Today, I Screwed Up the Rice (A Life Interrupted)

“Cooking and mealtimes are some of the most overlooked aspects of grief,” Heather Nickrand, author of Culinary Grief Therapy

Taco dinner complete with pico de gallo, black beans and Mexican rice.

My mother was a fabulous cook. She had this amazing way of making something truly delicious out of nothing at all. Looking back, she would have been a great contestant on The Food Network show, “Chopped.” You know the one where they give you a mismatched basket of food items and ask you to miraculously make something amazing out of it in 15 minutes flat. She was that good. One of my favorite memories of her cooking was just how much she could do with eggs. She could make them a million ways and they were always BOMB—and if she had cheese and tortillas—lookout because you were about to meet your new favorite dish. Breakfast for dinner was an absolute treat as a kid. She was creative, innovative, and basically a food magician. I miss this about her.

I’m not really a cook. I mean, I do cook, but I’m definitely not on her level. I am a baker though. We complemented each other this way. She would make my favorite dish when I would visit home (tostadas) and I would make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies or apple pie. In those moments, all was right with the world. And while I don’t consider myself a great cook, most of what I know, she taught me.

When my son was still a baby she showed me how to make Mexican rice. Sean loved to eat it, it was soft, fluffy, and flavorful. I can remember the first lesson in my kitchen and the subsequent lessons in her kitchen as she helped me perfect it. Mom cooked according to looks and taste, I, however, needed a mathematical formula. Through a series of trials and errors, I finally figured it out. Using an equation (yes, I am a nerd), I can figure out how to make any amount of Mexican rice needed to feed any size group. You can call it a gift…but mostly it’s a nerd thing.

After my Mom passed away, life was a blur. Daily chores were neglected, my mind foggy, I felt extremely lost. I’m sure I was exhausted in every sense of the word—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually…you name it. And yet, people needed to eat. It was probably three weeks later when I finally got around to cooking something “real.” I decided on tacos, a dish I was certain I could make in my sleep, and of course an accompanying pan of Mexican rice. Every part of the process was agonizing. Each ingredient a tangible reminder of the mother/daughter and teacher/student relationship we had when it came to food. I immediately went to my Mexican rice math equation, but there was nothing. After almost two decades of memorization, my reliable recipe (formula) escaped me. I stood there looking at an empty pan, uncooked rice in hand and I couldn’t remember step one. Nothing, then tears.

I remember thinking, please, Lord, don’t let me forget this! I need to know how to do this. I can’t lose this. I’ve already lost too much. Please, help me to remember.

Here is the part where you might expect a sudden revelation. I hate to tell you this, but there was none. I tried. I cried. I screwed up the rice. Not only that, but I screwed it up the next time and the time after that. Time and time again I stood there, dumbfounded and lost. In the big scheme of things, forgetting how to make Mexican rice doesn’t seem like a disaster and yet it was. It all was. The pandemic, losing my Mom, coping, and trying to move on. It was all a disaster. The kids ate variations of crunchy, under seasoned, too wet, blah tasting Mexican rice…encouraging me all the way. I can remember my daughter, Casey, saying, “You’ll figure it out. Go slow.” These are phrases that I often say to my kids when they’re struggling and being hard on themselves. Hearing these words directed at me stopped me in my tracks. When a child repeats something you have frequently (or incessantly) told them it’s a parenting compliment, a parenting win. Honestly, though, I think it’s just called the circle of life.

I remember the frustration of learning new things as a child. Somethings came naturally, but for me, cooking wasn’t intuitive. My Mom was always gracious in her teaching. I went to college only knowing how to make cereal and grilled cheese, but through her guidance (and many telephone calls) learned to make so much more! I went through my Rachel Ray phase about the same time the internet and smartphones became a part of daily living enabling me to share my mealtime creations with just a click. I remember a phone conversation where she walked me through making a rue. I was terribly unsuccessful. We tried an in-person lesson on my next visit home. Still unsuccessful. It probably took me five years to learn, all the while she would say, “You’ll figure it out. Go Slow.” Yes, definitely, the circle of life.

