Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter Morning In Malaysia

A few days ago, on Easter Sunday, I reminisced about my adventures on last year's holiday which fell during my two-and-a-half month-long trip to Malaysia. Surely, I posted about it on my blog, right? But when I went looking for an entry, I realized that I never wrote about this beautiful morning.

Well. Better late than never, right?

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We left the house at 6:30 a.m.

Let's be honest. I don't get up and moving at that dark and despicable time of day unless I have a darn good reason. 

A Malaysian hot air balloon festival? Yes. That's a good reason.

Now I'll admit that I was a bit forlorn on the morning in question. I love the story of Easter, and I look forward all year to the joyful celebration of Easter morning worship at my home church. While I was very happily enjoying my long stay on the other side of the planet, on this particular morning, I was just a wee bit sad to be away from home.

But by the time we rounded up our posse and drove about a half hour south of Kuala Lumpur to the adminstrative capital city of Putrajaya, my curiosity was in overdrive. Dawn had broken. In a central parking lot, countless yards of gently billowing nylon lay quivering on the ground. Though a fence on the perimeter kept us onlookers at a safe distance, there were plenty of people quietly attending to their business among the still forms of the sleeping balloons. In the calm and relatively cool morning air, we watched with reverence and anticipation for signs of new life.

With the blink of an eye, a change passed over the tarmac. Whooooosh! From one work site to the next, propane burners burst into life, directing superheated air into the empty envelopes and sending shock waves of excitement and adrenalin through the crowds. Honestly, I think the workers themselves were the most thrilled of all  - their voices rose in pitch, their movements became more animated, and their delight in the balloons' transformation was palpable. 

Slowly, slowly, each balloon tilted up from the ground, standing full and ready over its now seemingly-tiny basket. And then, as we all seemed to hold our breath in response to the pure magic before our eyes, the enormous, graceful, brilliant, gently swaying beings silently lifted off the earth and sailed up, up and away. 

I was awestruck. As the last of the air-filled giants silently floated away, I pondered the amazing sights I had just seen. While I had missed my traditional Easter worship, I wondered if my morning's experience might have been a bit like that first Easter day when, just after dawn, a quiet place was suddenly transformed by larger-than-life glory. Surprisingly, I felt a new kinship to the two women, Mary and Mary, who were the first to discover that Jesus had risen from his grave, first-hand witnesses to the miracle of resurrection.

And that was a very lovely discovery on my Easter morning in Malaysia.

P.S. After the balloons had all sailed away, I went with my host and all of his lovely family-in-law to eat breakfast. And I found myself hoping that, after all the hub bub of that first Easter morning finally died down, Mary and Mary had a nice big brunch themselves. Happy Easter!

^ Me, Wannie, and Aleesya, ready for some food!

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To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here:

Messages From Mother Earth

I love our mama earth, and I'm happy to do whatever I can to keep her fresh and clean. Lucky me, I live here in Seattle, a city that is devoted to reducing, reusing and recycling in the extreme. We have curbside green bins for our yard waste and kitchen scraps, restaurants that provide compostable spoons and forks, and local bans on plastic grocery bags. At this point in my life, I would rather carry my recyclable trash home in my purse than throw it in the regular garbage, and given a choice, I will always opt to purchase the item with the least wasteful packaging.

In my little corner of the world, going green comes naturally, all year round.

So as I contemplated Earth Day, and wondered what I might do differently today to celebrate our planet, the answer came with deceptive clarity. Maybe, after devoting myself all year long to natural cleansers, toxin-free paints, and reusable shopping bags, I should stop worrying about doing harm to the earth and simply enjoy her gorgeous bounty.

And while I would have loved to ski the Alps, hike the Grand Canyon, or ride a zip line through the Costa Rican rain forest, my adventures in nature today - as most days - were found much closer to home. While on my daily walk with Ranger, I gathered up a small bag full of pine cones, sticks, leaves, and wild flower blossoms that I found along the way. Back home, I shook them out on a spot of fresh green grass, and sat down to play with them, not sure exactly what I might create. After a few moments of playful experimentation, this message appeared before me.

