Ice Queens

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alinas Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

 

 

 

 

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Early Riser

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There are two types of people: those who get up at the crack of dawn and those who don’t. I have always been in the former category. Even as a teenager, that notorious somnolent period of life, my idea of sleeping in was rising around 8 am. And in college, I hated that all the bar-hopping and party action began well after 10 pm. I wanted to go out at 7:30 and be home and tucked in before midnight.

One of my problems is that I do not nap. As a little girl, I remember lying on my bed in the bright afternoons and trying to will myself to sleep. But I would toss and turn and get incredibly bored until my mom decided it was okay for my sister and me to get up. The only time I can recall longing for a nap was when I had small children whose sleep schedules kept me up half the night.

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“The early bird catches the worm” is a famous aphorism. I don’t know about the worm, but I do feel more productive when I wake up early and get a few things done. I like to write in the morning, and morning is when I am most likely to go for a walk, do chores around the house, pay bills, make phone calls.

There’s something lovely about being awake when most of the world around you is asleep. I love rising at dawn and watching the vague outlines of nature come into focus as the sun makes its way into the sky, trailing orange and pink hues. The stillness of morning is a quiet and prayerful time for me. Being a naturally ruminative person, I find the stillness and freshness of a new day inspiring.

As I write this, the sun is brightening the world around me. Some vestiges of snow sprinkle the lawn. They will be gone by late afternoon as temperatures improbably climb into the 50s on a January day. On mornings like this, I notice the sleeping buds on the magnolia tree outside my window, waiting for spring. A gentle breeze stirs the stalks of dry and brittle flowers.

Amid all the tensions and drama of my life and the world outside, it’s heartening to see the sun’s reliable trajectory in the sky. It’s a new day, and I’m happy to be awake and alive.

 

Winter Solstice

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A few days ago, I arose at 4:30 in the morning. My head was spinning with holiday to-dos, and I just couldn’t sleep. At 6:45, I went up to my daughter’s room to wake her for school. But it was so incredibly dark in the hallway that I had to check the clock again to make sure I had the correct time.

As we approach the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness seems to envelop us. Night comes swiftly and lingers into our morning awakenings. We are approaching the day of shortest daylight and longest night.

Early cultures marked this winter solstice with festivals of light, such as the Scandinavian Jul, from which we derive the Christmas word “Yule.” It is no coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas, two festivals of light, are celebrated around the time of the solstice.

We are a people afraid of darkness. At the holidays, this darkness can take the form not only of physical night, but of sadness, loneliness, and depression. Loss of loved ones feels more keen at this cold, dark time of the year. The holidays themselves, of course, can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Hence my 4:30 am awakenings.

But for me, the winter solstice is a time for rejoicing. Not only is the great feast of Christmas around the corner, but the days will begin to lengthen again. In the midst of January’s sometimes bitter cold is the reality that the brilliant sun shines more often and lasts longer into our days. The New Year will give us new resolve and hope for a better life.

The whole season of Advent is one of waiting in darkness for the coming of the light of Christ. HuffPost writer Caroline Oakes sees the meaning of Advent enriched by the ancient pagan traditions surrounding the solstice. In them, she recognizes the Celtic culture for “its keen awareness of humanity’s deep, inner connections with the rhythms of the natural world.” (HuffPost, December 21, 2012)

So we wait in the darkness. In Oakes’ words, “This is Advent — when, as sleepers, we awaken to our own light of love, deep within us, waiting to be reborn again in the dark stables of our own souls.”

 

Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.

 

Lake Time

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IMG_7684.JPGThis weekend finds me and my family (well, the three of us still at home) relaxing at the lake. Not the Great Lake Michigan but one of its smaller cousins that dot the landscape of western Michigan. It’s the last hurrah of summer, and it feels right to be in a place that lends itself to lazy days and grilling burgers and reading good books (for me, Anthony  Doerr’s exquisite About Grace).

Yesterday I stood at the water’s edge and let the sound of water gently lapping at the rocks lull me into a sense of peace. The sunlight glittered across the lake, and the occasional speedboat made loops in the water, pulling a skier or tuber or even a wakeboarder, who balanced with seeming ease in the waves being churned up by the boat in front.

The lake has a certain smell: slightly fishy and peaty. Dampness seeps into the screened-in porch, where I usually curl up with my book and a glass of wine. The breeze rustles the pages of the book and ruffles my hair. Even doing nothing, I work up an appetite and hungrily chow down a delicious burger cooked by my husband, the grill master.

Boats and water and sand are not my favorite things. I’m too afraid of accidents and drowning to enjoy water sports much. But the lake itself, from a safe distance, is mesmerizing. At sunset, I love nothing more than to sit on the dock and watch the sky turn pink and purple over the water.

The lake is mysterious. Even a small one is host to innumerable slimy plants and fish. When I was young, I loved catching minnows in a bucket or feeling them brush my ankles in the water. I would scare myself by holding my nose and plunging under, eyes wide open, staring into mostly black nothingness. At night, I’d dream of gliding under water searching for something, but never finding it.

It’s easy to imagine that the outside world does not exist when I am here at the lake. I plan to enjoy that illusion for as long as I can before real life draws me back into the hurly-burly.

Planting Things

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IMG_1146I spent a recent afternoon strolling with some of my sisters through the University of Minnesota’s arboretum. It was a mild summer day: slightly overcast and on the cool side for the end of June in this northern Midwest locale. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been home for two of my sisters for many years, and a third recently moved to the area. That makes a visit to the Twin Cities even more of a draw for another Chicago-based sis and me. (I have eight sisters. Cue the oohs and ahs.)

Along with the majestic trees from which the arboretum derives its name, the park is home to numerous gardens growing everything from succulents to kitchen herbs to seemingly as many types of roses and lilies as you can name. As we wandered through the meticulously maintained grounds, stopping to admire fountains and sculptures and to take photos, I marveled at the time and care it takes to grow and maintain all these plants. I pictured gardeners lovingly tilling the soil, placing tender seedlings in it, watering and weeding.

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I myself am not much of a gardener, but when I was a child, I loved to spend time with my dad in his garden. If I helped weed, I would be allowed to place the tiny seeds for annuals gently in the soil and then water the plants as they miraculously went from seed to sprout to full grown flower. During our walk through the arboretum, my sisters and I reminisced about our father and his love for trees and flowers. We laughed and acted silly and forced passersby to take group photos of us in front of ponds or waterfalls.

Relationships are like plants. They must be lovingly tended. It takes time and attention to grow a close bond, time spent laughing, sharing confidences, building each other up and helping each other through difficult times. The inevitable weeds of conflict must be uprooted sometimes so that the lovely fruits of friendship and sisterhood can ripen.

Time spent in nature with my sisters was a beautiful gift this week. It reminds me that the roots developed in our families form the basis for who we will become. It encourages me to tend to those roots with my own children so that they too will carry on a meaningful and loving sibling relationship throughout their lives.

Long after the sun sets on the garden and the day lilies close their petals for the night, God’s gifts of nature abide in quiet magnificence until the dawning of the new day. May our lives mirror the beauty, tenacity, and strength of trees and flowers, granting joy and peace to those we encounter each and every day.

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.