You might be surprised to know that cooking wasn’t my Mom’s favorite thing. Talented as she was, and I’m convinced food was one of her love languages, she did it for us and for others lucky enough to be at her kitchen table. And, she always made it fun! I come from a large family, so preparing meals for gatherings was time-consuming. No matter, we all just piled into the kitchen and got to work. Mom was great at delegating tasks according to our abilities. This makes me laugh because most of my expertise was in chopping vegetables while my sister, Amanda, was in charge of more complicated (and delicious) menu items that required actual cooking and seasoning. All the granddaughters would get involved —assembly-line style—for enchiladas (a family favorite!) No one ever complained as being a part of Mom’s kitchen crew meant lots of taste testing and samples. A huge perk to the process! By far, the biggest win for me personally was the day my Mom complimented me on my Mexican rice. I carry those words around like a badge of honor, then and now.

So when I failed to remember how to make the Mexican rice, it felt like I was losing something special. In true resolute fashion, I refused to give up. With my Mom’s words in my head, I kept trying. Shortly after she passed I came across a social media post that said, “Be the things you love about the people who are gone.” I saved it on my phone, a poignant reminder on the hardest days. I’m not a cook. I don’t believe I’ve been gifted with that ability, but for my family, cooking and time in the kitchen were so much more than that. I believe my Mom cooked because she loved us and it kept us close. The kitchen was always the center of our home life growing up. The heart of the home, it’s still one of the rooms I spend the most time in, my kids, too.

It’s been more than four months now, and I’m not screwing up the rice anymore. I finally remembered the recipe (formula) and hope that I’m never in a place to forget it again as part of my Mother’s memory lives in the kitchen. She’s in every drawer as she has gifted me with a number of utensils and tools. She lives in the cupboard and the refrigerator as she has influenced the things I love to eat and feed my family. She lives on the countertop, her whiteboard taking up center stage on the kitchen island. And she’s certainly in my cookbook as I try to maintain the recipes and traditions that I’ve grown up with and pass them on to my own children.

May I be all the good things that I love about her…today and every day.

“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

Renaming the Stages of Grief (A Life Interrupted)

This rainbow appeared in the sky on the evening of Mom’s funeral.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  William Shakespeare

You can call it a charmed life, a blessing or maybe it was just dumb luck, but my experience with grief has been minimal until recently.  I barely remember attending funerals as a kid and when we did, I really didn’t have a strong connection to the departed.  However, all that has changed in adulthood…especially in the last few years.  And here, in 2020, I feel like I’ve been hit with the worst heartache yet after losing my Mom.

Now that I find myself in the throes of grief I’ve become well aware of the stages that accompany it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  As I continue to process, I realize that a more apt description might be “stages of loss” rather than grief as so many therapists acknowledge these stages include every type of bereavement and are most certainly not limited to death.  Regardless of the type of loss, the stages still exist and the process is never easy.

One of my strongest personality traits is dutifulness.  I clearly get that from my parents and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the last few months.  I approach life in a resolute fashion.  I like lists…there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with crossing things off.  I also keep a handwritten calendar and methodically cross off the days (I’ve been ridiculed for this one).  I set reminders, use post-its, carry a reporter’s notepad, etc.  All of this helps me keep up with my commitments and uphold my obligations.  I know that people expect things from me and I work hard to fulfill my responsibilities. It’s important to me.  So when approaching loss I immediately went to research the stages of grief and anticipated checking them off one by one.  Let me tell you, this is not how grief works.

Turns out the stages of grief don’t necessarily go in order and they can (and often do) repeat, sometimes more than once…if not endlessly.  This is problematic for stoic types like me who eagerly want to cross things off the list and move forward.  I am not a dweller, but my pragmatic approach to grief isn’t really working out.  I’m not sure what I expected here.  I knew the road would be hard. And while most buy into “the time heals all wounds” camp, as a realist, I know that time doesn’t necessarily heal anything.  A loss will always be a loss— a hard consequence of love.

As I move through this process, I’ve taken it upon myself to rename the stages of grief…making them more applicable for me.  Do with them what you will, but I’ve found these slight variances helpful, healing, and hopeful as I continue to sort out the emotions of losing one of the most beloved figures in my life.

DISBELIEF, not denial.  I know my Mother is gone.  I very well remember speaking to her when she tested positive for COVID-19.  I recall the day she told me she scheduled the drive-thru appointment and we went over her symptoms.  I remember the first and second time she was taken to the emergency room.  I don’t deny the fear and angst that followed.  None of us can deny the three weeks she spent in ICU.  We can’t deny the emotional ups and downs that accompanied the good and bad days in the hospital.  There is no denying that she is gone, no denying the funeral, and no denying the loss.  She isn’t here and I feel it every day, but sometimes I can’t believe all of this happened.  Not to her, not to my strong Mother.  I can’t tell you how many times I still reach for my phone…to call her, to text her.  We had so many plans.

