Some Frivolous Books about France (for March in Ithaca, or If for Some Other Reason You Need a Little Extra Joie de Vivre, or How to Learn to Do Almost Anything Better)

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So, I made a goal last fall that I would EMBRACE this winter with JOY and VIVACITY, and to not complain one single time about the weather. And guys! I’ve sort of done it! (And for the record, it was 3 degrees two Sundays ago. Fahrenheit, not celsius. That’s -16.1111 degrees Celsius, if anyone cares.)

It’s been a discipline, but I’ve caught myself actually enjoying the winter so far, for the most part.  And yet now, in the middle of March, it is still really cold. Under 20 most of the time, and for at least the next 10 days. This is when winter in Ithaca starts to get real, and you remember that you will not feel anything close to warmth until May.

So for the past few years this has been the time of year when I start reading all the books about France I can get my hands on. Or blogs about French cooking, and I make lots of chocolate cakes…. Because at this point in the winter I need a little inspiration, a little extra help to find beauty and delight in the midst of these ordinary days in a tiny apartment in the frozen tundra.

And if anyone knows how to find joy & loveliness in daily life, it’s the French. In fact, they do almost everything, well, better. They dress better, they have better posture and overall poise, they are healthier, slimmer, consume less, eat (much, much, much) better, and generally are amazing at life. Ok, they’re not perfect, and I’m not saying I agree 100% with maybe all the hedonism or moral aspects of their culture, but if you’re on a quest for Joy in the midst of an everlasting winter I can assure you that lessons can be learned from the French.

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[My only caveat is that I read these deliberately in order to enjoy my own life here, which is decidedly not very Parisian or south of France or eating mussels on the coast of Brittany in August. And not to use these books to think thoughts along the lines of “My life would be so much better if I lived in Provence, etc.”  And I fully admit that many of these books are incredibly frivolous. Like, The French Beauty Solution and things like that, with chapters about grape cleanses and how to do your makeup. It’s a rather indulgent habit, but France is my one weakness (to paraphrase the oft-repeated quotation by Miss Lane from this delightful show).  BUT nearly every one of these books helps me to find small ways of savoring my actual life (rather than simply longing to live in Provence, which of course I do, but which doesn’t help me very much to thrive right here where I am). How to enjoy food a bit more, drink more water, how to move more slowly but with more grace, how to make everything from my wardrobe to my house neater and more beautiful, how to have elegant tea-drinking rituals, etc.]

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I usually start with re-reading French Women Don’t Get Fat. I’ve owned this delightful volume for over 10 years and I re-read it almost every year. Not as a manual for losing weight (though it would be incredibly helpful, if anyone needs help in that area), but as a manifesto for how to savor food, ritual, seasons, and life in general. The author explains that Frenchwomen simply know how to care for themselves well (without feeling guilty), how to derive great joy from simple pleasures, and how to feel indulged (rather than resentful and harried, which is probably my default) in the midst of daily life.  There’s a lovely passage toward the end where the she talks about the “little nothings of daily pleasure that are actually quite something to us… We have so many words for pampering– gater, dorloter, bichonner, se chouchouter— but we don’t equate it with decadence. It makes us enjoy life more, from moment to moment, and keeps us from seeking too much consolation from any one pleasure, such as food…”

And since having children I also re-read Bringing Up Bebe this time of year.  Not that I agree with every single aspect of French parenting, but it’s a delightful read and helps me remember to be calm, not to feel guilty for taking a bit of care of my own self, and to sometimes wear something other than yoga pants. (This book also has one of my favorite stories about a French woman ever: the author, an American, and her family went on a trip with a French family they knew, and the French husband went out one morning early and bought a baguette and brought it back, and when he did, his wife purred contentedly, “J’adore cette baguette.” (“I adore this baguette.”) Not jumping off the walls with excitement, but just a deep, calm sense of joy and delight– about a baguette. I think this thought now when I drink my morning coffee– I adore this coffee, etc. A slight shift towards joy. It works.)

I also requested from the library The Elegance of the Hedgeho, a French novel that was recommended to me a few years ago by a dear friend. It’s lovely. One of my favorite novels.  So I’m re-reading that (although I also somehow got myself in the middle of a potty training book— I’m gearing up to train little person #2, eek!– and a book about super-runners in a remote Mexican tribe that’s turning out to be surprisingly thrilling and one of my new favorite books of all time).

And then I was telling all of this to a friend of mine from church, and she said that she had a stack of French novels (these below, minus the Elegance of the Hedgehog) she would lend me! So my spirit is richly supplied with French literature of varying qualities.

