing a yellow straw skimmer with a black band having tea.  He had a very distinctive mole on the side of his face.

-- Walking home from dinner late one night I saw three men lift a small car and detach it from the large trash truck that had hooked it when trying to maneuver a tight corner on a narrow street.  Everyone went back to dinner without a further word.

-- Just because it’s beef bourguignon and it’s served in Burgundy, FR doesn’t make it always good.

-- Hallelujah! Coke Zero is everywhere here.  What’s up with the US?  They make it; why don’t they sell it?

-- My Blackberry is actually getting 3G internet service here.  In St. Louis I can’t even get a good phone connection in my living room.

-- The French must have their bread!  Bastille Day, everything closed except a few boulangeries for the early part of the day.  Line is outside the door and down the sidewalk at mine.  Exiting at various times: lady with small dog, lady with large dog, old man with three large baguettes (hey, where’s the party!), young man on roller skates.

-- The French make a very clear distinction between cocks and hens.  It is coq au vin NOT poulet au vin.

-- The French need a second revolution, or at least a nationwide strike, to improve public toilets.  You would think the country that houses the treasures of the Louvre would see the beauty in clean public toilets with porcelain thrones, not holes in the ground.

-- I truly enjoy having sun-dried laundry.  I don’t care if anyone sees my undies hanging on the line in my window.

-- If the French can grow the most succulent and beautiful fruits and vegetables you’ve ever seen, why do they only serve green beans or a few romaine leaves with an anemic sliced tomato with the meal?

-- I finished lunch at a brasserie and then sat there reading the paper and writing until the “happy hour” crowd started arriving.  A cup of tea will get you a table all day if you want it.

-- Sunday brunch with croissants and quiche and champagne in France brings you one step closer to heaven.  Especially if the gratin pomme de terre is clearly made with heavy cream and gruyère cheese.  And it’s eaten in a walled garden with a gurgling fountain.

selections fr. life
A mountain of haricot verts

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Market stop

What truths or observations have you come across in the past week?  Share your thoughts or comments here

Friday, July 9, 2010

Voilà!

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Sidewalk graffiti on rue Chabot Charny, Dijon FR (probably some unkind reference to the town's symbol, the owl)

Late night.  Brad and I trudging home through the wall of heat and humidity down rue Chabot Charnay after an organ concert at église Saint-Pierre.  Platoons of bicyclists heading home along the car-free streets in centre-ville. A lone motorcyclist makes pedestrian heads turn as he throttles down and roars up the block at highway speed.  Faint rock music comes from an open window high above the street.

Then a flash of gold to the left out of the corner of my eye.  Above the tall iron gates that shut off from the street a courtyard to one of the Renaissance stone mansions populating the neighborhoods I see the pointed crown of a gleaming gilt mirror.  As elaborate as anything found in Versailles, it is carved with all the excessiveness of French pre-revolutionary abandon.  Just the top two feet of this piece of art are visible through that second-story window – a gentle peak that sweeps out and down like it wants to take off on its golden wings.  From the width, I imagine the mirror to be 8 ft. tall or more, but hardly dwarfed in a room with 15-foot ceilings and 10-foot windows open wide to entice in any evening breeze that the room could possibly capture.

“Look, up there,” I direct Brad.   Before he can even focus, though, an invisible hand extinguishes the light – and the 30-second view that will last a lifetime.

Look up.  Look right.  Mind the gap.  Interdit sauf livraisons.  Poussez. Tirez. The color of strawberries.  When I travel my eyes are wide open to the smallest objects.  Everything is new and interesting and delightful – even when it isn’t.  Travel gives a different perspective on the world.  Yes, of human relations, but especially on the ordinary space I move through every day.  Do I carry this awareness home like a treasured souvenir, un memoire?  Will I become a traveler through the quotidian of my own life when I'm surrounded by the familiar again?

The roof cat of Maison Millière, a classic
15th century building in Dijon (cat is 20th c.)
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What have you seen lately that caught you by surprise?  Share your memoire in the comments here.  I love reading all of them.
 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Everybody Pogo!


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Country singer Keith Urban jumps for joy

As I finished walking Skyler around the lagoon and Grand Basin at Forest Park and was heading back to the car, my eye was caught by bright mango yellow shirts shooting into the air in a fit of randomness in the shade of tall oak trees.  Despite the July St. Louis heat, a group of grade school camp kids were all exhibiting their most energetic jumping jacks before hopping on their bikes for a spin around the park.