AVOIDANCE, not anger.  I’m not really an angry person.  I can get mad, I can even be a bit of a hothead if you catch me on a bad day.  I have a passionate nature, but I’ve never seen anger solve one single thing.  For me, anger has no purpose.  People have asked me if I’m angry at God.  I am not— the thought hasn’t even crossed my mind.  What I do know is that lately it’s been easier to just avoid emotion altogether.  The loss is raw and if I think about it too much the sadness can be overwhelming.  I know that’s to be expected, but I feel like I can’t live in sadness.  For better or worse, I am guilty of avoiding the emotional component of grief until it seeps out from the corners of my eyes.  I’m doing the best I can to deal with it in small doses.  Losing my Mother is not fair, but it’s not fair for anyone who loses a loved one.

UNCONTROLLABLE TEARS, not bargaining.  As I move out of the “100-day fog,” I am reluctantly beginning to accept the new normal…and right now the new normal involves a lot of tears.  I’m not bargaining, there’s nothing to bargain about.  Therapists often say that “guilt is the wingman of bargaining.”  This is the part of grief where the questions and “what-ifs” take over, followed by guilt for not doing more, making different decisions, and on and on.  What if COVID-19 didn’t happen?  What if we made Mom stay home?  What if we had sought care sooner?  What if…what if…what if…?  The never-ending questions remind me of the old adage about worrying and rocking chairs, both give you something to do, but ultimately get you nowhere.  I know better than to negotiate over things I cannot control and I guess that’s where the uncontrollable tears come in.  Death and loss, they humble you.  They remind us of our humanness, our vulnerability, and that we are most certainly not capable of controlling most things in this life.  I cry over songs on the radio, television shows, photographs, and memories…both good and bad.  If I could make things different, I would…but I can’t…and thus, the tears.  You can’t bargain with tears.

GOOD/BAD DAYS, not depression.*  In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that it’s ok to be sad.  I remember journaling once that to truly know good, one has to fully know bad.  I have been asked countless times over the last few months if I am depressed.  I am not, but I am sad, grief-stricken, heartbroken, and emotionally exhausted.  My Mother is gone.  My world forever changed.  I will miss her every day for the rest of my life.  And yet I know, forward is the only option.  Forward is the best option.  On good days, I laugh and smile remembering and retelling funny stories and sharing treasured memories about my Mom.  On bad days I pray for peace and comfort knowing how fully blessed I am to have called her my Mother.  Then, the process repeats.

PEACE, not acceptance.  In the stages of grief, acceptance comes when one faces their new reality.  There’s an understanding that things will never be the same.  For me, acceptance is not that far removed from denial.  I knew from the moment I received that phone call that things would never be the same.  Not “accepting” the circumstances didn’t make them less real.  There’s no denying the loss and accepting the situation wasn’t negotiable.  Throughout this whole process, I have prayed for peace, an emotional status where there is tranquility and my soul is well.  I have seen this.  I have experienced this.  I have felt this with my whole being.  Right now, that kind of peace is inconsistent, but I know and trust that a feeling of permanent peace will fill my heart one day.

Obviously, the grieving process is difficult.  There are no shortcuts, although most of us will try to find some.  When I talk to my kids about the stages of grief I remind them that there’s communal grief and personal grief.  The communal grief we experience together, as a family.  We deeply feel this type of loss at family gatherings and holidays.  The personal grief is how we process the loss individually.  For most of us, this type of grief is so much harder, but avoiding the stages of grief doesn’t help.  Postponing the sadness will not move us forward.  It’s ok to be sad.  It’s ok to have all the feelings.  It’s ok to talk about the loss because losing someone changes you.

Losing someone changes you.

Because the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  Psalm 34:18

*Depression is real.  If you need help, please reach out.

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

 

 

 

No Place OR Space to Sing (A Life Interrupted)

Grief is just love with no place to go.  —Jamie Anderson, author

Not many know this about me, but I love to sing…and I sing all the time!  I have a deep love for all types of music…popular songs from the radio, church hymns, TV theme songs, little ditties from musicals, you name it—I’ve even been known to make up my own songs!  But here’s the thing, if we’re going to get real here, my love for singing is CONDITIONAL as I rarely sing in front of others.  And while I wouldn’t necessarily categorize myself as shy (more of an introvert…and yes, there is a difference,) I do come from a musical family so I think I may have some skill (?), it’s just that my love for music and singing, in particular, is a pastime (a pleasure) just for me.  

