gingerbread houses

IMG_6766

chalk drawing by Molly

Around this time of year, the Web and magazines are full of picture-perfect gingerbread houses. The pair you’ll see below are a little rough around the edges, but I know Molly and Finn, along with a couple of Molly’s friends, still had fun working on them.

I knew the construction process was not nearly so simple as it would appear… During my college years, I visited a friend at her farm in western Illinois around Christmastime. One of our planned activities was to work together with Kim’s mom and one of her sisters on their annual gingerbread house extravaganza. I don’t think I’ve ever participated in such a frustrating building project! The dough has to be rolled to just the right thinness: too thick, and it may be too soft; too thin, and it will simply crack. And how to be sure everything lines up without using pattern pieces?? (That’s something I was sure to do this time ’round.) If the icing is too thick, it can tear off pieces of gingerbread; too thin, and it will just run and puddle around the base.

Molly’s been asking for years now to make a gingerbread house, and I put her off until I felt she could be of proper assistance. I wanted to help insofar as making the dough and cutting out shapes, but I wanted to hand off all the assembly work to those with more patience! So, we invited a couple of her friends and included Finn, of course, who was just as enthusiastic as everyone else to have his own candy creation.

IMG_6762 IMG_6764

Molly’s three-sided house (which Shane said is reminiscent of an Afghan’s mud hut) didn’t exactly follow the blueprint, but she’s pleased with it, anyway.

IMG_6765 IMG_6774A week in the making, Finn’s house finally got wrapped up yesterday. And his first question to me this morning? “Can I start eating my house now?”

my first quilt!

In the spring, Molly and I hatched a plan to work on a quilt together. She chose the pattern from a book called Liberty Love, which features projects sewn entirely from Liberty of London fabrics — lots of colorful and petite floral prints that Molly adored. We ventured to JoAnn Fabrics, where we scoured the aisles of quilting cottons for similarly scaled designs, deliberating for at least an hour over the 22 fabric selections we needed to make for this project. I felt in over my head and was adamant that I would not be doing all the required cutting and sewing myself. I had an able-bodied 12-year-old with a tiny bit of sewing experience who could certainly wield scissors adeptly. Surely, the quilt would be finished by her 13th birthday in the summer.

IMG_5863

Molly did do some cutting over the next few months. She was especially good, though, at providing company for me when I asked from time to time, “Do you want to work on your quilt?,” preferring to sit nearby and watch me do the work — ha! She would match a piece of white dotted swiss fabric with an accompanying printed piece, hand them to me to sew, and quickly ready another set.

IMG_5866

When I f…i…n…a…l…l…y finished sewing all the blocks together (eight months after we started this endeavor), Molly directed the layout of all the pieces.

IMG_6767

This quilt was truly a labor of love, for only love would inspire me to ever take on such a huge sewing project. Unlike with knitting, I do not take much pleasure in the process of sewing, as the thinking behind it is a sort of inverse logic that is difficult for me, and it requires using a machine. It’s tactile, yes, but not in the slow way of most handwork. Sometimes a machine just goes too fast for me, and — oops! — I’ve accidentally sewn the corner of the blanket to the middle, sewn a crease into what’s supposed to be an open spread, created a wavy line in lieu of a straight one, and — shoot! — I’ve just drawn blood from my finger! But, holy smokes, I’ve just finished a quilt for my daughter’s twin-size bed, and I hope she holds it dear all the rest of her life!
IMG_6771

for work that serves others

IMG_0128

Many jobs provide a way to care for, or serve, others, and I’ve always been drawn toward those pursuits — such as teacher, nurse, librarian — society’s “helpers.” I was so fortunate to find a part-time job at the University of Illinois when both our kids were in elementary school (following a five-year stint there early in my career). What I do as Coordinator of Student & Young Alumni Initiatives for one of the colleges at the U. encompasses outreach, education, communication, and events. There’s a lot of variety in daily tasks, and I meet and get to know all different types of people. What brings me fulfillment in the work, though, is the opportunity to help young adults by opening doors for them, introducing them to people and experiences that will help shape their futures.

for access to world-class performances & venues

IMG_0127

Living in a Big Ten university community, we are fortunate to have access to some excellent entertainment and venues, although our chosen pursuits prevent us from having us as much free time as we might like to check them out!

Yesterday, however, I did take Molly to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois Campus to see “The Nutcracker” performed by the the Champaign Urbana Ballet with accompaniment provided by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. Every aspect — dance, music, lighting, sets, costumes — was marvelous, and Molly was enthralled.

It was fun to recognize a couple of old friends of hers (one was a preschool classmate and another a former neighbor) among the dancers. Having each studied ballet for more than a decade, they are both fluid, graceful, and expressive in their art. I know Molly was moved by their fervent commitment to an endeavor that has produced such beautiful skill and accomplishment.

