Friday, December 30, 2011

...on the road again

Forget truth north. We are in serious need of true west. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” has never been more spot-on than this week. We have been in the exact right place but time has run out. 
We have had the great pleasure of THREE visits with Bill’s mom in her wonderful assisted living residence. 

Special time with the kids and lots of hugs from my granddaughter, Ciara. 

And yesterday, a sweet good-bye to Bill’s Aunt Dora. Shortly after we arrived in Tuscaloosa, we received a call that she had died. We had visited her last week. She was comatose, after a protracted illness that robbed her of her hallmark vitality. We drove back to Georgia for one more night. And now we are back in Alabama. One more journey along the county roads of our youth.
Today we pack a few things, get organized for the drive, hug everyone as much as possible. Sunday morning, we begin the cross-country trip in earnest. My back doesn’t ride well so we’ll break up our days with walks and stretches. We’ll take the southern route to avoid snow and ice. And be alert for fog in the coastal areas. Traveling mercies, please. 
Our friend, Johnny, posted a couple of Yeats’ quotes this morning. I was reminded of my favorite:
Think where man’s glory 
most begins and ends, 
And say my glory was 
I had such friends.
Have, have...not had. At least not yet. No friend leaves. All my relationships shape me...if I remain teachable. Love travels with us and we will have reunion. If not this week, in the spring, hopefully. Or at our home in California. As for now you are in my heart, in Bill’s. We are humbled by the wonderful people who grace our lives. How I love my blogging buddies...we are scattered all over the world. But the conversation is richer for the diversity, not diminished by distance.
So, look for some road blogs as we trek westward. And send up some travelin’ prayers, please. 

Love to all and a happy, blessed New Year!

P.S. Coming soon...touching stories about tornadoes and helping hands. And, of course, chronicles of the places and people we meet along the way.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

...from then until now, from mourning to morning

Our friend, Dan, posted a similar 1953 pose of himself with Santa at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta. My photo was taken at Davidson's in Macon, Georgia, that same year. I didn't ask the bearded gentleman for anything...struck silent, a rare occurrence.

And now, another Christmas. One of life's mileposts. "Let's see.  Christmas 1953. Oh, yes, that's the year...." Fill in the blank. Someone got married. Had a baby. Bought a house. Died.

Christmas 2011: The year Bill and I got married. Saw the last of the combined brood graduate from college. Swam with sea turtles. Grieved with friends. Too many times. All of them gone far too soon. 

But the circle doesn't contract. It expands with each new relationship. Because Love doesn't die. We hug our close companions and cherish memories of those who are no longer with us. Not just those who have died, either. People move away but, in this era of social networking and smart phones, the connections can remain vital. Sometimes, though, paths diverge. Or one grows and the other remains static. The journey unfolds as it will.

Every step, every relationship has brought me closer to home. To the place inside myself that is authentic. I've been stuck, unstuck, stubborn, willing. You name it. Somehow, though, grace falls like manna in spite of me. Great heapings of grace and mercy that, at sixty, I cannot explain, attribute, or understand. I just say,"Thank you." Often. 

The little girl sitting mutely on Santa's lap still resides within me. I am every age I have ever been. And the magic of this season still amazes me. I can't explain this either. I brake for Christmas lights (only after checking the rear-view mirror, thank you). Smile at children waiting to see Santa. Sit in the dark with a candle and think of those who are absent. I am in awe, you see, of the miracle: a radical love bigger than my likes and dislikes, larger than dogma.

I live on a very small island in the middle of a vast, unknowable universe. With every decision, I choose. If nothing else, age suggests that I find what I seek. Oh, my dear neighbors, I am looking toward the light. Because I know that I can make a wilderness of a promised land.

If you are grieving, know that this present darkness will be transformed. You will be transformed. Minute by agonizing minute, then day by day. But for now, weep. In time, when you least expect it, in the oddest of circumstances, peace will come.  At a price, though. Not built on the shifting sands of fortune. But a peace between odd bedfellows: the inevitable suffering of life's dark times and the joy that comes in the morning. 

So glad that Christmas 2011 marks a year with all of you. Thank you for dropping in for a visit.

My friend, Carolynn, always signs her emails with "love and light." 
Joe Elmore's signature benedicttion, "Blessings!", has graced all our departures. 
I long ago conscripted these words. Originality is over-rated.

