Tuesday, December 23, 2014


A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of my favorite stories of all times. Because it's a classic, it's been retold in all kinds of different ways via books, television, movies, and on the stage.   Then there's the fact that the main character's name has become a part of our everyday language.  Everyone knows what it means to be a "Scrooge". 

When I was young, we would go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  While we were waiting for midnight to roll around, A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim would be on and we would watch it until it was time to go to mass.  That version is, of course, a classic in its own right, but I think my very favorite version when I was younger was Rich Little's A Christmas Carol.  It was on HBO nonstop in December.  And I watched it nonstop.  Little played nearly every character in the story as a different actor: W.C. Fields as Scrooge, Paul Lynde as Bob Cratchit, Peter Sellers as the Ghost of Christmas Future - you get the idea.  It was delightful.  I haven't seen it since I was young, but I would love to sit and watch it again.

Which brings me to the fact that I recently read an excellent book entitled What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.  The title character hits her head and wakes up thinking she is thirty years old, happily married, and about to become a mother.  The problem is she's forty, about to be divorced, and the mother of three children she can't remember.  It hit me about a week after finishing it that this story reminded me of A Christmas Carol.  The present day Alice with amnesia is seeing what she thinks of as her future, but she is in fact stuck in her past because of her memory loss.  I loved the way this book explored how people change so gradually, they can wake up one day and not even recognize who they have become.  It's a great read that I highly recommend.

But back to A Christmas Carol.  Two things about this story come to mind for me during every Christmas season.  One is this:

This is probably what a lot of people take away from this story and certainly what I took away from it when I was younger.  Goodwill should be year round, not just honored at Christmas.  A great moral to the story and one we all need to remember.

But as a I grow older, this one comes to mind more and more:

We all have a chain we carry around with us.  Am I feeling tired?  Sometimes it's because I've been dragging a chain of grudges around all day.  I get better about letting things go as I get older, but it's still so hard not to keep adding to my chain as I drop other links of it.  It's a daily challenge for me to refrain from lengthening my chain with the annoyances and conflicts of day to day life.  It will never get lighter if I let some things go but constantly replace them with new links. There are five important words in this quote I need to remember, "of my own free will"I decide what I link on that chain but also what I can take off.  Links can always be taken disconnected and left behind.

The image of the chain Marley carries is one of the things I love about this story.  It makes a bad habit into a very concrete, unappealing image.  When I think of these grudges as literal links of a chain, it shifts my thinking about it.  It reminds me to drop some of those links, but it also helps me pause and reflect before I add another link of my own free will


Monday, December 22, 2014

A Few More Favorite Things...

Last year before Christmas, I wrote a few posts about "Favorite Things" after the famed Sound of Music song.  Two of those posts were about Christmas ornaments.  You can find those posts here and here if you're so inclined.  This year, I wanted to update the new residents on our tree in a post.  I find that as the year comes to a close, it's an excellent way to remember the some of the highlights.

I mentioned in my previous posts how I like to find a Christmas ornament for the tree whenever we take a trip or vacation.  On our first trip to Michigan in 2013, I failed to get something for the tree.  I found one that was kind of "meh" and thought I'd go back to get it.  Didn't.  I made up for it on our next trip in the summer of 2014. 

We visited New Holland this year.  I became very fond of windmills during this trip.  I wrote about why that is in this post.  We later visited the Delftware factory in Holland.  I was hoping to find something cute for the tree here.  Man, did I hit the motherload.  They had so many, it was hard to decide.  I finally settled on this little number to represent my new affinity for windmills:

And then because there were so many, I had to take this guy home too.

But I wasn't done there.  We also went to the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids while in Michigan.  I picked this up at the gift shop. They sell these at lots of zoos.  They are made in third world countries with recycled materials.  We have a tiger from the St. Louis Zoo too.  But I have a special, albeit unlikely, connection to flamingos.  My class, along with my sister-in-law's class, raised money several years ago to get an aviary for the flamingos at our local zoo.  The hope was that they would lay eggs if they had an aviary.  They haven't yet, but this year they actually "adopted" some eggs from another zoo.  So baby flamingos did hatch at our local zoo this year!  And that is how this Midwesterner is linked to flamingos besides seeing them at the John Ball Zoo.  Of course, I didn't know there would be babies this fall when we were visiting Michigan this summer.  But I love it when things work out like that.