In those few moments, I was lost in the fragile beauty of the fading yellow forsythia blossoms, the interesting variation of shape, color, and texture among the Douglas fir cones, and the delicately curving stems of the tiny daisies. The headache-inducing busy-ness of my day slipped away, my senses were delighted and my spirit was renewed.

Maybe the true power of Earth Day is about more than just what we do to our global home, but also about the miracles of nurture, growth and beauty that our Mother Earth brings to us..

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Vintage Sperry Rand

Notice anything new on my library bookshelves?

Well, I'll give you a hint. This object is not a book. And it isn't new at all. In fact, it's pretty darn old. Technologically obsolete, to be exact.

Yep. You found it. My husband's old typewriter.

Now, I went to college back in the Dark Ages. Which is to say, before personal computers were as prevalent as blue books and red kegger cups.

But my husband got his education during the Triassic Period, when students actually owned these nifty and highly portable little machines, on which they banged out papers in late-night typing sessions that must have been filled with curse words and tiny bottles of white-out

I sure hope they had white-out back then. I can't even imagine how they would have survived without it.

And while I never owned my own personal typewriter, I grew up in a home where the slightly more modern electric typewriter was a standard piece of equipment, right up there with the electric carving knife and the digital clock radio. Every Sunday afternoon, my mom would crank up a piece of paper, switch on the magic power button, and clickety-clack through the front and back of the page with a newsy note to my grandmother. Fascinated by this grown-up tool, I often used it to compose anonymous messages and secret documents. 

For the past several decades, like most of his typewriter bretheren, this model has lived in the shadows. Oh sure, we busted him out every now and then during my daughters' childhoods, so they could conduct typeface experiments just as I did. But for the most part, this trusty dude stayed inside his custom case, quietly collecting dust in the back of the hall closet or stashed in the garage. 

Somewhere during the last few years, manual typewriters have made the trendy leap from history to hipstery. Postmodern decor mavens dig the retro look, and a quick cruise around Pinterest or the revered design blogs will reveal trusty old-school typewriters tucked here and there as fashionable accessories.

So, you know, I figured the time was right to bring this good ol' boy back into my life. Artfully arranged with my husband's equally antique college texts, this vintage Sperry Rand looks right at home.

P.S. Speaking of artfully arranged good ol' boys who look right at home, say hello to Ranger, who is napping peacefully nearby.

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Wanna snoop around my house some more? Go to:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Dinner

First we eat, then we do everything else. -M.F.K. Fisher

^ My Easter feast. Plus a baked macaroni and cheese casserole that was just coming out of the oven as this photo was taken.

Let's be honest. The make-it-or-break-it moment of every great holiday is the meal.

Take Easter. As a Christian, I'm awed by the message of hope and joy that came from the empty tomb. As a resident of the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth, I rejoice in the turning of the seasons and the burst of new life that this spring holiday represents. In response to this gladful day, I happily go to worship and decorate my home with armloads of fresh flowers.

But the centerpiece of my favorite celebrations is always the meal.

Across cultures and back through time, we all share that passion, don't we? Gathering up the loved ones and feeding them the best food available - that's what we humans do when we have cause to celebrate.

^ Ham is a traditional Easter favorite, but my family does not love ham. So we opted for steak instead.

Since my little family lives far and away from the rest of the clan, I've planned, prepared and presided over a good many holiday meals. Over the past two decades, my family and I have perfected the art of the holiday meal by following these seven simple steps:

Timing is everything. For all of our holiday meals, we generally sit down at the table in mid-afternoon. Strategically, this not only gives us plenty of time for preparing the meal without any dawn wake-up calls, but also allows appetites to recover by the early evening when we all return to the fridge for a lap of leftovers.

Our menu is usually fairly simple, but everyone's preferences are represented. While I generally set the overall menu, I always canvass the group to see who wants what. I'm willing to go the extra mile to make sure the table is loaded down with everyone's favorites.

^ To create more options and add to the festive holiday fare, I also served up some roasted salmon. 
My wildflower dishes speak of springtime in the woods to me, as do little bowls of fresh strawberries and fresh cut tulips. Simple and sweet.