When the pandemic began and the Stay at Home order took effect, most of us found ourselves quickly adapting to our new circumstances and reorganizing our lives to accommodate working from home and for those of us with kids, the pros and cons of distance learning.  Since I already work from home I had become very used to having the entire house to myself from 8am-3:30pm every day during the week.  These hours, which I regretfully took for granted, allowed me to work, meet with clients, volunteer, and establish a schedule with plenty of introvert time…in other words, a place and a space to sing.  

During the first few weeks of the shutdown, I barely noticed the lack of song in my life.  With everyone homebound, daily life was consumed with trying to find a new rhythm, learning the ins and outs of Zoom meetings, and checking in on loved ones.  No singing with the bedmaking or laundry.  No singing while making a lunchtime sandwich.  No songs at the coffee pot.  Without kid pick-ups and drop-offs, travel to meetings, or even just outings for shopping, my drive-time concerts ceased, too.  It’s not that I wasn’t plugged in or without access—I felt like I was constantly connected to my iPhone and my earbuds were practically glued to my ears at all times!  The reality was that I just couldn’t find a time or a place to sing.  In some ways, it was like our average size home transformed into an HGTV tiny house overnight.  A tiny house with no place to sing.

I’m not sure how real singers manage, but for myself, I have to be in the mood to sing.  Singing is not something that I can just turn on or off.  Aside from being in a place to sing there are so many things to consider.  Music genre, tempo, and playlist.  It shouldn’t be this complicated and so if this sounds like it is, it’s just me.  This is my way.  Complicated.  And it’s not that I stopped listening to music during these early days of the pandemic, it’s just that I couldn’t sing.  Maybe, more like a feeling that I shouldn’t sing.

Easter came and went.  My birthday came and went.  Still no singing.  Then at the beginning of May, both my parents tested positive for COVID-19.  I’m going to state the obvious.  You need air to sing, and suddenly there simply was no air.  Up to this point, all the emotions that accompany a pandemic (stress, anxiety, weariness) were an undercurrent for me.  I’m a realist, I understood the risks when all this began.  I was not naive to think that our family would go untouched.  Yet, I worked hard to balance faith over fear.  With their diagnosis came a heaviness and a weight of worry and concern.  As my father recovered, my mother’s condition worsened…eventually she was hospitalized.  Like I said, you can’t sing without air.

My mother’s time in the hospital was filled with ups and downs, hope and trepidation, good days and bad days…and finally, the worst day.  

Nothing prepares you for grief. The day following her death, I found myself for the first time in many weeks alone in the car.  Settled in for a four-hour drive, I finally had a place to sing.  My first inclination was to turn on the radio, but it wasn’t to be.  Although I had a place to sing, there was just no space in my heart to sing.  Instead, I drove in silence.

In the past two months, I have experienced a vast array of emotions.  Some days have been a complete blur, as the time has both flown by and stood eerily still. As much as one can after loss, we have settled into the uncomfortable and are moving forward, it is the only option. Today, finding a place and a space to sing still remains challenging, but thanks to my daughter’s shared love of musicals (and the absurdly catchy “Hamilton”), I am again slowly finding my voice.  

Ironically, on my way to pick Casey up from soccer practice last week, the song “Drinking Problem” came on the radio along with a flood of memories.  My mother, who never had a beer in her life, loved this song!  My sister and I discovered this interesting tidbit while driving with her to my grandmother’s 90th birthday party last fall.  We were floored to learn that she knew every single word and wasn’t afraid to sing it out.  Through tears, neither was I.  In her memory, a place and a space to sing.

The Lord is my strength and my shield; in Him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song, I give thanks to HIm. —Psalm 28:7

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Humbling (Responding to a Pandemic)

What humility does for one is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come but who may be here and needs me.

Maya Angelou

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist.  I categorize myself simply as a realist.  Midlife will do that to you.  I fully believe in the good of mankind.  I have high hopes for myself and the human race.  I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I choose kindness and grace at every opportunity.  I believe in going the extra mile and not expecting anything in return. And yet, I confess that I’m skeptical.  I’ve seen enough to know that we (myself included) don’t always rise to the occasion.  We are flawed, broken, weary, judgmental, and more than these we are fully human seeking to serve self first.  We (again myself included) hate to hear the word “no.”  Pride is incredibly insidious and has earned its rightful rank as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

In light of current events, both our collective and personal flaws have become more evident.  The hoarding is just the beginning.  The outright backbiting and blaming on social media, television, radio and in-person are a reminder that we are not operating as our best selves.  Dismissing and cutting down noted medical professionals and downplaying directives from our elected leaders demonstrates our inability to hear the word “no.”  My first thought was that this was entirely an American phenomenon, but that’s not the case.  Selfishness exists around the world.  We’re all guilty here.  People I know and love are presently operating out of this selfishness and privilege.  While we are collectively coping with this pandemic, the root of this global “me-first” perspective is pride.  And pride is a human condition, one than equally affects politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, celebrities, athletes, influencers, neighbors, family members, friends, you and me.