I also got some new handmade ornaments from my students this year.  Love these.  Love that some of the ornaments on my tree are from kids who are now adults.  This little bottle cap snowman is adorable and will always remind me of the child who gave it to me.

I'm always on the lookout for ornaments that mean something to our family.  Every year we go to a hot air balloon festival in my husband's hometown.  I found this little charmer that was handmade by a local artist.  Not sure if it was meant to be a Christmas ornament, but it is now.

Another tradition we have is Grinch night.  I think I've mentioned before, The Grinch is my favorite.  We designate a special night to watch it for the first time. We also hang a Grinch ornament on the tree that night.  Here's this year's Grinch:

Another new addition is my son's blown glass ornament that he made at Cub Scouts this year.  I wasn't prepared for this to be as beautiful as it is.  It came with its own stainless steel, free standing hanger, and it may just stay out all year on its own.

And finally, proving that you don't always need to get a "traditional" ornament from a store, I saved this wine cork from a vineyard my husband and I visited on our trip to the Southern Illinois Wine Trail.  That is a very fond memory from this year.  Not an ornament? No problem. I just stuck a ornament hook in it. 
I think this might be my new "favorite thing".   ;)


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Make Believe...or In This House We Do What The Elf Says

My kids still both believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny.  They are 11 and 9.  Judge if you like.  I firmly believed until I was at least 12.  I never asked my parents.  They never volunteered the information. It was more like a gradual understanding that we came to that we were all pretending.   My mom still put the Christmas presents out after we went to bed like "Santa" did until we left home.  And I turned out okay.  I'm happily married, have a Master's degree, and am firmly rooted in reality today - probably more so than a lot of people I deal with on a daily basis.  I would definitely call myself neither a optimist or a pessimist, but a realist.  Except - and this is huge - when I read or watch t.v. or go to a movie.  Then I find myself totally immersed in the "let's pretend" world of whatever book or show I'm watching. Suspension of disbelief is necessary for even superior fiction.  And make believe is still the best fun there is.

Pretending is great.  As long as you know that's what it is.  As in "I'm going to read this book about this world that's completely made up.  Some of the things in this book don't even exist in real life.  But while the author is writing it and while I'm reading it, we're all going to pretend it's real.  If we all pretend and we all know it, but we totally commit, it will be the best fun there is." It's the people who don't realize they're pretending that have problems, in my opinion. As in, "Everything is fine in my relationship.  It doesn't mean anything that we scream at each other and someone ends up in tears every night."  Pretending about what is real is much more dangerous than when everyone is pretending about what we all know is make believe.

The thing is, my daughter who is 11, has never asked me if Santa is real.  I'm sure other kids have told her he's not.  I know she didn't believe the other kids when she was younger.  But I think she has made the conscious decision at this point to play along now because she loves the idea that magic could be real.  It's the best fun if we all commit.  Her younger brother still believes and she doesn't want to ruin it for him.  And if we all believe in the little universe of our family, it will be the best fun if we all pretend.
When I was a kid, I didn't get along well with kids who couldn't pretend very well. When I had friends over to play, I was always the last one to abandon playing house or with dolls or the mystery detective game we were playing.  Everyone tired of it before me.  I remember wanting to play with my dolls one night when I was about 14 and knowing I really was too old for that, but still...

So we'll continue with Santa and the Easter Bunny.  The Elf on the Shelf came back this year as well. I know there are lots of haters out there for the Elf.  Save it.  My kids like it.  We've never used it as the standard elf tattling on the kids to Santa.  It's always been more about the surprise of the different scenario each morning.   And I think that even after neither believe anymore, I'll continue to haul out the old make-believe and hold with tradition.  And a part of them will still love it.  

That being said, our elf came back the day after Thanksgiving.  "She" left us a special little breakfast that morning.  It's amazing what a clearance tablecloth and some decorations from last year's after Christmas sale can do.

The next day we found her like this with a note:

So that's what we did.  In this house we do what the elf says.


Thanksgiving and The Calm During The Storm

No, I have not abandoned my blog.  Life and computer problems have kept me from posting.  I'm still working on the computer problems, but life isn't going to slow down anytime soon.  So I decided no more stalling.

