Saturday, February 27, 2010

necessity is the mother of homemade

When you think about the history of crafting and the myriads of inventive food recipes, textiles, clothing and furniture, and so much more, you probably think that necessity is the mother of invention. In this home, however, there is not much of that kind of creative genius going on. There is however, a lack of pre-packaged variety and some serious enjoyment of time well-spent in the kitchen. I enjoyed cooking before moving to the other side of the globe. But since arriving here, I've found myself seeking out the means to making a host of items I never even considered before. 

Noodles would be on that list. I remember watching my favorite Italian kitchen guru, Lydia from the PBS cooking network whip her way through pasta making like it was easier than boiling water. It looked fun, time-consuming, and maybe the sort of thing you would do if you were trying to be ultra-homemakey or a serious gourmet cook (the kind that comes home from a glamorous day working uptown, pours a glass of wine and whips up something from the latest issue of Martha's-Awesome-Recipes-with-Impossible-to-get-Ingredients). 

I have to be honest and say; I enjoy cooking, I wish I was awesome, I wish I made things form scratch purely to make them organic or whole-wheat or what have you, but often it is purely from necessity. In a way, this has made me grateful for the inconvenient situation we can sometimes feel like we are in. It has made me make more, think harder, get creative, and enjoy the process of the making as much as the eating.

And it has of course involved more hands than mine. If you spend more than five minutes doing something with extra little people around you all day, you will inevitably find them doing it as well. It is endlessly interesting to see the way a different makeup in a different set of limbs and hands and head of hair will lead to different interests. 

The oldest loves to think hard, reason like a lawyer, and plan plan plan. The Busy little Scout likes to climb on the table and somehow stretch her arm out like Gumby to grasp whatever it is your making that you thought you had placed out of her reach. And my cozy, quiet, curly haired second-born loves to help me cook. He asked me the other day, during our noodle adventure, "Mama, why do you like to make food?" After talking for probably too long, I then asked him why he liked to help me and he said "because you need me to!" I really do think he believes that all our loaves of bread would not make it without his 3 year old kneading expertise. 

Necessity means that it took one day to make the noodles, and the following day to make the broth from scratch, as well as a loaf of braided friendship bread. We ate it all in under 30 minutes, but surprisingly it didn't bother me... we had fun along the way and those moments of making were just as important as the meal we sat down to in the end.

Her hands found their way into nearly every picture. First the salad, then the soup, and then...

...two big smacking bites right out of the loaf (can you see them?) I guess I could have put her in her chair while I took the pictures, or in her bed for a few minutes, but I didn't think of that until I wrote it just now.

And just for fun, a pic of my proud boy after helping with yet another floury project. Who likes to eat mouthfuls of flour? Do you? Do your kids? Are mine not well fed?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

{book}worm wednesday

We were socked in by fog today. Moist, dripping, and blurred, like a sheet of ethereal cotton had been draped over the city and wrapped the coast in its vaporous fibers. I thought it was quite pretty (can you tell?) in the way it stilled the landscape and made everything a bit vague in the flat, monochromatic light. Fog also makes it a good day for a book, and a warm cup of tea. We made an apple cake and set to work plowing through our pile of books for the day.

It started with a few hundred rounds of I'll-plop-down-on-your-lap-for-a-30-second-read of Goodnight Moon and Sandra Boynton with the Busy One. In between making peak ascents of the bunk bed and window sills, and sabotaging her brother's Lego masterpieces (really just a one-walled jail for a captured pirate, but you'd think from the reaction it was the Taj Mahal), I was pretty pleased with the improvements she is making towards sitting still and diving into the world of toddler literature... stimulating stuff I tell you.

Though my eyes may start to glaze over somewhere around the 45th round of "and a red balloon, and a cow jumping over the moon...", it's nice to know I have a variety of reading (or listening) levels under my roof. We moved on and spent the afternoon tucked under a blanket with a few stories that brought us from the world of the Great Green Room and into the minds of children finding their way through life. Bedtime brought the highly anticipated  debut of the next installment in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Series. Then, finally with three little heads dreaming peacefully, Lewis and Berry, Steinbeck and Paton were allowed to come out to play.

what i'm reading...
Surprised By Joy by C.S. Lewis
I know, more Lewis. I can't help it. If you want to find something critical said about the man or his writing, you must look elsewhere. I'm really enjoying this book in a different way than his others too. It's autobiographical and it's impressive to me how well he can remember and sift through the events of his childhood and how they have shaped him; once again, with humility, clarity, charity towards others, and an eye that sees through a glass darkly, but to the glorious light on the other side.

Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton
He's another of my favorite authors and if ever I was to be a real writer, I would wish to write like him. He makes the lives and souls of his stories from the South African Apartheid sink deep in your blood and stay there; moving, chilling, warming and churning it so that (for me anyway) it is never the same. 