Yet, hope is not lost.  There is good.  I’ve seen it.  You’ve seen it.  We’re all trying.  And let’s be honest, some days are better than others.  I truly believe the difference maker here is humility.  The dictionary defines the word humble as not proud, haughty, arrogant, or assertive.  To be humble is to express deference or submission.  In a culture that values status and seeks accolades, it’s easy to note our lack of humility.  It’s not because we don’t understand the definition.  We do.  We just don’t like it.  We don’t value it. Plus, the messaging has always been confusing.  How am I supposed to stand up for myself, value myself, claim and proclaim my self worth, and cultivate healthy self-esteem if I put others above myself?  No one wants to be walked on, dismissed or set aside, and yet that remains the connotation.

The Bible offers us another perspective on humility.  One where we earnestly value others, where we understand that we’re all in this human experience together, one where my life is no more significant than any other life.  I have no right to anything or anyone.  My life is a gift and I’m called to live in response to that.  I have been claimed by an almighty and powerful God.  My eternity was bought and paid for by the sacrifice of a Savior.  I am not called to react, but only to respond.  And that response is humility.

Years ago I heard a Christian leader describe the Bible as God’s great love story.  It changed my perspective.  The Bible was no longer a collection of books, but one big narrative about a Creator and His creation.  My understanding grew.  I could see new and more meaningful connections not just between its chapters and characters, but between then and now.  The Bible became not just a love story but a living, breathing, and extremely timely on-going narrative for Christians today.  And that story continues.  As followers, our lives are an unwritten testimony for all to see.

The reality of the pandemic has weighed heavily on my heart.  My reflective nature and night owl tendencies have given me a lot of time to ponder.  When stress, worry, and anxiety fill my thoughts, I pray and think about the things I can control.  And I am grateful for a faith that I can rely upon.  I wholeheartedly believe that while these days are scary, uncomfortable, and unpredictable, there are lessons and blessings to be found.  Still, I am not naive.  We are largely walking through unchartered territory and we will all respond differently in the days, weeks, and months to come. Fear will take over at times.  Tensions will run high.  We will be tested.  We will fail.  And again, some days will be better than others.  But, there will be opportunities for us to be a light, to meet the needs of others, and most of all, opportunities to respond humbly.

Life isn’t a short game.  It is a journey.  Are you able, or more accurately, are you willing to make sacrifices, submit to those who know more than you do, and go without?  Can you pause, wait, and humble yourself before God and neighbor?  My prayer is that each of us will respond accordingly and do our part.  Stay home, wear the mask when necessary, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.   James 4:10

Anna Claus Holiday Must Haves

When you stop believing in Santa you get underwear.  –unknown

Okay, so I’m not really a member of the official Santa Claus family, but Christmas is my FAVORITE time of the year!  I am well versed in all the songs of the season, I know the “Code of Elves” verbatim and I’ve successfully completed several Christmas-themed Buzzfeed quizzes online.  So OBVIOUSLY I’m practically an adopted member of the Claus household!  As a self-appointed Christmas authority, I feel obligated to share these twelve little goodies with the planet to ensure you and yours experience your best Christmas yet!  In no particular order, I cheerfully present to you Anna Claus Holiday Must Haves…