So to each of you, 
wherever you are,
whatever your circumstances,
I send you


Thursday, December 22, 2011

...there really is room in the inn

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

from The House of Christmas by G.K. Chesterton

My friend, Marsha, sent the photo of the driftwood, with this message:  “Christmas at St. Simons. Wish you were here. Just goes to show you that we Southerners truly will decorate just about anything! Love you and miss you.” We miss you, too. But you, my friend - indeed, all we are blessed to love - are with us.
Bill and I are spending a few days in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, at his grandparents’ beach house. The weather outside is, frankly, anything BUT frightful. Glorious, in fact. Warm, sunny...with none of the biting summer critters. The Gulf coast has been my “beach” for many years. Unless a hurricane approaches, the waves are gentle against the white “sugar” sand.  Beautiful. Here, the breakers of the Atlantic roll in noisily, one after another. I walk, then stop, stare at the water, walk some more. Bill doesn't call this exercise. But he understands.
We haven’t decorated anything here because we are in transient mode this Christmas. From here we will head north for a Christmas lunch with Miss Jean, Bill’s mom. A brief stop before we drive to Alabama for a reunion with Patrick, Leslie and Ciara. I will go into full-blown “Cece” mode for a few days and love on my grandbaby. She is, in her own words, “not a baby, just a girl.”  But when she wraps herself in her apres-bath hooded towel, she calls herself "Baby Ridinghood." After Tuscaloosa, we will begin our cross-country drive in “Dora the Explorer”, my 1997 Ford. 
After I quit blubbering, Adrienne’s post about rootedness percolated. I’ve moved many times in my life. Once, my house moved away from me in a storm. Stationary isn’t my middle name. If, as science speculates, life began in the sea, I must share some genes with the hermit crab. Just give me a shell. A port in the storm. Home is where love resides and I have found this to be quite portable. As a child, I could not have imagined Christmas alone. Yet, I have soloed several times. 
Who knows what next Christmas will bring? Or where? Rounding up scattered family is akin to herding cats. In this day of instant communication, we are never truly apart. I love it all: Skype, email, text messages (not while driving, please), FB. I even Tweet. Occasionally. Usually just to say I’ve published a blog. But I also love hugs. Hours perusing recipes followed by days in the kitchen. Long evenings at the dinner table with good food, great stories, lots of laughter. 
Next year, I will have located my angel for the tree, crystal garlands and ornaments, and the eight-hundred fairy lights that decorated my three-foot tree at the condo in Mountain Brook. It was visible on Google Earth. And we will decorate something. Tie a bow or two. 

This year, the marina provided us with proper send-off. A wreath on the dock gate. 

And the Wahoo, a large catamaran two fairways over, left no mast or rail unlit.

Meanwhile back at the beach house, I have plowed through my old journals. I found letters to Santa from my kids. Entries that track the years, the ups and downs. I thought of all my friends who now span continents. Some live where they were born and their holiday tradition is deep and rich. Some have large families: generations will gather this weekend in a riot of wrapping paper and rich food. Others will solo this year. 
Ah, family and friends. The “should’s” and “ought’s” of the non-existent “perfect” Christmas can blight the spirit: the gift that doesn’t fit, the turkey that fizzles, patience that crumbles in the face of super-charged offspring and generational guilt-tripping. Death and illness do not respect the calendar. We know too many who are grieving this Christmas.  
My parents didn’t get it all right. Neither did I. No one does. But I was loved and wanted. This trumps a litany of mistakes. My children, I hope, will come to see this in their own lives. And the next generation...and so on. Because this is the miracle. “The child must know,” Pablo Casals said, “that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him.” 
Too many people have not heard this: “You are loved. Beloved.” But some tired, exhausted, not-getting-it-right folks will send a check to a shelter. With the best of intentions or maybe out of guilt. Who cares? Some child, some homeless person, some down-on-their-luck family will eat. For one day, they will eat a healthy meal because of that gift. Communion. You are loved. Beloved. A special thank you to all who work DAILY to provide a roof, a bed, a meal to those who have not. 

In the end, we are all family. 
A couple of snowbirds on the beach

If we care for each other, for this good earth, there is room in the inn for us all. 
If heaven isn’t now, perhaps it isn’t.

