Friday, January 30, 2009

There's No Pricetag On Happiness

Once, without even trying, we made a grown man cry.
I watched a couple of movies back-to-back last week, The Ultimate Gift and The Bucket List, that reminded me of this particular story:

During our starving-student years, while Jeff was at USC and I was working at UCLA, Jeff decided to take a part-time job working for this crusty, old mega-millionaire who fancied himself a filmmaker.

Curmudgeon might be too nice a word for this guy. We’ll call him Ron. He had successfully alienated a series of ex-wives, all of his children, and most of his employees. Now all he had was a couple of reluctant grandkids...and buy the fishing poles for the next obligatory outing.

Ron was the kind of guy who shopped at those appointment-only boutiques in Beverly Hills, where all the staff knew him by name. Four hundred dollars later he’d come away with an orange polyester turtleneck. (I swear this is true. Too much money, not enough taste). He lived in a high-rise penthouse on Wilshire Boulvard, and had his own limos and personal driving staff. He ate nearly every meal in the fanciest restaurants, and spent money like it was nothing.

Jeff would come home with hilarious horror stories of Ron throwing a tantrum at work, excoriating the staff with a string of profanity, firing people on the spot. And then begging them to come back once he regained his sanity.

I’d frequently ask Jeff why he stayed there under these conditions. Surely there was other part-time work to be found. And his answer was fascinating. “I kind of feel sorry for Ron.” In fact, after one particularly bad Ron-day, Jeff came home with the news that he’d invited Ron over for dinner.

“To OUR house?” The response flew out of my mouth. We lived in a one bedroom house-above-a-garage in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles...the Crenshaw Disctrict, as it was known to the locals. We affectionately referred to it as the ghetto. We had bars on all our doors and windows, recognized which ice cream truck was used for drug deals (it came around at midnight playing "Strangers In the Night") and were starting to get used to the police helicopters and the drive-by shootings. Home sweet ‘hood.

We loved entertaining, but we usually only entertained our other starving-student friends, who were also used to dodging bullets. Not penthouse-dwelling millionaires.
On the night Ron came to dinner, he told Jeff he was taking a cab to our house because he didn’t want to bring any of his cars into our neighborhood. I could tell things were already off to a great start.

But when Ron arrived, he seemed fairly gracious. Charming, even, in a Daddy Warbucks kind of way. We took his coat, invited him in. I played a little Chopin and Brahms on the piano for him while we waited for dinner to finish cooking. We sat down at the table, engaging him in polite conversation. Jeff offered a blessing on the food. He expressed thanks that Ron was joining us in our home for dinner. And then it happened. Ron started to cry. Like, seriously, put his head in his hands and sobbed like a baby.

There was an awkward silence, then we asked if he was okay. He said he was fine. Wiping his eyes, he said he just couldn’t get over how happy we were there. He couldn’t remember ever being surrounded by so much love. We were stunned. It all seemed pretty normal to us. It’s not like we put on some kind of show for this guy. And yet he sensed something unusual about the spirit in our home, and it touched him, deeply.

That evening is etched in my memory, permanently. It was probably twenty years ago, before we had any kids or owned a home, or had any money to speak of. In some ways we didn’t realize how much we had and how happy we were. But I’ll always remember that it took a bald, grumpy millionaire – who had nothing – to point out to us that our life was abundantly rich.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Small-Scale Gluttony

Okay, so here's what I had for lunch today:
  • Italian Salami
  • Rotelle pasta with Napa Valley marinara sauce
  • La Brea Bakery Italian Bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar
  • Wild Alaskan Salmon marinated in garlic, onion, and olive oil
  • Chicken Flauta topped with fresh guacamole
  • Chips and Salsa
  • Steak and Cheese Burrito
  • Peach Yogurt
  • Gala apple
  • Whole wheat bread with strawberry jam
  • Ghirardelli brownie
  • Dried, roasted edamame beans

All right, so truthfully? I really did eat all that stuff for lunch. But here's how (and why): I stopped at Costco on the way home from work to return something, and couldn't help wandering down the aisles, just to see what looked good. As it turns out, almost everything looked good. (I should never go there when I'm starving!) Fortunately it was just a nibble of each. So I sampled it all. (All EXCEPT the soda and the Hot Pocket...because my gluttony knows its bounds. And that would have been disgusting!)

