Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Christmas, dear friends!

"The Nativity" (circa 1500), based on a lost painting by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
                                                                                  The Gospel according to Saint Luke
                                                                                         Chapter 2, verses 8-14

Happy Christmas, dear friends!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Looking ahead to Christmas: now we can finally celebrate!

So Advent is almost over, but as most of you know the Christmas season really begins on December 25, as we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity. In the pre-commercialized past, traditional celebrations of Christmas really kicked in as everyone celebrated the twelve days of Christmas from Christmas Day to Epiphany on January 6. That's what the song refers to, obviously. That's also what Shakespeare is talking about in his play, Twelfth Night; in his time Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, was a time of revelry, when everything was topsy-turvy -- like the capers and shenanigans of the play.

In my crowd, we try pretty hard to stick to these old ways. The husband and I host a swingin' party on December 26 every year -- traditionally called Boxing Day in England (for reasons that are explained various ways by various sources).  A couple of days later we will all gather at Mr. and Mrs. K.'s home to sing carols and eat fabulous cookies and drink fabulous wine. We will also play The Name Game, which I have also played in its guise as The Colander Game. Either way, I will do well in this game if I am seated next to The Mother. Not that I am competitive, or planning my strategy already . . . .

On New Year's Eve we go to The Mother and her husband (so is he The Father? I don't think so, but I'm not sure why . . . ) for a black tie swanky soiree. Yes -- I said "black tie," and get this: it's so swanky, the invitation says "white tie optional." Boom.

And finally, on January 3, my whole extended clan of beloveds will meet at my sister's house for our family Christmas celebration, along with a rollicking game of "Dirty Santa." The primo gift last year was an ear wax remover, but I've got a few surprises up my sleeve this year; I think I can top that. This will be our last loving look at the Soldier, who will deploy to Korea on January 7. A brand new graduate of West Point and the field artillery school, he will take all, all the prayers with him when he goes -- please add yours to the pile!


Again with the looking ahead, the Advent book for today is actually a great story to read on December 26 -- the Feast of Saint Stephen. If you know the carol you know that the good king and his servant boy went out into the cold winter night on the Feast of St. Stephen, "when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even." This little book tells the story of the carol. It's a sweet one!

Monday, December 22, 2014

"The Elfin Wars" OR "Once More Into the Breach"

I read this article in The Huffington Post, and it really got my knickers in a knot.  The key quote: "If you feel like a bad mother for not buying into the Elf on the Shelf, that's on you." Well. Can I just say that I feel like a bad mother multiple, multiple times in any given day, but never once has it had to do with an Elf -- shelved or free-range.

Here is the comment I left at the end of the article:
"The problem with "that's on you" is that YOUR kids are coming to school telling all the other kids that they got tickets to "The Nutcracker" from their elf. YOU are hosting parties for your elf, and staying up all night getting your elf up to cute capers and shenanigans, and nodding knowingly and disdainfully to other Elf-Lovers at the class Christmas party when a frazzled fellow mom expresses her angst about how much she still has to do before the grandparents arrive, and how the dog chewed the family elf, and how she wishes she could just once get her shit together. Most anti-elf mommies are not actually Grinchy about Christmas -- or even about the Elf. We do object to the Elf on the Shelf as a competitive sport. 
If you want to tear apart your house in the middle of the night every single night in the lead up to Christmas, that's on you. If you want to wrap a gift for every child in your house to be delivered every single day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that's on you. But when you post it on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, the Huffington Post, you are dumping it on me. When your kids make other kids cry because their families got "lame" elves, that's dumping it on them -- and by extension on me.  
By all means -- let's all parent our own kids. And let's support each other in our frailties, insecurities, and mistakes. But mommies competing with each other in the Elfin Wars (like the Hunger Games but with more powdered sugar) is one more reason why I will continue to speak up. 
[Interestingly the whole notion of Advent as a time of spiritual preparation for the birth of Jesus never seems to come up when mommies are flinging Elf anger back and forth at each other this time of year.]"
Harrumph, is what I really meant to say.  But the good news is that according to the article's title, I am [finally] a "cool mom." So that's something.


