Ready for Cookie Day

 I’m not sure how exactly it got started, but in the early 90s, my best friend K and I were new graduates of Edinboro University. We had formed such a strong friendship over the course of schooling and found ourselves suddenly separated by 100 miles. I’m pretty sure it was her idea to invite me up to her mother’s kitchen that first December, and there her best friend from high school, she and I stood in red aprons soon covered with flour dust, rolling out sugar cookies and cooling sheets and sheets of cookies on the dining room table.

Every year I went back and every year the tradition grew. From her mother’s kitchen to her first kitchen after marriage. From a trio of friends to an open invitation for all friends and relatives who wanted to join us. One year her traditional red apron was imprinted with a recipe that included the phrase “bake for 9 months.” We hugged. The following December, a little 7-month-old joined our Annual Cookie Day! Soon, I was transporting my own seven-month-old son to his first Cookie Day weekend. 

On a specific Saturday in December, my friend would spread out folding tables and lay out eggs and butter, flour and sugar, cookie sheets and cooling racks. She would set up her Kitchen-Aid mixer, bring over her mother’s and I would bring mine with me. Flour dust would fill the air. Egg shells would fill the paper bags set under the tables for trash. Sprinkles would fill the cracks in the hard-wood floors. And endless chatter and laughter would fill the night. We’d bake and eat until our feet couldn’t keep us going anymore.

The kids would build snow forts, sled down her hill or engage in “epic” Nerf gun battles. When their fingers and noses were too cold, they’d settle down in front of the TV for the classic “Grinch who Stole Christmas” or “Polar Express” showing. We’d order pizza or K would cook up pasta with her homemade sauce and there’d be a break in the baking to have a meal.

My friend’s job was to manage the chaos. Find the almond extract. Refill the pretzel bowl. Welcome in the next guest. She has an amazing gift of hospitality! Each guest would pick a recipe and get started on making the dough and loading the cookie sheets. My job was the baking. K’s husband would bring in an extra oven and I would have 2 or 3 different (one year four) ovens going at the same time. Each oven had its own timer and my classic mantra was “Not really caring what directions you give me – it’s going to bake at 350 degrees until done!”

My most important job, however, was Undisputed, Don’t-Mess-With-Me Cookie Counter. All participants in this most precious of baking days were under one rule – Thou shalt not taste or eat a cookie until it has been counted by the master cookie counter! (Me!). I counted each and every cookie as it came off the cookie sheet onto the cooling rack. I recorded the type of cookie and tallied the totals as they cooled. At the end of the night, whenever we were ready to collapse, I added up all the batches of cookies and proclaimed loudly the total cookie count and the equivalent number of dozens!

My cookie count was so sacred, that one year, K’s husband doubted that we could have made over two hundred “Russian Tea Cake” cookies. He methodically recounted each and every powdery one of them. His number matched my original count exactly – and he never doubted me again (sort of). From then on, no one was to question the count!

The other golden rule was to double all recipes (except the Nieman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe since we learned the hard way one year that it was already essentially a double recipe) and to form the cookie balls on the smaller size. After all, it was all about the count and the smaller the cookie, the more individual cookies there were.

Actually, it was all about the fun and the joy of giving as each guest wrapped up boxes and boxes of beautiful cookies at the end of the night to share with family and friends and co-workers. There were so many memories wrapped up in those twenty-plus years of cookie making, that it was hard for me, yet completely understandable, when my friend announced she couldn’t keep up the tradition. So for the past three years, we’ve had much smaller versions of “Cookie Day” at a friend’s and at my sister’s house (as my townhome is way too small to welcome in guests). Having the event locally has drawn a different group of friends and my boys have adjusted. The rules have stayed the same, but the grand size of the day hasn’t been recreated yet.

As I contemplate the season of Advent and the preparation for Christmas, “Cookie Day” remains one of my great loves and one of my boys’ favorite days of the year. So in the spirit of thriving on chaos, I mentioned to my mother that the current plan to close on my new house on a Friday…. naturally meant….I could….potentially…..host my first Cookie Day the next day!

Yes, it’s going to be crazy, but I figure as long as I have the utilities on, have cable and wi-fi connected to entertain the boys in case of bad weather, carry over boxes of baking supplies and get the kitchen area cleaned up at least….I could be ready!  After all, one of the key criteria in my house-search over the past two years was: Can the kitchen host Cookie Day?

I think I found the kitchen.

I’ve started my list of supplies.

Now I’m ready to make magic again. Care to join us?

