A Point Lobos Adventure

My mind is abuzz with all things summer.

My little (and big) homeschoolers have been off school for a month now, and the thrill of the freedom has worn off. A little structure is warranted. So we took our Treasure Island day trip to Point Lobos, miraculously out the door by 8:30 a.m.

Detour to Cement City Beach

We were to meet friends out there sometime that morning, and when I learned they would arrive about 45 minutes after us, I offered my children a detour to the sand and shore. We pulled off at Sand City Beach, better called cement city beach, where paved pathways must have been damaged and washed away in the winter storms. It was more construction zone than the beach, but still, it’s the sort of Northern California rough-and-ready scene I enjoy where people let their dogs run off the leash or carry their fishing poles and buckets after a morning of fishing. The sand was thick and grainy. My three-year-old ran from the sea foam to “the structure” in the rock, a cave of sorts.

a cave at sand city beach

We stayed only twenty minutes, touched the Pacific Ocean, and returned to the car.

A man with a fishing pole yelled to us that a whale was visible. We saw it blow from its spout and surface once, happily checking the experience off my mental list of things that make for a perfect seaside adventure.

at Point Lobos Nature Reserve

On to Point Lobos!

We arrived at Point Lobos at the same time as our travel companions and found parking near the Whaler’s Cabin and restrooms. After taking some refreshment, we followed a crowd up a trail, step by step, up the dirt and wood stairwell and, within moments, saw some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen.

I held Stella’s hand, my little three-year-old, and we climbed the steps. She let go, taking giant size steps, impatient with my photographic interruptions. A group of hikers journeyed down the steps and delighted in her gusto. “I’m a strong girl,” she said. “They said I am strong.”

at Point Lobos Nature Reserve

The Whaler’s Cabin was a low-key, educational gift. Chinese fishermen built the cabin in the 1800s before the Portuguese whalers settled in the land. On the path leading to and from it, it was easy to imagine the characters of Treasure Island walking these same paths or to imagine the ships and row boats approaching or docking in these coves.

at Point Lobos Nature Reserve

We wandered onward, driving to the next parking lot to spot the sea lions. Sea lions we didn’t see, but we happened upon a group that included one science teacher, hunting for hermit crabs at an inlet near Sand Hill Cove, just across from a small parking lot. We took the path up South Shore Trail and stopped at the stop of Sand Hill Trail – if I’m reading my map correctly. We had little idea where we were but found the paths easy to follow and every stretch rewarding. The scene is a sight not to be reckoned with

at Point Lobos Nature Reserve

Hanging back with my Stella, I saw the rest of our group follow the trail up and stare out over the fence along a massive cliff. It was hard not to let my imagination overrun me. We caught up quickly enough, made our way to the top and turned around to find the sandier shores for our children to play in the surf.

at Point Lobos Nature Reserve

A stop for prayer and recreation in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Leaving the Natural Reserve, we stopped at a small beach across from the Carmelite Monastery, and after specific warnings from the lifeguard and digging out feet in the rocky sand, we climbed back into our cars to find the Carmel Beach Walk. I turned left when directions said “right,” and we found parking, steps down to the beach, public restrooms, and the softest, silkiest white sand I have ever seen. The kids played and body-surfed in the water they were finally allowed to wade in and made a fort with the seaweed that buzzed with flies.

We ate the homemade cherry pop tarts my friend made, washed off at the outdoor faucet and said our goodbyes as the temperatures dipped further below 55 degrees.

beach at Carmel City Beach Walk
That’s a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

And an abundance of reflection

It was thrilling to take to the road and the high seas for an adventure while the breadwinner of our family stayed behind, bringing home the bacon. I remember how adventurous I was as a young adult, landing in Rome with two friends, looking around the airport and thinking, “What do we do now?” or moving across the country to Minnesota. I remember how I settled into the easy housewife feeling of being driven around and cared for by a man who loved me and how I felt too nervous about going solo to San Francisco for my thirtieth birthday to visit the design district.

Life changed after that, and we had to learn to find our way, splitting up familial tasks and treading water we never visited before. Throughout the day, I thought of how my husband would love this place. We’ll share it with him soon enough.

But perhaps, adventure is something of a muscle; we’ve got to put ourselves into it, look around and find our way, to keep ourselves ready, receptive, and open to the beauty of this wild world.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Summer Movies Line-Up

I love a good theme and summer movies are no exception. Without the oppressive feeling of too much structure, it gives focus to what can undoubtedly be a chaotic, unstructured summer.

Summer Movies in June: Adventures on the High Seas

This June, our family will focus on Adventures on the High Seas.

