The Easter cake ritual

When my children were young, I created new traditions because our
WASP-y family was very much cut off from any ethnic roots that provided ready-made rituals. I felt it was important to give the kids a sense of the deep places in the soul that these traditions touched.

And thus, I began the tradition of the Easter cake. It was made several days before Easter Sunday. The cake was baked and assembled, then set in a cool dark place to “ripen.” On Easter, the mellowed rich concoction was brought out into the light and placed on the table. As we baked, the kids learned the story of Jesus, how he was laid in the cold tomb, and after a few days of patient waiting, the stone was rolled away and Jesus emerged, transformed and new.

My kids loved the cake, and at least listened to the story, and eagerly helped with the mixing and the baking. Every year it has been the main focus of our Easter morning. Yesterday in our new house, with new baking pans, I again enacted the ritual. And here’s the thing – I could easily dwell on the past and the memories of previous Easters when the seeds of hopes and dreams were planted. Those hopes have now bloomed into a very different reality. When we gather on Sunday, my oldest daughter will not be there. She spends holidays with the people she now considers to be her family.

Yet, I still make the Easter cake. I cream the butter and sugar.
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Then I mix in the flour and beat until the batter is thick and sticky. I separate the eggs. Add the egg yolks and the zest of one lemon.
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I beat the egg whites and fold in the grated almond paste and more sugar. Spread the batter into the pans and bake.
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Finally, I whip the cream. Assemble the layers of cake and cream.
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And I place the cake on a shelf in the cool basement.

By Sunday the cake will be transformed. The cream will curdle into a pale yellow ooze. The layers will settle, rich and delicious.

Transformed.

We have all transformed. We are new each Easter. But the past tugs hard. It is a precious, beautiful dream filled with children, puppies, games and laughter. Bright as a bubble. Now gone, gone, gone. Oh dear, I am looking into the past right now and the tears start to flow. This is why I must give the past no more than a quick glance over my shoulder.

I want to focus on today and tomorrow, which are lit with subdued hues not the joyous brilliance of yesterdays. Today is the stage on which all the yesterdays come together. An arrangement of humans, old dogs, prickly relationships, and complicated love. But today IS new. Transformed. Tomorrow and every day that follows will be new and good. And nowadays I don’t dream and hope as I once did. I try to let the days unfold as they come.

But on Sunday, I will pull the Easter cake from the cool basement and I will sprinkle it with sugar.

Make a manifesto

Do you have a personal manifesto? “A declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives or motives.” It can be a statement written out in the passion of heartfelt desire and clear vision expressing who you want to be and how you want to spend your days.

Because day in and day out, plans and intentions get confused, deflated, washed away. One forgets.

Lately, I’ve been stuck in a murky fog, not able to see clearly to next week much less next year. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be. Nothing to write about. Life feels stale and airless. It’s a ridiculous, self-indulgent state of affairs – but so be it. I’m being honest. Sometimes I lose my way.

Obviously, life is too short for this. So I reread the manifesto that launched this blog and captured how I want to spend my days. “To set out at late mid-life on a journey to create projects and challenges, so that today and tomorrow and the day after offer something new. A journey that carries me to new places physically, but also unexplored regions in my soul. To start afresh, right from the beginning, a boat sailing by night into the dark, unknown and uncharted – into the future.”

Pretty grandiose, eh? I could be a bit embarrassed by such elevated desires. But since my college days as an English major, I’ve always liked this quote by Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

Exactly.

Remembering my manifesto refocused my scrambled emotions in two ways. It reminded me of how life can be a carnival of delight and that I can fully indulge, cotton candy in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. Yet at other times, and probably most often, I’m alone in the dark. But this darkness should not be my enemy. It’s the darkness of the unknown, of mystery. It’s the dark of closed-eyed meditation, of stillness. I feel fear and a sense of groping in a void. But I must believe in my grandiose manifesto. I am not foundering in the doldrums. A gentle wind is pressing me forward on this uncharted course.

Swimming with the fishes

When our daughters were little, we bought a cabin on a small fishing lake in the Kansas Flint Hills, a two-hour’s drive from Kansas City. We wanted an affordable weekend country home where our children could run free, and the lake community offered a toehold in a beautiful prairie landscape as well as a caretaker to keep an eye on the place.

All the years we owned it, I longed for the humble cabins along the lake to exhibit a more Martha Stewart vibe, with pretty Adirondack chairs perched on sloping grassy lawns, rustic-chic front porches, and gardens of sunflowers, asters, and zinnias. Instead, the area exuded a workaday rural lake aesthetic where our neighbors parked pick-up trucks in their yards and adorned their porches with a higgledy-piggledy arrays of chairs and picnic tables. For my snooty city-girl tastes, the ambiance was lacking but the country quiet, green hills and prairie flowers sufficed. Our daughters loved it.