The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past  by Karin Evans
A friend loaned me this book and I have only recently begun to read it. A journalist who herself had adopted a girl from China sets out on an exploration of the culture behind the families in the East and West and the way it is shaping the lives of these displaced children.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A'Kempis
It's Lent. I'm trying to read something meditative... and it's kicking my butt (Thomas probably never imagined, nor hoped someone would refer to his book in this way when he wrote it but that tells you where I'm at).

the husband list...
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The classic tale from the dusty, weary-worn roads of the Depression and the families who traveled them. And surprise, surprise, it's about a farmer.

the kids corner...
Snow by Uri Shulevitz (Caldecott Honor)
I was first turned on to Uri by Honey For a Child's Heart, a great resource on giving the gift of reading and books to children, with excellent lists, and have not been disappointed. He is magical, breathtakingly simple (is there a book as quiet and beautiful as Dawn?) but always interesting in the way that I can imagine only a Russian must be. I always read Snow in my best Russian accent...

Sector 7  David Wiesner (Caldecott Honor)
This is a new one for the kids and I. It was picked up from the library at school and is an imaginative story of a boy who is whisked away from the top of The Empire State building by a friendly cloud... who takes him to where clouds are designed and made, Sector 7. The boy has some creative plans of his own that make a lasting impact on the city. It's a fun book, but what is surprising (and for me, the one downside of the book) is that it is purely pictures, though aimed at an older age group. This has some benefits I'm sure but I wouldn't make it regular fare.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Yes, it was on here last time... and it remains. 

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I thought tonight was to be the big debut but apparently the library records say it is "missing," as in "lost." Both copies! How sad, I can't tell you my disappointment. Hopefully it will turn up, and I sure hope so because I can't imagine moving on to Plum Creek with an entire era of Laura's life missing. It wouldn't be right. So, we wait.

Family Huddle by Peyton, Eli, and Archie Manning
So, it's not going to win any Caldecott medals anytime soon, but it does have many references to football plays, brothers playing together in their backyard, and the number of Walter Payton's jersey. So, in the lives of my two boys, that makes it a winner. And it has set a precedent... "Mom, can we be a football family? Pleeeease??"

The Illustrated Picture Atlas of the World by Nicholas Harris
I can't say that I've done even a fair bit of shopping for a children's atlas, but I will say I like this one a lot. I learn from it (as I could from most likely any atlas I chose to read), it is beautifully illustrated with all kinds of cultural and historical tidbits bordering the pages (obviously not exhaustive information), and pictures the countries in a variety of forms like topically, economically, and geographically. We (as in, an age group ranging from 3 to 33) like to sit and look at it together for long lengths of time, with lots of talking and questions going on... if that tells you anything.

keepin' it real (wherein I literally scoop all the books off our coffee table and give you the as-is list)

As in, the game. Sorry, we cleaned today so all the books are back in their happy home on an actual shelf, for a few minutes at least...

Let me know what you're reading (and I'm missing!) these days.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Weather Breaks

We've been huddled in the seclusion of frigid temperatures for what seems like an endless amount of days. So, when Saturday dawned bright and (somewhat) clear, with a balmy, almost springlike feel to the air, we headed for the hills.

:: A hand-me-down carrier meant we could all go along for the steep climb up Fushan Mountain on the outskirts of the city ::

:: A boy and a stick... instant pleasure ::

:: Sadie on the loose... keeping passerby's entertained ::

:: maybe if we come here more often, these kids won't be completely shaped by concrete roads and sidewalks ::

:: signs of life outside a simple home on the way down the mountain ::

:: sweet family enjoying the beautiful day ::

:: February's family shot... we are two months in to our "12 in 12 Challenge"

What did you do this weekend to enjoy the beauty of February?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

To Lent or Not To Lent

When I was growing up I didn't hear or know much about Lent. My friends may have followed it or had little ash marks on their forehead from Ash Wednesday Mass, but if they did I didn't notice or it didn't make much of an impression. The church communities I was a part of had special services for Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter, but that was the extent of their adherence to any sort of formal church calendar. We were non-denominational evangelicals after all, and any allusions to high church had no place in our gym-renting, chorus-singing Sundays.

 Before you let the hair start rising on the back of your neck, let me say I am thankful for the places of worship that shaped me as a young child and into my early adult years. They were rife with issues, as any place that is made of men will be, but they pointed me in the right direction and more often than not gave me a desire for and tools to use in learning to love and follow Jesus. They did not however, observe Lent.

