Monday, February 28, 2011

Days of Gray :: 17 {baby steps}

"Say play the piano, not practice..." the words of my old teacher ring in my ears as I gently prod my boy toward this block of wood and ivory, this maze of strings and hammers that promises a lifetime of joy if you spend a lifetime sacrificing yourself to get there.

Three lessons in and he is still eager, and I am still without teeth marks. But we are only three lessons in and anyone will tell you what we have is nothing but a drop in the bucket. Still, I am encouraged by my little drop, and by the way his fingers are curving nicely and by the way he leans in and counts under his breath. And  how he smiles when he is done even though he sighs all the way through.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Days of Gray :: 16 {thinking of home}

It was a very, very gray day here indeed. The sky spent most of it's waking hours weeping, and I was stuck inside hotel conference rooms, taking photos of a Model United Nations conference our school was hosting.

This is the same MUN group that I accompanied to Cairo last year. I can't say enough good things about MUN. When my children are old enough to join, you can be sure I will be out there fitting them for snazzy black suits and stuffing National Review and The New York Times in front of their faces, forcing them to become avid and passionate debaters on all manner of global issues and crisis.

Meanwhile, today I was merely taking the pictures and listening to high schoolers role play some of the more tenuous international relationships that affect our real world today.

Back at home, we too furrowed our brows about home leave decisions this summer and other things that loom on the horizon (but no discussions on disarmament or human rights, at least for tonight)

And I was delighted to find I had been published in an online magazine with this article, which seemed timely as I gazed out the tear stained windows of my taxi and thought of going home this summer, and of the home we have made here (though I do get tired of my own sentimental drivel sometimes). Hope you enjoy!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Days of Gray :: 15 {layers}

{salad layers}

Two posts in a row about the food I made for dinner... must mean I'm either hurting for things to photograph and talk about or I'm really enjoying my menu choices. I guess both are true. The weather has started to tease us with hints of turning and there is a scent of freshness, of change in the air. I know my eyes are ready to drink in the color that sits crouching under all that gray and cold. Maybe that is why I'm taking pictures of my cutting board, and my little girl with all her vivid clashing splashes of clothes.

{springish layers}

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Days of Gray :: 14 {feeling saucy}

When other things weigh on your mind, and there is little you can do about them... why not make sauce? It's just another one of those "do the next thing" moments that, when added all together, become the fabric of your days, and the pages of the story that you cannot write yourself. But you can pay them mind, and wear them well with thanks and a bowed head and eyes lifted up.

And if you can't dance... you can watch someone else and smile at their happy hip-swinging.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Days of Gray :: 13 {cleaning service}

Every time I head out for a run, I pass the same woman sweeping the brick sidewalk that climbs up a slow hill. We wave and smile at each other, acquaintances of a sort in this almost daily interchange. As the seasons change, so does her outerwear and for the past few months it is merely by the familiar crinkle of her aged and sparkling eyes peeping out from under a scarf, and the steady presence of the straw broom hanging from her right hand that communicates this is indeed the same woman. She sweeps the same section of this road, day after day, hour after hour, and apparently for over a year now. I am not sure if she is a migrant worker, or if this has always been her home. I wonder what she thinks about all that sweeping.

I sweep too, day after day. And I wash, hour after hour. And  have been doing so, for well over several years now. I am not sure if I am a migrant worker either... or if this will always be my home. I wonder too what I think about all this cleaning.

There is a part of me that sees how it is all undone almost as soon as it is completed, and then it is done and undone again. This can be maddening, or rhythmic. I am certainly not trying to romanticize the tasks. Scrubbing a dirty toilet holds little aesthetic or devotional glamour for me, but it is less wearying than it used to be. There is some sense of value, of goodness (could I even say the overused but undervalued word grace?) in it: the humility of low places, dirty places, remembering that all things need daily cleansing, seeing that the best scrubbing can only be done by an outside agent and usually by hand, and the simple joy of being able to daily undo even the smallest of this world's ugliness.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Days of Gray :: 10, 11 and ??

I have not been feeling very well today, and yesterday was too full to do anything but what I was doing, and tomorrow who knows if I will be on the mend, or sinking lower into whatever this is.

So today I was so thankful for water. Clean water, drinkable water. Water to wash clothes and floors and dirty little cheeks and dishes (over and over again).