Advent book!

An Amish Christmas is a great book that introduces the Amish customs of the Christmas season. Even without Santa or twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, these children see the wonder of Christmas -- and have lots of wintery Christmas fun, too!

Sunday, December 21, 2014


This is a picture of the newest addition to our family, a reclusive elderly lady cat named Gigi. She used to live with my sweet mother-in-law, but now she lives with us -- and I'm not sure she's very happy about it. But to tell the truth it's difficult to know. She was a recluse even when she and Grandma Donna lived together, rarely coming out of the closet she had chosen as her cozy spot. Her core of sweetness shone, though, when, as Donna became less able to come and go, Gigi began to creep out at night to sleep on her feet -- a great comfort, as you can imagine.

These days, she has two cozy spots. Her preference is to camp under the tall boy's bed, at the exact center of the space -- where she is completely unreachable. He's fine with this, except for the part about how she would really prefer to have her food bowl shoved under the bed, too -- so that she doesn't have to make eye contact with anyone. I did say "reclusive."

So she makes do with an alternate cozy spot in our storage room. From her strategic location she can fend off the potential threat of . . . well, pretty much anything that seems scary. The family, the other two cats, the dogs, the phone, the light coming on . . . The world is pretty menacing according to Gigi.

Boxed up on the way to the vet, Gigi punched herself in the nose in an effort to fight the evil cat carrier. Then she realized that a crate is a perfectly perfect cozy spot.

But rarely, rarely, she creeps out in the middle of the night, like Grizabella the Glamour Cat, and timidly makes her way to the bottom of the stairs. Twice now, in seven months, she has made it all the way up to the kitchen, to peek around the corner and see if the coast was clear. Then she made a break for the powder room (cozy) and curled up on the throw rug for a nap. Global Anxiety Disorder is exhausting.


Advent books!

December 20:

OK, so here's a book that was pointed out to me by MomVee, over on Facebook.  She loved it to the point of tears, she said. So like an idiot, I went to the library to look for it, and sat there and cried, right there in Mother Goose's Storybook Time Chair. Embarrassing. Patricia Polacco tells a loving and nostalgic story about a Christmas tradition from her childhood, and pays sweet tribute to her youngest brother at the same time.


December 21:

The phenomenally wonderful Ezra Jack Keats (you already love him because of The Snowy Day) illustrates this book, with beautiful pictures to accompany the well-known carol.  The warmth and detail of the drawings are lovely. You can get this as a board book, which makes sense -- the repetitive "pa-rum-pa-pum-pum" of the song is a mesmerizing magnet for babies and toddlers, so a sturdy board book for them to "read" while they sing is a fabulous thing.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Calendar: Day 19

Today's Advent selection offers you a couple of options. There are many lovely illustrated versions of The Nutcracker, which most of us know as a ballet.  Here are two versions of the story in written form -- both are lovely.

The original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, was written in German by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1815, and is much longer and more involved than many folks realize. If you are interested in the full [translated!] text, this edition, illustrated by the great Maurice Sendak of "Where the Wild Things Are" fame, is a great choice. The pictures are full of detail and weird whimsy, great to pore over and explore.

If you have younger readers/listeners, an abridged version of the story may be just the thing. This edition, re-told and illustrated by Susan Jeffers is a good one. I have recommended this telling of the story before -- I think it's very pretty.

And I would also encourage you to go see a performance of the ballet and luxuriate in the gorgeous Tchaikovsky music. In multiple dressing rooms across America, someone is strapping on her pointe shoes right now. Go see it!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"There's a double meaning there . . . ."

So what do you think is the deeper meaning behind this particular arrangement of books on the shelves of my local Target??


And hey!  Advent books!