When did I stop jumping?  When was the last time that I flexed my knees and then propelled myself into the air like a rocket again and again?  Do I always have two feet planted firmly on the ground?  And why is that seen as a good thing?  I remember hot summer nights after dinner when all the kids in the neighborhood competed to see who could bounce the highest or the most times on our pogo stick.  Onetwothreefourfive . . . onehundredandfive . . .  We jumped without a moment’s thought to bad arches, or aching sacroiliac joints, or old knees.  We pogoed the length of our street and shot into the stratosphere with little concern for balance or control.

We just jumped again and again for the sensation of escaping gravity and flying into the air.  Even if just for an instant before we were yanked back to the reality of solid ground.  Jumping jacks.  Hurdles.  High jump bars in gym class.  Puddles. Tops of front stoops to the sidewalk. Ledges and fences.  Hardly a day passed that we didn’t launch our body into space and hang there for one . . . two beautiful seconds before we collided with the earth, but then brushed ourselves off and kept moving.

Did I stop jumping because I grew old and my joints began to ache?  Or did I stop long before that?  Did I just get too busy to think about jumping?

The other week at the gym I tried some tentative jumping jacks.  There was no mighty leap, legs and arms spread wide.  It was more a shuffle and a lifting of the heels, but not quite both feet off the ground simultaneously.  Before I even crouched for the attempt, the brain cringed and said, “You know this is going to hurt.  This is high impact aerobics.  Your feet will ache for a week.  Watch that your knee doesn’t give out when you touch down.  And what about your shoulder?  All that swinging up and down is definitely going to inflame that shoulder again.”

It’s no wonder with such anticipation of pain that I looked like an elephant attempting “Swan Lake” instead of someone jumping for joy.

My favorite performer, Keith Urban, has a moment in every concert – just when you think the show is over and he’s about to strike the last chord – that he regroups, ups the tempo, and starts leaping across the stage on an invisible pogo stick while shredding on his guitar.  Everyone in his band starts jumping like they’re twelve and it’s a warm summer evening.  Pretty soon 10,000 people in the audience are doing the best they can to keep up with him.  For those few seconds everyone is truly jumping for joy and with abandon.

How many other ways in an average day or week do I convince myself that I can’t “jump”?  In how many ways do I hold myself back from something that could be wonderful because that little voice keeps telling me that some pain will surely follow any leap into the air?  I let the landing mean more than the flying.

As you read this, I’ll be on my way to France.  I can predict any number of opportunities to leap.  For one, I have a car and a map and will navigate a solo trip to the Loire Valley.  And I can imagine the hurdles and cliffs I may trip over on the way, considering I speak very bad French.  But it seems as good a time as any to start focusing more on flying and less on landing with a painful thud.  “Just jump,” I’ll remind myself every time I encounter a fence or a puddle.  As my French friend Martine said to me, “C’est l’aventure!”

Keith Urban and Friends 
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When was the last time both of your feet left the ground (literally or metaphorically)?  Share your best "jumps" in the comment box.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Five Best Things Ever Said To Me

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Brad enjoying his lunch along the Burgundy canal last year

The most memorable lines aren’t always uttered by honored politicians or literary giants.  Sometimes it’s the small moments that stick with us and make us feel the world is a good place.

#5 – “It doesn’t do you justice”
This spring I was flying out of the Atlanta airport.  As I went through the security line I handed the agent my driver’s license.  She looked at it a little longer than I thought was necessary, then she looked at me, then looked back at the license.  She returned it with that memorable line.  And she made the day of this often-frazzled 50+ female.

#4 – “You don’t know me, and you might think this is strange, but would you maybe like to go out for a drink with me sometime?”
This line is not so unusual, but when you’ve been married about 20 years and have two kids, and you’re out walking your dog in the neighborhood, and someone you’ve never seen before pulls his car up to the sidewalk next to you and rolls down his window to ask this question, well, it sorta sticks with you.  So right now I’m working furiously at my diet to get back down to the weight I was when these kinds of things last happened to me.

#3 – “Sure, sweetheart”
Omaha.  July 28, 2007.  Backstage with Keith Urban.  There is a very large sorority of Urbanites who know what a rare treasure it is to have those blue eyes look at you and to have him smile and direct a “sweetheart” toward you in that soft Australian lilt with just a hint of a lisp.  I got mine at the end of our meeting when I asked if I could give him a hug because his music means so much to me.  Of course, I’m forever jealous of my friends who’ve had longer conversations or more than one meeting so they’ve gotten multiples of his famous “sweethearts.”  One will have to do for me.  And yes, it’s true (as anyone who’s ever been within three feet of him can attest) – he smells sooooo good.