Anyway, here’s to finding beauty & simple joys in the middle of winter, or in the middle of whatever dreary or hard season you might be going through. And to huge piles of books.

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Free Jesuit Retreat for Lent

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Have I written about Pray As You Go at all here?  It’s basically one of the true joys of my life right now. Produced by some Jesuits out of England, it’s a podcast that walks prayerfully through one of the day’s lectionary readings and offers some questions for guided prayer. Along with the most beautiful music.  There is also an app and a website by the same name that contain some longer meditations and guided scripture readings/prayers. I just opened it up, looking for something to listen to as I try to slowly bring a bit of order to the chaos of our kitchen while the two imps are sleeping. And oh what a gift, there is a Lent Retreat, based on the last words of Christ. I’m out of fancy candles, but I’m going to light some tea lights and make a cup of tea and start listening. (Calling it a retreat is a bit generous, but there is something that feels good and luxurious about calling it that, something nurturing and sustaining.  I’ve taken to having in-home retreats when John has to travel for work, which is often, but maybe more about that later. Anyway, here’s to creating little spaces to breathe right in the middle of dreary March days when everything is messy and things aren’t going quite as brightly as they maybe could, bringing some calmness and joy into the work of dishes and laundry, and for tending to one’s soul in the midst of the “howling waste of the wilderness,” to quote Anne of Green Gables and the book of Deuteronomy.)

Life Update.

DSC_0697Everyone. After my sort of bitter post on Friday, I just had to let the world know that YESTERDAY IT WAS 70 DEGREES. And it’s 60 today. And sunny. Both days. Two days of sunshine. I didn’t wear socks. We got to go outside WITHOUT PUTTING ALL THE COATS AND HATS ON ALL THE TINY PEOPLE.  No words in any language can describe the complete bliss and joy of warmth.

IT ALSO MIGHT STAY WARM FOR A FEW MORE DAYS!!!!!!!  I feel like I’ve won a vacation to Tahiti. Anyway, here’s to warm days in the midst of cold seasons & glimpses of grace even in the middle of February in Ithaca.  And a song for the weary. Or anyone.

Happy Cozy Friday (Fredagsmys)

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This is a re-post from last year, but it bears repeating on this 23 degree February day. Most of my friends and relations live in places like Nashville and Charlotte and Houston, where it’s in the 80s right now, so if you find yourself in a place where you are getting enough vitamin D for the day from 3 minutes of sunlight exposure and where you are wearing flip flops, please ignore this. But if you, like us, are still 3 months away from weather like that, here’s a good tradition to do on Fridays. (I suppose you could still do something similar even if you live in a more temperate climate, because it’s fun to have a Friday tradition. We’ve been doing this for over a year now, and it’s become one of our favorite parts of the week.)

Our Fredagsys is going to be (post kids in bed) a big bowl of popcorn & Victoria (because John is awesome and generously lets us watch the shows I want to watch, which tend to take place in England and involve more drinking of tea and fancy dresses than he would probably prefer. Thank you, sweetie.)  Hope you all stay cozy today & can treat yourselves and others with as much gentleness and generosity and warmth as possible in these cold days.

More about Cozy Friday from a post I wrote last year:

I read about the notion of Fredagsmys in this blog post from A Cup of Jo about parenting in Sweden.  The word basically means “Cozy Friday,” and it pretty much captures my feelings about Friday nights.  I just didn’t think there was a good word, let alone an entire cultural phenomenon, that celebrated it. So, as far as I can tell, in Sweden people curl up with lots of potato chips (ok, a little weird, but ok), huddle under blankets, watch movies, and just spend quality time with the fam. Amazing. We’re not at a movie-watching point in our kids’ lives quite yet, but we are all about getting cozy on Fridays. We sometimes make a pizza all together (Will is obsessed with cutting things with his little knife, plus I think there must have been a Daniel Tiger episode about making pizzas, because he knows ALL ABOUT IT), and sometimes pancakes or waffles. Or something else easy and cozy. Now that the days are getting shorter and the weather colder we are going to do it up for Fredagsmys. Some ideas for getting cozy on Fridays:

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DSC_03511. Do a super fast pick-up with the kids late in the afternoon to get ready

2. put Christmas music on (or this album). or whatever music makes you happy.

