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.

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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.

Facebook Fast

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As the penitential season of Lent begins, I as usual will give up my beloved sweets of all kinds: coffeecake, cookies, chocolate etc. But I have also decided to follow the lead of some of my friends and abstain from spending time on Facebook.

Facebook has been a blessing and a curse in my life. It has been great to reconnect with old friends, see photos of their families, and even get into some pretty serious conversations. I have learned so much more about many people I know than I ever would have in casual conversation at the supermarket or on the soccer sidelines.

But Facebook has had some drawbacks, and I feel the need to take a break from it. One of the most obvious drawbacks is how much time it can suck out of your day. There are many days when I spend little time on it, but others when I check it compulsively several times a day, adding up to hours spent on the social media platform.

There is apparently some evidence that spending time on Facebook can lead to depression. This does not surprise me. The reason given for this phenomenon is that it can be depressing to compare your life to all the wonderful things your friends are doing, what they are wearing, how cute their children are and the like. None of this particularly bothers me. I am not that competitive with others when it comes to social standing, looks, or just how much fun someone else seems to be having.

What I find depressing on Facebook is mostly the political divide that has become all too evident since the presidential election campaign began in earnest back in 2015. It is discouraging to see so much animosity on both sides and to realize that no matter how many meaty articles one posts or how well-considered one’s argument is, our friends on the other side of that divide are unlikely to come around to our way of thinking. Even the sheer exposure of current events that I see in my news feed every day, with or without commentary, can really get me down.

So I will be spending 40 days in the internet desert. I will still be posting on my blog, which automatically loads to Facebook. But I myself will not be scrolling along to see what’s up in cyber world. It is my hope that this Facebook fast will give me renewed energy, more time, and the chance to focus on my spiritual life, which is the purpose of Lent.

Tree Time

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Majestic Maples

Summer has mostly faded away, but here in the Midwest, October usually brings a few unseasonably warm days. On a recent such day, I decided to head out to a grand oasis in the midst of suburbia: the Morton Arboretum. I have fond memories of taking trips out to the arboretum as a child. My father’s “field trips” almost always took us into the Great Outdoors, and the arboretum was one of his favorite spots. It’s a huge showcase for one of God’s most awesome creations: trees.

The east side of Morton Arboretum was teeming with people: school groups, elderly couples, mothers with young children. This is the part of the park, after all, that features a children’s garden, a maze, the gift shop, and the cafe. I decided to head to the west side and savor some solitude.

The ground was still soft and damp from recent rains, but most of my trail was covered with mulch, which made it easier to walk. I hiked in silence under the canopy of trees. The only sounds were an occasional bird call or a squirrel rustling in the leaves. I felt very small.

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Mighty Oaks

After about a mile, I found a bench in a shady spot and sat down to read. It was such luxury to sit, cold drink in hand, and enjoy my mystery novel. I felt as if I were playing hooky from real life. Eventually, though, I knew I had to make my way back. Not the greatest reader of maps, I relied on the signs and trail markers and stayed on the path.

I love trees. I love how massive they can be. I love the different designs of the leaves on different types of trees. I love how the light peeks through them. I love how I can shut myself off from the rest of the world in the midst of them.

img_0694Desire under the Elms

Being away from all my mundane tasks, my worries, and my fears was good for my spirit. I remember my son saying that being in nature made him feel closer to God. I understood what he meant. These trees that surrounded me had been there for many years and would likely endure for many more.

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The Evergreen – symbol of eternal life

As I neared the entrance to the arboretum once again, I came upon a river – more of a creek really. The water sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. It looked inviting to me, as the warmth and the hiking had made me perspire. I felt renewed.

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Peace like a River

My idyll under the trees came to an end, but it gave me faith: faith in nature to sustain us and bring us joy, faith in others with the vision to create and maintain such a natural treasure, and faith in God that the world He has created is enough.