I downed a large amount of vitamin C, and I am grateful that our bodies often mend these small things by themselves, with the help of things like sleep and water and nutrients.

And now I'm off to get me some more of all those things.

Happy Days of Gray... there is much to see and give thanks for.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Days of Gray :: 9 {saturday lineup}


This weekend the kids and I are holding down the fort while The Man is away at the final basketball tournament of the season. It was a good day though; waffles and strawberries for breakfast, ironing (my nemesis- but snapping a photo of it helps me snap out of it), many friends lending a hand toting a kid or two to different events, and then there was some nice quiet time to think in the afternoon. We had Indian for dinner and Skills lost the second of his two front teeth while brushing, producing big, gaping smiles all around.

There was Sumatra for early morning and afternoon sipping (thanks to a wonderful birthday package that just arrived), and there were Words, full and strong as I sat in the quiet.

I love the mindfulness of these small things, these graces that bring joy on even difficult days. But they have always bothered me too... wondering if I was being trite or offensive for appreciating and giving thanks for the small beauties, the little pieces of goodness when there is so much hard and wrong in the world. But the other day I read these words, and they helped me (another gift from the package)

The miracle of eucharisteo (giving of thanks), like the Last Supper, is in the eating of crumbs, the swallowing down of one mouthful. Do not disdain the small. The whole of the life- even the hard- is made up of the minute parts, and if I miss the infinitesimals, I miss the whole.

I discover that slapping a sloppy brush of thanksgiving over everything in my life leaves me deeply thankful for very few things in my life. Life changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.

I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks...

What will a life magnify? The world's stress cracks, the grubbiness of a day, all that is wholly wrong and terribly busted? Or God?

I know God doesn't hide from the wounds of the world, nor ask us to. He steps in.
Believing this, that He is working, and being on the lookout for it, is part of the fight against cynicism and it's ugly stepsister, naive optimism.
And the giving of thanks, in things big and small is one thing that helps us to see, even on the grayest of days.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Days of Gray :: 8 {on the way}

On the way up the hill this morning, there they were: baskets heaped high with berries, basking in the sunlight just rising over the water. It was so, well you know I have to say it, picturesque. They blazed in the rays, and I couldn't help but stop and buy a few to take home, and crouch down to snap their pretty faces. 

The couple standing there, bundled againt the cold, talking quietly with the old man who stopped to ask prices, seemed an ironic backdrop to these iconic symbols of summer. They muttered under their breath to one another as I snapped away, he holding my bit of change and both of them unsure why exactly I needed to photograph their food.

I didn't try to explain to them that they looked funny too, wrapped from head to toe to ward of the February chill while selling summer's trademark delight. I didn't go on about how I love buying strawberries piled in baskets on the side of the road rather than stacked nicely on shelves in their green plastic containers back in the States. And I didn't say that spring is coming, and that their presence here, along with these ruby red fruits, is another sure sign of it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Days of Gray :: 5 {a clean start}

I was so thankful for sunlight streaming through my windows this morning.
It made all the scrubbing, wiping, and folding seem somehow a little more lovely.
When I stood at the same window eight hours later, darkness pressing in from the outside,
the mood was decidedly less romantic
and the view of the soapy dishwater before me not quite so soothing.
But there remains a strange salve in the lone task of standing before a kitchen sink,
wiping away the dirt of the day.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Days of Gray :: 4 {love bites}

The Valentine fanfare around here is pretty minimal, if not non-existant. It is amazing how much less hype and importance there can be placed on some things when there is no marketing to push it. I realize for some people there is family tradition or just fun memories they have created that make a Hallmark Holiday like this one special, but for our house that has never been the case.

I do have some fun neighbors though, who have lovely Valentine traditions of their own, like making beautiful cookies that they share with friends in our neighborhood. And there was a small part of me that wanted to do something "special," like my Grandma would have done, something that would turn just a simple meal into the kind of thing you remember years later, just because she used colored toothpicks and had us eat under instead of on top of the table.

So after scouring our house with the Monday morning clean up, and braving the cold to walk to our coffee supplier who is finally back after a long Chinese holiday, the little Scout and I set out to pick up some special groceries for a "We Love Our Men" dinner.

Even though I was, in my own estimation, far from going over the top, it was so sweet to see their little (and big) eyes light up when they saw candles on the table, and wine goblets at every setting (for me too mom??). I think they may have thanked me and told me they loved me at least fifty times throughout the evening.

