and tomorrow is national pass gas day

Today is National Chili Day! Now, truth be told, I do not like chili. At all. And it is an extremely popular dish to serve at pot lucks and get togethers. The odd thing is, I very much like to cook it.

The same goes for soup. I don’t generally eat it, but I love to chop all those things up and throw them in the crock pot. There must be something very therapeutic in chopping vegetables. I have mentioned before that I do not, as a rule, enjoy cooking. But there is something about this act that is quite fulfilling.

So for today, I will share with you the three prize-winning chili recipes from our recent 4H chili cookoff. I just will not eat them. Enjoy!

free offer while it lasts! (no, don’t put me in the spam filter)

Rarely am I ever accused of doing something early. But last week, in some kind of cosmic accident, I did. I celebrated a holiday too early. It really wasn’t my fault. Blame middle child again. It was her idea to play switcheroo with all the furniture. I came home one day, and the dining room table was by the computer in the living room and the couch and recliner in the erstwhile dining room. For over a month, we didn’t know what to call either room. We settled on “the computer room” and “the piano room.” I do not know how she wrestled a six-foot dining table through a two-foot space alone. I did not choose to ask. As long as walls and floors remained unscathed, I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant.

Two months later, we switched back, on account of no one wanted to watch the Olympics sitting in hard-backed dining room chairs. (We couldn’t move the TV.) At which point, she decided we needed to move the six-foot bookshelf. It seemed eminently sensible then to organize and cull our reading material. This is no task for the faint-hearted. We have, at last count, eleven bookshelves in our home, plus a cabinet of cookbooks and various boxes of books in the attic and basement. We just can ‘t seem to let go of these. We really might need Aboriginal Societies of Central and South America some day. Like, when we move to Venezuela.

Thus it was, I had been celebrating National Clean Off Your Bookshelf Day for a week before it occurred. Yes, it took a week, and I am not done. But now, there is an entire shelf of all of our gardening books. We gave away half a shelf. Ditto for craft books. The writing shelf, reference shelf, entire literature bookcases, 4H project shelf, travel shelf, and –you get the drift. Also, the entire shelf devoted to library books, created years ago when I got very tired of losing books in children’s rooms and not unearthing them until we owed roughly the equivalent of the national debt of Zimbabwe.

it’s hard to let go of a book. But do we really need four books on African violets (which we do not have) or a 1993 Book of World Facts? Entire countries have come and gone since then. So now, in honor of National Clean Off Your Bookshelf Day, perhaps a free will offering is in order. To the first persons to respond, or maybe the best impassioned plea, I will send:

More incredibly Awesome Crafts for Kids. Geared toward kids younger than my own, but full of fun stuff.

The 2009 Christian Writer’s Market Guide
. In pristine condition, because I spent the last year working on book proposals and travel writing and therefore rarely used it.

They’re yours, free, because a good book needs to be shared.

If you are inspired by National Clean Off Your Bookshelf Day, remember to bless others with the gift of a book. It was a gift to you to be able to enjoy it. If you know you are finished, let it go and pass on the gift. I once had a woman on an airplane offer me the novel she had just finished reading, telling me, “I can see that you are a reader, too. Please take this and enjoy it.” No, it was not authored by L. Ron Hubbard. It was simply a gesture of goodwill toward a fellow lover of words.

You probably have an organization in your area that would be happy to take children’s books off your hands for those who cannot buy them. Think of the joy it gave your kids–and imagine what it would be like never to have such a wonderful thing as a book of your own.

At least then, when your kids want to rearrange the house, the shelves won’t be so heavy.

pizzas and underdogs

“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” J.R.r.Tolkein

My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas

How many of you plead familiarity with that little anagram? I, personally, did not grow up with this pneumonic help to memorize the planets, but my kids did. Back in the day, it was just plain old-school–styrofoam balls and crude memorization. But now, the situation is much worse. Now, momma’s cupboard is bare. She is cosmically forever unable to compete the task of nourishing her children. Why? Because scientists removed the “P” from her equation. No Pluto, no pizza. Tough break, but science is a demanding master. Now that they cut off the queue at eight,though, they’ve got to deal with all the Uranus jokes.