3. Put on pjs and a robe and slippers or thick wool socks

4. If you have a fireplace, make a fire!

5. Or if not light as many candles as possible

6. turn off and put away all the phones/ipods/ipads/computers/devices (for real)

7. Invite friends over and order cheap pizza

8. Or get some pizza dough from trader joes and cook your own

9. Or make a big pot of chili or soup earlier in the day to have ready for dinner

10. Use paper plates, bowls, etc.!

11. Make a big pile of all the pillows and blankets you can find and curl up with the kids and read

12. Make hot chocolate for everyone

13. Or cider and drink it through cinnamon sticks like straws

14. Or some good hot herbal tea in special mugs

15. Bake cinnamon rolls (from the can, obviously– Cozy Friday is all about No Dishes)

16. Play board games!

17. Family camp out in sleeping bags in the living room (or wherever)

18. Family read-aloud of whatever awesome book you’re reading

19. Watch a movie or show (we try to not watch much during the week so Friday is our night to binge on episodes of the West Wing or Chefs Table)

20. Pancakes for dinner (with sausage or eggs)

21. make popcorn on the stove. (it’s easy, I promise) or in the microwave. or over a fire pit. or whatever. sprinkle with salt, garlic powder, and nutritional yeast. or check out these 30 awesome toppings.

Happy Cozy Friday, y’all! (And if anyone has other good ideas for making Friday nights cozy and special I’d love to hear! read here for more about a similar concept in Denmark: Hygge)

Charity Suffereth Long & Other Unpopular Ideas about Love.

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Valentine’s Day this year found us in right in the middle of what we might not call our finest days. Nothing catastrophic or excessively horrible, and probably most of it is just due to dark, cloudy, slushy, freezing winter weather (much easier to think the weather is at fault, than that I am). But regardless of the cause, these have been days that have called me to deep meditation on what really might be meant by “love is patient, love is kind.” Charity suffereth long, as the King James so beautifully puts it. The word in Greek is makrothymeo, long-suffering, or what we now call patience.

And I am realizing that I grew up thinking of patience as a weak, insipid sort of thing, like a girl dressed in a pink frilly dress wearing white gloves sitting primly waiting silently for…. something.

And now, as real patience is being required of me, I am coming to know patience as she really is, as a fierce kind of virtue (the word virtue itself comes from a Latin root meaning strong.)  A virtue of blood and sweat and tears and rolling up ones sleeves to do very, very hard work.

Patience is actually, I realized, most closely related to the Classical virtue of Courage (or Fortitude, as it is also called). And Courage means: forbearance, strength, endurance. To persist (with dignity and grace) in the most adverse of circumstances. (My first draft of this included a long, long, long digression about the four cardinal virtues, and Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Jonathan Edwards. I was supposed to be a theologian, and here’s one of the Edwards texts if you’re interested, because it’s lovely, and some day in another life or in twenty years when my babies are grown, I might write a book on the subject.)

At any rate, the Christian word for patience, or long-suffering, as I prefer to call it, comes from a root that means suffering, from a further root, thyo, which means TO KILL OR TO SLAY or TO SACRIFICE. 1 Corinthians 5:7 uses this verb: Christ, the paschal lamb, is thyo for us.

So yes, patience is not a pink frilly thing, or a calm and quiet thing. Patience, at its root, real patience, is (Chesterton was right) a kind of duel to the death. The Christian notion of long-suffering means (from here):

  1. to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes and troubles

  2. to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others
  3. to be mild and slow in avenging
  4. to be longsuffering, slow to anger, slow to punish

So. Charity suffereth long. It sounds much better than “love is patient,” which sounds like love is supposed to be daffodils and posies and frolicking through fields on a sunny day.

But also, the kind of long-suffering that charity does is not the kind that is secretly bitter and angry and full of hate. Real long-suffering is also a kind of joy. A hard kind of joy (again, not the frilly lace and rosebuds kind of joy). Charity suffereth long, and is also kind.

And this word for kind (which is related to the word Jesus uses when he says, “My yoke is easy.”) means to act kindly, to be useful, to be mild and gentle. Love suffers long, and acts with kindness.

And I know everyone knows this so I hesitate to repeat it, but all the above means that LOVE IS NOT HAPPY MUSHY FEELINGS TOWARDS SOMEONE. Inherent in the definition of love, according to 1 Corinthians 13, at least (also see 1 John 4:10), is experiencing suffering and pain and still acting with kindness and love towards someone. Real love is behaving in a loving way. When you perhaps might not feel like acting in a loving way because of what the other person has done. That’s why patience is courage. Because acting in kindness, sometimes, feels more like climbing Mount Everest in a blizzard or being on a medieval battlefield being trampled by horses or running a long, long marathon when every bone in your body is weary past belief. Patience is not for the faint of heart.