#2 – “I’ll do that, Mom”
This is for any time that one of my children has voluntarily stepped in to do something without me asking.  No need to elaborate further.

#1 – “I do”
Said by my husband of 25 years on May 18, 1985.  Happy Anniversary, Brad!!!  And here’s hoping for 25 more.  I love you.

As for you my readers, what memorable lines have you had directed toward you over the years?  Share them in the comment box.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

5 Questions I'd Ask My Mom

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Mom with my sisters - Melinda, Nanci, Jane, and me.  It must have been my birthday since I'm the one dressed like a princess still


It’s Mother’s Day – the most popular day of the year to eat out and the busiest day of the year for phone companies.  Always short of money and ideas, I’d celebrate my mom with bouquets of bridal wreath spirea, lilacs, irises, or whatever was blooming in the yard.  Or I’d promise to mow the lawn or vacuum the house without asking for anything in return.  When older, I could cook her a dinner.  Whatever I did, though, in her entire life it never adequately recognized all Ellen Francis Farrar was to us.

Short of winning the lottery and giving it all to her, I’m not sure what I ever could have done to have honored her properly.  Diamonds?  Brunch at the Ritz-Carlton?  A Wii Fit?  Now that I’ve been a mother for fifteen years, however, I think that maybe the greatest gift I could have given her was my undivided attention as she told me her story.  She deserved to be more of the foreground rather than the background of my life.  If Mom returned here for just one day so that I could get it right, I would make sure I asked her these five questions (in no particular order).

1) Where would you like travel?  To where do your dreams fly you?
Most of our vacations were at the Lake of the Ozarks.  A few times we escaped the gravitational pull of the Midwest and drove to Holland, Michigan, and The Badlands/Mt. Rushmore, and the Smokey Mountains.  One year when I was in high school I remember her trying to casually and indirectly encourage Dad to agree to a Florida vacation.  That idea died quietly.  Her mind was always open to so much in the world, a quality I think I inherited.  I can’t help but imagine she had wanted to see more of it just as I do.  Where would she have wanted to start?

2) What about me has made you most proud?
I know I don’t have her quick laugh, her parental patience, or her selflessness.  I would love to know what she thinks I’m doing right.

3) What did your mother teach you that you never forgot?
I regret that I never learned more completely how Mom prepared her fried chicken and gravy.  I know that she told me in many ways that people were more important than books.  What part of her own mother did she carry around inside her long past the age of adulthood?  What words or lesson guided her when she felt she had lost her way or kept her continually on the right path?  What words helped her be who she became?

4) What advice would you have given me when I became a mother?
A day doesn’t go by that I don’t want her here to tell me how to master this mothering thing.  Her absence never felt greater than on the day I brought my children home from Russia.  "Now what, Mom?" I desperately wanted to ask.  Frequently, I dig down deep into my memory to remember if we ever gave her the particular worries that my two kids give me and try to recollect how she handled them.    How did she encourage; how did she comfort?  I suspect she whipped out her sense of humor as her main tool of motherhood maintenance.  Unfortunately, I often remember that too late.

5) What was your passion?
I simply don’t know – and for that I’m truly sorry.  I know what she did.  She swam, she gardened, she sewed, she devoted time to her church, she raised four girls and took care of everyone but herself.  But I don’t know what fed her spirit the most.  I should have asked her.

So Happy Mother’s Day to all the mother’s out there.  And tell me in the comment box, below, what question(s) you would ask your own mother if given the chance.  Then pick up the phone and ask her if you’re lucky enough still to have that opportunity.


(You can read about Mom in this post, also)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Growing Garden Surprises

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Skyler, keeping watch in the garden
This year I seem to be growing a Skyler-dog in my tulip patch.  I’m amazed because it wasn’t there last year.  My garden work had always consisted of five minutes of weeding and planting, interspersed with interruptions to throw tennis balls a dozen times for her before I could turn back to my labors.  Weed.  Throw. Repeat.  My Millie, on the other hand, picked a spot nearby me in the grass and calmly surveyed her domain while I worked the dirt.  But this spring, with the death of her long-time companion, Skyler is surprisingly content to sit beside me and watch the world pass by on the sidewalk (read about Millie here).  She has become a welcome fixture in the landscape, filling in the empty spot in my heart and yard.