 I know how those meals made extra special, not with expense, but with something different and thoughtful made me feel as a child, and I'm so glad it doesn't take much to do the same for my own. I'm not saying they would be excited about oranges and a penny in their stocking, but giddiness over a special cup comes pretty close.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Days of Gray :: 2 {coffee dreaming}

To be with a friend,
to have coffee,
 to eat a bagel at the one place in town (country?) where this is possible...

 The first, by itself is pleasure enough.
The second, only adds to the first.
 The third, I don't put on my list of "necessities,"
 and if you put any but the first on yours...
 I guess you could put yourself squarely in the wealthy column, yes?
 but it is definitely a treat I enjoy.

Another treat for today was a new blog I found called Coffee Served Daily, which is a quest for 1000 pictures of coffee...and today and tomorrow she's featuring some of my photos! 

Also check out this creative remake of the Mona Lisa, created by using nearly 4,000 cups of coffee.
(If you have photos you want to share, check out the website for contact information.) 

Days of Gray is a good exercise for me personally, but anyone is welcome to join in.
Yesterday I enjoyed reading a few other takes on the challenge:
Her cooking was inspiring... almost feel like roasting one of those nangua myself.
Daffodils in the parking lot on a rainy day... we've all been there!
I also created a flickr pool called Days of Gray, where anyone is welcome to join and add their own photos.

There are no rules for involvement here. You can simply, on your own do whatever exercises help you look around your world and see beyond the gray (though I'd love to share in the viewing and conversation if you want to be a part of it), or link up here as often or as little as you like.

If you want to share, just leave a comment on the most recent post, and include a link to your flickr site or blog. I'd love to pop over for a visit. Also feel free to grab a button code over in the left column.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Days of Gray Photo Challenge

It was almost exactly one year ago that this picture was taken, as a part of Erin's photo project during those long months of Feb/Mar, to find beauty for 30 straight days. This morning there happened to be a lemon in my kitchen and it reminded me, as it sat there all fresh and sparkling in the light, of how much I enjoy those kinds of projects.

This time of year in particular, with or without the addition of difficult life circumstances, it can be hard to keep your head up. The holiday celebrations have subsided, winter has been carrying on for quite some time (in the northern hemisphere anyway), and the landscapes seem to have lost their wonderland-like luster. Instead, this final march toward spring can start to feel like an endless dragging on of gray days.

Yet, lurking beneath all this doldrumness, there is an unseen source of life waiting to show it's hopeful face. And if we are willing to look, to see, there is always evidence of it.
I know that can sound a bit abstract and vague-- but I do believe nature in all of its physical wonder reflects spiritual realities that are just as true and sure. This picture and its caption, taken by my sister-in-law, is a perfect example of that partnership.

Having said that, I realize it is a bit "vogue" to pursue living in the moment, or to see goodness in the ordinary, and there are definitely some truths to those sentiments. We all know it is easier to write about than to actually do however, and sometimes you need to see a bit further than just the moment you are in. You sort of need near and far sightedness at the same time. I need to appreciate the ordinary, but just as often I need the awe of the transcendent.
The past couple days I've been musing on something I read about cynicism. One idea in particular was that we can tend to be either people with a naive optimism (hoping- but in nothing of substance or reality, kind of like hoping because hope itself is beneficial) or cynics who, "seeing through everything" (as cynics do) end up seeing nothing at all.

Instead, this writer called us to be People of Hope- living in the tension of Hoping in someone Real and Good, while seeing the realities of this fallen world. One of the several ways he offered to combat the poison of cynicism was to choose to see God working instead of despairing or explaining it all away. Another way was to cultivate a spirit of Thanksgiving.

In the spirit of those ideas, and because at this specific time of the seasonal cycle I have a personal need to be challenged to see and to give thanks, I am going to use these next 25 days until Lent begins to document some of the daily goodness I am attending to with a lens. There are other ways I'll be trying to do it as well, but the one I will share online here for the most part will be in photos and maybe a smattering of words here and there.

There are multiple mediums that seem to help me see past the shadows of this world and the blindness of my own eyes and heart. One way is photography, another is writing, or serving others, praying, washing dishes, even running. Are there activities or mediums that help you? I invite you, if you feel anything similar to what I do at this time of year (or time of life) to join me in this 26 day long challenge. I'd love to hear your comments, read your emails, or simply view something you have to share (feel free to leave a link in the comments).