Presentation matters. Over the years, I've accumulated a mix-and-match collection of table linens, dinnerware, silverware, and serving pieces; my daughters and I enjoy the process of sorting through the options to create a table setting that matches to the mood of the holiday. We don't have a lot of room on our little table for centerpieces and candlesticks, but we do our best to squeeze in a few flowers or a plant to glamorize the tablescape.

Everyone helps with the cooking. Sometimes we work in shifts, other times we all pile into the kitchen at the same time and get in each others' way. One of the things that makes a holiday meal different from our usual daily dinners is that each member of the family lends a hand.

Give thanks. I don't care if you reach out to God, Buddha, the Prophet Muhammad, or Mother Earth, someone besides you deserves credit for the bounty of the meal. Taking a moment to express gratitude and appreciate the gifts of the day makes every bite taste better.

^ This year, my two eldest surprised me by peeling and chopping all the potatoes, and preparing the deviled eggs without me. And speaking of deviled eggs, here's a weird fact. For 364 days of the year, none of us have any interest in eating deviled eggs, They are just not our thing. But on Easter Sunday, we all crave them. 

Afterwards, we are all allowed to crash and burn. Oh, there's nothing quite so satisfying as giving in to post-feast sleepiness. When my daughters were babes and tots, we would take them directly from the holiday table to their cozy beds and wrestle them down for some shut-eye. Now that they are all grown up and actually like to nap, we have continued the tradition with a few hours of family down-time. Sweet heaven, I love a good holiday snooze.

Separate sessions are scheduled for dessert and leftovers. There's no need to eat too much at once. By pacing ourselves with several long breaks, we can turn a single holiday meal into a full day of feasting.

* * * * *

So whether I'm preparing a Labor Day backyard barbecue, New Year's Day brunch or Christmas dinner, these steps can be adapted for the particulars of the day at hand, and still serve to create a winning meal. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the simple secret to a great holiday.

^ Even after the pans are licked out and the dishes are done, the happy memories of this lovely Easter dinner will live on.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Action Painting: Polka Dot Pet Party

Due to popular demand, my art students did some watercolor splatter painting this week.

It's one of their favorite action painting techniques. Here's how it works:

1. Load up a paintbrush with lots of loose, drippy paint. 
2. Aim your brush at a big piece of paper and let the paint fly.

As usual, we had some fabulous fun. In the past, we've used tempera paints as our weapon of choice and worked outside so we could really let the colors fly. But yesterday, since we were stuck inside on a rainy day, I opted to use watercolors which are a bit more controlled and easier to clean up. 

Before laying our hands on the paint, we chatted a bit about how modern art is used as a vehicle for expressing thoughts and feelings, and I challenged my students to reflect similar emotion in their creations. And in an unusual twist, I required that they name their finished products.

Here are some of their masterpieces:

^ Lonely In The Black Room by Myles

^ Seasons (detail) by Audra

Happy Frustration by Laney

Crazy Fun by Katie

Left Behind by Madalen

Primary Emotions by Avery

Motions by Audra

Easter (detail) by Ashlyn and Laney

Alone, Scared and Confused by Avery

My students' exuberant and expressive work inspired me to make my own watercolor splatter painting, so the next morning, when I was at home alone with some time to myself, I gathered my supplies. I decided to snap a few photos of process, starting with the blank canvases. Very quietly, so as not to disturb my slumbering puppy, I slid open the back door and tiptoed across the patio to take this shot in the grass:

Never satisfied with just one frame, I fired off a second. As my finger tapped the shutter, I noticed a swift movement in the upper left corner of the view screen:

One grey striped kitty paw. Mmhmm. I know who that belongs to. Moving stealthily, I lifted my camera to widen the shot and captured this image of the paw's sassy owner.

Hello, Cedric.

My cats are independent little fellows. Most of the time, they pay no attention to my life, caught up as they are in the comings and goings of their own. But whenever I introduce paper into their surroundings, they are captivated.