The rest of my garden brought surprises again this year.  But that’s what they are for.  We are not masters of nature; nature knows exactly what it wants.  This year the tall phlox has (with the determination of a teenager defying her parents, consequences be damned) migrated down the slope where I had stationed it.  A few plants have taken up a close relationship with my bearded irises.  Some of the tribe prefer to become entangled with the wild shenanigans of the yarrow and Russian sage.  They think they’ve blended into the neighborhood, but soon they’ll be too tall and will expose themselves as the interlopers they are.  One lone rebel rises up through the branches of dwarf azalea on the other side of the stone steps.  My original phlox patch is bare except for one singular timid soul that chose to stay put.

And so it goes as the lavender overtakes the evening primrose, which duck for cover under the butterfly bush.  The weedy-looking plant with the giant fuzzy leaves that I almost uprooted as a weed turns out to be the yellow waxy bell I planted a couple of years ago.  It’s only now making its presence know.  My “dwarf” hydrangea at the front of the bed is the size of a Mini-Cooper, blocking the coreopsis behind it.  But I love the surprises I see out my window of a garden constantly involved its own self-renovation project.

I watch the garden that is my children’s lives now with the same eye.  They also refuse to grow where they are planted.  They migrate on a whim, sometimes to locales where they flourish with abandon, sometimes in directions where they risk languishing.  As a mother, I want to dig them up and put them back in the garden bed I had prepared for them, saying, “Here, this is the best spot for you.  I know because I have studied the sun and the soil.  All the gardening books say this how you thrive.”  Yet one day you look out your window and see them in lush bloom under the shade when you were absolutely positive they needed full sun.  And you marvel at their resilience.

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A bearded iris, purchased from Iris City Gardens in Nashville

If you enjoy reading these stories of mine, send the link to a friend and click on "comments" to drop me a line in the comment box below.  I’m always glad to hear from you, whether through the internet or in person.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Call to Beauty

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Cathédrale Saint Bénigne in Dijon, France

As I got out of the car this afternoon my mind was focused on the never-ending to-do list.  The heavy canvas bags full of groceries reminded me of the dinner I would have to start soon.  Dog poops needed to be picked up.  Front and back lawns, growing at warp speed because of the weekend rain, required mowing before the day’s gray sky sent rain again.  A post-it note stuck on a kitchen cabinet door had a list of phone calls I had to make before another hour passed.

But as I began to trudge up the front walk, the bells began to sing.  It was three o’clock on an ordinary April afternoon when the air filled with the soft melody of the carillon bells in the tower at the Concordia Lutheran seminary in the neighborhood that backs up to mine.  During the summer we’re blessed to hear a full bell concert one evening each week as we go about our business of grilling out dinner, weeding the garden, emptying the trash.  This afternoon serenade, though, was an unexpected respite at the lowest point of the day – when there was so much to do and little energy left with which to do it.

I paused to listen until the music faded.  Brief (certainly not a concert), the notes had probably marked a call to the seminarians for a special service in their chapel.  As the chimes floated over me, however, they also carried me back to France almost a year ago.  The weekend that Brad and I had arrived in Dijon I saw a flyer posted about a carillon concert at the historic Cathédrale Saint Bénigne on Sunday evening.  In fact, it was in front of the cathedral on the street, the 53 church bells mounted on a mobile cart and transported from city to city to maintain the musical tradition.  People sat in the street, children danced to the accompanying jazz band, and during the hour-long concert it seemed the entire Dijon citizenry strolled through the square to listen for a few moments before moving on with a smile.  This was so . . . well . . . normal for these people to encounter beauty so casually.

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The Dijionaisse enjoying their street concert

In France, beauty appears in a flower pot full of sunflowers or red geraniums sitting on an a windowsill, in a cellist busking on a sidewalk in the middle of the street market, in the design of shop window display of chocolate treats, in the presentation of food on a plate, and in the ancient architecture that defines a city.  In America, however, one of the best violinists in the world can play in a public place on an instrument that cost $3.5 million and no one stops to listen (see the story and video of the Joshua Bell experiment here).