Personally, I take offense at this. Not simply because I grew up with Pluto and it’s a part of my life, albeit a rather distant, unseen part. I mean, I grew up with typewriters and 45’s too, and I’m doing OK without either one of them. But Pluto is personal. Pluto is the little kid on the playground being picked on by the bullies. Can’t you just hear Jupiter and Saturn exchanging snide remarks at its demotion? And scientists must feel powerful at being able to deem heavenly bodies in or out of the cosmic clique. (I think this is exceptionally unfair payback, since the scientists probably were the nerdy kids on the playground.)

I always root for the little guy. Perhaps its part of being 5’2″, or the last of seven kids. Or a lifelong Cubs fan. Take your pick–I’m an underdog magnet.

I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising to me to discover, as I recently explained my one published novel and the two in progress, that I deal with the underdog a lot. The underground railroad, the Trail of Tears, and illegal immigrants. Three populations, all similar in their Pluto-like status. The theme runs through most of my nonfiction as well. Don’t count out the little guys, the losers, the “less thans.” A quote attributed to Cardinal Roger Mahony says, “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members — the last, the least, the littlest.”

And I almost forgot to mention–February 18 celebrates the day Pluto was discovered. At least one state has declared a Pluto Day. (Of course, it’s New Mexico, which also celebrates UFO Day.) So today I’m seeing Pluto as it represents all of us. The funny thing is, I don’t think Pluto much cares. It continues to orbit, never losing much sleep over what minute earthly scientists declare. Happy Birthday, Pluto. At least some of us still care.

once upon a time

Today, I want to tell a story. Once upon a time, a young princess (14)got very, very sick. So sick, she had to go to a place called a sanitarium (I don’t think we don’t have these in the US anymore) to recover (she hoped) from tuberculosis. But that is not what this story is about. While the girl was there, her mother, age 44, died. The girl could not say goodbye and could not go home for the funeral. When she left, her mother was there; when she returned, another woman was in her house. The princess was very, very sad.

Now, the girl grew up to be a queen, as princesses do. She married and had her own little girl. The little girl grew and grew. Well, she didn’t grow so much. She never grew over 5’2″. But that, dear friends, is also not the point of this story. When that little girl was seventeen, learning about the world around her, dreaming of her own happily ever after, and getting ready for a strange new invention called college, she was also taking care of the queen and a very, very sad king and their castle. At barely fifty, the queen died and left the princess alone. The princess was very, very sad.

Now, that girl grew up to be a queen, as princesses do. She married and had her own little girls. The little girls grew and grew. But the queen started to get sick, and she, too, would die if no one rescued her from the evil spell that bound up her family. But fortunately for the queen, her handsome prince (the king) knew a way to outwit the magic. Through great peril to himself, he fought the wicked sickness and saved the queen. The princesses were very, very happy. The end.

Yesterday, among many worthy days, was National Donor Day. I did not have to celebrate it. I celebrate it every day of my life, because I still have a life, which is more than can be said for the queens in our story, my mother and grandmother. It is more than can be said for thousands who die every year waiting for organs that never come in time. Every one of those people has a princess, prince, king, queen, mother, or father who is very, very sad. Almost all of them do not have to die. They could be saved by people who make a couple clicks on a web page.

No one likes to think of dying, and I hope and pray all of you and your loved ones live long, happily ever after lives. But it does no harm to any of us to take time to secure that happily ever after for others if we do not achieve it for ourselves. If you are going to a better place when you do go, you will not need those old organs. We’re getting new bodies. (If you’re not sure where you’re going, that’s a conversation for another place, but I’d love to have it with you.) Please, become an organ donor. Today. Celebrate National Donor Day in the best way possible.

And, as the King in our story knew, you don’t have to die to be a kidney donor, and it really is not “great peril” to donate one while you are still alive. God made us all with a spare–how cool is that?