And I am using plural pronouns for a reason. Within seconds, mysterious Luna popped out of the bushes and joined Cedric in exploring my interesting devices:

At this point, we heard a set of businesslike footsteps from within the house and you'll never guess who popped his cute red head out the back door and joined us:

Ranger is not one to miss a party. And clearly this little gathering was quickly turning into an important social event, because next we heard a plaintive cry coming from....overhead??

Why are all of you down there together and why am I up here all alone? Someone help me, please!

My goodness. I went upstairs and let Sirius in through a bedroom window, then we all reunited on the patio. Good times and plentiful petting ensued. Eventually, miraculously, I managed to get my splatter painting done and later turned it into gift wrap for a pair of presents.

And in keeping with my students' challenge, I decided to name my creation Polka Dot Pet Party (In Pink and Blue). 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Good Friday is a weird name for the day that a fiercely determined, infinitely loving, and wrongly convicted prophet of the Lord died a painful death on a cross. Often it's observed that there isn't much "good" about that sequence of events.

Kind-hearted Christians will patiently explain that Jesus' death was indeed a good thing because it opened the door for his resurrection three days later, in which God reveals that death is not the end.

True enough. But the name of Good Friday still strikes me as strange.

Honestly, I find the whole day a bit disjointed and uncomfortable. When I was growing up, the local Catholic kids used to insist that we weren't allowed to talk between the hours of noon to three p.m., when Jesus hung on the cross and the sky turned black as night. That used to freak me out so much.

When my kids were young, I was challenged to find ways to explain the day's events to each of my girls, at each tender age and developmental stage, in a way that would be honest and interesting without overwhelming her current ability to understand. That was always a stressful juggling act, and I worried about causing night terrors and a lifetime aversion to jelly beans.

Good Fridays are easier now that my daughters are grown, and I can simply enjoy my Good Friday worship experience without filtering or interpreting it for the G audience. But I have to admit that as I sat in my chair at church tonight, holding a heavy eight inch iron stake like the one that was used to pound Jesus' hands and feet to the wooden cross that probably looked an awful lot like the timber that lay on the floor in front of me, I felt that same edgy, unsettled feeling that has always haunted me on this bleak day.

Thankfully, tradition has provided a nice diversion from contemplating death and torture: behold the hot cross bun.

This sweet little treat has a long history of association with Lent - the forty-day period leading up to Easter - and more specifically, with Good Friday. The tradition of making baked goods with a cross may go all the way back to the Greeks, though the mists of time have obscured the true origins of this bold little bun.

But there's no mystery about what makes hot cross buns so tasty. 

Spices. Lots of yummy, harmonious spices that gently flavor the basic dough to create a delicately sweet treat. When it comes to choosing the specific spices, there's plenty of room for experimentation and variety. For this batch, I used cinnamon, cardamon, allspice and nutmeg. 

Most recipes also call for raisins, currants, or other bits of dried fruit but I am a spice-and-dough purist. Slowly kneading the spices into the dough introduces subtle layers of flavor, and for my money, a few brazen bits of fruit will overwhelm the entire creation and dominate my taste buds. That's not gonna happen on my watch, buddy boy. I advocate for spice rights, and I don't allow fruit bullies anywhere near my hot cross buns.

So this afternoon, as the divine mystery of Good Friday played itself out in my head and my heart, my hands were happily occupied with this time-honored task. And while there is no easy way to explain away the darkness of Jesus' death on the cross, it's all a lot easier for me to bear when I'm munching on a fresh hot cross bun.

I used The Pioneer Woman's guidance for my hot cross buns and as usual, her recipe knocked it out of the park. I recommend it highly.

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More Easter stories? Yes.

Maundy Thursday

Well, Maundy Thursday may not be a red letter day on everyone's calendar. Target doesn't have much seasonal decor for this holiday, and not many people take the day off. 

But this day is one of my favorites in the long, gradual build-up to Easter. The original Maundy Thursday was the last night of Jesus' life. He used the opportunity to drive home the main message of his entire life:
"Love one another as I have loved you."
To kick things off on that fateful evening, Jesus famously washed the feet of his disciples, in order to set a good example of servant-hood. 

But tonight, my imagination has been captured by the two other main events of the night.