As I've grown older and seen the struggle and the joys that come with walking daily as a follower of Jesus, I've started to wonder about and appreciate some of those centuries-old traditions that much of the Church today still utilizes. There's a whole discussion here about a  myriad of topics like form and function, tradition and authority, and all the differences in theology between all the different denominations and divisions of the Church (which I believe have importance, but certainly not in this short little space, which as you know is sometimes not that short). I merely want to talk about how (in spite of my wonderful, conservative, tradition-dumping past) I think there is something to my make-up, and perhaps to everyone else's as well, that desires and needs a bit of bit of the ole orthodoxy.

Lent is really just a simple season of preparation. I don't know what kind of human beings we think we are when we imagine we can run around with our heads cut off, caring about everything else in our lives like work and friends, cooking and shopping, crisis handling and community-planning, reading and internet surfing, iphone and ipod playing, tv watching and toddler chasing, and everything else that fills the minutes of our precious days, and then somehow have the presence of mind to fully celebrate the most important festivals of our Christian faith. I don't know about you, but year after year I feel like I come to Dec. 24th feeling like I was busy enjoying all the beautiful traditions of ambiance-and-memory-creating, but am ill-prepared to enter into the fullness of joy I could be experiencing in celebrating the Birth of our Savior. There is something within the makeup of our minds and bodies that begs for and needs preparation.

The centuries old traditions of both the Advent and Lent seasons are just such preparations. Their aim is to get us thinking every day about the celebration that is coming, so that as we prepare our minds, our hearts, even our homes and physical surroundings for this special event, we will be at full capacity to appreciate and delight in all the Joy and Truth those special days call us to remember. "Remember." I remember a class I had in college on the major prophets of the Old Testament. It was a wonderful course and one phrase still comes to me often today, "the call to remember..." It's a problem that has plagued man since the beginning. We forget. We forget what God has done, who we are, what we have done, what in the world we're supposed to be doing, to put in the baking powder... (some more serious than others of course-- but I think baking powder is pretty serious, actually).

I love that God gave the nation of Israel a year stocked full of festivals just to help them out with this! These festivals were sometimes somber, but always pointed to a joy-full reality and were for the purpose of bringing them back to his Goodness. To me, it seems no different today. We forget so much, and the seasons of reflection leading up to and including the holidays where we celebrate Christ's birth and resurrection can be a beautiful  means of remembering the most important truths of our lives.

A few short facts about Lent:

  • It appears from later writings of Tertullian and others that the Lenten season was being observed as early as the 2nd century. 
  • Beginning with Ash Wednesday, Lent consists of the 44 days prior to Easter. Technically, it is 40 days of fasting, minus the 4 Sundays of those weeks because Sunday is always a day to celebrate the resurrection (I love that!)
  •  It is a time of personal reflection and confession, always with the intention of seeing one's need for salvation and the glorious, loving, forgiving and merciful provision of that in Jesus' death on the cross. It is serious in nature, but for the purpose of being celebratory. 

I heard the best teaching I've ever listened to on the Lord's Supper from my father-in-law awhile ago. Specifically, because he talked about how it is not supposed to be a somber, serious, face-down-turned occasion, but one of rejoicing and thanksgiving for God's love in saving us from our sin. And that is just what our repentance and confession should always turn us toward. It SHOULD, but I am no robot. This progression of repentance to rejoicing does not happen to me if I just show up one Sunday in my pretty Easter dress after having hidden colorful eggs for an hour in the backyard. I need time to think, to mull, to be made aware, to be shown, to undo the mess that is my brain and heart, to be quiet, to prepare, to talk and to pray. It doesn't make Easter or Christmas or any other day perfect, but I hope it makes it less of a "ritual" and "thing that we do" and more of a way of life.

The challenge to live and thinks this way gets really practical when you have kids in the house. Recently, I read a little excerpt from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters where Screwtape tells Wormwood to convince the parents that things like kneeling before bedtiime for prayers with their children and saying memorized prayers is all form and tradition... nonsense really. "At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls." It really has got me thinking about the way we pray (or don't) with our kids at night. Throwing out the rituals because they can seem stuffy and not "authentic" is fine,  but then perhaps we are throwing away other things I hadn't thought of or realized were important too? Thoughts for another post I guess, the point merely being that it has all got me thinking how we do some of these important "traditions" with our kids.

The result of all this thinking... we decided to begin Lent as a family with a simple Dinner Picnic in the Living Room. It was great fun. All we needed with our little homemade pizzas was a sheet and some candles...and the kids were beaming. "It's like we're having a celebration!" the 5 year old announced with light in his eyes. And that's exactly what I wanted them to feel; that this is exciting, anticipatory, something to enjoy even in it's moments of solemnity.

We ate our pizza, then listened to a shortened version of the readings for the day from the Lectionary (simply an organized set of purposeful Scripture reading for each day, and right now specifically for the Lent season). We talked a little, as far as interest would allow about what this season was for and what it would mean. And then we talked football and basketball jerseys, and who had to clear the plates.