  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris.  I read this collection of short, satirical (and politically incorrect) stories every December for many, many reasons.  Mostly because who doesn’t love the escapades of a grown man parading around Macy’s as an Elf, the unlikeliest Christmas Eve houseguest EVER and the snarkiest review of children’s Christmas pageants you’ll ever read?  Nothing gets me in the holiday mood quite like this fun (and funny) book.  Complete brain candy, it is good for continuous laughs.
  • Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas  If you love jazzy, upbeat Christmas music this album is for you!  The 60s style jazz offerings are traditional yet they possess that special “zing.”  CAUTION:  The “cool cat” vibe this album induces may cause scatting!  Wonderful background music for doing just about anything holiday-related.
  • Candy Canes  Nothing says Christmas like candy canes.  Sweet and pepperminty I try to consume as many as possible.  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, it’s not unusual to find these tasty treats (and their tiny crumbs) in my purse, in my pockets or in my mouth!
  • IMG_2064Pandora’s Swingin’ Christmas Radio Station  This is the ONLY internet radio station I listen to during the holidays.  On the computer and on my phone this is my go-to background music for the holiday season.  Here you’ll find everything from the Rat Pack Christmas album and Louis Armstrong offerings to Michael Buble and everyone in between.
  • Santa Hat (Reindeer Antlers optional)  My all-time hat of choice, the Santa hat comes out right after Thanksgiving and lives among the coats all Christmas season long.  This year I’ve decided to add reindeer antlers to the list of approved December head-gear.  Very festive!
  • Starbucks Christmas Blend and Peet’s Holiday Blend Warm, sweet and spicy…this is what Christmas tastes like!  For a coffee lover like myself this is a terrific blend that gets the day going…also serves as the perfect addition to an evening dessert.  Would I like another cup?  Of course!
  • Nativity  Nativities set the scene for a Christ-centered holiday.  Our family nativity is my all-time favorite and I love to share the story about how we acquired such a unique set.  I also love visiting the homes of family and friends and seeing their nativity displays.  Most times it leads to another wonderful story as well.
  • Cookie Baking  I am probably guilty of too much cookie baking during this time of the year, but I love it!!!  I wish we could live off Christmas cookies, but I’m afraid of what we might look like if I got my wish.  Too many favorite cookies to name, I especially love making treats to give away to family and friends.
  • Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies  The Christmas season would not be complete without the Hallmark Channel!  Who can resist seeing all your favorite teen heartthrobs return in these fun and romantic Hallmark movies!  Nothing says it’s officially Christmas like the picture-perfect Christmas towns and tales of true love conquering all.  It’s the gift that keeps giving…round the clock with a new opportunity to spread a little holiday cheer every other hour!
  • Holiday Flicks  My all-time favorite is It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic with the lovable Donna Reed and her screen beau, Jimmy Stewart.  Watching the Charlie Brown Christmas is a must.  I also like to sprinkle in a little Christmas with the Kranks, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story and Elf among others.
  • Christmas Lights Tour This is a tradition that goes way, way back for me.  I can remember piling up in the car as a child and checking out the Christmas lights in my little hometown.  Today, we continue to take (drag) our children out to look at the lights.  This year we cranked our adventure up a notch with a Holiday Lights Scavenger Hunt.  Great fun!
  • Snow Never a guarantee, but snow really makes it all perfect.  It seems that whenever it snows the world seems to slow down a bit…offering us a moment to take in and savor everything around us.  The holidays typically fly by…I need a little snow to take it all in.

A few honorable mentions to my list:  holiday cards, cocoa, caroling and Christmas parades!  They don’t call it the most wonderful time of the year for nothing.  Wishing you the Merriest Christmas!

 

From Gray to Grace

Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.  Haruki Murakami

Last week’s tragedy will never make sense.  No answer will ever be good enough.  Understanding will likely never come.  A life cut short.  Senseless violence.

IMG_3392

ERNIE ORTIZ 1949-2019

It has been said that we’re all one phone call away from dropping to our knees. And nothing has ever been more true. Human life is fragile and fleeting. Most of us naively walking around as if we have all the time in the world, as if our days are not numbered, as if we have some sense of control…and sadly, we do not.  And while life itself is a gift, we don’t always live like it.  Our words, our actions, our brokenness speak for themselves reminding us that we are all fallible humans.  Even the best of us walk the line between sinner and saint daily.

So it is no surprise that at some point, we all find ourselves here…struggling with loss in its many forms, be it friendships, relationships, marriages, jobs, hopes or dreams, but I feel it is the loss of life that hurts the most.  It’s inescapable.  Unavoidable.  The grief, the permanency, maybe even the unknown…it fills our thoughts, occupies our hearts and often leaves wounds that never quite heal.

Statistically, death occurs on a bell curve with our most vulnerable moments at the beginning and the end of our life spans.  If you’re lucky, it’s something one only deals with during their latter days.  We know that death due to age, illness, and disease remain tragic, but a life taken too soon, a life snuffed out, a life robbed at any age hurts as if it’s been compounded tenfold.  Many will tell you that time heals all wounds.  Maybe.  More realistically though, time only allows for space between the hurt.