Treasure Island

Best Summer Movies: Treasure Island

That means the children were politely requested to read versions, original or adapted, of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in order to watch the 1950 adventure film of the same title produced by RKO-Walt Disney. The film may have been filmed in England, but as Stevenson is said to have based Spy Glass Hill on Point Lobos, we plan to make a family field trip to Monterey Bay this week for a less harrowing adventure.

Swiss Family Robinson

Other films for the month will include Swiss Family Robinson, the 1960 film by Walt Disney Pictures, adapted from the 1812 novel by Johann David Wyss. On their own, the children read the Adapted Illustrated Edition to compare notes. My 7-year-old is very fond of bringing up the issue that it is an anaconda snake in the film, but in the book, it is not. From the same series of adapted stories, my children read Robinson Crusoe. They were delighted to hear the film of the shipwrecked family was filmed on the same island of Tobago where the fictional Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked.

Mutiny on the Bounty

Moving away from Disney, we’ll see some fun for all ages with the black-and-white Mutiny on the Bounty, where I shall sneak in some talks about virtue, duty and whatnot, in this 1935 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama film based on the 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. No pre-reading necessary.

Jamaica Inn

Since there will still be talk of pirates, Jamaica Inn will be a new addition to the line-up. The film stars Maureen O’Hara as an innocent young lady who goes to live with her aunt, who happens to be married to a leader of thieves. Alfred Hitchcock directed the 1939 film based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. I don’t know how this will play out for the younger audiences, but I know my daughters and will enjoy it thoroughly.*

(*Edited to add: this turned out not so good. The movie was dark, over-my-kids’-heads implications of what was happening was fairly harrowing and it ends with a characters’ suicide – So! Now I know. It takes time to curate a family’s movie list)

Summer Movies in July: Medieval Times

In July, we’ll travel back to Medieval Times, which I learned covers roughly 1000 years. This will be my incoming 8th grader’s historical and literary focus this year. The theme fitting.

Robin Hood

Best Summer Movies: Robin Hood

We begin with the 1922 silent adventure film Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. A silent movie for kids, you ask? If children are only ever exposed to new, colorful, fast-paced media, the older flicks, no matter how well-crafted, will appear dull, dry and slow – to adults and children. I make it a point to expose my children to a wide swath of decades of cinema to keep them open-minded.


Nevertheless, we move back to color with the 1952 Ivanhoe, a British-American historical adventure epic film starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine, based on the 1819 historical novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Much of our stories of Robin Hood are derived from this story.

Robin Hood, The Sword in The Stone, and The Court Jester

Naturally, we mustn’t neglect the 1973 animated Robin Hood and 1963 The Sword in the Stone, both by Walt Disney Productions. The Sword in the Stone comes from the brilliant Once and Future King by T.H. White. It will also be necessary to watch the fantastic The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye, a delightful, near-parody of all the other things we’ve watched. Best remembered for the wordplay, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”

Summer Movies in August: High and Dry

From the forest to the west, we shall begin our High and Dry season of Westerns when temperatures become unbearable here in California.

Old Yeller

Best Summer Movies: Old Yeller

That means the 1957, the Walt Disney Production of Old Yeller. My 10-year-old elected to read all the sad animal stories this year. It’s a sadness my farm kids know too well, I’m afraid, but it will help them process the more difficult losses that inevitably come in life as they get older.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

Next up, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. I don’t know why my children love this as much as they do, but they do.

High Noon

We’ll pair a field trip to Columbia State Park with the film High Noon, the 1952 American Western film starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, for an excellent opportunity to discuss violence and justice and how “The West” is right in our backyard.

Dodge City and Broken Arrow

The month will close with the 1939 Dodge City starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sheridan, and Broken Arrow, a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler. Whenever we’re watching old westerns, it’s crucial to address the stereotypes presented and balance it accordingly with a better, more authentic depiction. Broken Arrow isn’t about good guys and bad guys. Rather it show both sides of the beginning of the Apache War with humanity, mistakes and all.

How to Get it

I generally rely on the library systems or my inherited collection of DVDs to supply the films for us. Most of these films are from the 1950s and 1960s. a bit of a golden era for family films, I believe. This is due to the combination of new color technology, reliance on fiction for story sources, Walt Disney live action triumphs, and the self-imposed censorship of Hollywood at that time making films squeaky clean but also very interesting. It isn’t perfect, but it is good. And when it falls short, as things in life will do, that’s an opportunity for discussion, too.

Photo by Zhifei Zhou on Unsplash

Spring School

It’s April.

Spring has finally sprung.

