Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February Book Report: “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

As both a founder, philosopher, and thinker, I find the ideas of Thomas Jefferson fascinating.  I also enjoy scholarship about him.  He’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but many of his works are as timely today as when he first wrote them and as an archetype of what it means (or meant?) to be American, my interest in Jefferson is abiding.  Each year, I teach my 7th graders about Jeffersonian America.  When I do that, I find time to read a new book about Jefferson.  This year’s read was a joint project of two of the most pre-eminent Jefferson thinkers in the United States: Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf.

The first half of the book’s title, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”, is taken from a phrase Jefferson used to describe himself in a letter written to a friend in 1793.  On the one hand, its an odd choice for a man whose faith in republicanism seemed a rebuke of the elitism of patriarchy.  On the other hand, at his beloved home, Jefferson was very much the patriarch, as father and overseer of an estate and its population, both enslaved and free.  That Jefferson loved his home at Monticello is a well-known fact; this book makes clear how much Jefferson’s affection for home was about how he saw himself in the world. 

The book uses Jefferson’s writings, journals, and letters to situate the man in his world.  Traveling with him from Monticello to Paris and Philadelphia, and then back to Virginia, the reader sees Jefferson at home two lights.  The first, as Jefferson himself preferred, as a largely benevolent patriarch of his own family.  It also tells the considerably more complicated story of Jefferson as patriarch of the people he holds in slavery, including the Hemings family.  

I found the book engaging and thoughtful, both in its thoughtful analysis and in its careful use of details as provided in Jefferson’s letters and journals.  I learned more than I had ever known before of Jefferson’s affection for music.  He was a violinist himself and sang duets with his wife Martha while courting her.  He ensured his daughters had piano lessons and arranged for some of his sons by Sally Hemings to learn the violin.  He had a fondness for mockingbirds, whose songs he enjoyed, and sometimes kept one in a cage.  

Gordon-Reed and Onuf include a more careful interpretation and understanding of the the famous Jefferson Bible then I had ever read before, including Jefferson’s own doubts about his sometimes doubtful faith.  As his journals make clear, he felt blessed by a higher power and believed in one.  At the same time that his personal interest in faith was strong, in the public realm Jefferson felt that mankind must depend on its self, not its god.  

The book takes Jefferson at his word and challenges his sense of self, even while attempting to understand this most blessed patriarch in critical and thoughtful terms.  It left me more fascinated than ever with Jefferson and is a book I will return to again and again as I think and teach about Thomas Jefferson.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Amaryllis Tuesday: February 27

Last week’s tantalizing warmth faded quickly, replaced by rainy days that felt colder than they were thanks to the damp.  Outdoors, the earth is slowly beginning its Spring emergence.  Inside, the amaryllis is growing taller every day.

The stem has swollen with the flower that will eventually emerge at the end of the stalk.  I turn the plant toward the sunlight outside and each day I watch for changes.   The plant is a promise of more warmth to come, a reminder that Winter’s scarves, sweaters, and coats won’t last forever.  This week, as I long for the ease of warmer days, that’s a most-welcome reminder.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Bring Me the Sunlight

I have always loved the long days of Summer, for lots of reasons but especially because of the sunlight, which seems abundant, as if the days are actually longer and I needn’t rush to get things done.  In 2014, I travelled to Scandinavia in June, at the height of Summer solstice, when sunlight lingers for more than 18 hours.  I loved it, and so did the locals, who seemed to celebrate the light on a whole new level.  I realized that 18 hours of sunlight was their well-earned reward for Winter days with barely 6 hours of sun.  There I was in a Scandinavian June, soaking in sunlight I had hardly earned.  I should have felt guilty but instead I turned my face to the light.  This picture was made at 2 am on the Baltic Sea. 

This photo of my mom and a chubby-cheeked JT was made at 10 pm at Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  The second was made after our tour, at just past midnight. This is just one corner of the palace, by the way.  Catherine didn’t live modestly.

Since that experience, I’ve been even more aware of the sunlight in my corner of the world.  We'll never have 18 hours between sunrise and sunset, but today is a day worth marking on our journey to the June solstice.  Today, we will achieve 12 hours of light.  Moving forward, we’ll have two to three extra minutes of sunlight every day from now until the Summer solstice in June.  That’s plenty of time to soak up the light.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Signs of Spring

Yesterday, I noticed that there are signs off life among the daffodil and tulip bulbs in my garden.  I snapped one picture in the rain and plan to treat myself to a garden walk to see more of the hopeful signs of Spring.