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving this year.  It snowed this year on both the day before Thanksgiving and the day of Thanksgiving.  Dan and I started to talk about the last time it snowed on Thanksgiving and we had a whole discussion down memory lane trying to recall. At the end of the conversation we still weren't sure when (or if) it had snowed on Thanksgiving before. This made me realize I wanted to make sure I posted about Thanksgiving because no matter how hard you try to remember each holiday, they start running together like watercolors over the year.  And while watercolors can be beautiful, sometimes you want a more exact portrait to look at and remember what something looked like.

The day before Thanksgiving we hadn't cooked anything and had a whole houseful of people coming the next day.  When school was over, I stepped out into the swirling snow in the parking lot, dusted off my car in the biting cold, and left with a renewed energy that somewhat surprised me.  I think it was in anticipation of the upcoming break.  I stopped at Walgreen's to pick up some last minute things for the breakfast we have the day after Thanksgiving.  This breakfast is when our elf returns.  I'm pretty sure my daughter has figured out the whole elf thing isn't for real, but she hasn't asked the actual question.  I don't think she will anytime soon either.  She still loves to play along with a great amount of enthusiasm, and I am thankful for this.  Kids grow up too fast, especially in today's world.  I think she still wants to believe magic can be real and knows it's fun to pretend it is.  I know this feeling only too well myself.  I still have it when I watch Game of Thrones.  Why can't dragons be real?

When I got home, the house was empty (save our dogs and cats).  I remembered Dan had made an appointment for himself and the kids for haircuts.  I put away the elf goodies, changed into my yoga pants and sneakers, and set to work peeling a mountain of potatoes.  As I was standing at the sink, looking out the window at the snow, the quiet settled in around me.  I could have turned on the television or fired up my iPod, but I didn't.   I was happy. Content.  I was anticipating my family coming home and my extended family arriving the next day.  There is no better anticipation in the world.  But the quiet was awesome too.  I reveled in peeling those potatoes in the silence, watching the snow fall.

Thanksgiving went off with only a few hiccups (No wood chips for the smoker - thank goodness for Kroger being open. No turkey-sized oven bag for the turkey - again thanks, Kroger) as it does every year.  I enjoyed the whole day. 

After we'd cleaned up and I stretched out on the couch to look at the ads for the sales the next day, I remembered that quiet moment as it all began - the calm during the storm.  And I was thankful.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Traveling the Wine Trail

One of the best things my husband and I did this summer was take a two night trip by ourselves.  For us, this was a big deal.  Actually, it was the first time this has happened since we had children.  Just to give you some perspective, our kids are nine and eleven.  They've both spent the night places on their own, but never two nights in a row.

I'd been wanting to do something like this for about a year.  When you only have two nights for a getaway, it limits you when you factor in travel time.  So I didn't really know what we could do that would be worth the time and money and still feel like a mini vacation for us.  I turned to Google and typed in romantic getaways in Illinois.  One of the first links to come up was the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in Southern Illinois.

My older brother lives in Southern Illinois, so I knew the wine trail was there.  It's about a two and a half hour drive for us - perfect timewise.  The problem was, my husband and I don't consider ourselves to be "wine people".  We are much more "beer people" (and while you're at it, consider us Miller or Budweiser "beer people").  So while the photographs of the wine trail looked wonderful, I wasn't sure this would be a trip for us.  But with the summer days burning away and the approach of back to school looming in the near distance, I decided that if nothing else, we could find a nice place to stay and relax for a couple of days.  That meant my first order of business was to find a "nice place" - not always as easy as it sounds.

This time I sought out my old friend VRBO.com.  VRBO stands for Vacation Rental By Owner, in case you were wondering.  I'd used the site before for family vacations to Tennessee and Michigan.   You can search for the area you want on the website, so I typed in Carbondale, IL and several nice looking cabins popped up.  What was even better was how affordable they were.  $150 a night for a two bedroom cabin with a living room, full kitchen, dining area, and hot tub?  Hotel rooms are usually priced higher than that!