This morning, as we ate breakfast, my eldest looked at me with his clear blue eyes and motioned something with his hands (the pretend sign language he likes to speak in sometimes), then translated saying "mom, I said 'your heart is from God.'" It was simple, and yet I found myself thinking about that phrase again and again throughout the day. He really encouraged me, that little one did. As much as I agonize over what damage I may or may  not be doing to them with all these imperfect attempts at leading them down the path of life, I thought that if just a few simple truths would plant themselves deeply in his little heart as simply as he stated that one this morning, then that would be enough for me.

If you're interested in a set of daily Scripture readings in preparation for Easter, here are a couple resources:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why I Need an Ayi

You may think it arrogant of me to ever assume I could live without our Ayi.

And yet, somehow, those moments do occur when I imagine myself in all my domestic glory, able to single-handedly carry out all the tasks and necessary duties my household requires. "I could really handle this..." I think confidently to myself. "Maybe I should consider trying it on my own next year..."

short digression: an Ayi, for those of you who don't know, is a polite term meaning "Auntie" which is what we call our paid helper who comes 5 days a week to help cook, clean, iron, can I say again IRON (God bless this woman), and babysit if needed.

Today, after nearly a two week vacation from the confines of our rascal-filled home, our blessed Ayi returned. This is what she found.

{told through the eyes of a sweet little Chinese woman, from the pen of a tall American one who cannot, in fact, speak much Chinese}
Oh, hello! Oh my. I see the boys. But where is Sadie? And where is their mother? There are shoes everywhere. Did they just get home? No. The boys are in underwear and nothing else. Surely she doesn't let them run around like that all day. Oh! I hear the baby... in her crib by herself again. the Mother must be in the shower. Why doesn't she wake up earlier to do that?

Hello sweet girlie! Did you miss me? Did your mother feed you? Did she let you out of the house at all? From the looks of things, it appears not. Oh, you want to get down... okay, run along and play. Goodness. This floor is filthy. Did she wash it at all since I left [No. No, I did not.] Well, at least she did a little laundry. But why are the folded clothes still here on the piano, stacked nearly to the ceiling? And look at this dust. They'll probably get sick from inhaling all this dirt. She's had nearly two weeks with her husband home, ever heard of spring cleaning?? [Yes. Yes, I have]

Oh, so she wants me to vacuum the floors and wash them while she takes the kids outside. Does she realize that half the vacuum bag will be filled up with dead leaves from the plants that are strewn all over the floor? Does she know that they in fact need water to live? This poor fern is half the size it once was... Speaking of water, have they used any on these dishes lately? Well, I guess they must have done some since there is still a little counter space left. What in the world have they been eating?... these strange westerners leave some serious mess when they are done cooking [I don't think it's a western thing- my mother has long said the same.]

I'll cook up a little dinner before I head home. I love these kids, but Lord knows how they stay healthy when all they eat is peanut butter and jelly on bread every single day. And the looks of this veggie drawer is pretty scarce. Do they seriously just eat meat and cheese all day long? Poor dears. Maybe I can restore some order now that I'm back.

I am sorry, my sweet, faithful, hardworking and gracious Ayi, we and specifically I, do in fact NEED you.

As a disclaimer to all my western friends, you must know that I thought long and hard about hiring an Ayi when we first moved here. I could never afford a maid in the States, and I worried over whether or not it was an aristocratic thing to do here or if we would be abusing the low-paid labor force. But, from what I have learned neither is the case. And I promise you I do not sit around all day eating Bon Bons (which we don't have, and I don't like anyway), or looking at Facebook. I make my own bed, clean my own bathrooms (some of the time), cook several meals throughout the week, bake all my own bread and other eatable goodies, take care of my children, clean up after myself...(have I defended myself sufficiently yet?)

So, here is my "Why I Need an Ayi" Manifesto:
  1. I have a 15 month old. Do you know how busy she is? She makes housework about as possible as ridding your body of all the unwanted cellulite.
  2. It takes me about 1 week worth of shopping for every 1 day of errands it did in the States. In other words, shopping and errands are a long, arduous and time consuming task. 
  3. I have a washing machine the size of 5 gallon paint bucket, and zero dryer. This equals lots of loads, lots of hanging, lots of waiting (it's humid here, or freeze-your-pants-off cold), and lots of folding.
  4. It's crazy dusty and we have all wood (nasty fake stuff so no need to drool) or tile floors. That means, lots of mopping. And sweeping (did I mention the 15 month old?). And vacuuming with the world's most pathetic excuse for a sucking machine.
  5. I just want to mention the 15 month old again.
  6. Cooking takes a lot more time and effort to, a) think of something to cook with the locally available ingredients, b) shop for said ingredients-see #2, and c) cook them:) I like cooking, I just relish the break I get from it 3 days a week.
And last but not least, my Ayi is one of the only windows I have of this still vague and unknown world around me that is China. She shares her family, her language, her love and her culture with me each and every day. I trust her her with my children, feel comfortable in her presence, feast upon her cooking, and thank God for her presence in our lives. 