(VERY IMPORTANT NOTE, WHICH I HOPE IS QUITE OBVIOUS: Long-suffering does not mean staying in an abusive relationship. It ALSO does not mean letting someone do whatever they want with no consequences. It does not mean that ways that you have been hurt do not matter, or have not left very deep and real wounds. If you are in any way wrestling with this, and the related issue of what does forgiveness really mean and look like in cases where you have been hurt, or are being hurt, please, please read Dan Allender’s and Tremper Longman’s excellent book Bold Love. Sometimes real love means packing it up and high-tailing it out until someone gets their act together.

But probably for the majority of cases, our situation is not that requires the fierceness of leaving (as Allender and Tremper explain, out of Love), but the fierceness of staying. And this we can only learn from the truly Patient One. The one who suffered the most out of love, for love. The one who had the most patience with us (because we needed it the most). The one who was kindest. Real patience is learned from him. From the supper he prepared for the ones who would betray him, deny him, fail him, and flee him when he needed it the most. From the dirty feet he washed (with how much tenderness) of those same men. From the quietness and gentleness with which he walked the path to his death amid abandonment, being utterly misunderstood, and being wounded in every imaginable way.

And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.” (see below)

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Further Reading & Listening on Long-Suffering. (If anyone other than my own self is in  a relationship and in need of growing in Patience. Or if anyone is single and also in need of Patience of a somewhat different kind.)

HAS EVERYONE ALREADY HEARD THIS ON BEING EPISODE?!?!?! (Ok, caveat, I have only listened to the first 3 minutes. But I think this man is saying everything I wanted to say, only in a British accent, and much more intelligibly, and with fewer etymological digressions, so he wins.) (Ok, I have listened to half of it AND I WANT TO QUOTE THE ENTIRE THING HERE. But I won’t, so just trust me and listen to it.)

THE BEST POEMS FOR BROKEN HEARTS, FOR LEARNING PATIENCE. True story.

This is what Augustine said about the cardinal virtues: “For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.” (De moribus eccl., Chap. xv)

A gloriously beautiful poem on patience, by possibly the second greatest poet in the English language, G. M. Hopkins. Who was a Jesuit.:

“Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.”

Happy are those who endure hard things with patience, who are steadfast under trial, for theirs is the crown.

It is not all beauty that is called virtue.

Also by him, Charity and Its Fruits.

A poem: the Country of Marriage. (“the forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day after day, the dark richer than the light, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in,” italics mine)

A song for the brokenhearted.

A Bean Recipe, Some Cheap Dinners

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It’s been too long since I’ve written anything about the loveliness and importance of beans, but I saw this recipe recently and wanted to share it (about doctoring up a can of beans, with a 7 minute egg on top). And then saw this post about 6 family meals from Whole Foods for $30.  (Which came from this post, about how three other people met the same challenge.)  And then there’s this cookbook.

So anyway, here’s to meals based on beans, eggs, and potatoes! To humble food! To the great delight of sitting down to beans, with or without a 7 minute egg on top! To toast with cheese! And hoping you all have a lovely weekend, drinking tiny sips of joy from the simple moments of your days.

Also THIS OH THIS!!!! I haven’t tried this recipe yet but I’m going to soon and I can’t wait.

Glimmers of Light on Dark Days (Candlemas)

Today is Candlemas. A mass for the blessing of candles. The day we remember the presentation of Jesus in the temple. It is a feast day in the church, a day of white vestments and (if one is fasting) a break from the fast. In France they eat crepes & in Mexico there is a tradition of hot chocolate and tamales. And while most of us are probably not going to bring homemade candles to a priest to be blessed (do they still even do that?) it is a day to remember, I think, that all the ordinary things are blessed. The pillows and brooms and dishes and the toys strewn on the floor. The ordinary parts of our day shine with the glory and beauty that radiates from the countenance of the Lord as he bends towards us. The rest of this post is copied and pasted from what I wrote last year. (I can do that, right?)

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(Last year I wrote this the day after actual Candlemas.)

Yesterday was Candlemas. I wanted to write all about how people used to take their candles to churches to have them blessed for the coming year, wanting the very light in their homes to be flickers of holy church-light. How in France they celebrate with crepes. How it’s the Holy Day that commemorates Jesus being brought to the temple when he was a baby and placed into the waiting arms of old Simeon, and how Anna the ancient widow beheld the face of her Redeemer. How Candlemas is probably rooted in wild pagan festivals to celebrate the ending of winter and the lightening of days, but how maybe we need all the wild festivals we can get our hands on when the world is so dark and so, so cold.

And I wanted to write about how this small, unnoticed holiday is maybe a holiday for the people who are waiting. Huddling under blankets, crying eyes out in the dark or in the car on the way to work. Waiting for things to change, waiting the long days of every month for a baby to get conceived, or for a husband, or to get healed, or for something to make this cold world feel not quite so broken.