While gathered with his twelve best friends and followers for his last supper, Jesus asked them to eat bread and drink wine in his name, and promised to be present in the future in that simple meal. Two thousand years later, we Christians still partake of this custom on a weekly basis, and I have some fond memories of sharing the holy meal with a certain group of God's people. I'll explain more about that in a minute.

At the end of the evening, Jesus knew that trouble was brewing and he went to a nearby garden, his buddies in tow, to pray in the calm before the storm. As a passionate gardener, I totally understand Jesus' choice for a holding zone and love to imagine what that place might have looked like.

^ Outside my church is a small garden. Designed for walking or sitting, it's a pretty, peaceful kind of place. Just like the garden that Jesus sought on the last night of his life.

^ These camellias, lush and full in their pink prime, remind me that on the original Maundy Thursday, Jesus was also at the prime of his life, though probably not quite so ruffly.

The night of his betrayal
Our Lord took bread
He blessed it and he broke it
And then he said

"My body given for you
Is what this means
Remember now, my children
What you have seen"

These words are the first verse of a song that means a lot to me.

About ten years ago, when my older children were just entering the squirrely years of adolescence, I helped to jump-start and lead a new approach to youth ministry at my church. Our team of about a dozen adults had a simple plan. We wanted to help teens understand what it means to live in faith by gathering together once a week, sharing with them a series of multi-sensory experiences and conversations meant to deepen their awareness of their own faith, and most importantly, loving them no matter what.

 Oh, one other thing. We fed them a lot of pizza.

^ Knowing that his life was about to be cut short, Jesus was a little freaked out. He asked his friends to stay awake with him and pray through the night. But they sat down - perhaps on benches like this one - and promptly fell asleep. Fail.

^ Praying on by himself, Jesus asked God to spare him from death. But he quickly relented, and agreed to abide by God's plan. 

And then he took the challis
And raised it high
"My blood is given for you
A full supply

A covenant, a promise
A cleansing stream
Remember now, my children
What you have seen."

Most of the time we spent together on any given evening was fairly nuts, as might be expected when twenty or so middle schoolers are placed in one room. There were skits with costumes; an eighth grade boy once wore one of my old bridesmaid dresses, another boy wrapped himself up in a string of Christmas lights and promptly fell over like a mummified corpse. We ran the kids through obstacle courses, held shaving cream fights, and organized at least one unforgettable game of hot potato. Group back massages were a standard part of the evening, though we adults always positioned ourselves strategically around the circle to keep the raging hormones under control. Honestly, every night we spent together was a wild, exhilarating ride.

But at the end of each evening, our hyper, happy group would circle round a huge wooden cross, laid across several small tables, and covered with white pillar candles. After the lights were turned down, we would pray together, naming our concerns out loud and lighting a candle for each prayer. 

When those prayers had been said, and the candles were all aglow, illuminating the still-giggling, still-whispering faces of our young people, we would sing all three verses of this song. And then we would share together in Jesus' meal of bread and wine.  

^ Jesus knew that one of his so-called friends was going to betray him to the authorities, and he would be arrested and taken to his death. Though he might have run away, he realized that this was God's plan for him.  He was, you might say, between a rock and a hard place.

^ More camellias. Just because they are beautiful.

We share this food together
Remembering Christ
We share a common treasure
And know the price

We share it without measure
A gift of love
We share our lives together 
With God above.

Never in my life have I ever felt the power of love poured out through the bread and wine as I did with those crazy kids. For three amazing and life-changing years, we gathered in the dark around that candle-lit cross and shared the holy meal, and I felt the love of God like never before. 

And then, sadly, for complicated and unhappy reasons, our group disbanded. Years have passed, and those precious evenings at the cross have faded into history.

For the rest of my life, I don't expect that I will ever top that experience of Christian community. But I sure do treasure the memories. And on this Maundy Thursday, I remember that those crazy kids and the amazing adults who helped me keep the lid on the joint, are always connected to me through God's amazing meal of love.

^ With his disciples full of bread and wine, and his evening in the garden at an end, Jesus was ready to journey on toward the cross. The story continues tomorrow, Good Friday.

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More Easter stories? Yes.