Thanks again to Erin for the original idea.
I'm calling this one... Days of Gray {a winter photo challenge}

if you'd like a button, grab one on the left

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

{book}worm wednesday :: Freaks, Prayer, and Relatives

I hear my boy's voice coming from the door that sits ajar to the bedroom, reading steadily and with increasing ease through a small stack of books he has deemed "learning books" that now sit on his desk. He has recently re-organized it, taking away whatever he think makes it look too juvenile and trying to give it more an appearance "like Daddy's desk." Which apparently means important looking books.

Watching the transformation of a little boy from memorizing these strange looking characters called the alphabet, into an avid and excited reader has to be one of the more understated and exhilirating experiences in life. It is like watching them crack open a door into a parallel universe, and do it without you narrating the way. It's a bit unnerving too though, as you notice your new transparency now that everything is fair game... notes on the fridge, on the table, words on the computer, on signs, in a letter. Everything beckons to be discovered, uncoded, read. A small price to pay, this transparency. The world awaits you my son!

On to the list. And as always, I love to hear what you are reading these days as well!

What He's Reading:
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
It may be one of the more interesting ways to read about economics, which is really "the study of choices people make to satisfy their needs and wants." All I know is, this man sits and reads this book like it's the latest crime novel or something, so it must be interesting. It is perhaps similar to Malcolm Gladwell's style of using the data to explain all sorts of everyday phenomenon.

What I'm Reading:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Still working on it... and I have to say it gets better the further on I get. A certain "too small" sweater I was itching to finish sort of got in the way of my evening reading these last few days, so I'm anxious to get back on track.

A Praying Life by Paul Miller
From the perspective of a person who has struggled to really pray, to believe in and not become cynical about prayer, I think this book is an excellent help and antidote to those struggles. I am walking a hopeful journey in this area and I found Paul Miller's belief in the reality of prayer (and particularly in a loving and able God who listens to our prayers) coupled with his honest grappling through the doubts and questions and practical struggles we face as people to be refreshing, insightful, and hard hitting in a Life building kind of way.

What the Kids are Reading:
Tsunami! by Kimiko Kajikawa
This author has a poetic way of retelling Japanese folklore. This story is a bit dark in its subject matter, but ultimately it is the story of how an old man named Ojisan saves his village from the disaster of a looming Tsunami. The illustrations are abstract and interesting, and the story compelling.

The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant (Caldecott Honor Book)
A charming story of a large family coming together for a summer reunion. The illustrations are fabulous... quirky and fun and hilarious. My kids looked at each one for ages, and we would each pick out our favorite character on each page. It's a theme that hits close to home too... a long journey to visit the relatives and all the "breathing together" in a tight space in the middle of a hot summer. Delightful, if not a little early as far as seasons go.

Snow by Uri Shulevitz
It's very likely I have posted this book before, but I do love me some Uri Shulevitz and unlike the Relatives book, it is a perfect story for this season... even if we are somewhat snowless for most of the winter. I love to read it with my best Russian accent, and the little ones love finding the snowflakes on each page. Simple, sweet, mesmerizing tale.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Blog Renovations

It is almost as much fun as redecorating your home... revamping your blog.

Today I was let loose out of the house for some time as a solitary human and spent the first half of the day in Starbucks with my dear friend, Stephanie who helped me figure out html codes and the finer workings of Photoshop Elements.

 Steph is a treasure in many ways more than just her technical expertise... but today I was definitely appreciating that techy side of her brain. I envy the ability she has to so deftly use both sides of her brain though. Just recently she launched a recipe blog and has steadily been compiling a growing list of food ideas. One of our families favorites is the crispy chocolate chip pumpkin cookies., which also includes a recipe on how to make your own pumpkin butter. YUM. And just to gush for a minute more, this woman is a wonderful art teacher and is currently in grad school, so she has a blog up for that too. Check out this fun and creative, not to mention informative Chinese paper cutting she did recently for a grad project. So cool.

I was having slight flashbacks this morning to my high school days as the editor of our yearbook (read: nerd). I had so much fun during those days with the whole new world of graphic design that was opened up to me. I think the other students must have thought I was some sort of freakish nazi about our layouts... but for me it was like the ultimate creative enterprise... writing, design, and photographs, all rolled into one. So bear with me if I get a little excited about a new header on this blog!