Our conversation is spent in talking
too much about the domestic,
too little in speaking our hearts;
too much about finances, 
too little about dust-covered dreams;
too much about laundry,
too little about cleaning temples within;
too much about going for groceries,
too little about food for our souls;
too much about earthly possessions,
too little about storing treasures in heaven;
too much chastising,
too little cherishing;
too much blame,
too few balloons.
Before it’s too late,
let’s speak of feelings that have been hidden
behind bank payments 
and orthodontic visits 
and the PTA

Before the music stops,
let’s speak our hearts
and laugh a star or two.

from Searching for Shalom by Anne Weems

Monday, December 19, 2011 favorite blog post EVER

My daughter, Adrienne, at Muir Beach, November 2011

Today's blog is the best ever!
I had the best, biggest, most wonderful surprise in my email.  
My sweet girl
...a smart, athletic young woman, an architect by trade,
but my sweet girl nonetheless...
wrote a guest post.
A blubbering mess, I have alternated between bawling on Bill's shoulder
and squealing for joy.

But enough from me. Enjoy!!!

Here's that guest post for you, Mom...

My husband (Scott) and I suffer from ‘rootlessness’, as we call it.  Neither of our families lives in the places where we grew up anymore.  It’s been years since I was able to spend the holidays with my Mother (ah, married life and compromise), and it’s been almost a decade since either of our families lived in our childhood homes.  This only recently really started to bother either of us.  Emotionally, I tend to live in the present, and it can take years for things to settle with me.  Just ask my Mother. 

Inwardly, Christmas has always been profoundly important to me, but it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve outwardly expressed my joy for this time of year.  I even came as close as putting a wreath on my car last year, but thankfully, Scott talked me down from the ledge.  This need to experience as much as I possibly can of the holiday season has surprised me, but I think I’ve recently begun to make sense of my change in Christmas behavior.  It’s the rootlessness, or the need to connect myself to something familiar.

Last night, I made my Mother’s cranberry coffee cake (recipe below), and as I poured the batter into the bundt pan, I was transported to my childhood.  I was in the den listening to my grandmother humming in the kitchen as she and my Mother prepared Christmas dinner.  I thought about all the Christmases that have passed since and the life that I have lived.  I am so incredibly grateful for the people I’ve come to know, the memories I have made and the many blessings God has bestowed upon me.  I realized that I’m not rootless.  I have roots.  They live in recipes like my Mother’s cranberry coffee cake and my grandmother’s ambrosia.  They live in quotes like “You smell like beef and cheese” from the movie Elf.  They live in sugar cookies and Silent Night and roast beast.  They live in the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Merry Christmas to my beautiful Mother and all our family and friends!  Love you all!  Thank you for giving me roots….And maybe next year I’ll put that wreath on my car. 

1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. sour cream
1 tsp. (generous) almond extract 
1 can whole cranberry sauce
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I prefer almonds, slivered or sliced...and I never measure, but this should be close)

2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tbsp. warm water
1/2 tsp. almond extract

Cream butter and sugar together.
Add eggs, one at a time and mix well.
Sift together dry ingredients. 
Add to creamed mixture alternately with sour cream.
Stir in almond extract.
Spoon half into 9" square cake pan (or 10" tube pan). 
Spread half of cranberry sauce and half the nuts on top of batter.
Put remaining batter on top of cranberries and nuts, then add the remaining cranberry sauce and nuts.
Bake 40 to 50 minutes at 350 degrees or until done.
Glaze when cool.


NOTE:  Adrienne got the dessert gene and has become, bar none, the most incredible baker. She said she's making the coffeecake again next week and will take a photo. But who needs a picture of a coffeecake when you have these.

Scott and Adrienne in front of the "painted ladies" (the "Full House" houses)

Adrienne, Scott and Bill in the headlands

Scott: Boys will be boys

One more thing.  Adrienne, I saw these cute brown antlers that you put on either side of the car (on top of the car football flags, you know). And they come with the cutest red fleece button nose for the front grille!  
Think about it!!! Next year! Love you, girl!  

Adrienne is not quite one in this photo; Patrick, three. 
I'm blubbering again.

Merry Christmas!!!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 all our silent nights

Moon over Marina Bay

From my friend Mary after her trip to the Middle East in August:

I stood on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea as the sun rose. There was a hill behind me that it had to clear. I was told that, at the right moment, I could see Jerusalem, and the sun would reflect off the Dome of the rock. There was a haze. Through the lens of my camera, across the Sea, I saw two dim gold reflections. The light was catching the Dome of the Rock and the spires of the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. I snapped a few shots, then put my camera down to look. Without it, I couldn't see them and I wondered at the fuss. The, for a few seconds, the angle of the sun, the Dome, and my eyes were just perfect. The Dome became an expanding starburst that grew and then shrank with the speed of the sun's movement.
I felt the earth turn.