To join the registry of organ donors in your state, click here:

To learn more about the myths of organ donation and how to donate, try:

And, to learn about the disease that took the lives of the queens, and how many, many people are waiting for their knight (or maiden) in shining armor read:


A celebration of National Homes for Birds Week and Random Acts of Kindness Day

My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach. I’ve recently discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. An ideal winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain kind of, well, a mess. Forget deadheading those old brown seedpods. Never, under any circumstances, lop down those fading grasses. Swear off raking and bagging leaves for all time. You see, when those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous neatnicks (ie, my neighbors), the birds and the bunnies have to look much farther afield for the things they need to survive the cold. They look in my yard.

Thus it is, the lazy gardener who neglects and procrastinates finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles entice creatures who need shelter from coyotes and cold. Take that, Mr. I-cut-fancy-patterns-in-my-lawn next door.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life. It always seems that the times my life is quite messy I find someone who needs refuge. Who wants to talk about fears and shortcomings? Have you ever told someone something excruciatingly painful, only to have him look at you like you’re the most deficient person on earth to have gotten yourself into that fix and he totally despairs of you ever “getting it”? Yeah, me too. Only someone who understands messiness can break the silence.

Where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script can get you excommunicated from polite society. Yet, sometimes, don’t you recognize the desperation behind those masks? People searching for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

“My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes.

I love the grass heads bowing under snow I now see outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of black-eyed susan seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. The cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting are welcome to show off any time they want in my backyard. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.

culture by any other name

I have to admit, I didn’t exactly grow up in a cultural hothouse. My dad’s favorite singers were Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. I remember having the Columbia Records Library of Classical Music, but I don’t remember ever hearing it played.

In one sister’s room, I could hear kind of a hush with the Herman’s Hermits and in another, climb Stairways to Heaven. (I’m pretty sure the real heaven, should it have stairways, does not have the cochlea-decimating decibels that hers had. But I could be wrong.)

Going to plays meant seeing my sister be a turkey in the Thanksgiving first-grade special. And dance? Well, where does dancing in the living room to the aforementioned Hank Williams fall on the cultural scale? (Dad did teach me some serious jitterbug skills. But that’s another story.)

The cultural high point of my young life was probably my mother taking me to the Woodstock Theater (real plush curtains–in a movie theater!) to see My Fair Lady. True, a devout love of musical theater has stuck. But were it not for junior high and high school field trips, I probably wouldn’t have had much exposure to museums, orchestras, or theatre with an “re.” If not for high school chorus, I might still think Handel was something found on a car door. Not that my parents wouldn’t have liked all those things, but let’s face it, with seven kids, my parents were lucky to get to the dollar movie for Love Story.

Were it not for those trips, I would not have discovered my love for a Chicago holiday institution–the Nutcracker Ballet at McCormick Center. Since then, I have been as passionate about seeing the Nutcracker as some people are about seeing Elvis. (Unfortunately, I’ve managed it about as often. Being cultural is expensive.)

So, when my second child showed some promise of grace and rhythm, I did what any suburban mother does. Enrolled her in ballet, at age 4. She was born to dance in her little French maid costume (purple, with feathers), and was, of course the shining star of the class. Meaning, that at four years old, she didn’t fall over once in the recital and she ended facing the right direction. But she was less than enthusiastic, and unlike a good suburban mom, I didn’t push it. I let her quit.

Over ensuing years, she tried soccer (great goalie, but the concept of kicking and running at the same time was kind of lost on her); track (hmmm, tall; you get hurdles); violin (fun, until high school teachers deemed orchestra was not primarily a social club); show choir (“All of these girls are 5’1″ and blonde, mom.”). And finally her niche, voice and theater.

So I was somewhat startled by her proclamation at 16 that she wanted to take ballet. Really? And more startled when, after a few months, she accosted me rather indignantly, “I love this! Why didn’t you ever put me in it before?”

“Um, I did.”
“Yes. Four years old. Glen Ellyn Park District.”
“Oh. So why am I not a prima ballerina now?”
“You quit.”
“Why didn’t you make me keep it up?”
“‘Cause I’m a terrible slacker mother who cares less about the welfare and passions of my children than where I’m going to get my next chai latte.”