It felt like a long time waiting for it with the rain and the cold, but now my garden awakens the weeds I pull out each day little by little; I go out to the garden and feel the new growth as I walk past the bounding bushes of yarrow and columbine, tenderly I finger from one side to another the growing buds of peonies. I walk with gratitude among the roses contemplating the bloom I see before me all in its potential. I hose off a gaggle of aphids from one rose and beam proudly at the next.

There are still two or three-foot clusters of foxtail, reminding me of Monty Don’s expression, “One year’s seeding is seven years weeding.” But all in all, it matters very little because spring has sprung.

My ability to focus on the school day wanes while the weather warms our windows. Sitting among the desks in the school area, the sunshine energizes our flesh like plants in a greenhouse. We watch the breeze below the leaves and new blossoms around. I’m grateful my kids caught the spring fever that so afflicts their father and me. It was absolutely worth it to finish the school year early. “If you can score in advanced on this assessment, you will in the school year.” That was incentive enough for my 7th grader.

And so, by Easter, their school days shifted, but rather than embrace the chaos of an unstructured summer,

we began the beauty of Spring School.

Spring School, inspired by Read-aloud Revival’s Christmas school, the thing that makes December a little bit more bearable is Christmas school. It takes works by one author and many lessons in history, geography, science, language, art, and many other things. It enriches the days in a way that is mandatory during that anticipatory season before Christmas.

with reading

For Spring School, we read A Little More Beautiful by Sarah McKenzie and followed her family book club guide available to Read-aloud Revival premium members and those who pre-ordered the book. The family book club guide has a bit on “Reading in Stream,” reading the books that inspired A Little More Beautiful. It begins with Miss Rumphius and includes The Gardener and more. I read a picture book biography on E.B. White and read Charlotte’s Web aloud to the children. I scheduled with a local farmer to see her pigs, and she’ll contact me when the piglets are born in May. We watch our ewe giving birth and marvel at the possibilities inherent in the right order of things.

with wildflowers

We identify wildflowers around our house and drive into the green grassy hills of the Sierra Foothills, turning off the highway into Knight’s Ferry. We climb among the rocks and call out whenever we see lupine, California poppies, or unknown flowers we cannot identify without a field guide. I still forget to check the field guide when we get home.

with art

We painted at the library, cutting out bunny-shaped pieces of garland that were watercolor landscapes only a moment ago and now adorn the walls of bunk beds and headboards. We created dot art inspired by another library craft making flowers and crazy walkways, and another landscape from these dabs of acrylic paint. I don’t know what became of their pictures. Mine is displayed publicly on the side of the fridge.

Spring School.

It feels like vacation. Yet, we stop frequently and have instructional conversations. We see miniature canyons cut into the dirt trails of Knight’s Ferry. When the kids ask, “What is it?” we respond, “What do you think caused this?” Then we know that we are sharing the talk of scientists or early discoverers learning the terrain, what is temporary and what is permanent. Nothing is permanent.

Not even the beauty of Spring School will be permanent. The flowers in the field bloom and then fade away at the end of the day. We embrace these days of adventure, of unpredictability and learning to let go of our obligations so we may discover and indulge in the delight of learning something.

Then the memories will be formed.

The lessons we learn to go beyond how to identify wildflowers and how to climb rocks safely or how cold the river water is in spring.

Spring School. It might be the best educational thing I’ve ever done with my children.

Vendor for a Day at Vintage at the Yard

Vintage at the Yard Logo

I started attending Vintage at the Yard years ago when their events were monthly during the warm months. It was the market where people who wanted to could go “junking” looking for antique or vintage items that needed a little love, a little sprucing, and pay bottom dollar prices for them. This was my kind of shopping. Other much more beautiful, polished, painted items were also available, but none prettier than the booth run by the woman who makes the entire market possible, Diana Walker.

The outdoor market at the Fruit Yard now occurs twice yearly, once in the spring and once in the fall. Over the years, I attended by myself, with my children, or with my husband. Children 12 and under always get in free. For the rest, it’s only $3. We found medieval room decor for my son, scooters and two-person tricycles for my children, metal dollhouses, child-size chairs, and many things that are so integrated into our lives that it feels like they’ve always been there.

It was only a matter of time before I ended up selling vintage there myself.

I saw our storage and shelves fill up after our family began browsing estatesales.net on Fridays, my husband’s day off, and hitting the local sales with promising photos.

With my friend, who sells vintage and current clothing on Poshmark, we applied as vendors and got our spot. Vendor check-in closed at 8 a.m. The event started at 9 a.m.