At the end of the show, she said, “Maybe we could see a ballet here every year? Maybe not ‘The Nutcracker’ every time … We could see what they have coming up.” An annual (maybe even seasonal) theater date with my girl? Sounds about wonderful to me.

for the things we keep — and pass along

IMG_6756

I really like that oft-repeated quote by William Morris, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” So deceptively simple and succinct but so difficult to implement when one lives with others, for one person’s idea of “useful” or “beautiful” can be quite contrary to another’s definition. And those of us with sentimental natures tend to hold onto a few things which may not fit into either category but serve as talismans for people, places, or times one may never be able to revisit except through memory and emotion.

Even though my home is typically cluttered with others’ things and feels not truly representative of me, I’m thankful for the pieces dotting the house that were handed down or that I’ve collected — mostly old things that are still functional or able to be re-purposed and enjoyed frequently. I hope they give our kids a feeling of family history and that some of the things they see become talismans of their own one day.

for gardening

IMG_6725

It’s pretty magical to think about the bulbs I have nestled in patches of soil around our home sending up perky blooms several months from now and annually thereafter without any more encouragement from me. And equally marvelous that just a few minutes spent with my hands in the dirt can result in a plant’s survival in place beyond all the years I hope to live. I am thankful for the act of gardening because it is a constant reminder of higher powers at work in a world that humans will likely never fully understand. It is a chance to participate in the cycle of life — the growing of plants that sustain and inspire us with their nutrients, beauty, and endurance.

for snuggly, warm socks

IMG_6751

Wearing the warmest and softest of socks is one of the ways I know how to hold my own against winter, which lasts about half of the year here in central Illinois. Once the temperature drops below 65 degrees, I sadly stuff my sandals into storage. Solace comes in the form of a small stack of SmartWools and Wigwams (along with long underwear and fleece!).

for our kids’ great school

IMG_0124

Leaving school today, Finn was kind to help Molly by carrying her lunch bag!

Finn and Molly are thriving at the Catholic school they’re attending for their middle school years. I am so grateful for the education and care they receive from all the teachers, administrators, and clergy there. Being members of a small school helps immensely in the familiarity they have quickly been able to gain with everyone else there. It also means they are noticed as individuals and that they play important roles in addition to that of student. They are valuable team players in sports, and they frequently participate in charitable works (such as visiting with residents at local nursing homes, packing meals and other supplies for the needy, raising money for the tuition of another student in Tanzania to be able to attend school). They participate in school “families” in order to connect with other kids both younger and older, as well as particular faculty and staff members. They still recite the Pledge of Allegiance and raise and lower the American flag daily.

Although I had been nervous about putting the kids in a pretty homogeneous environment and under heavy religious influence, I admit that it feels pretty comfortable. We know that most of the other students’ families have very similar (high) expectations of their children academically, socially, and morally. I still marvel at and appreciate the fact that whenever I approach the school when kids are also either entering or leaving, almost all of them step quickly aside, make eye contact, say hello, and/or hold the door for me. It’s just what we teach Molly and Finn to do — just be polite — and something I didn’t see at the public middle school the year Molly went there at all, not even from the staff.

I’m thankful that when Molly and Finn are at their present school, I can trust that they’re accounted for, safe, settled in a calm environment with people all around them who show they care for them in many ways every day. When the kids are absent due to illness or injury, their school family prays for them. It makes a difference for all of us.

for buildings full of books

IMG_0122

To know me is to know how much I love to read. I made a stop tonight at our local library to pick up a magazine being held for me and then browse the yoga DVD’s and then browse the “New Nonfiction” shelves and then… must stop! It’s so easy to get absorbed in good reading material and almost totally lose track of time. I’m still as susceptible as Molly and Finn to the siren calls of pretty covers, familiar authors’ names, and beloved genres with dedicated library shelves.

It’s complete bliss to lie down with a book, drink at hand, and page through another’s imagination or experiences all laid out in alluring combinations of words. Magical when we can transcend time and death through the preservation of others’ writings. Altogether wonderful when we have access to a gigantic network of libraries’ offerings through a few clicks of the computer mouse and the input of my library patron number.

Thanks be to our civilized society that collects and shares the works of authors and artists around the world for so many to enjoy. I’ll never have a house full of shelves of all the books I’ve read, much as I love being around such testaments to the bibliophile, but long live the public library as a testament to the many pleasures and knowledge gained from almost unlimited access to information.

for a comfy bed

IMG_6750

By the time we moved into our present home, Shane and I were overdue for a new mattress, and at least one of us had long been dreaming of a king-sized bed. A trench formed each time we shared the old queen-sized one, into which we’d fall captive, Shane often throwing a leg over me just to get the space he needed for his long limbs. I rested (but didn’t sleep much) in the sliver of space that remained — something like eight inches wide. Happily, our new bedroom allowed us to spread out a bit, so we indulged in a “hybrid” mattress — traditional coil springs topped with a thick layer of memory foam — that is flat, firm, quiet, oh so comfortable, and big enough to invite our kids to snuggle with us from time to time. I’m very thankful for such a cozy spot to rest our weary heads and bodies at night.