I know that as I grow older I’m more and more inclined to stop and listen.  I try to be more deliberate in my focus.  I try to keep my eyes open for unexpected beauty in my day.  I know when the peonies bloom.  I see the cardinal flash red as it takes off from its branch.  I look a particularly efficient supermarket checker in the eye and say, “Have a good day” and mean it.  I leave my ears unplugged from electronics to hear the rhythms of the world around me.  When I connect, momentarily, with a divine object I find myself more eager to offer something just as worthy to the universe.  The inspiration may last for only ten minutes or it may last all day.  But for that space I’m trying to ring my bells for glory.

So today I just want to remind you to do one small thing to create some beauty in the world or take a moment to notice the art in unexpected places.  You can start by listening to a bit of the bells from Dijon:

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If you enjoy what you read here, join the conversation by telling your own story of beauty in the comments box below.  Share this link with your friends.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cultivating My Garden

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Wild violets storming the gates of my garden

I spent more time last weekend taking plants out of my garden than putting in.  Dandelion plants the size of dinner plates.  Wild violets carpeting the area with dramatic indigo blossoms and broad, rounded leaves that choke out the yarrow plants and the ferns.  Grass migrating across the stone edging that is supposed to separate the lawn from the flowers.  Thousands of tiny little plants I don’t recognize and that I eliminate with Round-up because they’re too small to yank. I plucked out at least a dozen volunteer redbud tree sprouts.  All of these small beauties when viewed from the neighborhood sidewalk, unfortunately, form a natural “weed barrier,” preventing my carefully selected bulbs and perennials from flourishing.  So plunging the tongs of my garden claw into the earth (world’s best garden tool), I twist, then bend over to separate the green invaders from the clumps of dark earth and useful worms who’ve been so rudely unhoused.  Tossing the weeds into my lawn bag, I repeat the process at least a hundred more times.

Scattered throughout the garden space in their plastic pots are my new lavender and white primroses, a columbine plant weighted down by its orange and yellow bells, and a bleeding heart waiting to burst into bloom once it has a home.  But so often the putting in becomes secondary to the taking out.  When I began this garden the first year we moved into the house, the space beneath the intoxicating viburnum bush and graceful dogwood tree seemed like a blank canvas of rich soil and promises once I cleared the scrub juniper and forest of fig bushes.  I was going to shape this space as inspiration struck until at some distant time it rivaled any Cotswold cottage garden of Gertrude Jekyll.  But just below the surface was an army of unwanted seedlings ready to lay siege to what was supposed to be my green oasis.  And so every spring and fall, with a combination of patient brute force and a carefully controlled distribution of toxins I beat them into submission so that I may transplant a few more of the flowers to fulfill my vision.

Too often it seems like the rest of my life is likewise occupied.  I know what my world should look like.  I can imagine projects that would bring beauty, joy, and a sense of order to my days.  Yet somehow I always seem to be weeding, tending to the unexpected irritations lying just below the surface.  Is there some “life barrier” that I should have put down at some earlier age to prevent the unwanted interruptions that spread across my hours so that I expend more energy rooting out one nuisance after another than nurturing new blooms? Even goals as simple as creating 600 words once or twice a week for this blog fall victim to the wild overgrowth of my to-do list.  I look around at friends, family, strangers and see so much thriving in their patch of earth.  They have time to position a lovely garden bench and contemplate what they’ve sown in their lives while I continue to stab, twist, and pluck the never-ending weeds choking my most carefully thought-out agenda.

After years of chasing across the earth in a ship of blind optimism and absurd adventures in search of the best possible world, Voltaire’s Candide returned home.  When friends and family who had been part of these exploits asked what they should do now, he replied, simply, “You must cultivate your garden.”  And so I do.  This year the Sweet William I planted as ground cover a couple of springs ago has noticeably spread.  Soon it will block any possibility of weeds poking through in its vicinity.  And the old-fashioned bearded irises I bought at Iris City Gardens (outside Nashville) on impulse and poked into the ground, higglety-pigglety, are about to burst gold and purple fireworks in my garden.  So it goes with my life.  I will continue plucking the weeds one at a time, believing the back-stiffening labor eventually will bring the blooms – in their due season.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

It's a Dog's Life

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I’ve been gone too long.  While this blog was to record my travels through this stage of my life, my life had too much happening to have time to record it.  Physical ailments, family trips, old house demanding attention, family events, daughter leaving for Russia, bad plumbing, excitement of a new washer and dryer after twenty years.  But what kept me away from the computer the most in the last couple of months was my dog Millie.  In December I knew something was wrong, but her doctor and I couldn’t pinpoint it, and tests came back negative.  She remained her sweet, zen-like presence in our house, but her step was slower and she no longer was the first one to her food bowl.  We could see our other dog, Skyler, making a bid for top dog as Millie slowed down – hip checks as they went out the door, staring at her as she worked longer on her food bowl (waiting to rush in to finish anything left), sometimes racing up to our room at night to plant herself on Millie’s dog bed – the one that was closest to me.