This meant we rose earlier than we would have liked, and even earlier still as my eager 12-year-old rose with the sun “to experience helping run a booth” at Vintage at the Yard. We packed the truck the night before, left at 7:15 a.m. in two vehicles, arrived, checked in, located spot #39, and began the long haul of carrying things to our grassy knoll. The ground was wet. My boots were weak. Before long, my soaks were soaked.

Still, once set up, I drank my coffee and began to wake up, despite the shivers of the unseasonal mid-spring chill. People gathered outside the gate when the clock turned to 9 a.m.

Customers began pouring in.

Foot traffic was continuous as they shuffled around our crowded booth. It probably took all of five minutes to make my first $2 sale, but it felt much longer. As I stood there, waves of doubt rolled over me. What if no one buys anything? What if I wasted my day? Will I have to haul all this stuff back home? And so on.

But once that first sale happened, the rest was rolling. From 9 a.m. to noon, the traffic was non-stop. The sales were steady. In between, I rearranged, made more space in the center of the booth, and tried to keep things looking good. I stood in the back offering prices to shoppers when I saw them lingering with an item. “Well, I can’t turn that down,” they said. It delighted me.

“It wants to go home with you,” I told a couple of customers.

And I believe it. These old things, through their years and uses, like the toys of Toy Story, have something of a life of their own. Collecting evolves into curating. There was artwork ready to move on, glassware, a few sticks of furniture, and some antiques from my parent’s house that needed a new life.

Meanwhile, my daughter had a job. She watched for other kids and invited them to come to pick a free toy. These toys were largely McDonald’s toys from the 1990s, I think, but whatever they were, there were bags of them stored at my parents, and the toys were a joy to the children and a moment of nostalgia for the parents.

By 1 p.m., the best of the booth was gone. Remnants remained. It looked more like a yard sale booth by then. The crowd shifted from antique lovers and folks in thrifted vintage attire to a more casual drop-by, strolling by, shopping by with the eyes rather than ready cash to dive in, digging for the untold treasures that lay in vintage sales.

And the last vintage sale

Near the end of the 6-hour run, my husband returned. As he moved the truck closer to load up, a man came back and bought the early 1900s Burroughs Adding Machine, the best and most unique item I brought that day. It was the right item for the right customer. There was the obligatory discussion of how unhappy his wife would be with him, but he didn’t mind. He knew the piece was meant for him. And while I sold it for way under value, the goal wasn’t to make millions. It was to rehome these things that deserve a better life than a life of storage, to be loved for the little treasures they are.

The Making of a Documentary Film

Let’s film you

In the fall of 2021, Dillon Hayes of All I Have, LLC, emailed my husband to see if he would be open to participating in a documentary. The prospect sounded exciting. I joined the conversation when Hayes expressed a desire to not only film my husband at work but the entire family, our journey to this point and something of our life at home.

Years have passed since I spilled the ink on our interior lives, even though the book was only published last year, so the idea of butterflying our hearts for the public nudged me out of my comfort zone. To support my husband I said “yes,” but with some reservations.

We declined the first suggested weekend and Hayes postponed the second. Finally, the time came for the last weekend in January when Hayes, his co-director Julia Grimm and sound technician Rill Causey would descend upon our little nest with their cameras and microphones.

First a quick edit

As the weekend approached, we cleaned and “edited” the home clearing this and that while maintaining my vintage maximalist design aesthetic. My daughter asked, “but if we do the hard cleaning now, they won’t really see our real lives.”

“Our lives aren’t just cleaning, no more than my mothering is just yelling or your childhood is just rule-breaking. By doing some of the hardworking now, we make space to show a fuller picture of who we are,” I explained.

The film crew arrives

At 7:30 a.m. the crew of three arrived. They set up and got down to business as we finished our breakfast. Day 1 focused on the family, homeschooling, playtime, and formal interviews with me in the afternoon. It felt so strange to be on display, acutely aware of the camera watching, creeping closer and closer. My mind reached to perceive what we look like through that camera lens.

“We look very strange.”

That was the only impression I felt within myself as the children recited antique catechism questions, poetry, and I read scripture and took the answers to endless math problems, and one flower order.

They ate when we ate. My husband and I spoke to each other in quiet tones, even as we were alone in the house.

The children behaved remarkably well, with little to no resistance at school. They and I were on the same page after the lunch break, both eager for the weekend to begin, unable to focus.

The formal interviews spotlights an insight to myself

That afternoon, during the formal interviews in my bedroom surrounded by antiques handed on to me by my grandmother. There, I answered questions about our history, our children, our losses, emotions and the will. I continue to be struck by the tenor of the conversation.