National Ballet Day was yesterday. Who knew that, 13 years later, we’d be celebrating it? I’m pretty convinced that the reason we are celebrating it that this child, allowed to pursue and discard her own passions over the years, knows now who she is and what she loves. I couldn’t force that at four. I can’t do it now at seventeen. And maybe she’s behind all the girls her age who have been dancing since three. Maybe she’ll never get a college scholarship for it or dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. (Though she played her in a Nutcracker play.) But–she loves to dance. That, my cultural and noncultural friends, is something to celebrate.

mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most powerful of all?

More years ago than I plan to say just now, I met someone who changed my life. No, not my husband. I’ll admit to that duration–married 23 years. No, not God, though that was certainly the mother of all changes. Not surprising to a lot of people, that person was a teacher. in fact, a number of teachers have changed me, and to those people belong “National Seeds of Greatness Day.” Second to parents, no one other than a teacher plays such a foundational role in recognizing, nurturing, and encouraging the seeds of greatness in a child. Theirs is a position filled with both promise and danger–as is any such place of power. National Seeds of Greatness Day belongs to teacher like:

–The junior high band teacher who told me the last day he ever saw me, “Thanks for being an incredible person.” He had no idea that very night I had been badly crushed by disappointed hopes, and so he could have no idea how much those parting words lifted my bruised soul and helped me believe in me again. I was thirteen–that’s how long six words can stay with a person.

–The fifth grade team teacher who, despite my open dislike, continued to be kind to me, smile at me, and include me, even when I told her I hated being read to and would rather sit in a corner myself and read something “less childish.” I was a little intellectual snob in fifth grade. Wait . . . I was a little intellectual snob for . . . a while after that. From her I learned to be kind to anyone in my path, because I couldn’t know what hid behind abrasiveness or that aloof-looking turn of the eye.

–The debate coach who gently suppressed my poor sportsmanship tendencies and effusively congratulated my victories. It requires a pretty talented person to take a blood sport like debate and make it compassionate while retaining the competitive edge.

But for that teacher, would I have had the courage to pursue public speaking and writing for a career? Without that teacher, would I have become a high school teacher myself, if only for a short while, trying to bring that kind of buoyancy to other drifting teenagers? And, would I have had the courage to face the next four years of college alone?

Because that same teacher is the woman who pretty much singlehandedly took an insecure fourteen-year-old and helped her become a confident speaker and, more importantly, confident person. She’s also the teacher who held me and let me be that insecure little girl again when I lost my mom senior year. Where is that in the contract?

There are a lot of things wrong with our school systems. (And sometimes, parents, it’s our fault.) Sadly, my own kids have had teachers I would never put on a list of caring professionals. (These have been exclusively at the high school level. Even sadder, perhaps. I don’t think there’s a population more lost.) But others have been Master Gardeners of young souls. And I am grateful for them. They have no idea, while watering the seed, what that plant will turn into. Yet every day, they believe in the seeds.

we’re almost there

This week, along with groundhogs everywhere, we celebrated Half-Way through Winter Day. Six more weeks? That means, by careful calculation, we have endured exactly six weeks of winter already. This is where mathematicians are seriously in error. That and in assuring us in 11th grade trigonometry we really would use this stuff someday.

I have lived a total of one year in Montana, six years in Minneapolis, and about thirty-two in Chicago. I consider the six years in St. Louis my tropical phase. Seattle was just an unaccountable, wild aberration on the bell curve. Calendars and those annoying math people aside, I am therefore somewhat of an expert on winter.

I know winter. I know how to plug in a car. No, not an electric one, and if you have to ask, you don’t know. I know how to stack a two-square-foot freezer and two tiny apartment cabinets with enough food to last three months, if necessary. I am conversationally familiar with tire chains, ice cleats, and manly man snow shovels. I know how to make six kinds of hot chocolate and a mean vanilla steamer, and I plot seasons by when we switch form hot tea to iced and back again, not by the calendar. We once trick or treated in a two-foot blizzard.

In other climes, they cancel school if the superintendent sees a snowflake on his sidewalk. In Montana, they laugh at two feet of snow and tell the kids to break out the skis.