This is probably a good time to mention that I was searching a cabin available that week.  I had a window of time when my parents could watch the kids, so I didn't have a lot of lead time.  I found a cabin (billed as "Secluded with Hot Tub" - I was sold!) with good reviews and beautiful pictures, contacted the owner (who seemed a little surprised I was looking at a date that was four days in the future, but very accommodating being that the days were open and in the middle of the week), and booked it. 

At this point, I called my brother to let him know we were going to be there for a couple of days to see if he wanted to get together for dinner.  His alter ego life is a musician and it turned out he was playing at one of the local vineyards on their BEER NIGHT.  This was on the evening we drove down, so we went straight there to meet him and his lovely girlfriend before we even dropped off our things at our cabin.

But first, let me take a selfie...us on our way down to the Wine Trail

Tim Crosby playing his original music at Rustle Hill Vineyard...

...and Tim Crosby photo bombing a beer pic.

After sampling some local brews and listening to some wonderful music, we followed the directions to our cabin.  I had handwritten directions because I was afraid our GPS wouldn't work in such a remote location.  We found it with no problem, especially considering that it was very dark and waaaaay out  in the country. The cabin and the location were BEAUTIFUL!  I'm always so relieved  when we get to a vacation destination and the pictures on the internet match the actual place.  Just like internet dating, this doesn't always happen.  But it did in this case. 

Even though it was the later part of July, the weather was extremely mild.  After bringing our bags in, we stepped outside to check out the hot tub on the deck.  My breath was taken away by the stars we could see.  I guess I've lived in a neighborhood for so long, I've forgotten what the sky looks like out in the country on a clear night.  As I type that, I realize that's kind of sad. We hadn't been outside five minutes when we both spotted a shooting star. 

The next day we still weren't sure of our itinerary.  I like to be spontaneous, but sometimes that can bite you in the butt because you haven't planned things out exactly.  But no worries!  I had seen one of the vineyards made their own hard cider, so I knew I wanted to check that out at some point.  I had also seen a state park that had easy hiking trails and a waterfall.  We decided that since the weather was so nice, we'd do that first.  The waterfall wasn't flowing that day, but we did hike some of the trails.  I'm so much of a city girl (as you can probably tell from my "hiking (tennis) shoes" in these pictures) that this was an adventure for me.  It was so peaceful, not to mention free!

 We drove around for a while, just enjoying the scenery, and checking places out.  We had a nice dinner out that night, did a little shopping, and then returned to the cabin to hit the hot tub again.

A few shots of our day...

Our morning view...

And a few other spots along the way...

I have to mention here one of my favorite things about this trip.  You know how when you go some place new, you want to know where to get the good "local" stuff?  In our cabin there was a flier for a service that delivered all local goods for a "fresh for you to prepare" breakfast.  For what we would have easily spent at a restaurant, we had local eggs, bacon, milk, fresh peaches, pastries, and coffee delivered in a cooler to our cabin before we woke up that morning.  My husband is the breakfast chef, so he whipped us up the most wonderful breakfast I had all summer with the goodies delivered to our doorstep.  And I got to eat breakfast in my pajamas!

I think I would be in heaven if someone delivered groceries like this to my door every morning. I fell in love with the glass milk bottle.  Crazy?  I know.

After gorging ourselves on breakfast, we set out to hit two of the vineyards several people had told us we must check out before leaving.  First, a trip to Blue Sky Vineyard was on the agenda. The people there were very nice to novices like us.  They let us sample a few of their wares.  We ended up purchasing, ahem, a few bottles. Here are two...

Next, we hit Owl Creek Vineyard,  home of the hard cider sampler.  For $5 each we got to sample five of their hard ciders.  Oh, and they threw in the cute owl wineglasses. 

This was my favorite of all the tasting we did on the trail.  They had three mainstays and two specialty ciders that they rotate seasonally for us to try.  We bought some Bad Apple Cider and a half gallon of Sweet Knocker Hard Cider.  My husband and I finished of the Sweet Knocker half gallon one evening a few weeks ago.  My only regret is that we didn't buy more.