We have lived with a sense of adventure in our lives that comes from knowing that so little is guaranteed. We must dig deep into the present moment while we have it. It’s the feeling of throwing everything into a holiday when I had no idea if we would be in a home or a hospital. While we’re here, we’re going for it. That was my feeling, going for it to the fullest. I realized through these interviews how foundational this sense has become in our lives and how exciting life feels because of it.

Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism make up the old five-factor theory of personality.

My husband and I differ exceedingly on the last four factors. But the first, openness to experience, is a strong point of agreement for us. To a fault, perhaps, but also to a great deal of joy. The degree to which we practice this comes from the grief, despair, and fear we faced. Our days are not guaranteed, so we make the most of them as they come to us.

In those interviews, we also spoke about fear: the fear of commitment or responsibility, the fear of taking a chance, and the fear of those terrifyingly dark emotions.

And about those dark emotions

I finished reading Healing Through Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair by Miriam Greenspan. The last chapters resonated less with me than the first. Most of the book was revelatory in a way I’ve never experienced before. Greenspan explained the emotional alchemy possible when we allow ourselves to pay attention to the emotions that move within us, consider what they are telling us, and express them in a healthy way. It is only through numbing them or avoiding them that they change into something toxic, she argues.

When addressed and expressed, what do the emotions change into?

  • From grief to gratitude.
  • From despair to faith.
  • From fear to joy.

Check. Check. Check.

At the end of the evening, the cameras went down and I relaxed. The crew and I sat around the living room with the children, untangling marionette puppets and exchanging ideas.

And what was just Day 1.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Love the home you have / Barn Edition

The sun is shining.

The air is warming.

I have my first flower order of the year.

And we are facing facts about the structures on our property.

I step out the back door. The deck is new, composite wood with a reddish hue. A wooden gazebo with a black metal roof rises from it. Its wood has a yellowish hue, like an ill-patient. The ramshackle fence behind it leans more towards the gazebo day by day. In time, its elevated pitch that made way to accommodate the roots of the 60-year-old mulberry tree will sag, or the entire thing will fall over, as its comrade did in the last storms.

I ordered two climbing roses in a peachy tinge called “Polka” from Menagerie Farm and Flower. “She is the whole package and we can’t recommend her enough,” the website says.

I hope this is the case. I’ll plant each in front of the fence we intend to rebuild and train them upwards on the new fence that will be there in no time, up and up, until it  frames the gazebo. It’s a good plan and I hope it works.

When the buildings overwhelm me, I plant sage and rosemary.

I plug two basil plants into our covered garden area, an area where no rain reaches but in summer the sun will beat down mercilessly. All sun and no water, the worst of both worlds for a home garden.

My finger is wrapped in a bandaid from this morning, reminding me of the quick cleaning and hauling that took place in the morning that interrupted school hours. We moved one shop to another building and scooted the rest over. My furniture is falling apart after the cold and wetness of this wild winter. The wood is saturated still. The edges of the uneven cement that line the floor are covered in damp dust where the torn metal roofing leaked. Of course, the furniture is ruined.

I realize now that my parents stored furniture in their barn only after my father and his neighbor-friend built an interior box with heating to house it.

We’re living and learning here on the farm. In a small town, that means that we’re a bit on display for others to see. Many will drive this road, comment on us cutting down our tree or ask what we’ll do with those stumps we left out. We aren’t alone here in Hughson, and that’s okay. I take my daughter to get her haircut and schedule lessons or a  piano tuning with someone who is in the salon at the same time. We go to the consignment-antique store where I update the clerk who asks about the projects she has seen me stock from their store.

Our barn cannot be more than a barn.

It can’t quite be a barn because of the cement and it can’t quite be an event space because of everything else. Maybe I can stop placing my expectations on it and start discovering what it can be, just based on the qualities it presents.

It looks awfully nice in the section that is my husband’s new workshop and the shelves he hung today.

Maybe that is the future of the barn. Maybe that is what the last owners had in mind the whole time.

The building next door is the same. It works just fine, albeit with an immense amount of clutter and empty plastic pots from Home Depot’s garden center.

My garage fills up and empties. A one-day event like Vintage at the Yard may help me tidy it a bit. Some antiques I’m attached to. Some I hold onto for one day. Others could move to a better home as we’ve outgrown their use.

On days like today, I feel like we’re getting a better sense of the place.

We put away clutter and hope it stays clean, but I know the moment is temporary. The bikes are parked now, but will soon be scattered about. The ribbons and yarn and handmade ornaments are swept up, but they’ll return again. It is inevitable – the signs of life in a house full of life, a property full of life and potential.

Rather than try to impose my will, my daydreams or my Instagram feed, I’ll pause. I’ll do the best I can to care for the exterior of the place, and see what it has in store, what its blueprint indicates, like we try to do for those who live within its walls.