Next week I may relapse into another fit of self-sufficient seizures. Funny how that always happens while she's cleaning my floor. But for today, I think I have seen the light.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On Omelets and Depressing Movies

He was about to walk out the door to go for a run, when he stopped, walked back into the kitchen and made me the best omelet I have possibly ever had in my life. Loaded with spinach and fresh cherry tomatoes, feta cheese and a hint of onion and fresh pepper, it was the most an egg has done for me in a long time. He finished whipping up this gourmet breakfast, cleaned up the dishes and headed back out the door.

I'm not trying to say it's rare that this man does things like that. It's not rare... it's just not what I do. I feel sheepish and undeserving (that is, until I remember how many pairs of his underwear I've folded and how many of his children I've bore down a birth canal the size of your toothbrush, and how many times I've wiped his... wait, that's the other ones I do that for). No really, it is staggering and beautiful the way he serves. Enter depressing movies (stay with me here...)

The last week or so we've been on holiday for Chinese New Year and we've enjoyed getting a few good films in after the kids are thrown tucked into bed. Last week I told you about two of my favorites, but this week, although they were well done and had plenty of good qualities, I found our choices to be pretty depressing.

In both films you have a lead character who through his own blind and selfish pursuits, destroys his life and the lives of those who love him. The Remains of the Day (1993) is a moving film about a butler in the years post WWII who "sacrifices body and soul in service only to realize too late how misguided his loyalty has been." (IMDb) It's tragic, but moving nonetheless in the way it makes you ponder his sacrifice. Was he a servant of self or of others? Was it both? Was it worth what was lost?

Then you have Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon.(1975). You could probably read all the critical material out there on this film for hours. Some hail it as his finest work, some lambaste it as boring, slow, and uninteresting. I personally enjoyed one reviewers insightful commentary (just scroll down 2 movies to see his write up on Barry Lyndon) that helped me to see some of it's more thoughtful qualities. But masterpiece or box office bust, this film shows a man who through a life of self service ends up broken and alone, the people around him in much the same condition. It's tragic, pathetic, and heartbreaking.

Mind you, my omelet flipping man is no saint. I mostly write about his finer qualities here because it is the world wide web after all and you would probably find it disconcerting if I treated this space as a personal stomping grounds. If you wouldn't, he most certainly would. Don't worry honey.
Anyway, I look at the characters in those movies and I look at my husband and other men I know who are spending much of their life on the unnoticed efforts of loving another. It's not just a wife; it's a child, a crippled friend, a needy group of adolescent boys, that they are pouring quiet moments of self-denial into. I know these moments are riddled with imperfection. I know because I live them myself. But I see the hand of a gracious God strengthening them and I am lifted up by the sight.

I enjoyed the movies in a depressing sort of way (strange I know, I think it is only possible if you are a melancholy), but enjoyed even more the realization over a Spinach-feta omelet that my husband is NOT in fact, Mr. Barry Lyndon in the flesh. And believe it or not, there are more Super-Acts of Husbandry to tell of. Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Wrong Hallmark Holiday

I think today is Valentine's Day. It's funny how when you live in a place that has no access to Hallmark... some holidays just fade away into memories of cute little candy hearts and red paper doilies on the window. Instead, I am listening to what sounds like the aftermath of a WWII battle as the canon-like fireworks continue to work their way through the city streets. Outside I can see the piles of red paper strewn about the icy sidewalks and parking spaces, where faithful celebrators last night steadily filled the air with ear-splitting crackling til the wee hours of the morning. In China, the New Year is upon us.

We've spent the last couple weeks preparing in our own small way for this all-important Chinese holiday. We attended some festivities with our Chinese friends, we gave nice bonus and some much needed vacation time to our faithful Ayi, we crafted some New Year Greetings and decorations for our home, and last night we made the traditional New Year's Eve fare, jiaozi.

Traditional dumplings use pork, beef, or vegetable combinations. But we decided to go with our own American flair and fill them with anything that sounded good to our Western-stunted influenced taste buds. 
The homemadeinchina menu: 
Italian jiaozi (ground beef, spaghetti sauce, and mozzarella cheese!)
Greek jiaozi (chicken, spinach, feta cheese, tomato, olive oil!)
Yummy Jiaozi (cream cheese, crabmeat, sweet chili garlic sauce and deep fried!)