That’s happy!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Letting Go: Tacos for Supper

The backstory: This year, as JT prepares to head off to college, I’m writing about the traditions that spell love in our home.  I’m thinking of them more mindfully than usual as I prepare to send my bird from his nest.  For me, these traditions  were always about a securing a happy and well-loved childhood in preparation for a happy adulthood.  They are about creating memories that will endure and this year, writing about them is helping me to think about the next chapter in our lives.

Chicken tacos are the house meal of Sassafras House and if we love you, you’ve been invited to have chicken tacos at our table.  They are both a treat and an everyday meal, a hands-down favorite that never goes out of style.  We have them to celebrate birthdays and the first day of school.  We have them to mark the end of the week on Friday.  We have them on Tuesdays because, why not?  Tacos spell home and family, they spell love and tradition.  And they are always delicious.  Taco supper looks and tastes the same every time.  In that familiarity is the tradition at the heart of my home.  

We had our most recent taco supper on Sunday, to celebrate JT’s 18th birthday, the end of the wrestling season, and the love of family.  

That's happy and delicious!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Amaryllis Tuesday: February 20

The past week has been impressive on the amaryllis front.

Each day brings an extra few minutes of sunlight.  The amaryllis turns to the light and grows toward it.  At this stage of Winter, that sounds promising to me,  so I take my cue from the flower and lift my face to the light.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Tulip Days are Coming

Though it’s officially over 4 weeks away and we had a snowstorm just a few days ago, I can feel and smell Spring in the air.  T gave me pink tulips last week, and with them came the promise of brighter colors and warmer days.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Spring, with its tentative shoots of green, new life, and mild breezes.  I can feel it in the air.  That’s happy!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

An All Grown Up Pirate

A few weeks ago, I realized that this picture frame needed a little TLC.  

It has a picture of JT at the age of 4, showing off the pirate costume he received from Santa for Christmas.  That boy loved himself a costume.  At the age of 6, he informed me that he would never be bored as long as he had his imagination.  For years, he put that philosophy to work with the aid of an assortment of costumes.  From Peter Pan to pirates, Indians, cowboys, and for one memorable year, a Scottish kilt, this kid loved indulging in his imagination.  I was that parent who ran her weekend errands with a costumed kid in tow.  It was so frequent that when someone looked askance at me and my rope-toting cowboy at Home Depot, I was perplexed by their curiosity and only later realized that my kid was in a costume.  In May.

These memories flooded back as I cleaned up the frame that holds the pirate picture.  They are also in my mind today, as my little pirate turns 18.  Costumes are long gone, replaced by a succession of athletic uniforms.  Today he wrestled his final match of the season and, in his case, the final match of his wrestling career.

As he set out on the mat and got last-minute advice from his coaches, I watched with a full heart.  In the last few years, as childhood has faded and once chubby cheeks turned into prominent cheekbones, school teams with amazing coaches have allowed JT to challenge himself and figure out who he wants to be.  He’s grown up as these patient coaches guided him forward, put up with his smart mouth, pushed him to exceed his expectations, and taught him that hard work has rewards beyond victory.  

He will head off to college in a few months, ready to wear a new uniform and run for a new team.   He was made ready by the years he played on the teams of our school.  Its fitting that the man who taught him in PE class at age 4 and who was his first cross country coach in 7th grade was also there for his last match in a RPS uniform.  One of the other coaches made a picture of them after today's match and I will cherish this photo.  In it, I see that boy that was, the 18 year old that is, and the man he will become, standing next to one of the finest human beings I know, a coach who guided him along the way.

I miss the little pirate.  But I’m proud and grateful for the 18 year old who replaced him.  Happy Birthday, son!

Friday, February 16, 2018

And Now A Word About the Miracle That Is Eyebrow Gel

To my 7th grade self, my thick lush eyebrows were a trial.  That mine came equipped with the optional unibrow feature was a straight-up curse.  Enter eye-brow waxing, which thinned the furry beasts and kept the unibrow in check.  These days, I’ve long had command of my eyebrows.  Years of waxing killed the unibrow hair follicles for good and the rest of my brows can be kept in check by the occasional waxing.  Mostly I hold the line via good old-fashioned plucking.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that there is the occasional wily eyebrow hair…extra long and with a life of its own over my eyes, as if I am a bug with feelers.  Plucking it is risky; I don’t wish to end up with sparse brows that require penciling in.  But neither do I like this feeler with a life of its own, wagging over my eyes and otherwise making it appear as if I am a an unkempt crone with caterpillar eyebrows.  

Oh, the first world problems.

Enter eyebrow gel.

This little tube is a miracle-worker.  It’s light but strong and keeps me from looking like an old lady with wagging eyebrows.  For $20, I keep my eyebrows tamed.  