We headed home next.  This was such a great couple of days for us to just hang out with each other. There was a lot of great conversation, laughter, and comfortable quiet.  When you get married, everyone tells you to make time for each other without the kids.  It sounds good and the people who tell you that are right.  It's just not always possible, particularly when your kids are really young.  We have always tried to grab a night here and there, but a multiple night trip had eluded us until this summer.  I'm so happy we finally caught up with it.  I was already planning another trip on our drive back.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dumbo and The Lesson of the Animal Shelter

Anyone who knew me as a child knows that I have always had a soft spot for animals.  My mom still likes to tell the story of how she took me to see Dumbo when I was five and that I bawled so loud everyone in the theater was staring at us.  Hey, I know it all turns out okay in the end.  My mom forced me to stay and see the happy ending, but it's still a sad, sad movie.  I'm not ashamed.  To this day, I have never watched it again.  Same thing when I was about eight and watching Snoopy Come Home at my cousin's house.  All of a sudden - sobfest.  Losing my first dog as an adult was one of the saddest things I've ever gone through, and I still get choked up if I think about it for very long.  When I got the movie Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey from Netflix a couple of years ago to have my kids watch it, I ended up choking back tears at the end even though I knew Shadow was still alive!   So when my daughter begged me to volunteer at a local animal shelter this summer, I was hesitant.  I didn't think it would be helpful to the people running the shelter to have a forty four year old woman standing around crying in the lobby.  I was also aware that we already have two dogs and two cats, and I knew I couldn't bring all of the homeless animals home with us.

But my daughter persisted, and I'm so glad she did. 

We had to go through a very basic training one Saturday, and then we were good to go.  I explained to both of my kids that we were not going to bring any of these animals home.  I wanted to make sure they understood that clearly going into this whole process.  While we were there for the training, I ran into one of my former reading class students who was working there for the summer before she went off to college.  She promptly brought out a dog for us to play with.  I think she was trying to find her a home before she left.  I'll admit, I almost caved immediately.

This is sweet Jasmine.  Yes, a pit bull.  One of our own dogs is part pit bull.  Don't believe what you hear.  They are great with kids.  We didn't bring Jasmine home with us, but we did walk her all summer.  We also visited a number of other dogs who have since found homes.

We made several trips to the cat room.  My kids love cats and had a fine time entertaining them with the millions of  toys provided.  Here are some of the things I learned while volunteering at the animal shelter:
1.People bring all kinds of toys/treats/collars/leashes all the time.  That made me feel good about the quality of the lives of the animals living there.
2. There is an abundance of volunteers.  Tons of people are there most of the time.  Sometimes I'm not a huge fan of people, but this strengthened my faith in humanity each time I witnessed it. 
3. They have an incredible staff that fights to find every animal a home. 
4. And last but not least, I realized how satisfying it was when I found out one of those animals found a home via the animal shelter's Facebook page.

So we were going once a week, walking Jasmine, visiting the cat room, and all was well.  Then the kitten room happened.

I had somehow fallen under the misconception during our volunteer training that they didn't let volunteers in the kitten room.  (Maybe it was because I was catching up with my former student and not really listening like I should have been.)  Anyway, my daughter picked up on about our fourth trip there that volunteers could, in fact, go in the kitten room.  Aaaaaand, I was done for.

We ended up bringing this guy home.  So, yes,  I caved.  But in my defense, so did my husband.  (I'm not sure why I think that's in my defense.  It's really not.  But it makes me feel better to say so.) He was Hermes, and although I loved the Greek mythology reference, the name didn't exactly roll off the tongue.   So we renamed him Calvin after the famed cartoon strip by Bill Watterson.  Hobbes would have made more sense, but Calvin seemed to fit his personality better. He's made quite a splash around here. Literally.  Here he is in the community water bowl.

I think that sometimes I make excuses not to get involved in things that I think will make me sad out of self-preservation.  And there were times I felt sad when we left or found myself thinking about a dog that was still there.  But the upside to that was the discovery that the animal shelter was not the sad, hopeless place I thought it would be. So I guess, in the end, it's kind of like Dumbo all over again.  Have you ever noticed that life keeps giving you the same lesson over and over again until you learn it?  I would have left that movie in the middle if my mom hadn't pushed me to stay.  And I never would have seen the happy ending.  I wouldn't have chosen to hang out at the animal shelter with a bunch of homeless animals if my daughter hadn't persisted.   But I never would have seen that  the shelter is a place that brings happiness to lots of people every day