Finding peace is all circumstances isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s a lot of work.  If you’re not a Christian, I honestly don’t know how you do it.  For me, knowing that I have a God who walks beside me is something that I don’t take for granted.  When I am weak, He is my strength.  When I am lost, He is my rock.  Christ’s ultimate sacrifice reminds us that death doesn’t have the final say.  Uncle Ernie was a believer, I take comfort in that.  Our lives, our very existence is not in vain.  On the mountaintop and in the valley, there remains a plan and a purpose for each of us.

In the days and weeks to come, stories will be told and photos will be shared. In talking with family, we have chosen to focus on the “dash” and celebrate a life LIVED.  As poet Linda Ellis explains, “He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.”  And what a dash it was!  Countless adventures, innumerable memories, and a bounty of friends.

When you’re a kid, life seems so black and white.  There’s good and evil.  Right and wrong.  The lines are clearly drawn.  As we grow up, move from adolescence through adulthood, we realize that life is actually more of a marbled gray.  Dark shades, complicated, stressful, and uneven as we navigate day to day living among the broken, but intermixed with bright hues, beautiful, joyful, and full of promise!  As we all inch forward, I pray that we move from that marbled gray into grace!  Life is too short to live any other way.  Let us approach each other more tenderly and offer love, patience, and kind words…only then can we truly find resolve (and maybe even peace) along the way.

Rest Easy, Uncle Ernie.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 

2 Corinthians 5:1

Teen Birthday? Whatever, You’ll Always Be My Baby

I’m one of those moms who tends to go overboard with my kids’ birthdays.  Elaborate cakes, carefully planned parties, and that oh-so-perfect gift.  That being said, I had a little epiphany today–today being my son’s birthday.  As the memories came flooding back of the day he was born and the tear drops started forming, my left brain made a striking realization.  Turns out that my “overboard” approach to celebrating these special days, has a lot to do with my own personal fear of my children growing up.  So, to borrow a phrase from my mommy handbook…”you may not understand now, but I have my reasons.”

My little boy came bouncing into this world three weeks early after a healthy pregnancy turned troublesome.  I was so ready following a month of bed rest, a week of being repeatedly induced, and swelling that made me practically unrecognizable.  Our little bundle was gorgeous and perfect in every way.  And despite some post-pregnancy bumps, we finally settled into parenthood and the real fun (work?) began.

Sean was an easy baby except where sleep was concerned.  That kid hated to sleep and when he finally did fall asleep, it was never, EVER for long (a phenomenon that still holds true.)  His saving grace was his sweet little brown eyes that sparkled in the most amazing way.  Excuse my “mom-gush”, but that boy’s eyes “smile.”  Even to this day, he will be as ornery as any boy can be and follow it up with this look that could melt just about anything…especially my heart.  (Let it be noted that while these smiling eyes occasionally get him OUT of trouble, it’s the same smiling eyes that serve as his TELL when he’s trying to put one over on me.)

Like most kids, Sean has inherited qualities from both my husband and myself.  He has a terrific sense of humor like his Dad.  He’s such a funny kid with a quick wit and the ability to turn a phrase…especially when you least expect it!  Fortunately, he’s a good student like his Mom and manages to keep his clownishness at a reasonable level and not get into trouble at school.  Sean is a huge sports fan like his Dad and has enough good sense to choose the Kansas Jayhawks over every other team (like his Mom.)  Sean loves to build things and has a knack for figuring things out sans instruction booklets…that’s a Dad thing.  At the same time, he likes to watch ridiculous comedies (Kicking & Screaming, Even Stevens Movie or Christmas with the Kranks) over and over like his Mom.

So here’s where it comes full circle.  I don’t just love my son.  I really, truly like him, too…and thus, the overboard birthday parties.  I enjoy baking him extra special chocolate birthday cakes, I like creating and planning parties that reflect his favorite things, and I put a lot of thought into his gifts…all to purposefully mark the day when God blessed me with his precious child, a child who despite my objections, continues to grow up.  Let’s face it, time is ticking.  And while I am perpetually celebrating my 22nd birthday (lol), my little boy is racking up the birthday candles and moving ever closer to birthdays that I won’t be able to plan.  And it’s all coming too quickly.

Thank you, Lord, for blessing me with a gift more wonderful than anything I could have asked for.  Happy birthday, Sean.  I love you.  You are my sonshine…cheesy, but true.