In Person Communication

We’ve sunk into the beauty of Christmas Vacation.

The bar is stocked, Christmas lights are hung, the living room is regularly vacuumed and our fridge and pantry are bursting with party treats. First, we began with cocktails with a friend from high school.

The seasons of friendship do change and it takes years to discover what lies in store. At one time, I thought this friendship passed, we had seen too much, said too much, and then came the day when it seemed no longer worth it to hold on to or think too deeply about those moments. This friendship is more. So she came. Two drinks and four hours later, our goodbyes were only motivated by the rolling fog and lateness of the hour. Yet the conversation might have gone on.

Other plans dot the calendar.

A set of friends we’ve not seen in 2022. The husband was my husband’s groomsman at our wedding. A lot of life has happened over those years and these annual visits are all they and we can spare.

A themed party at another family’s house. I broke out of the vintage furs and we played an overly dramatic rendition of “O Holy Night” showing it is possible to be totally free with others outside our immediate family.

Yesterday there was a Nutcracker tea party, not for myself, but for my daughters and their friends. Tea sandwiches, cookies and chocolate on tiered servers and eight tea options, with boiling water decanted into a blue Danube coffee pot. They helped themselves pouring into Noritake china tea cups, sitting around the coffee table as Tchaikovsky’s music delighted them.

Coffee this morning with a friend from my working-outside-the-house days. We’ll talk Shakespeare and education and maybe a little about child development now that we both have children developing. My husband will play “baristo” with our drink orders and then take the boys to play video games so we can minimize interruptions.

New friends and old.

Emerging seasons overlap that which has matured and aged. Our children grow and enter into the landscape. Interests and occupations likewise evolve.

But for once, I am not reflecting too much, just simply delighting in this idea of savoring the moment and interaction before me, storing up these treasures. Christmas can be the impetus to get us to reach out and make the invitation.

But what we do after that matters.

A thought might come to mind, so I text a friend who lives in Waterford.

I see a quirky antique, snap a photo and send it over to Instagram to a friend in Indiana.

On a walk, I leave a long voicemail through Telegram to a friend in South Korea.

It’s instant communication, the kind my Chinese grandmother would never have dreamed of being able to use to connect with her cousins. Yet, it is just one kind of communication. It has its place, its blessings and its curses.

There are other kinds as well.

There is the conversation between two moms, regularly scanning the room to see where their toddlers are, getting up, continuing the topic, or sitting back down and losing it entirely.

There is the intellectual discussion on literature, digging in, uncovering themes, then sitting back in satisfaction as the discovery of ideas reached its peak.

There is the intimate sharing of life experiences, with tears welling up from time to time. Maybe the talk stops altogether as one friend opens her heart enough to cry the tears she stored up alone.

Text messages and social media cannot compare to this.

This vacation I relearned the value of simply calling a friend up, or texting to schedule. We get the calendars out, using those tools we learned professionally to make the date happen.

Getting together in-person makes space for all those other times of communication.

It’s been a full vacation, a good vacation. Life will get busy again, but for now, we soak it up, parties, coffee time, movies, fires in the fireplace, hot cocoa, hot buttered rum, and a whole lot of togetherness – turned inward, not into oneself, but into family life, into relationships. And through that, reinvigorating the part of ourselves that is so easy to let go in this stage of life. And then, through that, finding a fuller, happier way to live.

Champagne Toast
Photo by Kateryna Hliznitsova on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Kings, Cakes and Traditions for Epiphany

For the 12 Days of Christmas

And now we find ourselves about to enter the 12 Days of Christmas. For a lot of people, the twelve days are observed as a countdown, but then why 12? Why not ten? Historically, the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas begins with Christmas, leading up to Epiphany, the commemorating when the Magi from the East brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.

As an English carol, “the 12 Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song. Its gifts are twelve drumming drummers, eleven piping pipers, ten leaping lords, nine dancing ladies, eight milking maids, seven swimming swans, six laying geese, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and, you know, a partridge in a pear tree.

The earliest known publication is from a 1790 children’s book titled Mirth without Mischief.

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, hypothesized that the song is a secret way of teaching one’s catechism during the persecution of Catholics in England but there is no historical support for this. He connected the items with the two testaments, the three theological virtues, the four gospels, the first five books of the old testament, the six days of creation, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the eight beatitudes, the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, the ten commandments, the eleven apostles, the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle Creed.

I’m a bit of an originalist and use the song just as it is, a silly song to take our breath away, but I can imagine others would like to use it as a teaching tool or fun game with children, connecting the items to their faith.