December 15:

Here is a lovely written version of the Gian Carlo Menotti children's opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. This story is written like a novella, but those familiar with the score can sing the words of Amahl, his mother, and the three strange and wonderful kings who visit them on their way to Bethlehem.  Really, it's hard not to sing these beautiful tunes: "Don't cry, mother dear -- don't worry for me! If we must go begging, a good beggar I'll be . . . " Come on -- go ahead and sing!


December 16:

On the first night of Chanukah, here is a great story, All the Lights in the Night , by Arthur A. Levine. Two Jewish boys, Benjamin and Moses, are fleeing Russia and making their way to Palestine. They comfort each other by telling stories of Chanukah. With only a battered lamp to light their way, they realize their own miracle of lights as they journey to the Holy Land.


December 17:

Here's a silly little story for the mommies and daddies: "Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit," by P.G. Wodehouse. Lovers of Jeeves and Wooster may already be familiar with this story, which was first published in magazines in December 1927, and later anthologized in Very Good, Jeeves (1930).  As the story begins, Bertie tells his disapproving manservant, Jeeves, that rather than go to Monte Carlo for the Christmas season, they will go to a friend's country house. Because " . . . does one get the Yule-tide spirit at a spot like Monte Carlo?" To which Jeeves asks, "Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?"

You'll snort with laughter!


December 18:

Snow, by Cynthia Rylant, is a pretty little book that describes all the things one can do on a snowy day. As with most storybooks, the illustrations are what make this a book to read before bedtime, as you dream of a snowy day.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent Calendar: Day 13 and Day 14

December 13:

Here is a great wintery book to read this time of year. The Twelve Days of Winter shows an elementary school classroom as their teacher introduces a new winter activity every day. The text allows children to recite/sing/chant along with the accumulating counting rhyme, but the pictures that illustrate the story are made to be pored over. An observant urchin will notice the dancing girl, the shy student who needs to stay close to teacher, the two rough-housing boys, and one kid who has a finger up his nose in every scene! This one really tickled me.


December 14:

In Listen to the Silent Night, by Dandi Daley Mackall, we learn that things were maybe not all that silent in the stable on the night Jesus was born! From the sound of the sheep and cattle rustling and baaing to the fluttering on angel wings, to the excited murmur of shepherds, the story of the Nativity is told in a way that is both reverent and clever.  And as you can probably tell, I am a sucker for a beautifully illustrated book. This one is lovely!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Found one!

So every year when I'm out Christmas shopping (or sometimes Christmas window-shopping), I play a little game with myself, to see where I will see the first religious Christmas decoration or ornament. Part of the reason for my quest is that I collect "Holy Family" tree ornaments.  I have some beautiful ones; some were gifts, but many I have found during my yearly "game."

Well, of course I find an angel or two pretty quickly, and of course angels count. One or two times I have seen a menorah ornament, which seems confusing to me -- but I suspect that in families where one parent is Christian and one parent is Jewish, a menorah tree ornament feels like a fine blending of two customs.  The most unusual religious tree ornament I have ever seen was a lovely glass ornament of the Buddha.  At which I got very tickled and had to go sit down because I was laughing so hard.

This year the winner of my internal contest -- the store where I saw the first Nativity display -- was Pottery Barn Kids.  Here is their fun (and spendy) manger scene.


And here are a few great books to get us us caught up on our Advent calendar:

Day 8:

Here's a pretty little picture book about the life of Mary, Jesus's mother.  In my house, today is a perfect day for a book like this, since December 8 is the day on which Catholics commemorate Mary's immaculate conception.


Day 9:

Today's book is another that is out of print.  Lucky for us that we can access all, all the books through This fabulous website gives book lovers the ability to find books at used book stores all over the English speaking world.  Can I get an amen for buying a beloved and out-of-print book from a nice little New Zealand bookstore with a cat and a generous return policy?!

Din, Dan Don, It's Christmas, by Janina Domanska, is based on a Polish carol. It depicts a procession of birds and people together, as they make their way toward the manger where Jesus has been born. The illustrations evoke stained glass windows, and the simple words evoke an earlier time.


