The Things We Leave Behind

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I read a fascinating article today, learning about something I have never read about before. In prison camps in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Gulags, and Japanese-American internment camps in World War II, and other similar desperate places, women collected recipes, secretly written on scraps of paper, and stiched them together with threads pulled from their own clothes, hoping somehow to leave something of themselves for their families. Miraculously, some of these “most beautiful books in the world” actually made their way from these terrible places to surviving family members.
What is it about family recipes that make them hold such an important place in our minds and hearts? Last night I made my mother’s chicken salad. It’s a very simple recipe with just 4 ingredients and some common pantry seasonings, and yet, I never feel like it’s really summer until there is a big bowl of it in the refrigerator. I can easily make it without looking at the recipe, and I have even altered the ingredients a little bit to try and make it match our desire to eat in a healthier way, but I still got out the handwritten recipe card and looked at it before I started. Those stained little index cards, and a ribbon-tied file folder full of clippings from long-gone women’s magazines, are a connection to my mother and my grandmothers that I can access in no other way. When my sister passed away years ago, the one thing I wanted from her house was a painted tin index-card box that I gave her for a wedding shower present, now filled with her hand-written recipes for chicken curry and sweet potato casserole and eggs benedict (which I still can’t make like she did).
I missed my mom last night while I was chopping celery and dicing hard-boiled eggs. I smiled while dicing the chicking breasts, knowing that she would approve of my preparing my salad with all white meat instead of resorting, as I sometimes do, to pulling the meat off of a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I choked up a little bit, but I also felt as physically connected to her as I have in a long time, and she’s been gone for 10 years now. Looking at her perfect handwriting (why can’t I write like that?) on the card with a small stain in the top left-hand corner (likely put there by me – I’m the family lefty), touching the card she touched long ago, makes me feel almost like she’s in the room.
I was incredibly moved by the idea of these women, living in starving conditions and knowing that they would likely not see their families again, meticulously writing out the recipes for feasts they would never share again in the hopes that their families would someday celebrate those feasts and remember them. They wrote them on scraps of fabric, cigarette papers, Nazi propaganda flyers, anything that would hold the words, which then had to be hidden away until someday they might find their way to their children and grandchildren. They wanted their loved ones to know something about them other than the tragedy of imprisonment and death.
We need to to leave something for our children and their children and their children, something in our own hand, not just a digital file somewhere. We need to leave something they can hold and leave stains on, and pass along, hand to hand. Even in my own poor handwriting, I think I should do this, and send letters on paper, and make notes in the margins of my books for someone to find years and years from now.
All of our lives are temporary, and the things we leave are, too. But those things are a comfort and a connection to those who love us, and to those who will never know us but will be curious about why the chicken salad tastes so good, and what we put in the vegetable soup. Our senses call out for physical connections.
Tonight, when I steal another bite of chicken salad from the bowl in the refrigerator, I will be blessed by that connection to my mother, and all the generations of women who would never put anything but breast meat in their chicken salad, and carefully chopped their celery to the proper size (about half the size of the chicken chunks). And I hope my children and my great-grandchildren are, too.

If you would like to read the article, here is the link:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/cookbooks-made-by-prisoners?utm_source=Atlas+Obscura+Daily+Newsletter&utm_campaign=e5673c03aa-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_06_10&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f36db9c480-e5673c03aa-65803725&ct=t(EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_06_10)&mc_cid=e5673c03aa&mc_eid=e67bbd871e

The Birds

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There’s a scene in Steel Magnolias, when Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley McLain) explains why she has taken to gardening:

“Because I’m an old Southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt. Don’t ask me those questions. I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules!”

I may have been raised mostly in the Midwest, but those raising me were Southern Women through and through, and I can tell you, there is great truth in that statement. The urge to grow things seems to be stronger and stronger now that I am no longer growing chidren. But another part of turning into my mother has suddenly risen out of the cultural DNA and surprised me more than a little bit.

Birdwatching. Or Birding, as those of us with the binoculars around our necks call it. A line item in the budget for bird seed. Online searches for the best recipes for hummingbird nectar. An entire library of bird books tucked into pockets in my car.It is possible that I am a member of a Facebook group devoted to birding in Kansas. I might be able to identify a dickcissal and a Swainson’s thrush.