And gifts

In other traditions, gifts are exchanged on Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day, which, being married to a church organist as I am, would make the day easier. Some families fill shoes on St. Nicholas Day on December 6, stuff stockings on Christmas Eve, exchange gifts on Christmas Day, and then give treats or gifts every day of the 12 Days of Christmas.

Unable to maintain the energy necessary for this feat, I purchased a vintage set of 12 Days of Christmas cookie cutters, make two batches of gingerbread or request them from my obliging mother, and set them in little bags for each of the 12 days.

12 Days of Christmas cookies

That leads us to Epiphany on January 6.

Incidentally, January 6, as the feast of the three kings, marks the opening of King Cake season when you can find King Cake in bakeries that make them, until Martis Gras, the last call for partying before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

I learned a bit about those three kings of Epiphany in a new podcast called Sunday School, part of Pillar Media. On it, Biblical Scholar Dr. Scott Powell explained what we know and what we don’t know about these three men. They were not likely kings. “Of the east” could mean anything east of the Jordan. According to Powell, the three gifts named in the narrative all come from the Babylonian region, where many Jews still lived. Powell summarizes in another podcast the prophecies from Daniel which pointed to a particular timeline that put those waiting for the Messiah on alert. In Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, Dwight Longenecker digs deeper. There he theorizes the Magi were astrologers and diplomatic representatives of the Nabatean court who traveled from Petra to Jerusalem. For those interested, there are historical explanations.

Mystery of the Magi bookcover

A mixed approach to tradition

This year we’re complicating our older children’s lives by sharing both historical narratives and the fairytale versions. They’ve known for some time St. Nicholas is a historic person, a bishop of Myra, from the fourth century. They know the stories passed down through the centuries about him. We can also watch “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” a 1970 stop motion, made-for-TV movie, and explain that this is how someone who may not have known the history of the real St. Nicholas, imagined the reasons for red suits, etc. The story contains truth, even if its historical truth is inaccurate, like many other fairytales and legends. And along with good jokes in it, we love it.

We’ll discuss the historic nature of the wise men of the east and enjoy the song “We Three Kings.” We’ll make a King Cake for Epiphany. We take the legend with the history, the American traditions, the Catholic traditions, the English and German traditions.

And over time, our family’s traditions take shape.

Wreath of bread rolls

Preparing for Christmas

The south end of our living room is a bump out with four windows, a narrow sunbathed section we use for homeschooling, lining 100-year-old desks in a row. To the right of this section is the front door and porch, on which one of the windows overlooks. Yesterday, on that porch, with a rusty, undersized hammer, I stood on top of a child’s step stool and pounded nails into the wood, then hung thick Christmas garland from the awning and posts of the porch, swagging it across the top. Today I hung a silver star from the center.

Christmas garland

Little by little, I decorate the house for Christmas.

Advent is four weeks long. Time enough. I meet people or hear about people whose husband’s insist they wait until just before Christmas, so as not to mix up the time of preparation for the time of festivity. I encounter people who decorate the day after Thanksgiving, who argue Christmas begins December 1, and who would like to make the case that Christmas trees should be year-round, evergreen if you will.

As I place an artificial tree on a shelf, I remember the year I arranged every Christmas decoration we owned the day after Thanksgiving because there was no telling how much we’d be home that year of hospital stays. Contemplating the debate of when to decorate, I shrug my shoulders and go back to my boxes, gently unpacking, tenderly remembering the stories behind the decor.

Today, in “Seeking God’s Face” by Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), I read

“Perhaps we ought to celebrate Advent by allowing the signs of this special time to penetrate freely into our hearts without resisting them in any way. We should also perhaps let ourselves be made warm by them without asking difficult questions and then, full of trust, accept the immeasurable goodness of the Child who made the mountains and hills sing and transformed the trees of the wood into a song of praise.”

So let’s do it. The early longing for lights and flavors and nostalgia hearken to a longing deep inside us for something beautiful, something transcendent that surpasses the cares of today. Don’t do it so much that you’re tired of it by the time Christmas comes, that is, on December 25, but just enough.

Go slowly.

Savor the time of Christmas preparation.

Shop in person.

Locally. With a friend. And hot apple cider. Have your shopping list, a list of people you are shopping for and see what you find, serendipitously.

Listen to the music you like.

Seasonal does not have to mean the same thing for everyone. Some of my friends are listening to Handel’s Messiah. We’re listening to the Christmas albums by Big Bag Voodoo Daddy and singing old-school Advent and Christmas hymns.