So what did I do as soon as I got home? Started ravaging through the fridge...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Virtual Vacation: Languishing in Laguna

Luisa (of Novembrance fame) tagged me for another meme. This one is quite different from most I've seen. You're supposed to post the 6th photo from your 6th folder (in i-photo, I assume) and this is mine.

Here is my daughter, The Princess, lounging on a chair overlooking the ocean at a dear friend's beach house in Laguna. We were there during the first week of January, when everyone's sick of the cold and the snow and the inversion layer, and Laguna is at its loveliest. The beach house was a haven of serenity, with unbelievable private views of the cliffs and the ocean. It was a wonderful time to steal away, both for a mother-daughter retreat, a get-together with friends who feel more like family, and a chance to paint. I offer you this scene, now, in the same spirit of warmth and escape.

In fact, I already did a painting of this exact scene (sans all the houses on the hill):

Feel free to hang out here for a few minutes and catch some warmer rays...
while I tag Kazzy. And Melanie J. And That Girl From Brazil.
And, really, anyone else who wants to link up. Because this one is random and fun.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there IS a Mrs. Santa Claus

This is a picture of me with my adorable Grandma. A living, breathing Mrs. Santa Claus. Complete with a starched, white ruffled apron and silver-haired bun. She'd always squeal with delight when she opened her door and found us standing on her front porch, waiting to come in. And then she'd envelop us in big, squishy, bosomy hugs.
This woman brought sheer magic to my childhood.

This is the woman who:
  • never raised her voice, and would choose to sing "tra-la-la" rather than scold;
  • let us drag her bathroom rug and her best teacups outside so we could have in impromptu tea part under the lilac bush;
  • engaged us in a game of Avon Lady ("Bessie") by cheerfully allowing us to gather up armloads of her perfume and shampoo bottles and then ring her doorbell and sell them back to her for a quarter apiece; 
  • would let us build a fabulous block tower, and then leave it up for an entire week, politely asking her club ladies to step around it; 
  • took me on an impromptu roadtrip to Paris, Idaho when I was nine because I complained I'd never been out of the state; 
  • would insist on feeding even a casual visitor, and then take the care to clip a small individual candle to the edge of their plate. 
  • And don't even get me started on Christmas! (That's a post unto itself.)

But the real magic took place in her heart. She had a knack for entertaining, even though they lived their entire married lives in a little tiny duplex. There was an amazing spirit in their home. Everyone who came within the circle of their household felt understood, appreciated, loved. Everyone. And everyone left feeling full. Full of delicious food and little goodies, but also filled with her special brand of enthusiasm and joy. She made everyone feel like the most important person in her life. Made them feel like family. Her home was the center of her universe, the place where she laughed, loved, served, and ministered. And it felt like heaven.

At the base of her front door was a little gold music box which would automatically start to play when she opened the door, and rewind when she shut it again. The song it would play was "Bless This House"...clearly something she lived by. Yesterday I went to lunch with my über-chic designer friend, Michelle, and she showed me some of her latest creations. This particular image reminded me of my grandma and the music box on her front door. So much so that I had to have it...for this post, and to frame for my house.*  To remind me that there IS a Mrs. Santa Claus, and I used to fall asleep on her lap. (And tomorrow would have been her birthday.)

*(If you're so inclined, click on the typetypetype link on my sidebar, and you can get one too!)

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Am Clearly Not Paying This Woman Enough

My dear friend, Mrs. 4444, is at it again. I love this woman. Like friends and family mixed. we've stumbled upon a surprising array of commonalities between our two families (and extended ones). This discovered-through-blogging kindred spirit has a hilarious sense of humor, a penchant for parenting, and a heart of gold.  No wonder she has over 100 followers!

I loved her even before she did THIS: "I'm nominating you for a 2009 Bloggy Award (Best Writing of a Weblog). Thanks for sharing your gift :)"

And THIS: (She gave me the "Your Blog Is Fabulous" award, and wrote "I love the way Charrette writes with her heart and soul.)

And THIS and THIS: She posted – and prepared in a series of photos – two of my recipes here, and I must say, her cooking blog is highly entertaining! Well worth your time. 

How does she manage to do it all?

Today marks Mrs. 4444's 444th post. I highly recommend venturing over to sample her midwestern warmth and friendship. (And enter her giveaway).