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And then by the time I realized I wanted to write all of this, the day was waning and it was warm (40 degrees! In February!) so we all went outside and I played baseball with Will while Margaret sat in her carseat draped with a blanket, and then it was dinner time and the house was a mess and I was trying to cut up cabbage to sauté and dropping most of it on the floor because I was so hungry that my hands were shaking and then all the crying and screaming and bedtime drama, and then after the children were in bed I pretty much huddled under a fleece blanket in a state of shock or something. Drinking tea and reading My Mother’s Sabbath Dayscoughing piteously, like the rose in The Little Prince.

So I didn’t write what I wanted to write, which is this:

That we don’t sing songs about Anna and Simeon in Sunday school. We learn about the ark-builders, the giant-slayers, the ones swallowed by fish or walking through parted seas. We hear about the women who get babies: Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth. And all the miracles and angel choruses, and they are grand and we need every story of the dead being raised and the oil lasting and the bread being multiplied and the angels singing over fields of sheep.

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We don’t sing songs about the quiet old folks who sat in the temple and waited all those long, aching days.  But maybe we should. Maybe we need the unremarkable story of this old priest who served in the temple, doing ordinary things every single day, just “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”

And the old prophetess Anna who was at least 84 years old and had lived most of her years as a widow. She was single. “She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:37). Her entire life was a prayer. She prayed; that’s who she was.

Anna and Simeon, they lived quiet days. Days of longing and ache and somehow of trusting and worshipping God in the midst of the longing and ache.

And then Mary and Joseph bring this tiny baby in and lay him in Simeon’s hopeful arms. And Simeon took the baby up in his arms and blessed God. Took the Consolation of Israel into his empty arms and thanked God. And Anna after all her unremarkable years or prayer, of inhabiting God’s house with no husband, no miracles, no displays of glory. Just being faithful in ordinary days. I like to think that when she saw the baby she knew instantly Who he was, picked up the folds of her dress, and ran over to him with the abandon and glee of a little girl. I picture her and Simeon passing the tiny baby back and forth, just laughing and dancing with joy.

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And maybe Isaiah was right when he wrote that the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married (54:1). Maybe the ones who wait the longest with the least will one day be blessed just a bit more? And maybe Saint John was praying the best prayer of all when he wrote the last prayer of the Bible: Even so, Come Lord Jesus. A prayer of longing for Jesus to return.

So until He does & until our desperate prayers are answered, we light candles against the darkness and eat crepes to makes us happy and read poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins and sing hymns and keep telling each other the good stories from the Good Book. We keep sweeping the floor and washing dishes and driving to work, doing ordinary things over and over again in the midst of our ordinary days. With broken hearts or broken bodies.  Waiting maybe for angels or manna or honey from a rock, but maybe it will only be the Messiah.

Winter Days

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The last day of January. The cold has settled in & we are settling into winter routines. Space heater in Margaret’s room, extra blanket on my side of the bed at night. A hot water bottle (ok, also for me), piles of down comforters on couches for story time, cup after cup of tea & roasting things in the oven. Well, lately we’ve mostly been roasting cheap econo-bags of tater tots, but whatever. Letting go of food perfection sometimes is healthier maybe for souls than clinging too tightly to All the Rules. Little chickadees and the brightness of cardinals flitting at the bird feeders.

I want to write much more, but on this rare morning with a three year old asleep from some kind of sickness, and the baby still taking a morning nap, I figured I’d at least post a few pictures and say I’m still here! And I’m sifting through whether I want to keep writing here (well, obviously I do, but finding time for this seems impossible these days), and if so about what and why and all those things.

I’ll try to write again soon, but until then, stay warm and cozy and take deep breaths and take good care of yourself and your people, whoever your people are, in these cold and strange days.

Untitled, for Loss of Words

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It has been the most beautiful fall imaginable here, the hills all aglow with scattered patches of bright green farmland and little specks of barns in the distance.  And we are only just now entering the slow decrescendo: the trees letting go of their leaves, letting them fall like flakes of gold or maybe like so many beautiful tears. Standing tall and strong as they lose their treasure, teaching us the grace of loss. A whole winter-long to learn and re-learn this lesson from them. I keep saying the Hopkins poem over and over in my head, “Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?…” And then, the other one, this morning: “The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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Today all I can think is this, that the true ruler is a Prince of Peace, who leads by gentleness and grace. A King who turns swords into plows and speaks with dignity and courtesy to women and outsiders. May he return soon and make All Things Well. Until then, lighting all the candles I can find as flickering specks of hope, reading all the good Poems in the Good Book, and taking lots and lots of really deep breaths.  All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

Isaiah 9

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