Find some traditional recipes, either traditional from your family or your culture or different culture that you’re drawn to. We make Russian Tea Cakes, also called Mexican Wedding Cakes, gingerbread cookies, and Spritz.


No kids in the home? No matter! Here are some simple projects.

Dehydrate some oranges in the oven or a dehydrator.

Poke ‘em with a needle and thread and hang them on the tree or garland. Discard after the season. My children would say you can eat these at the end of the season, too. I leave that to your judgment.

Collect pine cones.

Set out. Get fancy and spray paint with a little gold or silver for a flourish.

Paint a walnut gold.

Walnuts ready for a Christmas craft

Hot glue a loop of twine to the top. Hang from the tree or garland. You can save, eat or discard at the end of the season.

Christmas tree with painted walnut ornaments

This year we’re planning to add painted wood ornaments to the mix.

After talking with an artist at the Carnegie Arts Center Artisan Market last month, I have an idea for painting “ornaments” on circular disks of wood.

Use evergreens.

You can get free evergreens from Christmas tree lots and make your own wreaths or garland. Tie them together with green florist wire. Garnish with foraged greenery or wintry berries (also ask permission if it isn’t your house).

Advent wreath with collected greens

There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to it all unless you’re drained of joy because of the muchness of the Christmas season.

The dark emotions of sadness, grief, and loneliness, can also be present, even in moments of joy. The joy possible in this season is not a fluffy sort of happiness, but the lasting kind that has the power to withstand human suffering. Remember the Christmas truce. Remember the stories you have heard. Remember the original story that started it all.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

No Holiday without Ghosts

In San Francisco

I park by valet now. It took a while to get used to it, but since they built the Chase Center across the street from the hospital, valet became the only option for parking during our routine UCSF appointments. That means, a drive around the hospital and clinic building to get to the correct entrance to drop off our car and, yesterday, that meant seeing the enormous Chase Center Christmas tree through the back window.

“Do you want to see it?” I asked him. Eagerly, he said, “yes.”

The air was crisp and cool.

We walked along the pavement darkened by morning rain and felt the breeze cut through our inadequate clothing. After half a block I asserted my motherly authority and made him put his coat over his thin cotton sleeves.

As we walked up to the corner, his brisk steps quickened. “There it is!” I pointed, smiling with delight as he jumped up and down.

I walked faster to keep up with him as we crossed the street. He grinned and squealed as only six -almost- seven-year-old boys can. “It’s so big!” he gushed.

After a look and a couple of photos, he was ready to escape the cold and we walked back. Waiting on the street corner to cross, my mind flashed back to the many times I stood on that corner alone, walking from Family House each morning to see my son at the hospital.

It was cold in those days, too.

Each time this year, vivid memories return of the days of December passing, counting down, wondering how long we would stay, seeing the floors empty out as staff began their holiday vacations. I bought a small Christmas tree and a set of ornaments for the hospital room; I wove finger garland to decorate his crib. My parents purchased battery-operated lights. His room was decorated, in case we stayed two days longer.

Those memories don’t leave me.

The sadness, grief and fear all associated with the past and the reality of the present do not leave me. This season of Advent, I am reading “Seeking God’s Face,” a collection of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI for the year, and “Healing Through Dark Emotions” by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended me to by a counselor I met through palliative care, six, almost, seven years ago.

Both invite the reader to turn towards the difficulty of sadness or grief, the silence of Advent, the forced stop of illness. Both say, there is something here to be discovered. Within these weeks leading us to Christmas, lighting one candle at a time, dispelling darkness gradually as the nights themselves grow darker and colder, I recall the last line of Dana Gioia’s poem, “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“No holiday is holy without ghosts.”

Dana Gioia from “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh”

My counselor taught me we only can keep going in life when we make space for both the dark and light emotions, or as Greenspan says when we invite grief to pull up a chair.

When we crossed the street, the breeze whipping our cheeks to a healthy pink, I felt not only the moment before me but the depth within me of how far back that moment reaches to those lonely mornings, those mornings with a sort of agonizing hope that we would soon go home and be reunited. It reaches all the way back into my broken heart and comes out again in the immensity of that Christmas tree and utter delight at my child jumping around it, who once lay listless on a hospital bed.

This is the holiday season for those who have known sadness and come out on the other side able to share its story.

We may not frolic on own, we may grow quiet in reflection, we may step away for a moment to cry. The joy is there, it just looks different, but we feel it, deeper than we could imagine as it comes to us wrapped in the trimmings of gratitude and a prayer that the good times may continue, tied with an understanding that they may not.

Be merciful to those who suffer this holiday season.

Pull up a chair for the ghosts they carry with them. Sit with them and hear their stories. I thank you for listening to mine.