If you know anything about Chinese culture, you may know that you could study it forever and always be learning more. I feel like I have barely begun to scratch at the surface of the veneer that covers the bubble that this mass of cultural understanding sits in. So, instead of worrying myself about that... we made lanterns... and sorry excuses for some Chinese characters (but the kids had fun, it was interesting, and I felt like a good mom for about an hour).

The Chinese character pronounced "fu" means good luck, blessing, or happiness. We chose to emphasize the blessing part of that and made small greeting cards for our friends and family back home.
During the New Year, this symbol is written with black ink on red, diamond-shaped paper and is plastered all over the doorways, walls and windows.

When our day was finished we had a house that resembled the war zone we felt we were in with the booming of fireworks outside (you have never experienced fireworks until you have been to China during the New Year when the arsenal that is usually only available in the U.S. to county and city officials is here unleashed to your each and every next door neighbor). In spite of the mess, we had experienced another important Chinese value, which is the wholeness or completeness of a family together. We had... and had not. I thought of all the people who were not with us. I thought about the people I know who have broken families, missing families, no family at all. I was thankful for the way we are given surrogate family members, people with whom who we may not share the same bloodline, but are surely as close in spirit as any I would call my kin. I was thankful for the way that God has surely given us blessings as faithfully as he has every other year. 

Happy Chinese New Year my friends!
Guo Nian hao

May the Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face shine upon you
and be gracious unto you
The Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace

Friday, February 12, 2010

Finding Beauty

Sometimes beautiful things slide right by me, going unnoticed in the blur that is my life. If it's true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder than it must also be true that the beholder's eyes need to be open. I'm kind of a glass half empty kind of girl (I like to couch it in words like "critical thinker" but really, too often it's just plain old negativity) so most of the time my eyes are, if not shut, at least drooping pretty low.

To my long List of Skills to Learn that I seem to be endlessly adding to these days, photography has generously added itself. Over at one of my favorite little crafty/photography blogs, Bluebirdbaby has started a photo challenge called 30 Days of Beauty. The idea is, during these long winter months, to find something beautiful in your day and try to photograph it. It's a way to lift your gaze, open your eyes, and experience thankfulness in the simple, lovely things we too often leave unnoticed. You can see these and other new photos over on flickr

Yesterday we had our annual Once-A-Year-All-Out-Craft-Day to create some festivities for Chinese New Year. Some people hold these weekly in their homes with their children but I live on a lower plane of parenthood. I have to admit however, that even though our entire house was trashed and my daughter ended up wrapped like a cocoon in a knotted mass of red yarn, glue and paper scraps, it was a fun and beauty-filled day. More to share on that later. 

For now, I'm enjoying this day of simple indoor activity... with a hint of lemon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Feasting on Film

I think the first movie I ever watched in the theater was A Little Mermaid for one of my friends birthday parties. I'm pretty sure most youth group events I went to as a kid had a showing of The Princess Bride or some other such harmless entertainment. For the most part, my experience with the world of film was innocent and pretty thoughtless (although I do remember sneaking a peak at Pretty Woman as a sixth grader at an overnight sleepover and then running home to confess all to my  mother). But all that has changed, for the better I hope. It's been decades since The Princess Bride and I've found that there is more to a good film than it's rating.

Since moving to China however, our access to movies shrank significantly. There is the local undercover DVD shop where you can slink in through a hidden back door and peruse all the bootlegged films fresh out of the theaters (some not even showing yet). But our treasured stream of Netflix documentaries and film noire delights has come to a standstill. But being committed to beating this February slump as we are, we recently dusted off our long forgotten film loving lenses and started looking around for ways to access some of our old favorites. Thank you itunes for your help in this matter.

Today, I bring you two films.

The Age of Innocence
Let's begin with the eye candy: Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel-Day Lewis. Yes, they are beautiful people but they transform this story with their artistic skills, pulling you into the unspoken, stuffy world of high society New York in the late 19th century. It is the story of a young man who is torn between his commitment to the societal norms and the adherence to their pressures, and the passionate longing of his heart- namely a woman he desperately loves. The story is well-told and beautifully shot, as well as delicately portrayed by Lewis especially. But, the heart of the film poses some excellent questions. As the final scene closes, you are left to wonder, did he make the right choice? Does the film seem to say that he did or did not? There are layers of questions about human nature and the ethics of why we do what we do all throughout the film. And they are there for you to enjoy and muse over and discuss... go watch the movie! It's kind of old school now (early 90's) but it's still a good one.

Babette's Feast
I am putting this on here a little sheepishly... I mean it is thee cult classic on food and is probably cited or quoted or mentioned more than any other when it comes to thinking about theological themes in film. Whatever needs to be said about this movie has already been said, and much better than what I could say here. But, every generation needs a new voice (or blog) to repaint the old truths with new words so I'll just talk about it anyway... maybe it will make you watch the film if you have never done so before.