Son, you outgrew my lap, but never my heart.  ~Author Unknown

KEEP CALM, Summer’s Coming (15 Days of Sunshine-Inspired Songs) SONG 6

Sometimes the best vacation is a staycation.  –author unknown

I love the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” for many reasons…but especially for the line,”there’s no place like home.”  It’s just so true.  Of course, one never knows just how much they love home until they move away.  At least that’s how it was for me.  That’s why this next song made my summer music playlist.  I can remember coming home to visit my parents and my dad blasting this song on repeat FOR HOURS AND HOURS in the garage.  The funniest thing was that no one complained.  In fact, there were many times that I caught family members singing along!

“Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys came out in the summer of 2004.  I was in my late 20s, married with one child…and I was pretty much anything but hip.  But there’s something about this song that just makes you feel cool–regardless of age.  “Heaven,” written by a trio of brothers from Texas, captures a laid back summer vibe with its infectious chorus.  Peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Top 100, the tune went on to No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts for 16 weeks.  Interestingly enough, the song also registered on the country music charts, too.  The song eventually led to two Grammy nominations and one win in 2005.  Their biggest hit to date, this song set the tone for so many that summer.

It doesn’t take much for me to remember that afternoon at my parent’s house.  It’s always a party when we visit!  Lots of family, food and laughter.  I can still see my son (a toddler at the time) working his dance moves outside in the garage with my dad.  Whenever I hear “Heaven” it puts a smile on my face and I am grateful for both summer and a place to call home!

Up Next:  SONG 7…”That’s when I had most of my fun….”

KEEP CALM, Summer’s Coming (15 Days of Sunshine-Inspired Songs) SONG 5

I could never in a hundred summers get tired of this.  –Susan Branch

“Steal My Sunshine” by Len hit the airwaves during my first summer as a resident of sunny California.  The song was all things Golden State–feel good, shiny, pop-inspired, retro and contemporary fun–imagine how surprised I was to find out that it was the product of a Canadian group!  This little goodie hit the pop charts in 1999 but takes some of its great music flavor from both the 70s and the 80s. Besides all that, who doesn’t love a song whose music video features an orange moped posse?

While crawling through my Bay Area commute, I recall scanning my radio presets only to discover this song playing simultaneously on two stations!  Whaaaat? Both the pop and the alternative station spinning the same tune, whoa–this song must be special!  So I turned it up and quickly added another song to my list of favorites.  “Steal My Sunshine” was inspired by a night at a rave, helped reunite an estranged brother and sister, and almost didn’t make it make it onto the group’s CD (fortunately it was retrieved from its hiding place…under the cowriter’s bed!)  All of this makes for quite the story behind a song that landed in Billboard 100’s top ten and on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “Best Summer Songs of All Time.”

This catchy song was still receiving plenty of airplay when I finally had an opportunity to visit Los Angeles that same fall.  It was the perfect background music for a trip to Venice Beach, celebrity sight-seeing and soaking up all things California.  Today you can still find it on a number of summer playlists…including mine.  All the more reason to love a song that enjoys elite “one-hit wonder” status as it “perfectly captured that warm, lazy feeling you get when late summer still seems like it could last forever,” at least according to Stylus Magazine (2007.)  And I think they’re right on.

Up next:  SONG 6…how far is heaven?

KEEP CALM, Summer’s Coming (15 Days of Sunshine-Inspired Songs) SONG 4

If you are lucky enough to be at the beach…you are lucky enough.  –author unknown

Some days are made for the shade and this beach classic definitely fits the bill.  “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters made its debut in 1964.  This tune tells the story of a quiet, secret getaway just for two amid the busyness of the surf and sand.  Personally, I remember hearing the song as a young kid and it was the catchy chorus that had me hooked.  Only later did I really grasp the song’s meaning…and it still makes me blush to this day!

One of the more interesting notes to this little ditty is that this one song has two different lines in it…depending upon the version that you’re listening to.  The mono version of the song says “we’ll be falling in love,” while the stereo version says “we’ll be making love.”  Back in 1964, the mono version served as the radio edit since the “steamier” stereo version was banned from the public airwaves.  Further research puts former Drifters vocalist Johnny Moore as the lead singer.  Moore was asked to do the main vocals after the then current Drifters frontman, Rudy Lewis, died of a suspected drug overdose.  The last-minute move resulted in a No. 4 spot on the Billboard Top 100 and earned the song a place in the Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

While this song has been revised dozens of times, the original Drifters song is the one that sweetly whispers “summertime” into my ear…and I can “almost taste the hot dogs and French fries they sell….”

Up Next:  Song 5…”Karen, I love you…!”