Waiting for a Home

It wears upon the soul to live in “transition,”  to be in a time of waiting. I have been doing that for so much of my life. You spend your school years just wanting so badly to grow up and have the “privileges” of being an adult. Then there’s the “step” of college to get to your career and your “life.” For me that was an extended prolonged journey of graduate school followed by medical school and a longer than usual residency program.

Finally, I thought. I have arrived. But at the same time, the kids started to arrive as well. And each one of them brought multiple “transitions” and waiting periods. Waiting for quarterly court hearings. Waiting for goal changes. Waiting for adoption. And just when it settles down, the boys are starting into preschool and kindergarten transitions. And a year and a half into what I thought would be their first stable school, we were asked to leave as the private school decided they didn’t have the “resources” needed to teach my eldest.

So, we bounced into a townhouse to move into a school district that welcomed the boys. Half of my packed belongings went to my parents’ house and half went to my sister’s garage (that’s where the Christmas tree and decorations, the bikes, the winter gear, etc sits waiting). Waiting. For the past 3 years we have been living in transition, waiting to find a house to call our own.

My boys have naturally made the best of their waiting. There’s a great community of friends here in the neighborhood. There’s a great diversity of cultures in this neighborhood. There’s good support. But they were so ready to move last year when we were a week away from closing on a house. It was a huge disappointment to lose the house, but that house also brought the stress of changing schools and new transitions.

Now, however, they are giddy with anticipation as we are now less than five weeks from closing on a house!! And this time, I have settled into keeping the boys in the same school system and the same elementary and middle school. It’s been rough for me mentally as I keep trying to find the “best” school for them. I find pros and cons to all the choices. Finally, I’ve decided to put the priority on stability, acknowledge that I won’t find perfection, but that it is time to settle down for the sake of the boys and myself.

And so, in this Advent season, as we expectantly “wait” to celebrate the birth of Christ, my family is also expectantly waiting and preparing for a new beginning.

 

 

Love will Stay Stronger than Hate

The other week I took the boys to see a movie with my neighbor and her two children. The back of the minivan shook with glee. The popcorn flowed over laps and floors. The moms constantly “shushed” the giddy kids as the movie began. But eventually, the story compelled them to quiet down, punctuated every once in awhile with a great contagious giggle.

There once was a group of Yeti’s who so feared continuing death and slaughter at the hands of man that they moved high up into the top of the mountains and created a layer of fog to hide the humans in the land below.

There once was a group of humans who believed that Yeti’s were so violent and dangerous that if they ever saw a Yeti, they would shoot to kill.

But, there also was once a Yeti named Migo who was so fascinated by the possibility of a “Small Foot” that he risked leaving his home to go see if these creatures really existed.

And, there once was a man named Percy who was so desperate for fame that he searched for the Yeti as a tool for popularity. But when his fellow men came out with guns and armor and shields to fight against the Yeti, Perry took a step forward in faith and solidarity. Standing together, Yeti and humans learned that they are more similar than they are different. They discovered that to dispel fear, they needed to begin to understand one another and to respect each other. They discovered that they did not need to live in fear, but could live in community.

Our world is filled with fear. We are so focused on how we are different from others, that we have become scared of those differences. We want to build up walls around us. We want to stick with “our own.” Instead of becoming more unified, the pressure is to become more polarized. More extreme. More scared.

And that fear leads to anger and anger leads to violence. Violence against those who are different. Violence against school children. Violence against anyone considered an “other.” Violence against the innocent. And this past week, that violence touched the lives of a peaceful community of people gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Synagogue in my former neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. In that moment, the lives of a Holocaust survivor, a physician, a couple, a grandfather, a dentist, a set of brothers, and other beloved family members were ended in a sea of blood. A sea of anger. A sea of fear.

As the days have crept on, as the funerals have taken place, as the songs have been sung at the vigils, as the community has marched and as the families have mourned, all of us have felt a deep, deep aching sadness that has called to our spirits. A deep despair that has tried to blacken our soul and nibble away at our hope. And each of us has had to reach out to our community of friends, family, neighbors and even strangers gathered around us to rekindle our flames.

Because when fear tries to sow hate and hate tries to capture our hope, we stand together to say “Absolutely not.” We raise our voices to say, “Love is and always shall be stronger than hate.”

When we take a step towards each other. When we learn about others and discover that they too are humans just like us. When we are willing to look into another’s eyes and see their fears and their hurts and their hope which is just the same as ours, then….then, we will learn to love others.