That’s happy!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Crafty Valentine

I made some homemade valentines for today, a tiny treat for others that reminded me of how much I enjoy making things. 

Crafts aren’t quite the same as art, but they do make me appreciate the importance of art in my world —— for beauty, of course.  Art also reminds me to look at the familiar in new ways.  Homemade items like these help me show the people I love that I care.

Time to create and daydream makes my life nicer.

That’s happy!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Amaryllis Tuesday: February 13

It would seem that last week’s fretting about my amaryllis yielded results.  On Saturday, I came downstairs to an exciting bit of growth.

Today, I moved the bulb to the lamp to make this picture.  There’s even more flower stem to admire.

I am thrilled to see things take off and I’m looking forward to a flower in March, when I will be more than ready to abandon wool sweaters and warm tights in favor of Spring blooms and open-toed shoes.  And yes, I’m being far more cheerful and optimistic than the current weather warrants.  But that is what the prospect of a flower will do for me.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Pretty Package

This morning, I had reason to wrap some pretty packages.

That’s happy!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Real Life Conversations with T: Immunity edition

The backstory: As a schoolteacher for more than 15 years, I’ve been around plenty a contagion.  Between runny noses and coughing fits, schools are cesspools of germs.  Over the years, my body has learned to fight most of them off and so I don’t often get sick, despite the abundant opportunities to do so.  However, a few weeks ago, I picked up a mild cold and T was worried.

T:  If it got you, it must be something horrible.  It’s probably cholera.

The “cholera” turned into a sinus infection but I’m better now.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Daffodil Days

The year JT was first born, weekly trips to the Hy Vee grocery store in Norfolk, Nebraska was our big outing.  We’d stop after seeing the pediatrician, which my newborn needed to do weekly for his first few months, thanks to a rough delivery and some slow weight gain.  Each check-up with the saintly and good-humored Dr. Kelly got us one step closer to 10 pounds, the magical goal for my slender little babine.  And then we’d stop by the Hy Vee, where there were more grocery choices (and better prices!) than the markets in our little town.  And there were inexpensive daffodil bouquets, which I often treated myself too.  This week, my local Wegmans had daffodil bouquets and T treated me to one.  When I see the flowers each morning, memories of those early parenting days in Nebraska come flooding back. 

That's happy!

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Amaryllis Tuesday: February 6

The groundhog declared we get six more weeks of Winter and the amaryllis is apparently prepared to embrace that plan because things are not looking all that different from last week.

I am now in will-it-ever-grow fret mode.  I’ve even compared this bulb to previous years, which revealed that usually at six weeks, growth slowly begins to materialize.  We are at week six, little buddy.  Time to get after it.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Front Porch in February

Winter days on the front porch are more austere than the warmer seasons.   In my mind, Winter calls for greenery and pinecones, so that’s what I use most often.  All year long, I enjoy collecting the items that will make up the month’s decorations.  I aim for inexpensive and charming, so it’s rather like a treasure hunt.

The pinecones in this basket make regular appearances on the porch.  They are a collection of found pinecones supplemented by a bag from Michael’s.  The heart garland was a $3 find at Target, and the cloth in the basket is a a old kitchen cloth that has seen better days but holds up just fine for the front porch.  The tablecloth is like all my front porch tablecloths, from the bargain rack somewhere, in this case Home Goods.  The red pattern can serve for a variety of seasons, so it was worth the $8 price.

On the table, whenever possible, I aim for the rule of three, collecting an odd number of items to make a display.  But some months, simple seems more fitting and so February’s table has just one item.  The basket is weighted down by a brick so it doesn’t blow around in the wind.  The flag is new, a birthday gift that will cheer up the cold Winter days.

The wreath is a craft store find, with a polka dot bow I tied on a few years ago.  It only comes out for February and is still fresh.

The plain Edison lights are back, turned on by timer so that we come home to light on dark Winter evenings.  It’s hard to make a picture of these lights that truly shows their beauty and warmth, so you’ll just have to believe me (or come over….they are very welcoming!).  

Setting out February’s porch decorations reminds me that warmer days are in the offing.  Soon enough I’ll sit out here with a book and some iced tea.  That’s happy!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Family Traditions: Snacks & Sports

The backstory: This year, as JT prepares to head off to college, I’m writing about the traditions that spell love in our home.  I’m thinking of them more mindfully than usual as I prepare to send my bird from his nest.  For me, these traditions  were always about a securing a happy and well-loved childhood in preparation for a happy adulthood.  They are about creating memories that will endure and this year, writing about them is helping me to think about the next chapter in our lives.