I daresay that if Mary stood and waited, watched, even managed to see this display again, the effect wouldn’t be the same...watered down by expectation, stripped of surprise. But the unexpected can be a sucker punch as well. I'm reading Patricia Gilman's book, The Anti-Romantic Child. Here is her first page:

"A poem...begins," Robert Frost once wrote, "as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a finds the thought and the thought finds the words." 
This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child. It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and - worst of all - would never make an impact. It began with a pining for contact with the spirit or essence of my child, a wrenching fear tht perhaps everything I did and said was in vain because he was unreachable and unimpressionable, a fierce devotion to a child I would do anything to save.
This is the story of the relationship between literature and life, the ideal the the real, of poetry vs. science, magic vs. measurement, honoring mystery vs. unraveling it. And at its heart, this book is a love story: a story of two very different people learning to accept and affect and make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways.

John Boswell's arrangement of "Silent Night" is playing. A quiet, poignant version I love...the silence is heard as clearly as the notes. More than any song I know, this one transports me to places of the heart, where dreams and life intersected - or just plain collided - and where, at the end of a dream, in the middle of the muddle a new beginning was born.

This morning my mind rewound to a long-ago Christmas eve in a church basement that smelled of strong, dark coffee. People from all walks, in all shades, sat in a circle and told their stories...humble, vulnerable, honest. Looking for a little hope.

I was reminded of a family story. When my nephew, Darin, was little, he went to his mom's room in the middle of the night. Glenda loved on him, as we say in the south, then told him to get back to his own bed.

"No, mama. I don't want to go back. That room has nightmares in it."

The meeting room in the basement of the church had dreams in it, but these dreams were born of nightmares. I doubt that any were realized as envisioned that evening. But I'm glad I was present, glad that I heard hope stream from one dark story after another. Humbled that I was invited to its birth. At the end of the gathering, the Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary above drew to a close and "Silent Night" fell down upon us. No one moved. Or spoke.

Several years later, in the upper room of another large church on another Christmas eve, I sat alone and waited. I had worked until two-thirty. Cooked dinner for friends and family. Cleaned the kitchen. Wrapped a couple of gifts. By seven-fifteen. Later we would attend the 11 p.m. service at our church. As I sat alone in the room, the book I'd brought with me unopened in m lap, I closed my eyes and listened. In the room below me, more stories were told. In the sanctuary, a Christmas Eve service drew to a close. "Silent Night", again. As I walked toward the stairs, the Rev. John Claypool came through a side door, headed to his study. He must have been exhausted after multiple services and the pressures of the season. The next morning more would follow. But he turned toward me and took both of my hands in his. His brilliant blue eyes - kind, loving, tinged with sadness - looked directly into mine. "I hope you have a blessed Christmas, Celeste." We stood there for a moment in the dark hallway...a brief but sincere intersection, a deep blessing visited upon me by one well-acquainted with grief.

So many Christmas Eves have passed. Some rich and hopeful, others an exercise in exhaustion. The details are dim now. But a collective memory weaves them together: "Silent Night", the smell of evergreens on windowsills, the flicker of candles carried out into the cold, silent midnight...light going out into the world.

Light going out into the world: we are either carriers...or nothing at all. With every baby, the miracle is born. As we grow, we manage to make a muck of things. All of us, some to a greater degree than others. But we get a do-over: we can choose to start over at any moment. The price is acceptance of life exactly as it is. In the spirit of full disclosure: after I walk into wall after wall and fall down repeatedly, I eventually relent...even though experience has shown my that when I let go of "my way" something finer is born. Not necessarily softer or gentler. Unrecognizable for a while, perhaps. But finer by far than my selfish design.

This year I wish for all of us the vulnerability of those who told their stories in the church basement that night. I hope that our dreams will be worthy...our disappointments, blessings in disguise. And that we listen for a melody that carries us all the way to grace.

Wherever you are, whatever you believe, look up at the stars in the silent night. In that deep quiet, feel the earth turn. Then go forth to "make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways."