There is so much there: the inherent goodness of creation, the beauty of giving, food as a means of transmitting grace, the importance of feasting, the act of the artist as a service and a means of blessing, and more. Much more. It's simple, but so beautiful and profound. Babette is a French servant to two old Danish ladies who are part of a strict religious sect. The small group of parishioners has become rife with quarreling and infighting which grieves the sisters. Babette holds a secret and through her personal sacrifice she gives a gift to the town that brings both redemption and grace in a most surprising way. Watch it and you may never make dinner the same way again.

On that note, here are two great resources for good films and thinking through them...
Reel Spirituality: theology and film in dialogue by Robert K. Johnston
The Kingdlings Muse (a website with great podcasts on faith and culture and they always discuss the latest movies)

I'd love to hear what you are watching and enjoying these days... even if it's about a mermaid.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New Things Coming

February... brrrrrr. February... blaaaaah. February... yaaaaawn. But then... KAPOW! February.... fireworks? Yes. It's cold and dreary and there's not much of ANYTHING going on this time of year, except that we're in China and the biggest celebration of the entire calendar is about to be upon us. The last couple years I've been a little bummed about being stuck in the frigid, grey, concrete sea of our city while everyone else seemed to be traveling to warmer, more exotic climates. But this time around I'm determined to embrace the season a little more and that began today (our first day of the 2 week holiday) with adding a little COLOR and some home baked goodness to our lives. Beware, I have included pictures. 

{cinnamon oatmeal raisin bread: after trying many different recipes over the past three years (I like raisin bread, okay?) I have finally found one that I love}

{I just wanted to include a picture of the old gas oven that gets a LOT of use here in this house. I think it has a leak too... which means our gas bill is kind of high. It reminds me of camping in the ole Jayco...}

{the prettiest little corn chowder you ever did see. I got this recipe from an old friend of mine back in my case manager days (thanks Mel!) I've added some colorful veggies today like celery,red pepper and carrots. And I think you could pull this recipe off if you were trying to eat seasonally/locally too as long as you blanched and/or roasted and then froze some of the vegetables. More on why I can't fully live up to my own convictions on this issue at some later date...}

In the coming weeks families all over this massive, teeming country will prepare for what is perhaps their most important holiday, Chun Jie (literally, Spring Festival but it is also the beginning of the new Chinese Lunar Year). Homes will be scoured; rugs and curtains cleaned, windows washed, every nook and cranny scrubbed in preparation for the incoming year. Family members will travel to their hometowns if possible, others will gather with those who live nearby. There is food to prepare, lanterns to hang, special gifts to buy and exchange, and of course the never-ending barrage of evening fireworks to endure enjoy for nearly 3 straight weeks. This is just a small glimpse of the preparations and the festivities to come.

{I love Chinese paper cuttings... they are intricate and beautiful in their detail and precision. This was one of the samples they had available for us to try- the very simplest possible for our fumbling fingers!}

While many of you may be celebrating Valentines Day and enjoying snowy afternoons, we will be making a go at bringing in the Year of the Tiger with a bang.

 February... ggrrrrr.

added later for those of you who want the recipe!
Oatmeal Cinnamon Bread
2 pkgs active dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water
1-1/2 cup oats
1-1/2 cup milk
2/3 cup shortening
1 cup sugar, divided
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp salt
5 to 5-1/2 cups flour
(2 Tb. butter melted and 2 tsp ground cinnamon)

-dissolve yeast in warm water and let it become frothy
-cream sugar and shortening, then add eggs, salt, oats, and milk.
-Add enough flour til it becomes a soft dough.
-Turn onto flour surface and knead until smooth and elastic (6-8 mins)
-Place in greased bowl, turning once to grease top and cover. let rise in warm place until double
-Punch dough down, cover and let rest 10 min. 
-Divide in half; roll each portion into 8x16 in. rectangle (so it can fit in pan when rolled up).
-brush with butter, sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, and raisins if desired
-roll up and pinch seams to seal.
-Place loaves seam side down in two greased loaf pans. Cover and let rise in warm place til doubled.
-Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with butter.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

{book}worm wednesday

My husband brought home a book by Flannery O'Connor yesterday. This afternoon I read her short, dark, disturbing, but incredibly deep and profound story while my son read Make Way For Ducklings at my side.The irony of this made me think about the variety of books we have lying around; on bedside tables, coffee tables, dining room tables, dresser tops, beds, bedroom floor, kitchen floor, bathroom floor (and yesterday, the bathroom tub)... basically everywhere all the time. I try to clean them up but they just get taken down and spread out all over again. I should be grateful for this, and I am.