Oh, and speaking of kindred spirits, the ever-insightful Eowyn, who has been a delight to discover, both online and in person, linked to me HERE (and stopped my heart for a few beats with that declaration (#36)). 

Life is good in the blogosphere.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I am 29. (Don't laugh.)

Today is my birthday. And I am 29.

Don't laugh -- and don't mistake me for one of those incredibly vain women who compulsively lies about her age. I am a different kind of 29. I was barely 29 the day my mother died. So even though that was well over a decade ago, there is a part of me that forever remains 29. (Unfortunately that part is not my stomach or my hips.)

In the years since I turned 29, I've had some incredible growth experiences, learned some amazing things, cried an ocean or two of tears, and laughed a herd of hyenas right out of business. There's no question that I've lived, loved, and moved forward since that day. And yet there's a part of me that refuses to grow or progress without my mother.

I saw a hilarious typographical error on the marquis outside an elementary school today: "Parent Maturation Night". I'm pretty sure that's not quite what they meant. And yet, what parent doesn't need to mature just a little bit more? And how great would it be if it could happen all in one night?

Actually, I "matured" (perhaps a better term is transitioned) from Oldest Sister to Surrogate Mother in one night – one really bittersweet night, when I was 29. Sometimes we have to grow up too fast. And sometimes that growing-up process takes no prisoners. But other times it holds a part of us hostage. And I think that's what happened to my heart.

I don't think I can put my finger on EXACTLY which part of me refuses to move beyond 29, or EXACTLY what it is that's keeping me there, but I have some ideas. In her book Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman writes,
"Sometimes when a [daughter]...has to take on responsibility very quickly, she has to advance rapidly in her development. At the same time, she may continue to identify with her earlier stage as a way to maintain a relationship with her mother and deny the finality of the death. The result is an adult who retains some characteristics of an earlier developmental time, one who feels as if a piece of her is still "stuck" [there]. To this daughter, "growing up" feels like not only a mystery but a practical impossibility."

A few pages later she continues: "The twenties are the years most women pinpoint as the time they first realized their mothers had qualities – empathy, wisdom, experience – they would value in a friend. To lose a mother at this time, just at the point when one seems to have found her again, feels like a cruel trick."
All of that is true of my experience. I feel like I'm still in the beginning stages of learning to parent, just as I was at 29, and yet my oldest child is approaching adulthood. I'm still occasionally caught in that tug-of-war between career and motherhood, just as I was at 29. I sometimes have a hang-up about doing housework by myself, almost digging in my heels until someone comes to work by my side -- As if my mom's somehow going to swoop down and help me clean my room. (Whatever. That's not even 29. That's more like nine.)

Ironically, my mother is also "stuck" in my mind's eye at a perpetual 54. So young. 54. Less than a decade from where I am now. While she suffered immeasurably with cancer and the toll its treatments took, she never grew old. I don't know what my mother would have looked like, or felt like, at 70, 80, 90...and I have no idea what to expect when I age. Sometimes I am terrified of outliving her.

I often feel a deep yearning to fill that void in my life by surrounding myself with wonderful women – friends, guardians, mentors – and God has answered that need with the most astonishing assortment of amazing role models for me, literally placing them in my path: dear friends, women at church, neighbors, trailmates, colleagues, siblings, in-laws, a Jewish therapist, and, yes, a community of bloggers. I learn from all of you. Most of the time you probably don't even realize you're teaching me. But heaven knows SOMEBODY has to lead me over that threshold and help me grow up! I promise I'm doing it...just sometimes in baby steps.

--In the meantime, please don't judge me if I act a little immature. After all, I'm only 29!

p.s. Somebody at the Bloggers Annex just put up one of my posts as a birthday surprise. Go check it out.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The View From Here (Stopping By Blogs on a Snowy Evening)

Whose blogs these are I think I know...

I'm officially declaring this blog a STRESS-FREE zone. My wonderful friend, Mrs. 4444, sent me this message recently in response to one of my (infrequent) posts: "You know what I love about you? (Well, one thing.) You don't apologize if you don't post every day; it's calming. Your blog (like I'm guessing your home) is a peaceful place to stop by. " That comment made my day. It also made me laugh. Because I think of my home as anything BUT peaceful, most of the time. And, frankly, sometimes the blog feels a bit stressful as well! But I do ASPIRE to a certain level of serenity. In all aspects of my life.