Day 10:

Here's a reminder that every creature is unique and wonderful in ways that cannot be duplicated. No Two Alike, by Keith Baker, is a quietly lovely depiction of a winter landscape. We see that while some things seem similar, really every creature has its unique place in the pattern of life.


Day 11:

The Christmas Magic, by Lauren Thompson, offers a view of Santa Claus as he prepares for Christmas. In her telling of the story, Santa is more removed from the world, and he works quite alone as he readies the reindeer, prepares gifts for every girl and boy in the world, and polishes his sled and its jingle bells.


Day 12:

Moe the Dog in Tropical Paradise was a big hit with all my urchins when they were little. I think the idea of a very sophisticated and world-weary dog, who works in an ice cream factory, just tickled their funny-bones. When you add the fact that he's got a very thoughtful girlfriend and a terrific imagination, you have the makings of a great wintery book.

Moe the Dog and his girlfriend Arlene long for a summery paradise where they can relax and get away from their bitter cold lives at the ice cream factory. While others are enjoying the freebies that come their way,  Moe just wants to go south where it is warm.  How will he and Arlene figure out a way to experience the vacation of their dreams?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent Calendar: Day Seven

On the second Sunday of Advent, here is a lovely book about the night Jesus was born.  In Only a Star, by Margery Facklam, a little girl asks her father, "Were there any decorations for Jesus when he was born in the stable?" "Only a star," her dad answers.

The rest of the book shows, though gorgeously detailed illustrations, just how that little star's light transformed everything it touched -- so that the stable was beautifully decorated: "But it glistened on dewdrops and turned them to diamonds. Spidery threads became ribbons of silk." Wonderful.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saint Nicholas Day!

Today is the Feast of Saint Nicholas! Did you put your shoes out last night? 

OK, so some of us get a little confused from time to time about the whole St. Nicholas v. Santa Claus split personality thing, and we wonder how we should talk to our kids about it. Well, I read this great blog post yesterday, and I think the blogger did a fabulous job of explaining why we should not feel angsty about these conversations.  She has such a great take on what really can be a tricky issue -- I hope you find it as helpful as I did.


Today's Advent calendar book is, of course, one about the good man himself, in his Santa guise. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is written by the great  L. Frank Baum, of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame.  This beautifully illustrated book tells the legend of the early life of Santa -- as opposed to being a biography of St. Nicholas.  It's a fun fantasy about Santa's childhood and early mission to make children happy. There are other editions of the story, with beautiful illustrations -- but they have been simplified and the story is somewhat diminished. While I do love a gorgeous picture book, I hate to see this terrific story dumbed down. So I prefer this edition. 

You might also enjoy an edition that contains both of Baum's Santa stories ("The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" and "A Kidnapped Santa"), published as L. Frank Baum's Book of Santa Claus.  It's fun, too!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent Books: Days Four and Five

The book behind the virtual door of our virtual Advent calendar on Day Four is this adorable little book, written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1952.  You remember Miss Brown from her classic bedtime books, Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny, both illustrated by Clement Hurd. This edition of Christmas in the Barn is illustrated by the equally famously fabulous Barbara Cooney; alas it is out of print. the link will take you to a more recently published edition (equally cute, but not evocative of my childhood the way this one is).

This simple little book tells the Nativity story for very young children, often using words from traditional Christmas carols and hymns. Mommy or Daddy might just start singing the words to this book during story time -- it's hard to stop yourself!  A very satisfying book.


Here is Day Five's story, and oh, my goodness -- I love this book!  Snow Party is written by Harriet Ziefert -- a favorite author in our family because she wrote our beloved A New Coat For Anna.  Here, the simple story is really the backdrop for the gorgeous illustrations by Mark Jones (Zeifert waited to publish the book until she had the right illustrator -- what a good decision!).