Today I had a fitted bed sheet spread over our couch like a tent in order to dry out quicker, and halfway through the morning I realized I had not seen little Ari for some time. As I stopped to listen I could hear the soft, rhythmic rustle of a page turning every few seconds and discovered he was sitting under that little tent, content as a mouse with a pile of books at his side.

I love to hear what other people are reading. Perhaps you do too so with Flannery and the Ducklings in mind, let's get on to the list! Here are a few books we are into these days. Maybe you'll be inspired, or find that our current reads are sitting on your coffee table as well!

what i'm digesting...
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
(delightful book about one family's attempt to eat local for one year. She's informative without boring you, evangelizes without preaching, and basically makes eating out of your own backyard farm look like the best thing you could ever imagine doing with your life)

The Hungry Soul by Leon R. Kass
(I adore the way this man thinks. He moves beyond health benefits or even environmental responsibility to thinking through the way human beings are unique among the animal kingdom and that eating, specifically carries social and personal ramifications... even for the soul!! love it)

The Joyful Christian by C.S. Lewis
(well, it's Lewis and he's talking about joy. What else is there to say? I need this book. Really, it's a collection of short essays covering the whole range of... everything. It's brilliant (imagine me saying that with a cute British accent).

the husband list...
A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor
(this is the disturbing short story... but apparently her best work on the death/salvation theme. If you're smarter than me you'll be able to read her work and appreciate it at first glance... but for the rest of us you'll want a slew of articles and such to help you think through all the themes and ideas she is playing with)

Jayber Crow by Wendell Barry
(my husband oohs and ahhs over Wendell. He (my husband) is the grandson of farmers from Maine and it runs deep in his blood... which sometimes leads to pining over things his profession doesn't allow for. I think reading Wendell lets him live in that idyllic world for awhile and also makes him think more thoughtfully in this one.)

the kids corner...
Over and Over by Charlotte Zolotow
(a sweet book about the cycle of the year and all it's exciting holidays from the perspective of a questioning little girl. beautifully sweet pictures, and the little girl is a redhead so what's not to love?)

Billy and Blaze by C.W. Anderson
(the whole series about Billy and his horse is wonderful. The pen illustrations are great... my 3.5 year always wants to know why Billy wears pulled up socks with dress shoes, shorts, and a button down the front shirt, so he's getting an introduction into little boy's attire in the mid 1930's! I also love books like this because for kids like mine who don't get a lot of exposure to animals and ranches and farms, they get to learn about bridles and lassos, stables and a horse's diet all while watching a boy be an adventurer!)

Goodnight Moon and Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown
(They are classic and true to form my 15 month old is enraptured... as are her older brothers still. They somehow come creeping in and are hanging over my shoulders or scooching in under my elbows before the story is finished.)

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
(I adored this series like every other child when I was a girl and I am sooo excited to be starting it with my boys. I do have more questions this time around though... like WHERE IN THE WORLD IS BABY CARRIE when Ma is doing all her work?? Clearly she did not have legs to climb or crawl, nor lungs to cry or a belly that needed filling. Am I the lamest mom in the world? Ma Ingalls stands apart as an incredible woman of her time.)

keepin' it real (I literally scooped all the books off our coffee table and am giving you the as-is list)
The Complete Book of Running for Women by Claire Kowalchik
(great resource on upping your miles, racing, running workouts, nutrition... and just some motivation if you need it)

Not So Fast Songololo by Niki Daly
(Malusi, a little boy in South Africa goes out on a shopping trip with his Gogo or grandmother. A sweet and unusual story but one ever kid could relate to)

I'm Thankful Each Day by P.K. Hallinan
(great for little, itching, moving toddler readers)

Better Homes and Gardens
(fresh out of a package from home! Love this magazine. I know it's old school and there are better ones like Real Simple and Martha or something out there... but I love the house renovations, cooking ideas, and gardening tips (for that plot of land I pine for)

The Berenstain Bears and The Truth by Stan and Jan Berenstain
(Not your children's literary classic but they are fun in their own way. And how Stan and Jan ever came up with the idea to write an entire series based on their last name is a story I'd like to hear. Were they both on board from the get go? Was Stan as much of a loser as Papa Bear? Somebody write the biography)

Photography for Dummies
If you've seen any of my photos you'll know why I have this book.

The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
(she's the daughter of Martin Lloyd-Jones so it has to be good, right? It is. It's incredible. It's the best Kids Bible out there these days. "Every story whispers his name" is the subtitle and she so creatively and in modern-day lingo makes that come alive on every page. It's really great for all ages. The illustrations by Jago (what kind of cool name is that??) are really fun and innovative as well.) A MUST HAVE.

There you have it my friends. Now, if you're not too shy... let me know what YOU'RE reading!!