I’m not sure what is happening here. Until recently the only bird I paid much attention to was a Jayhawk, and I mean the kind that shoots baskets. Then I got to worrying about the birds in the rotten winter and put out some birdseed in my Mom’s old bird feeder, and bought another one for the smaller seeds that attract the cute little ones like finches. And they started coming in flocks! Then I got to wondering what they all were, and my husband bought me a guide, and a cute little book where you keep track of what you see (and you know how I love lists). The next thing I know, I’m filling in the book, wandering around looking up into trees and across ponds. It’s like a giant treasure hunt.  Do you have any idea how many different kinds of ducks there are??

Looking for the birds has some interesting side effects. The best one, I think, is that I have changed the way I move through time and space. I look up, way up, and watch for color and movement high in the trees. I notice patterns in feathers and unique small features in animals I have been sighting my life, but am now actually seeing. I didn’t know that birds had different colored eyes. I slow down and take my time. I pull over if something interesting catches my eye. When I get home, I stop in the yard and watch the birds play in the water and dart back and forth between the flowers and feeder. The day and its stress fades away while I quietly join in the evening rituals of my feathered neighbors. I’m a much nicer, relaxed person when I go inside.

I am fascinated, not just by the birds but by the color and light playing on leaves, the incredible grace and patterns of birds in flight. And the songs! I’m sure the birds have been making all these wonderful sounds all my life, but I wasn’t really listening. I have discovered how many “wild” places are hidden in and around my usual city travels, even near the heart of the city itself. I have added new birds to my list on the way to the grocery store, and I’ve started taking route to and from work that can include a stop by the creek and pond to see who is migrating through today. They are hundreds of little pocket nature parks, even when they are actually just empty lots. Tiny gifts from God through nature and everywhere, if I will only slow down a little bit and look for them. You can’t see the birds if you are ruminating over the past or distracted by the future. God’s gifts of creation exist in the moment.

I am beginning to understand my mother’s wisdom as she dug in the dirt and looked up into the trees.  I don’t have ceramic bird statues or guest towels embroidered with cardinals on them, but it’s probably only a matter of time. I do have a big floppy hat, binoculars and the bird books. I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules.

 

Interruptions and C.S. Lewis

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I do love C.S. Lewis. In fact, I enjoy his writing so much that at some point I apparently started following him on Twitter, receiving quotes from him every day. This is a pretty good trick, since he died in 1963. But, there’s his name, right on the screen, and who am I to argue with the Internet?

Anyway, he occasionally nails me, and this happened recently, and on a Monday, no less. Here is the quote that appeared on my Twitter screen that morning:

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.” – from The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis

Thanks, Jack.

Is my real life the one that is carefully outlined on my calendar in 1/2 hour intervals from 7 am to 9 pm? Does my real life live on my To Do list? Is my real life the one that I think I control?

Or is my real life in the pauses to really see the world around me, in the phone call from someone who needs a listening ear and a prayer? Is my real life in the messy stuff that absolutely refuses to fit in the little boxes on the calendar and messes up those tidy little lines on the To Do list?

This year during Lent, my church read through the gospel of Mark, full of accounts of Jesus ministry. It strikes me that it is also full of accounts of constant interruptions in the life of someone who could legitimately control the whole universe if he chose. He didn’t ever have to stop what he was doing to heal a desperately sick person, cast out a demon, or explain (again) his teaching to his disciples. They woke him when he was sleeping, tugged on his clothes as he walked by, dropped people through the roof when he went indoors. Constant interruptions.

At each interruption, Jesus didn’t respond to the interruption. He responded to the person. That’s my problem. I respond to the interruption more than the person, at least sometimes. My thoughts are more along the line of “What? I’m trying to get things done here,” or “Could you wait a few minutes?” than they are, “How can I help? Tell me your story. Let’s pray.”

It also makes me wonder about the things that are “penciled in” on that calendar and To-Do list. Things that I might not consider interruptions, but often view as optional pauses that I will take if I have time. Time to pray. Time to read. Time to go outside and soak up sunshine. I treat them more like interruptions than holy moments. I wonder why?  These things enrich my days and my life. They make the To Do list work better, and definitely make me a much more balanced person.

The question, Mr. Lewis says, is “What is my real life? Where do I find it? What does it look like? And what is all that other stuff?” These are the questions I’m pursuing these days. And, as usual, C. S. Lewis is both right and challenging.

 

Simplify

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Thank goodness something has come along in social media to replace “Eat This…Not That.” Now the internet and good people everywhere are obsessed with SIMPLIFYING. And, yes, it must be printed in large block letters. Upper and lowercase combined are apparently not simple enough. Blogs, social media posts, “happy news” spots, and office conversations are all about how we are simplifying our lives.