Watching sports is a family tradition in itself and for as long as he’s been able to toddle around and help himself to food, we’ve celebrated major sporting events with an assortment of appetizers.  That’s my favorite food to make, because everyone’s favorite can be served.  I have literally dozens of recipes for this kind of food and I’m always on the lookout for additions to my repertoire.  Snacks like this instead of a meal always feels special and over the years it’s become a tradition in our home. For Super Bowl Sunday, we had an assortment of everyone’s favorites.  

There were little smokies in BBQ sauce; homemade boursin and garlic toasts; homemade salsa and chips; brie, olive cream cheese, and crackers; and chicken tortilla soup with avocado.  

It is plenty more than we need, of course, but we’ll enjoy leftovers later this week and JT will remember the tradition for far longer than that.  That’s happy!

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Lasts, Firsts, and the Joy in Between

A few weeks back, the afternoon forecast called for sleet and I asked JT to ride with me to school so that I could drive him home after wrestling practice.  I try to be a courageous mama when my boy is behind the wheel, but sleet in the dark was more than my heart could bear.

For the better part of the last 14 years, we have driven to school together.  Since he got his license and his car, it’s been easier for JT to drive himself to school.  It allows him to sleep in a little later (or leave early for a 6 am run on the towpath at school…..I am not kidding), and otherwise makes things easier on us both.  It was something of an epiphany for me to be able to go to the gym and then head home, rather than rush back to school anxious that I would get there before his practice had ended.

As we drove home on that icy afternoon, I idly wondered if it would be the last ride to school we would make together.  He’s been my commuter companion since the Fall of 2003.  First, as a three year old in a car seat with his binky, his blanket, and an assortment of the things he collected in his pockets; then as a little boy in a booster seat, singing along with the car radio and angling for a toasted coconut donut from Dunkin’ Donuts.  Later, he was my front seat companion, choosing a music playlist or bemoaning my NPR-listening ways.  For the last few years, he was my teenage companion, putting on headphones and pulling his hoody over his head.

In short, we’ve ridden many miles together.  On that icy Monday, afternoon I wondered how many more rides to school we would make together.  A dozen?  A few?  None?  Had I just made my last mama-and-her-boy school commute?  

There are so many lasts in the world of parenting —— the last time my baby crawled; the last time he used his binky; the last time I read him a story before he went to sleep; the last time he played in the backyard sprinkler.  And yet, when it comes to a child, these “lasts” are expected, even sought.  I’m not the only parent who has no memory of these lasts; they were part of the always-changing landscape of a child growing up.  After all, giving up crawling is how a child walks.  And so many of those lasts were followed by thrilling new firsts.

It feels like a different landscape as I envision 2018, which will find my son heading away from home, moving away to college.  The “lasts” that will precede the move to college seem like they should be more momentous.  But I’m aware that focusing on the “lasts” puts me at risk for worrying so much about them that I lose sight of the “now.”  And so I redirect my thoughts to the happiness in the moment.

From the very first time I held him in my arms, I’ve known that’s it’s my job to raise an independent human being, one who can take on the challenges and joys of life with perseverance and confidence.  That means finding happiness and becoming his own person.  That means changes and new things.  It means there will be some lasts in life.

For me, getting my son to that independence meant making sure he knew that he was loved beyond measure, so that he could head out in the world confident in his value as a person.  I’ve had 18 years to show that love by building memories and traditions together.  In this season of transition, as so many “lasts” occur, I’m determined to live in the moment, sure in the knowledge that though 18 years passed by at the speed of light, there are still so many firsts yet to come.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

February 1: Hostas in the Winter

Each month this year, I’m having a look at the hosta beds in my garden and writing about them.  As it turns out, the outward difference between hosta beds in January and February is negligible.  It’s been a month of Winter’s cold and darkness.  Most often, I view the hosta beds from the comfort of the cozy indoors, where garden catalogs promise that the next season will be lovely, even while the garden this month is still.

And yet, I know the days are slowly creeping toward more light, a transition I mark in my journal each day.  Today, the sun rose at 7:09 am and set at 5:16 pm, with light lingering afterward.  That’s more light than January 1st, when the sun rose at 7:22 am and set at 4:42 pm.  By the end of February, the sun will rise at 6:34 am and set at 5:48 pm, taking us from just over 11 hours of daylight in the day to just over 12 hours.  It’s a glorious promise.

Gardening has taught me to plan for the future but also to appreciate the here and now.  It takes Winter’s cold to prepare my hostas for Spring and Summer growth.  In much the same way, cold Winter days makes Spring’s warmth that much more pleasing to experience.  For now, I do my best to wait patiently, enjoying each day, secure in the promise that there is sunlight and growth still to come.