So how do we in the tundra survive what is, sorry Phil, way more than twelve weeks of winter? With intense psychology. Gross self-manipulation. Lying to ourselves like crazy.

In December, it’s almost Christmas. That’s enough. Anything is endurable if Christmas comes at the end of it. Even a Cher farewell tour.

In January, the seed catalogs arrive. The day after Christmas, they begin appearing in my mailbox. I can spend an entire month drinking tea and looking at pictures of what summer will look like. Where there are flower and tomato seeds, there is hope. I have been known to drive by my favorite nursery in January, despite the fact that the plant shelves are barren and snowdrift covered, just to say hello to a best friend. Yes I know, that is marginally headcase behavior.

February. You have only one option. Tell yourself–it’s the last real month of winter. And it’s a shorter month than any of the others. Here’s where the psychology really kicks in. I know it routinely snows in April. I know March is still cold enough to retain the flannel sheets. But I believe that once we hit March, it’s all over. Winter is but a writhing, whimpering bully who’s just gotten his comeuppance from the new kid. It may get in a few more blows, but everyone knows who is the ascendant star.

So, technically, winter is only half over. But by February, it feels closer to three-fourths. To celebrate, sit back, enjoy your hot cup of whatever it is, and if you have a condo in Florida, I’m your best friend.

wearing slippers in the rain

I have a deep aspiration and secret to share today. I cannot wait to turn fifty. Now, I fully realize most women might find that odd. It is not an aspiration you generally consider when you are, say, twenty-nine and perky and nothing sags where it should not. We do not generally add birthdays up with the same thrill we use for counting money in the bank or friends on Facebook. It has always been my considered opinion though, that having another birthday is better than the alternative.

But the real reason I cannot wait for the half-century mark is that, when that momentous occasion occurs, I can officially join the Red Hat Society. (I know, I could wear a pink hat now, but who wants to be the wimpy little sister everyone knows can’t quite make the grade for full red and purple regalia?)

Years ago, I showed my husband the “old lady” poem on a T-shirt in some forgotten department store and told him it would be my life motto. Not knowing, at the time, that the actual name of the poem was “Warning,” and that the actual author was Jenny Joseph of England, I simply called it “the old lady poem.” Many of you know the opening lines well:

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter. . .

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.”

I cannot print the entire poem here for you because Ms. Joseph owns her copyright, and being a writer, I deeply respect copyrights. Plus, being an American, I deeply respect lawsuits.

My husband, not grasping the great declaration of independence the poem offers women, could only focus on one line.

“You’re not really going to spit, are you??”

“Ummmmm, Nooooo.” Yeah, right. I can safely promise him I will not drink brandy, but as for spitting . . .

One of the greatest realizations some of us over forty have attained is that, we don’t really care. We no longer really care what other people think about how we’ve raised our kids. We no longer care what the neighbors think about what we wear (or don’t wear) out gardening. We don’t really care if someone twenty years younger assumes we’re in our dotage and kindly uses small words so we can catch up. We just laugh, because we know how quickly the tables will turn for them.

After so many decades of listening to the whispers of our own fears, our assumed inadequacies, and other people with too much time on their hands, we realize: we like who we are. At least, we’ve come to terms with it. Not to say there’s not a lot of room for improvement, but that that, too, is OK. It’s all right to have redecorating or even total demolition projects of the soul still on the to-do list. Perfection is off the table, and it feels good.

I must have glimpsed something of this when I loved this poem as a young woman. Some part of me wanted to do the shocking things one couldn’t do while tied to “what other people think.” Let me be clear–not immoral things, just little things that tell onlookers, “Think what you like. I’m enjoying life.”

So, the Red Hat Society, founded in part because of this poem, seems the perfect place for me ( And why am I telling you all this today? Because, yes, there is an applicable holiday. It is National Spunky Old Broads Day. And, being over forty, I am way past finding that an offensive term (because I don’t care) and cheerfully embracing some day becoming one.

But, as Ms. Joseph points out, perhaps,

“I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”

And spit.