So, instead of following my instinct to ignore or delete references to SIMPLIFY, I decided to read a blog post or two, just to see what I am missing. Blog post #1 offered twenty-five ways to simplify your life. Twenty-five, and every single one of them was something to do, including three different kinds of “To Do Lists,” creating a “capsule wardrobe,” and quite a bit of cooking. Every single idea sounded like a good way to live an organized life, but there was nothing simple about any of it. Blog post #2 took an even more all-attack approach to simplifying and instructed readers to clean out their closets, get rid of at least half the items in their kitchen, rearrange and landscape their outdoor space, and pack their lunches a week or two at a time.

Honestly, I was stressed and exhausted just reading them. I also couldn’t help but notice that they all involved spending both money and time.

I get it. That bare space in the pictures with the single flower in the vase sitting on soft blue painted side table ($349 plus tax and shipping), next to the white couch with the view of the ocean, is lovely and simple. It also would not last five minutes in my house. In my house, the cat would knock the vase to the floor and carry the flower away as his prize catch of the day, and my husband would stack mail on the table, ignoring the clever box hanging on the wall by the door with MAIL etched in a simple san serif font on its reclaimed wood side.The labrador would take a nap on the white couch after which it would never be white again. And, of course, the only ocean view I have here in Kansas is on TV when I watch Beachfront Bargain Hunt.

So, what is simple living? I think we all agree that life in 21st Century America is complicated. If we are honest, we will admit that in addition to complicated it can be frustrating and even frightening. We all have too much “stuff.” I know that I don’t always use my time in the way I should, or even the way I want. There is no doubt we need to simplify. But do we really need a list of 25 things to do and buy? Do we need simplicity that costs money, uses up time and adds to our stress?

So here’s my list of four things we can do make our lives simpler. It wouldn’t make a very attractive magazine spread, but everything on it is accessible, doesn’t cost money, and hopefully doesn’t add to anyone’s stress level.

  1. Find a filter. This will be a deeply personal thing, not something you read about in a blog. It might be a scripture, a personal mission statement, or something your grandmother once said. Whatever it is, it will be something you can hold up to activities and obligations and use to choose those that actually fit you and your life, not the demands,suggestions and opinions of the rest of the world. This filter will change as you change, but in the cacophony of voices vying for our attention, energy, and focus, a filter can help us find the simply important.
  2. Find a time and place for silence and stillness. Not just once in a while. Every day, even if it is only for a short time, but try to add at least one longer time in your week. If you haven’t experienced silence and stillness for a while, or ever, it will be uncomfortable at first, but give it a chance. The world we live in is so constantly noisy and full of movement. In silence and stillness we can find refreshment, discernment, and hear God speak to our weary and confused souls.
  3. Take advantage of the gift of fresh air and sunshine, even if your idea of outdoor recreation is sitting on the patio at a restaurant. Observe the wonders of creation, especially the small everyday ones.Soak up some sun. Watch water flow. Listen to the birds sing. Ponder your place in it all.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself like the beloved child of God that you are. If some of us love our neighbors as we love ourselves, our neighbors are going to be seriously mistreated.

That’s it, my simple and short list. It’s not any special color or shape, but it’s manageable enough to put in your pocket or put on a post-it. And you don’t have to redecorate!

Archeology, Part Two

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So….it’s been a little while since I blogged. OK, more than a little while. Three years and 6 days, to be exact. I don’t really know why I quit posting to MamaPrayed.com. I would love to say that it’s because life went in another direction and I was too busy changing the world or negotiating the movie deal for my bestseller, but the truth is more like I started listening to the dreaded Inner Critic and forgot how much joy I find in writing.

Recently, with a lot of encouragement from wise and insightful friends, I rediscovered writing in many different ways. And, of course, if I am going to write, I need a place to do it. So, I’m back to trying to excavate the Room Once Known as My Office.

Some things have changed while I’ve been setting records for writing procrastination. Only one of the animal roommates from before is still with me. Grania, the Chocolate Labrador Retriever and I are growing old and arthritic together. Her buddy Casey sadly left us to chase squirrels in heaven, followed by her feline companion Hobbes. A new furry friend was added when Oldest Son found a tiny kitten in a park under a bush and Jake came to live with us. Jake is now a large cat who likes to knock things over and take naps on the computer. He is quite territorial about this space, and feels free to dispose of anything I might leave lying around. I am hoping it makes me a tidier person. Or increases my flexibility as I bend over 100 times in an afternoon to pick up what he has swept to the floor. I am also suspicious that he is using my computer to contact the Mother Ship and report on his takeover of the human household. He’s a starer, and I have a feeling he’s taking notes.