As I cleaned up around the house this morning, I heard The Little Guy upstairs reading to his brother, “Do not worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything.” When the current world wants us to worry about everything and everyone, we are reminded that God is bigger than that and loves us all.

So, together we kindle the hope.

Together, we maintain the love.

Together, we treat others as God’s Holy creation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reckless Love

(Verse 1)
Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
(Chorus)
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
(Verse 2)
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
(Bridge)
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
(Reckless Love: Written by Cory Asbury, Caleb Culver, and Ran Jackson)

 

We sang this song at church this morning. It is currently my favorite praise song. And it is one I really needed after dealing with Super Tall Guy’s latest “rage” fit yesterday in which quite a bit of anything that was not nailed down went flying. We even hit a new level – the next door neighbor who absolutely never talks, came out of her house and grumbled, “What in the world is going on?” Sigh….

But as we sang this morning, I realized that while this song was written about God’s incredible love of His children, it could so easily describe in a very imperfect way my relationship with my boys.

When they were infants – before they spoke a word – I would sing over them as I rocked them to sleep. (While I did not carry them in my body, their birth mother breathed life into them before they ever took a breath.)

When Super Tall Guy is in a rage and we are squared off foe to foe….my love fights for him. Fights to have him calm down. Fights for him to know that I love him despite the ugliness. Fights for him to know that I will be there with open arms when this hurricane ends. When he weeps in sadness and feels unworthy, I wrap around him in love. I pay such a price in providing for the boys, not just in material things, but in time and worry and stress and endless energy.

And should anything ever happen to my boys, I will always come after them. I will light up the world for them to see more clearly through the darkness that might threaten to overwhelm them. I will climb any mountain for them if they wander away. I will tear down any wall to free them. There’s no lie that the world could tell them about their brown skin or their worthiness or that they might tell themselves in self-doubt that I wouldn’t tear down.

And despite all their grumblings about how mean I am or how other families are so much better, I truly am trying to be good to them and kind to them. I would leave the ninety-nine, I would leave anything I had to for my children.

I am a failure every single day at this parenting gig. I want to do so much better. I get down on myself. But then I am reminded of the intense love I have for these three incredible boys. The absolutely overwhelming love. The never-ending love. The reckless love. Unconditional love. No matter what they are doing. No matter how many times they have ignored me or disobeyed. No matter how many mistakes they have made. No matter what, it is an overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love that tears up my heart and drains tears down my cheeks as I stand there singing.  And in those moments, I know that if I feel this passion for my boys….how much more does a Perfect God love each and every one of us. How much more does He breathe into us and come after us when we wander? How much more does He ache when we disobey, but has already paid the ransom? How much more overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love does He give?

Click on the album cover below and listen to reckless love….

 

An Introvert Collecting Stories in Croatia

The boat bobbled along the coast of one of Croatia’s thousand islands. We passed small villages along the coasts that are accessible only by boat and pondered what sustains them. “They finally had to put in some roads,” mentioned Marin, the ship’s captain. “Three years ago there was a fire that burned for three days because no firetrucks could reach it and the weather was too bad for fire-fighting planes.” It is an “old” village mainly of people who have lived there all their lives. We were on our way back from Bol, a touristy beach town on the island of Brac with a blend of the centuries old ruins and the draw of the young touristy crowd. Marin grew up on the boat life learning from his father. His six-year-old son is following in his footsteps and sat on a cushion behind his captain’s wheel. “He only gets one hour a day,” Marin responded when I joked about whether the boy was playing a game or watching a video on the electronic device he held cradled between his knees. The boy has just started kindergarten but on nice days he still heads out to sea with his parents. His older sisters, though, stay in school in Split under the watch of grandma. While the family lives on one of the smaller islands, they maintain an apartment in Split so that the kids have good schools. The choices parents face is universal. How do you get them a good education? How do you balance the world around them and the world of digital media? How do you instill your passions and what you’ve learned over generations? How do you maintain your culture, especially in a country recovering from war and experiencing the influx of tourism as its greatest economic asset?

Branko is happy for the tourism. Approaching sixty, he doesn’t have any other job possibilities but to drive for Uber. His two boys have just gone off to college so the money coming from driving has been sufficient, but he’s hoping more of the locals will start using Uber in the off-season months. He’s thankful for his health and credits eating good food. While there is ample access to McDonald’s in town and several local “fast food” businesses, he’s grateful that his youngest finally stopped eating all that food that has “bad” things put in it. There is plenty of fresh healthy food available, but you have to know, he says, when you go to the market which local farmers are sneaking and using pesticides and which are clean. You just have to know, he nods wisely.