There is only about an hour left to my "day off" so I'm off to sip some more java...

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Little Red Number

It is drizzling outside. A cold drizzle, but with the temperatures above freezing now, it is a decided drizzle instead of snow. The days have been inching by on this Chinese New Year break. The hours follow the things that fill it and perhaps that is part of the reason. Most shops are closed, including our vegetable stand down the street, and our days have been filled with a lot of inside play, and a lot of knitting.

This "little something red" I hinted at the other day turned out to be rather too little. I squeezed it over my shoulders this morning to take a few pictures and to let you know... if you are a size XS this red number may be coming to a mailbox near you.

I've slowly been learning my way around the beginner steps of this craft, and the bit of advice learned the hard way on this project would be never to skimp on cheap yarn. If you are going to spend hours making something by hand, make sure it doesn't look or feel like something you could buy at Old Navy.

This pattern is the same I used for this sweater earlier in the year (where I learned another precious bit about using the correct cast on method... which made all the difference in the neckline this time around) from Jane Richmond.

My Little Scout was quite certain this sweater was for her, and it likely could have been with the sizing issues. But she seems to have enough hand knits for now and I am hoping to find some fun and suitable yarn ideas to make something for the men in this family (besides hats).

On a side note, I've been so thankful for some of the turns this girl has taken in recent days. She is still her wonderful, spirited self but she is also decidedly easier in some settings than she used to be. And her sweetness and hilarity are almost too much to take in at times. The expressions she makes and the things she says are enough to keep us bowled over or running to kiss those silky cheeks again... even if she fills the rest of the day with her other high maintenance behaviors.

And when she pulls on her stripes and polka dots I have to say she does a better job at dressing herself than this gnarly needled mama.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cinnamon Chip Scones, Yum.

I do love a good scone. When I go out with a friend for coffee, I'm always a sucker for them, even when I know Starbucks commercial ones will likely disappoint. Homemade ones never do though, and recently on a trip to Beijing I found a bag of cinnamon chips (chocolate chips, but made out of cinnamon) in the imported goods store. Delight.

I do also love to take pictures of my food. When I am making something, and the light hits it in a particular way, or I just think it's looking pretty, I inevitably end up with a camera covered in floury fingerprints.

We were all so happy with these delicious scones this morning, a late one for all of us who stayed up til all hours listening to and watching the fireworks show out our windows.

Cinnamon Chip Scones

2 1/2 cups flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, cut into pieces
2 beaten eggs
3/4 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup cinnamon chips

1. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Cut in butter until resembles coarse crumbs.
2. Whisk together eggs and whipping cream, mix into dry ingredients just until moistened. 
3. Set dough on floured surface and knead 10-12 times until dough is smooth. Shape dough into 8 inch circle. Cut into 8 wedges.
4. Place wedges 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheet (I also dust with flour and layer an additional baking sheet underneath as mine tend to burn otherwise). Brush wedges with milk and sprinkle with additional sugar.
5. Bake in a 400 F for 12 to 14 minutes or until golden.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Go For a Walk Already

When your kids are sick with aches and fevers
and it's too cold to enjoy anything outside but going back inside
and the world around you shuts down for the holidays
and your better half is climbing an endless mountain called graduate school...

 a walk can do you a lot of good.

When you walk more, and you walk slower,
you start to see things you didn't before.
And then you see them once and twice and over and over,
and you may find you start to love things you never thought you would.

Like a city. Or a person.

I think a lot about city life versus rural life, because I live in a city and I read/dream about rural farmhouses.
And yet, I have noticed that over time (almost four short years at this point), this place is growing on me.
And this little stretch of sea we live right near, it is a constant haven of natural goodness on the cusp of all this city life.

There are other things to notice too.
Like how light sprinkling itself all over an expanse of ocean never gets old.
Nor does the sun streaking itself like a naughty child spilling paint buckets, running wild all over the sky.
The way light finds it's way into everything, even the deepest darkness. 

The goodness of returning health and being on the mend.
Smoothies with fresh berries and frozen juices.
Hints of warming up and the surge of air in the lungs.
Little girls who don't care if their boots get wet, 
and just keep playing..
Talks that start out sketchy but end without harm
and the realization you may not be getting worse at some things. 

Throwing rocks and stepping in tide pools,
accepting your life and the setting that holds it...

these things can all happen on a walk, or two, or three (or more).