Many of the artifacts discovered in the earlier expedition have been moved on to collections in other parts of the museum. That’s a nice way to say that I filled up boxes and put them in the basement. Bookshelves have been added, because, really, there will never be too many books – just too little shelf space.There have been some new discoveries. I do not need to buy highlight pens at any time in the forseeable future. There are notebooks of every shape and size – pretty cloth covered journals, spirals in various sizes, and one great Big Chief pad. And, even though I hate shopping, I  have accumulated an outstanding collection of cloth shopping bags. Each one seems to have one or two interesting artifacts abandoned at the bottom – miscellaneous papers, a petrified protein bar, a pair of earrings I was excited to find after completely forgetting I owned them, more highlighters.

This dusty, cluttered room seems symbolic of what happens  when I don’t focus on using the gifts God gives me and use them to bring joy and fulfillment. Over the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of time not writing, and a lot of time stacking up little notebooks both physically and in my mind. I’ve collected up a lot of bags to carry around, even though I don’t seem to be able to identify or enjoy their contents.Useless thoughts, anxieties, and outdated topics crowd my mind.

So, it’s time for a bit more archeology – dusting off and identifying the bits and pieces of clutter in my space, reclaiming a peaceful corner to work in, and getting rid of the junk, the old projects, and picking up new ones that give me joy and focus and direction, I’m hoping MamaPrayed will be a part of that!

 

Archeology

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I picked up a magazine at the grocery store not too long ago called, “Where Women Create.” It is an evil fantasy publication, designed to cause unrest and redecorating. It is totally fascinating.  It contains, between advertisements for cardboard boxes costing $40 and up, photos of incredibly beautiful “creative spaces” that supposedly belong to women to write, make jewelry, design the interiors of zillion-dollar houses and paint masterpieces using laundry soap and sharpie markers. And apparently, they never make a mess while doing it because they have all those $40 cardboard boxes to hide the clutter.

The reason I know the pictures in this magazine are probably photoshopped within an inch of their creative limits, or complete inventions of overly organized minds is that some of these pictures feature pets. On the pristine white counter top next to the carefully stacked papers of the “successful editor and feature writer” sits a cat. And the papers are still in a stack.  Fake picture.  In another, a beautiful golden retriever is taking a nap on a rug that probably cost more than my car in a room full of lovely pillows. None of them have chewed edges or stuffing trailing along the floor. Again, an obvious fake.

I’m supposed to be cleaning up my “office.”  It’s a really nice room, painted a beautiful and soothing shade of blue by Oldest Son with a shelf that surrounds it on 3 sides, which is, of course, covered with books, as is the bookshelf  on the opposite wall, a comfortable chair I found at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and waaayyyy to many boxes of junk and they are, sadly, not the color coordinated paisly $40 variety. Most of them used to hold beer. Or toilet paper.

At some point last year, when our large dog and her cohort, Oldest Son’s even larger dog, needed space to call their own, I, in a fit of dementia brought on by tripping over a dog bed in the family room for the 100th time, said something like “I could share the room with the dogs, let’s corral them in the office.”  I didn’t have to say it twice, and just like that, I lost my private space, my writing space, and a little piece of my fragile sanity.  My nice little room became a nice little dog kennel and I began writing in corners and coffee shops. But today it is snowing and it is about 14 degrees. I don’t want to go to a coffee shop, and because of the aforementioned winter weather, there are no quiet corners in this house because everyone who lives in it or once lived in it, or got bored with the snow is hanging out.

So, I’ve decided on this snow day, to TAKE BACK THE OFFICE!”  How hard could that be, just because it hasn’t been dusted in longer than I’m ever going to admit  in writing, the floor is covered in dog beds, dog toys and chewed up remains of what I greatly fear are some of the books that used to be on the bottom shelf?

It’s kind of like an archeological expedition, or one of those treasure hunts in the remains of an ancient civilization.  In the midst of dust and dog hair and cobwebs, I’ve found:

  • At least a half dozen books that I need to read Immediately. I have already started reading two of them – while conducting this expedition.
  • A stack of wonderful and hilarious cards sent to me by friends during my adventure with breast cancer.  Some favorites offered pearls like these:
    • “Well of course they’re fake – the real ones tried to kill me!
    • A panorama of what at first appears to be intricately painted Easter Eggs. On closer examination, however, you realize that what you are actually viewing is a lot of intricately painted bald heads.  I can’t tell you how close I came to going to church that Easter with my head painted.  Should have done it.
    • The world is full of people who will go their Whole lives and not actually LIve one day.  She did not intend on being one of them.”
  • Enough yarn to knit a blanket for every child I will ever know.
  • A carefully hidden collection of dog toys, which I do not believe actual belong to this household. Yes, it is quite possible that my dogs have been out in the neighborhood stealing dog toys. Or extorting them over the fence.  Or maybe strangers bring them toys to keep them quiet when we are not home. I have no idea.
  • SIX computer mice.  It seems that we never throw anything away in this house.  As far as I can tell, none of these function as actual peripheral computer tools. They might work as paperweights. Or maybe we can glue wheels to them and convince the grandkids that they are toy race cars.  Note that throwing them away is not listed as an option.
  • An entire bag of scrunchy hair bands.  I have not had enough hair to scrunch since the breast cancer adventure, I have no idea why they are here.
  • An envelope full of clippings about disappearances and unidentified bodies, collected during a Mystery Writing Workshop.  If anyone nearby comes up missing or unidentified, I’m probably going to the Big House.  I know how this works.  I watch Castle.

Well, obviously, I’m not making extraordinary progress, and now it is time for the Jayhawks to play basketball, and I know they need me.  But I will keep excavating and report any finds that are important to the understanding of civilization as we know it.

Assuming this expedition is successful and all artifacts are labeled and stored away somewhere with the Ark of the Covenant and Indiana Jones’ hat, that will leave the challenge of sharing my most personal space with a Labrador Retriever and a Beagle/Heeler.  And a Maine Coon, who thinks every inch of this house actually belongs to him.  I wonder how it will all look in a magazine spread?

Grandmother Blogs

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OK…so I’ve noticed that Mom Blogs are a thing.  There must be millions of them. My daughter has one, and it’s pretty funny.  Check it out: http://www.talesfrommommyhood.blogspot.com/.  There is even an official Mom Bloggers group here in Kansas City.

As far as I can tell, Mom Blogs seem to fall into — categories

  • The Tales from the Trenches. This is what Sara’s blog is.  A way to share and keep your sense of humor when your children insist upon acting like children. These are generally delightful and for moms to let each other know they are not alone. And for grandmothers to laugh at.
  • The Frequent Christmas Letter. These are updates for friends and family, usually complete with adorable pictures of adorable chidren doing adorable things. They do resemble those letters that come with Christmas cards, but for people who don’t get to see each other or talk often enough, they seem like a good way to stay caught up, and I’m told they give the family a record of the child’s life as they grow up. I’m not sure I’m in favor of this.  It doesn’t seem to allow for judicious editing.
  • The Soapbox. These are written by Moms who seem posessed by a burning need to see everyone live exactly like they do, eat what they eat, sleep the way they sleep, educate the children the way they educate theirs, and if at all possible, only wear the color yellow.  They spend a lot of time trying to make their fellow mothers feel as terrible as possible about their choices and decisions, but in the kindest way possible of course.
  • The Fantasy Life Blog. On these blogs, moms seem to create elaborate fantasy lives in which they clean their houses from top to bottom using only white vinegar and recycled t-shirts, while baking delicious gluten-free bread, canning their own vegetables, teaching their children to sign and speak French, maintaining a rigorous workout schedule and running their successful jewelry design business.  When I was a Mom we just read Danielle Steele for that kind of fantasy.

So, where are the Grandmother Blogs?  I can’t be the only blogging grandmother. I’m sure all Grandmother Blogs will not be alike, but I think I can promise a few differences from Mom blogs:

  • Grandmother blogs will have a great appreciation for the Universe and the Law of What Goes Around Comes Around.  For instance, when the Mom Blogs write about the woes of Children Who Fight Bed Time, and Children Who Try to Negotiate Everything, the Grandmothers will probably write blog posts with titles like:  Apples Do Not Fall from Oak Trees.  After we quit laughing, of course.
  • In General there will be less angst.  We’ve done angst.  Now we are more likely to put on our party hats and let everyone have cookies for lunch.  We are no longer in charge of the upbringing of the next generation, and overall, we’re pretty proud of the job we did on the Moms, so time to spoil, spoil, spoil!
  • Topics such as housework, yardwork, and making things out of pallets will not be common on Grandmother blogs.  We are done talking about the first two, and the Grandfathers generally won’t let us do the last one, no matter how good it looks on Pinterest.
  • I can just about guarantee there will be fewer recipes using quinoa as an ingredient.

So, Grandmothers Unite.  We can’t let the Moms have all the fun.  Take the Blogosphere!  I see that the Kansas City Blogger Moms have get-togethers.  We could do that – and we wouldn’t even have to get home to the babysitters!!