Tourism is also supporting Ivan. A young man driving for a travel company, he works seven days a week during the busy season. He lives with his parents and grandmother, as most people do, he mentions. You see, he remarks, when people build a house they build one floor for each generation. Sometimes you’ll see that the walls are not yet complete or the next floor is not yet added on. “They are waiting for more money to finish the house,” he remarks. “But it is good for the family to live together,” he adds, “We all help each other.”

Miriam works in one of the shops within the old Diocletian Palace built by the Roman Emperor in the 4th century. Unlike almost 3000 other people, however, she doesn’t live within the palace walls, but instead lives “down by the beach” close to where we stayed at Villa Sea Breeze. Wary at first about my line of questioning, she soon began to smile as she talked about her work. She slipped an extra cloth sack of lavender, famously grown in the area, among my souvenir purchases. The young woman at a store nearby was not as reticent. Another traveler and I asked about the “swimmers” on a t-shirt in the front of the store. “Oh,” she responded, “those men are playing Picigin.” Further questioning led to the fact that it is a game played in shallow water along the beach with a hard ball. “It hit me in the face one time and I couldn’t open my eye for two weeks!” she continued, “It’s a really hard ball.” A quick search of Google while pausing for a glass of wine and some appetizers revealed that Picigin was invented in Split when travelers had tried to introduce water polo. The inside rubber from a tennis ball is swatted back and forth among 4-5 players. In an attempt to keep the ball above the water, players are cheered (and in the “World Championship” games, awarded points) for acrobatic prowess in swatting back the ball. Days later in walking the three miles from our villa into the “Old City” we paused to watch some players. Clearly the men upped their game when they noticed “those foreigners” with cameras clicking! (oh….iPhones don’t click….but my SLR does! 😉.)

“There’s no way you’re an introvert,” remarked one of my new friends on this Croatian trip. “You talk with everyone.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I am a true introvert. It’s just that I am also a story collector. And everyone has a story.”

Each of us on the trip had a story as well about how we had all met Mara. Some of the travelers went to high school with her. Some met her in college or shortly after. Some met her for work and some met her while traveling exotic places. Our stories brought us together in a far-away country to spend time together celebrating her life and celebrating the way that friendship can connect people. Many of us had never met each other before but our one mutual connection led us to a new sisterhood. And connection is really about what matters.

P.S. ….

Mind you, any fellow introvert might have prepared me for  the woes re-entry. But no, I had to crash and burn to figure that out myself! Getting over jet-lag is one thing. Reaclimating to single parenting three active, completely energy-draining young boys is a totally different story. I sure wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the constant demands to be fed (of all things). The unbending march of the schedule of school and afterschool and evening activities. The seemingly endless bedtime routine. By day four, I was texting a very old “sister” and one of my new “sisters” about my struggle. It definitely took some time to realize I needed to settle down, give myself a little more space, get to bed right after the boys and be patient. Traveling is very good. And traveling is very exhausting!

Moments of Silence

I have a new car. Another minivan. I laugh, “This is my last minivan. When it dies….I finally get MY car!” (Mr. Ornery promises to buy me a pink Lamborghini!) The last minivan decided to die a little before I was ready for it but this one better give me another ten years; ten years for the last little guy to get out of high school!

Farewell to the blue van that holds so many memories.

Farewell to the scratches and dents from boys’ misdirected emotions.

Farewell to whatever smell that was that was never going to come out.

Farewell to the stress of not knowing just exactly when after 150,000 miles it was going to konk out!

As with any new car, I now have the “gift” of Sirius XM. For two whole months. I’m trying to make the most of it. One of the channels I’m surprisingly enjoying the most (until I realized that they repeat content some) is “LaughUSA.” It hit me that I just wasn’t getting enough laughs in my life and this puts a smile on my face more frequently.

Recently, one of the comedians was ribbing with some of his audience. He joked about a man having a “worn-out face” from his marriage and divorce and kids. He retorts, “Look how great I look. I’m 64 and no wife or kids. I have something all of you want…..silence.” I paused. He was right. He had silence.

“Are these two yours?” she inquired genuinely.

“Uh, yes,” I hesitantly replied.

“Bless you.” The teacher overseeing “younger siblings” during the parent open house at the middle school shook her head. “You have your hands full! They are delightful, but…”

I get that a lot.  “Yes, pray for me,” I reply. “They are non-stop!”