Saturday, December 10, 2011's beginning to taste a lot like Christmas

Decadence with sugar on top
I resolved to give up New Year’s resolutions years ago. Listen! Hear the sound of this, one of my most revered holiday traditions, breaking. I can't even wait until the new year. Today, December 10, I hereby declare to post a healthy recipe at least once a month. I promise. Something green, crunchy.
However, tis not the season to be unreasonable. If you’ve ever eaten a granola cookie that outweighs your computer bag, you understand. I plan to bake some honest-to-goodness Christmas goodies this weekend. Or baddies, depending on your viewpoint.
If we weren’t traveling this year, I’d probably go into overdrive. I admit without reservation that I listen to 24/7 Christmas music stations. And to all of the umpteen dozen Christmas playlists on my iPod. I have one playlist of nothing but my favorite versions of “Silent Night.” Blog to follow soon about this one. From Andrea Bocelli to Perry Como (yes, Marie, Perry), from sophisticated orchestral arrangements to YouTube videos (no covers, however; I do have standards) halls are not only decked at Christmas, they rock. N’roll.
Speaking of rolls, can there be a better time to make home-made cinnamon rolls? Or maybe a batch of angel biscuits with yeast? Nay. Or a more appropriate moment to whip up fudge or almond/toffee bark? Of course not. But we will be on the move during the holidays, so I must limit myself to a few concoctions. For gifting. Of course, a taste - or four - is required before I pass them off to an unsuspecting public. 
Have you ever tried - successfully - to cut an itty-bitty slice of pound cake before serving and then tried to shove the cake back together? The dilemma: can't give an untasted cake; can't give piece-work. Cookies, on the other hand, are the perfect solution. Who on earth checks how many cookies arrive in a tin? And then comments, “I count twenty-two. I bet she ate a couple.” An ungrateful person, that’s who. Know that when you get something from my kitchen, I will have thrown myself over that fully-loaded gooey butter bar first to save you from a bad batch.
I’m typing this post before I bake because I am a woman on a mission today. So the photo is from Pillsbury who awarded Jean Olson of Wallingford, Iowa a prize for these delicious morsels in 1990. But I’ve made these cookies countless times over the years and they always look just like this picture. Frankly, they’re best served warm from the oven with a glass of cold milk. But I’ve choked down quite a few three days later and enjoyed every bite. Hope that you will, too!
2 1/2 cups flour Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour 
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup margarine or butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup chopped pecans
48 Rolo® Chewy Caramels in Milk Chocolate (The Pillsbury recipe adds “unwrapped”. I avoid assumptions but really? Unwrapped? How many of you would bake a la “foil and all”?)
1 tablespoon sugar
4 oz. vanilla-flavored candy coating, if desired (I usually melt white chocolate which I keep on hand. If the Girl Scouts gave a badge for ‘Dessert Pantry Readiness”, I could have had a more impressive display. My knots were rather shabby.)
In medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa and baking soda; mix well.
In large bowl, combine 1 cup sugar, brown sugar and margarine
Beat until light and fluffy. 
Add vanilla and eggs; beat well. 
Add flour mixture; blend well. Stir in 1/2 cup of the pecans.  
Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 30 minutes for easier handling.
Heat oven to 375°F. 
For each cookie, with floured hands, shape about 1 tablespoon dough around 1 caramel candy, covering completely. (Okay. Here’s where it’s okay to count. A bag of Rolo’s usually contains 48 candies. Count them first. And, for heaven's sake, don’t forget to unwrap. If I have four dozen, I half the dough, half again, half again, until I have forty eight equal pieces. The “about a tablespoon” direction never seems to work out properly. If I have forty-nine candies, I eat one while I roll dough.)
In small bowl, combine remaining 1/2 cup pecans and 1 tablespoon sugar. Press one side of each ball into pecan mixture. Place, nut side up, 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake at 375°F. for 7 to 10 minutes or until set and slightly cracked. Cool 2 minutes; remove from cookie sheets. Cool on wire rack for 15 minutes or until completely cooled.
Melt candy coating in small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly until smooth. Drizzle over cookies. (This step gilds the lily. Drizzle or not. It's your call.)

Last night, at Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg, CA

Whether with friends
or a best friend
or peacefully alone
by a fire
or not
have yourselves a merry little Christmas

...and here's a little tune for y'all while you bake

Baby, It's Cold Outside by Lady Antebellum

You might also like these food-related blogs last, a food blog, or why my leg was on top of the grocery cart
...pass the hollandaise, please
...have you hugged a biscuit today?
...sticks and stones, but thanks be to God, no fried green tomatoes