This is one of those books that kids (even pre-readers) will pore over, because the level of detail in each image is so lovely. A fabulous find -- I just wish I had experienced it with my own urchins when they were small.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Chicks' Night Out

I went out to dinner with friends this evening (standing monthly get-together), so I am sneaking my Advent book in under the wire -- which is hilariously ironic, considering that I bragged to one of those very friends that I had been listing Advent books for two whole days without a gap!

Whatever. I had a great time tonight -- thanks, ladies!


Today's Advent book is The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens.  This novella is one of Dickens's five Christmas stories (the most famous, of course, being A Christmas Carol). I always liked this one, which centers on a poor toymaker and his blind daughter.  The plot is very Dickensian -- so you should keep that in mind; you will encounter lots of conniving trickery and misunderstanding on the way to forgiveness and redemption. Of course the miser sees the error of his ways at Christmas time, and true love conquers all -- except for the blind girl. The Victorians wouldn't have stood for that.

This would be a great story to be read aloud (the best way to read any Dickens); I don't know if it will hold the interest of very young children, but the rest of the family will love it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Small pleasures: Merry Christmas Wreath!

Well, so I have become one of those people. I have hung a Merry Christmas wreath on my car.

I know, right?

I first saw this phenomenon when I was working at Lafayette College in the 1980s. A student that I worked with and loved, the perky R.A. Sarah, had a wreath on her sporty little car, and I both loved and hated her for it, because I'm that kind of person.

I mean, it wasn't that I hated wreaths or Christmas or Sarah or cars -- and I loved the idea of a Merry Christmas wreath tied to the front of my own fun little red car. But I could never gather the wherewithal and motivation to get up off my ass to do something about it.  It never occurred to me to ask Sarah where she got her wreath or how she had attached it to her car -- or maybe even just to ask her to help me do it (translated = do it for me).

Over the years, my lazy ways hardened into a kind of Grinchiness that mocked the festive cars sporting their tidings of the season. Well, maybe I wasn't displaying full-on Grinch symptoms, but a definite crankiness crept into my attitude. I think part of it has been that whenever I saw a car with a wreath, I thought, "Dang it! Another year and I haven't gotten my wreath act together."

Well, not this year! I got me a wreath, and I got me some florist's wire, and I figured it out, maybe. I have no idea how long my handiwork will last. But as long as it does, my car will be fa-la-la-la-la-ing all over town!


Here's a sweet little book that evokes memories of old-fashioned Christmas anticipation. Christmas in the Country, written by Cynthia Rylant, describes the winters of her childhood, when she and her grandparents prepared for Christmas as the snow gathered in their mountain home.  The decorations, the shared cocoa by the fire, the baking -- all are described in loving detail. It's a great reminder that some of the joy of the Advent season lies in the waiting, and in the preparation itself.

Monday, December 1, 2014

An Ode (or Whatever) to Pinterest

          O Pinterest! Dost thou know that I
          Covet those pins that catch'st mine eye?
          Verily, 'tis true that every pin
          Causes mine heart to leap with chagrin.
          I say chagrin -- for I cannot muster
          The moxie to create my own feather duster
          Or re-tile my kitchen with hand-painted ceramic
          Or bake a souffle (the thought makes me panic).
          [And yes -- I know that those words don't rhyme.
          Get off my back, Pinterest; I don't have time
          To hone my craft and polish my meter.]
          But I adore Constant Pinner and do long to greet her.
          She takes perfect photos; she wears perfect clothes;
          She know just what polish I should put on my toes.

                    Her house, her garden, her baby, her life
                    Are perfection. And if a teen gives her some wee bit of strife
                    I never will know.
                    Dog puke on the carpet? A burnt apple crisp?
                    A babe who says, "Fuck!" in an adorable lisp?
                    I never will know.