When I'm feeling buried, I love to look outside. The photo above is the view from our front window. It's beautiful year-round. But it's especially peaceful during the winter. There's something about that blanket of snow that is also a blanket of quiet, a blanket of cleanliness and order, a blanket of peace. Oh, there are days I wish that a blanket of quiet, and cleanliness and peacefulness would fall from the sky, like manna, INSIDE the house. Just cover the clutter with a layer of white. Cover the discord with a layer of peace. Cover the hubbub with silence. And stay there for MONTHS! :)

When I REALLY need to detox from all the chaos, I strap on a pair of snowshoes and head for the canyon. There is a quiet and a peacefulness and a letting-go there that is matchless. It's literally like walking into your own private Christmas card. If I go with my friend Mary it's all the better, because she adds her knowledge of the trails and the wildlife, her delightful companionship, and wise, uplifting conversation.

They may not see me stopping here
To watch their blogs fill up below

I want my blog to be a virtual snowshoe trek. Not devoid of chatter. Not at all. Just free from stress. I'm sure it's no surprise to any of you that I feel no pressure to post with any regularity. And sometimes I go completely AWOL. But I always come back. Sometimes for a breather. Sometimes for a quiet, lonely reflective walk. But usually for delightful companionship and wise, uplifting conversation. I love it when we laugh!

Some give their harness bells a shake
Others, just the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

So, the pressure's off. I hope you come often. But I hope you never feel obligated. Just stop by whenever you're in the mood. And I hope you'll add to the conversation with your comments. But never if it becomes a chore. (We all have miles to go before we sleep.) Just comment for the joy of trudging along the trail with a companion or two. I've stopped counting. I choose, instead, to delight in each and every friend who chooses to pass the time here. And revel in the very thought that some are engaged enough to comment, and find it valuable to accompany me on my trek.

The blogs are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Turning Those Rants into Resolutions

This year I resolve to:

I resolve to "just say no" to the alluring drug of every holiday obligation: office parties, piano recitals, school programs, art fairs, and anything else that pulls me away from my family during the evening. Instead, I want to spend December singing carols, reading stories, sharing scriptures, and feeling home.

I resolve not to turn into a "wicked stepmother" of fairytale proportions on December 24, suddenly panicking over what's not done and taking it out on those nearest and dearest to me. I will not yell at anyone to help wrap, help assemble, help mail, help deliver, help organize, help clean, help cook, help decorate. I will not yell. Period. I will speak in reverent tones and spread nothing but joy on Christmas Eve. I commit now to a stress-free Christmas Eve, whatever the cost.

I will not allow my burgeoning to-do list to eclipse my morning workout. I will not eat a dozen of my own fresh-baked cookies on-the-run every day because I can't make time for a good lunch. I will not eat a steady stream of chocolate from 8 pm to midnight to help me stay awake. I will simply go to bed. And get up early enough to incorporate a workout into my day. I will take care of myself first.

Next year I will not have a cow when we bring up the Christmas china, only to discover that the contractors were not gentle when they moved the crate and the entire set is shattered. I will just be grateful we have food, and plates to eat it on. I will be grateful we had contractors work on our basement instead of doing it ourselves. I will be grateful Christmas is coming, with or without the special plates. I will not let anything so immaterial as a material loss get in the way of my holiday spirit.

While I love my innate flexibility and utter spontaneity, leaving too much to the last minute, or worse, to chance, is one of my biggest weaknesses. I will plan more and fret less. I will make a list and check it twice. I will make room for the most important things first.

Sure, we did the "giving tree," the donation to the food bank, the children's book drive, the open house benefiting Mothers Without Borders, and enjoyed participating in all of them. But I want to feel like we made a sacrifice as a family that made a significant difference. I resolve to set aside money all year long to do one significant act to bless someone else's life.

That was one of the most meaningful things I did last December, and I already have at least three more posts already written in my head. I'm going to prepare a few early, write a few more as they come to me, and be glad I have that time to reflect, and rejoice in those of you who take time to respond.

I'm actually glad this hit me this way this Christmas, because NOW I'm totally worked up, totally motivated to make changes, totally on board to start making progress NOW.
It feels good to turn those rants into resolutions, and hopefully by next December those rants will become raves. I'd love to hear your rants, and how you plan to turn them into raves this year.