A Thoreau Understanding

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Live each season as it passes;
breathe the air, drink the drink,
taste the fruit, and resign yourself
to the influences of each.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I found this quote on a little card in my hotel room where I was staying while visiting my college age son. Like many quotes from the Twentieth Century American philosopher Thoreau, it has so many layers of meaning for me.

My first thought was of the “eat local” concept, which encourages us to partake of food grown nearby when it is in season instead of insisting upon year round access to everything, such as watermelon or berries in winter, for example. I also thought of how seamlessly my tastes move from the cool, crisp salads of summer to the hearty soups of fall, from sipping a cold glass of lemonade to a warm cup of tea.

I love the current season of fall and usually find myself wishing it would last longer. The riot of color on the trees fills me joy, and the dwindling daylight makes me more serious. Summer beach reads give way to literary fiction with more depth. School is in session, and my days have more order.

Yet seeing my son, who will be graduating from college this winter and who is no longer a boy, made me realize that the seasons of which Thoreau speaks are not merely nature’s persistent cycle but the changes in our lives that lead from childhood to youth to old age.

Many people look back with particular fondness at a certain stage of life: high school, their college years, the early days of their marriage, the time when their children were little. I enjoy indulging in nostalgia about the past as much as most people. But I always think that the best time in my life is now. Here in the present is exactly where I belong.

Thoreau encourages us to allow each season to change us, to affect how we see the world. I was a pretty cynical and sarcastic young woman in my twenties. I thought I had it all figured out. Marriage and children humbled me, teaching me how much I needed to learn and how much I needed to let go. Nowadays, as I get older and a little slower, I am more mellow and forgiving, not only of others, but of myself.

When I was young, I wanted to change the world. Now I try to allow the world to change me for the better, to make me more tolerant and loving, more peaceful (notwithstanding the angst caused by the current presidential election). I hope I have many more seasons to “breathe the air” and enjoy each one as it comes.

Plethora of Pumpkin

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One of my daughter’s favorite childhood books was Too Many Pumpkins. It’s the story of an old woman who absolutely detests pumpkin. Upon finding some old pumpkin seeds in her kitchen, she ruthlessly pitches them out the window. Lo and behold, that fall her garden is overrun with pumpkins. The story then chronicles her attempts to get rid of the pumpkins by making every pumpkin recipe known to man, giving the goodies away to strangers, and making new friends in the process.

My daughter and I were reminiscing about that book yesterday after I described to her my trip to Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s latest “Fearless Flyer” promotes pumpkin in the biggest way. I had to see it to believe it. There was everything pumpkin you could imagine: pumpkin bread mix, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin soup, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin cereal, pumpkin sandwich cookies – and canned pumpkin, of course.

Unlike the old woman in Too Many Pumpkins, I love pumpkin everything. (Ironically, I am lukewarm about the most ubiquitous American pumpkin dish, pumpkin pie!) From early September, when Starbuck’s famous (or infamous) pumpkin spice latte hits the coffee chain, I start to crave all things pumpkin. Needless to say, my Trader Joe’s grocery cart was filled with pumpkin stuff, somewhat to my embarrassment.

Why has pumpkin become such a harbinger of fall? It’s true that many of the things made with pumpkin are sweet and contain warm, cozy spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. And that muted orange color is reminiscent of changing autumn leaves.

Pumpkin is actually a very healthy fruit. Many of the so-called pumpkin products we consume, however, don’t really have much, if any, real pumpkin in them. In fact, I recently learned that a lot of canned pumpkin actually contains not pumpkin, but squash. It doesn’t seem to make much difference in recipes, but it does smack of a product pretending to be something it’s not. Say! Maybe canned pumpkin should run for president.

In any event, I welcome pumpkin days the way I welcome fall. Here in the Midwest, the changes of season are marked with something approaching reverence. Autumn is certainly one of our most delightful ones, conjuring images of colorful trees, the smell of wood smoke, and gleeful trick-or-treaters traipsing through the fallen leaves.

So I’ll sit here and enjoy my pumpkin scone accompanied by a pumpkin spice latte and wish you all a happy fall.