          But I say to Constant Pinner, "Bring it on, bitch!"
          I do love her photos! They give me an itch
          To craft, to re-finish, to weed, e'en to blog!
          And what are these pins after all, in this slog
          We call daily life, but a chance to dream
          And to vow to ourselves, though mad it doth seem,
          That we too might make curtains, or jelly, or quilts;
          That we might even make some DIY stilts.
          It could happen! Especially if my ways I mend . . .
          Oh, who am I kidding? So here I must end.


Well, so here we are, approaching the season of Christmas once again.  I have found some terrific books for the Advent calendar again this year; I look forward to sharing them with you! The link will take you in most cases to Amazon, which will not benefit me in any way.

On this first day of December, here is a fun and fabulous book -- especially for a family with a fancy girl of their own! Fancy Nancy: Splendiferous Christmas is adorable and sparkly and fun to read. The illustrations are part of the fun, as Nancy prepares for a fancy Christmas, complete with decorations and a tree and gifts that she will prepare her very own self. When things go awry, trust Nancy to find a way to make Christmas festively fancy!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Role Model

Well, November is here, and as usual it has brought out my melancholy side.  I miss my mom with sharper focus in November, the month of both her birth and her death. But this November in particular, I've been thinking a lot about my fabulous mother-in-law, whose birthday was also in November. I wish you could have known her as well as I did.

She was an excellent grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, a fiercely independent widowed single woman, a terrific friend, the best mother-in-law, and an adventurous soul who was up for anything.

She tap danced. She swam. She shepherded tourists around the Smithsonian as a docent at the National Postal Museum. She read The Washington Post from front to back every single day. She hated to drive, but had the Washington, D.C. bus and subway schedules memorized; she used them as she attended theater productions and baseball games and art exhibits throughout the city. She looked forward to and excelled at the competitive sport of bargain-hunting.

More than this, after her retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service and a career during which she and her husband raised three children -- while stationed in places like Cambodia, Libya, Bangladesh -- she traveled the world all over again. She took cruises throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and Canada. She rode a zip line over the Costa Rican rain forest. She went on a safari in Tanzania -- sleeping in the most glamorous tents I've ever seen. 

And then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, almost two years ago. She was told she had a "glioblastoma multiforme." Your Google search will give you all the bad news about this kind of tumor. And you've probably been hearing about this particularly shitty brand of cancer in the news recently. 

I want to say so many things. But mostly:

First -- my religion (which was my mother-in-law's  religion too) teaches me that God's ways are not our ways. This is sometimes (but not always) comforting when I consider the ways cancer attacks us. I watched it take control of my own mother, and then of my dear mother-in-law. And to tell you the truth, both times it took control of my life, too. 

But second, this sucky disease gave me a great and good gift, too. My beloved mother-in-law's illness allowed me to take care of her. It allowed me to be with her at her most vulnerable, and it let me take the most intimate care of her. Ultimately, this brave woman let me and her other children be with her as she approached that ultimate journey -- her greatest adventure yet! It's funny -- nineteen years ago, when my own mother went through a similar ordeal with similar grace, my friend Susan said to me, "her suffering is a gift." Which totally pissed me off. Who would want this kind of present?! It certainly has never been on my Christmas wish list. But she was right (as she usually is). I am grateful that I was able to love them in this particular way, in addition to all the other kinds of love I had and have for both of them.

This is a thing I've come to embrace partly because of my religious beliefs -- but I think that my non-religious friends might have experienced a similar gift. I consider myself devout, but I don't think this thankfulness really has to do entirely with faith. It also has to do with our deepest connections to those we love. And, while I have the deepest sympathy for those who think that this is not a death they should have to experience, I look to both of my cherished mothers as my examples and role models. There are many ways to die with dignity.

Finally, as is often my way, I would recommend a book -- for anyone whose family has gone through something like this, or is in the middle of it right now. Shrinkage, by Bryan Bishop, is a wonderful memoir of his (so far) successful battle against an inoperable brain tumor. I first learned of his story through his fiercely wonderful wife's blog, and have cheered him on ever since. He writes with honesty, grit, and humor, and anyone fighting cancer will find inspiration and hope in his story.