At the beginning of this month the cancer finally showed up.  Through the surgery, the blood transfusions, the indignity of having her beautiful fur shaved in unattractive ways to clear the space for catheters she remained impossibly good-natured.  Her last neighborhood walk was on a cold and rainy March day, but she didn’t mind.  She never minded the weather because being out in the world gave her such joy.  To the end, when her Mom was puréeing gruel made from tripe and beef broth and squirting it down her throat with a turkey baster to deliver medicine, Miss Millie never complained.  She made the smallest vocalization of pain when Brad and I carefully moved her from her dog bed to a sturdy rug so we could carry her out to the car for that last trip to the vet.  Spring was coming and she could sense it as she rode on that carpet across the front lawn.  She lifted her head to take in the lovely warm morning, her eyes – just momentarily – as bright as they had always been.

Below is a piece I wrote this same month in 2009 when doctors and pain and death were beyond imagining.  I just hope that I can channel Millie’s unmitigated enthusiasm for the world as I continue to travel through my own life without her.

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It’s almost spring.

Mom still acts like it’s winter.  She takes forever to put on all those clothes, and then just races me around the block, complaining about the rain and cold wind while hardly giving me any time to check out all the smells left since the last time I came by.  She thinks it’s winter, but I know different.  I know the sun is higher in the sky.  I’ve already been snacking on the small piles of rabbit droppings left in the yard.  Pretty soon I’ll have rabbits to chase morning to night.  They’re so stupid.  I always see them before they see me.  When I barge out my back door breaking land speed records, they start racing around the yard in crazy circles and it’s really easy to corner them because they never are smart enough to go out the same hole in the fence they came in.  If Mom ever cuts down those bushes in back, she’ll find my mass bunny grave.  She should be happy about that since those critters eat her crocuses down to the soil line every spring.  I’m just doing my part to help her garden.  And I also really can’t wait for the bird eggs to hatch.  I heard the starlings chattering up a storm overhead this week.  They never learn.  They’re busy building a home up on the second floor where the gutter meets the downspout at the back corner of the house.  That’s my favorite treat.  All I have to do during April is lie absolutely still under the burning bush along the fence and wait for one of those babies to make its first solo flight off the back end of the nest instead of the front, and lunch will land at my feet in no time.  Mom tries to watch out for all the baby birdies and bunnies, but I’m much more patient than she is.  I just silently bide my time.

Wait – what’s that in her hand?  Woo hoo, it’s my long line!  I know where I’m going when she has that.  It’s time for the park.  We haven’t been in ever so long because of the snow and mud.  She won’t go if it’s wet or icy.  Last time she rushed me through and wouldn’t let me stop and eat the goose poop treats that blanket the hill by the lagoon.  I like to chase the geese sitting on the hill.  I wish Mom would let me off the leash so I could really take a run at them, but she knows that once I’m free I’ll just keep going.  I have to follow my nose wherever it takes me.   My nose really likes this time of year at the park.  We go through the meadow and I can smell the moles waking up underground.  They’re busy digging and they’re everywhere.  She never lets me follow them; she never lets me sniff a mole trail for more than two minutes.  If she weren’t at the other end of the line, I’d find a nice mole road of soft dirt and start digging.  They’re only inches below the surface, I know it.  What a great mid-morning snack they’d make.  I just love spring.  Mom takes me farther and farther on walks, and we get to leave the sidewalks to explore the woods.  Soon there will be new grass shoots to eat in mass quantities until I barf.  And I sniff all the little bits of tree branches littering the ground because they smell like the squirrels who are chewing on them as they make their nests.  Once God made a squirrel fall straight down from the sky right at my feet.  Mom was faster than I was and she jerked me back before I could have any fun with it.  It ran away.  But it’s spring now, so I always walk with my eyes looking up into the trees, hoping that God will give me another chance.  There is just so much to look forward to at this time of the year.
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I’ll be writing regularly again, so if you like what you see direct your friends this way and add your comments below.  Tell me about your pets and your own travels.
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