I wouldn’t change this parenting gig for the world. But every once in awhile I could use just a little bit of silence. It’s what causes me to “need” to stay up for an hour or two after the kids fall asleep so I can recharge with my silence (ie, midnight or later). It causes me to grab my laptop and hide in my bedroom on the weekend for a moment of silence. It leads me to announce, “I’m taking the dog for a walk,” and scuttle out for a loop around our community as often as I can get away with it – silence.

And, it has led me to be okay with planning a trip to Croatia at the end of this month to spend a week in a villa with a friend and her friends…in the hopes of finding silence. We all know how crazy September is. The month where everyone who ever wanted to do anything, but wasn’t going to plan it for August vacation month, has now scheduled their events. The month when kids are returning to school and while they are in a “honeymoon” period of little homework or studying, the parent is intensely trying to figure out their schedules and how to keep up with this new routine. The month when the school honeymoon ends and behavioral slips are sent home, tests are scheduled, and everyone’s stress rises. The month when my work has ramped up, creating early mornings and late nights.

So, it just seemed right to say “yes” to a friend when she asked (and begged politely) me to join her. I never thought of going to Croatia, but I was hooked as soon as I spent some time on Google looking at the photos of beautiful water.  I’m not sure what my expectations are. I’m not sure how this introvert will connect with a group of people I’ve not met yet. I’m not sure if my saintly mother is going to regret her “willingness” to watch my boys for eight days. I’m not sure if my boys are going to spend the eight glorious days trying to get away with anything they can at home and school.

But I’m pretty sure that I’m going to find a few moments of silence.

And that will be beautiful.

Nike and My Brown-Skinned Boy

It’s both sad (because of the backlash) and yet hopeful to me that a globally successful business is propelling the discussion around racial injustice.  I would almost feel bad for all those promising to boycott Nike, except for the fact that maybe with fewer people shopping in my area, there might be size 8 shoes still on the shelves for me!

That aside, the whole point of this issue has nothing to do with Nike or Kaepernick and everything to do with the fact that it’s time to start treating people with brown skin as humans. In an effort to make sure that my boys are in a good school district that can meet their varying behavioral and learning needs, I have chosen (for now) to live in an area that happens to be primarily white. It’s a choice that doesn’t always sit well with me because I yearn for more diversity (though my immediate neighborhood has families from Turkey, Russia, Ecuador and South Korea living together). So, every year I intentionally enroll my biracial children in a summer day camp within the city limits that serves primarily African American kids.

The first few days are a bit of a shock to them. Mr. Ornery came home that first Monday afternoon begging me to take him to Target to get a ball cap. Not thoroughly understanding the importance to him, I brushed it aside as we moved along to some evening sports activity or another. The next evening he continued to insist that he needed a new cap so off to Target we went. But I knew in my heart that he wouldn’t find what he needed in Target. In our “white neighborhood” all-purpose store he was not going to find the ethnic fashion apparel he eagerly sought. He also wasn’t going to find someone who knew how to braid his ringlet hair into cornrows at our “white neighborhood” SuperCuts.

What he was searching for was a better understanding of his identity. He was trying to figure out what part of him was brown skin and what part of him reflected the whiteness he saw all around. He searched for answers in outward appearances without thinking of the within.

“Why do so many of those kids at camp have brown skin?” he asks. “Why was like everyone in the Black Panther movie brown?”  Eventually, my answer became, “You know what? If you look at all the people in the entire world, most of them have brown skin. It’s just that it’s different where we live so we sometimes forget that. What matters is what’s inside people. How they act. How they treat others.”

My heart breaks at the continued discrimination and injustice. My heart breaks that people continue to judge others based on color, appearance, physical form. Bias is within all of us, but we are in control of our responses and our actions. We have a choice to be kind.

Mr. Ornery got a new ball cap. He wore it for two days. Mr. Ornery got cornrows put in his hair at a salon within the city. He wore it that way for three days (some of his hair was too short so it only was braided halfway). Mr. Ornery and his brothers will continue to wrestle with what it means to have brown skin in a country that can’t handle differences. They will search to find where they fit in and how to handle the pain of judgement.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I will continue to look for opportunities to talk with others and listen to others who are different from me in many ways. And I will continue to seek opportunities to do the same with my boys and encourage them to learn and grow in acceptance and wisdom.

Because I believe that we are all created by and loved by an amazing God. And we should show the same to others.