On one muggy July afternoon when my younger daughter, Eliza, was 5, I paddled us in a two-seat kayak across the lake and into Kahola Creek, one of the spring-fed creeks that flow into the 400-acre lake. The creek was home to a blue heron, muskrats, frogs, birds and fish, but whenever I pulled the kayak onto the shore of one of the tiny rocky islands my first thought was: snakes.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes lived in the prairie pastures and along the rocky road. In the creeks: water moccasins. Like sharks in the ocean, these spoiled my complete enjoyment of swimming in the deep pools and wading through the shallows. Because I wanted my girls to feel empowered and adventurous out in the countryside, I tried not to pass on undue anxiety, so I would be privately watchful and paranoid, leaving my kids free to ramble. I did teach them not to turn over rocks, to make some noise while walking trails and splash a little when wading in creeks to warn critters we were approaching and give them a chance to slither away. But I didn’t delve into the details of snakebite and poison.

This day we pulled the kayak onto a rocky island formed by shards of flint and scrubby trees. Wind fluttered the leaves of the cottonwoods and walnut trees lining the shore. On the far bank, a stone shelf rose above a deep pool. I eyed the shadowed crevasse below the jutting ledge, thinking it would make a good home for water moccasins. Oh, but that deep, clear pool was a perfect place for a swim.

In our bathing suits, we slipped into the cold spring water, refreshing on a humid July day. Suddenly, dozens of small bluegill fish surrounded us, flitting and dipping, swimming close to nibble our skin.

“They are kissing me!” Eliza squealed with delight.

The water was as clear as air, and the saucer-shaped bluegill looked like Disney characters, their splashes of orange, blue, jade, and yellow sparkling in the sunlight. We floated into the middle of the pool and the cartoon fish dove and drifted, magical as fairies. I watch for snakes and let Eliza lose herself in the moment, giggling, as she swam with the fishes.

In my memory, that day seems caught in a snow globe, preserved in a glass bubble. Shake it and instead of fluffy snowflakes falling on a winter scene, this memory sends diamonds of sunlight shimmering on the water, and a mother and daughter floating in a clear spring, colorful fishes dancing in the water.

Mothering days pile up into a varied heap of happy, stressful, boring, successful, and challenging events.

I like to shake that memory globe and relive the time I led my youngest on an enchanted adventure up a common Kansas creek. I did well that day.

Jimmy’s Socks

Keepsakes. Possessions. Family heirlooms. How much is too much?

My husband’s aunt went to garage sales and more garage sales until she’d accumulated so many purchases that to walk from room to room she had to follow narrow paths amongst the clutter. I have a friend with closets stuffed full of clothes, shoes, and purses that will never be used. But she finds it hard to part with any of it. Other friends have neat-as-a-pin downstairs rooms, but upstairs there’s at least one bedroom filled with storage boxes of books, old toys, school projects, and family memorabilia. Others have orderly, large houses where the basements and attics are crammed with stored furniture, boxes, grandma’s china, and old baby beds.

When I was growing up, my mom’s room was a disaster: her extra bed, desk, and dresser-top were piled high with clipped articles, books, letters and photos. She was a packrat, saving everything. I was an untidy child, but I swore I would never live like that.

I used to keep piles. Stacks formed on my desk awaiting decisions or lingering “just in case.” But during the move from our big house to a rental, and recently from that rental into a much smaller house, I have become more ruthless. To the shock of many friends, I’ve thrown away photographs, old letters, kids’ artwork, my childhood drawings, and many writing notebooks. I want empty space and uncluttered closets. I do not want things. Many of my possessions have become an uncomfortably heavy weight of responsibility and memory. Perhaps they represent the burden and realization of how the years have piled up, how long I’ve lived—that I am growing old. As I began to box up my belongings for the move–so many things–I felt a tightness as if I were an old snake that for years had been unable to shed skin and was now bound too tightly, suffocating. Getting rid of the excess felt like moving forward, being set free.

Nevertheless, from time to time I worry that this urge to unload my possessions is just a phase. Will I regret throwing out so much? My 88-year-old mother recently told me that she’d spent a wonderful evening re-reading old letters from college boyfriends. (As I mentioned earlier, she’s a packrat!) Do all these boxes of letters and photos make for a happier life in one’s twilight years?

I know: scan my old letters and photos into the computer and save on discs or in the cloud. I’ve done some of that. And before tossing out kids’ artwork and school projects, I’ve photographed and scanned the best ones. But this still is a burden of online clutter to keep track of and preserve.

And then there are the items from long ago. My home has been the receptacle of many family keepsakes: my grandmother’s consume bowls, another grandmother’s Willow Ware dishes, my grandfather’s baby crib, a great-grandmother’s wedding dress, ledgers full of my grandfather’s poetry. The list goes on and on. In addition, my mother’s apartment storage bin is crammed full of boxes and crates of family “treasures” that will one day be mine to sort through.

We are ephemeral creatures – but my god, how our stuff outlives us. Bodies decompose or are burned to ash, but the army uniform, the packet of letters, the wind-up toy all remain, if aged and yellowed. Kings and pharos were often buried with their life’s possessions, to be taken with them to the afterlife I suppose. Maybe we should do that. We would unburden our future generations of the photo albums, collections, DVDs, clothing, letters, books, furniture, china, and jewelry that fill attics and basements and flea markets.

Yet, I think of my mother treasuring those letters from old boyfriends, now mostly dead.

The other day I opened yet another box of stored items and read a letter written by a great aunt I never knew. The faded handwriting was very hard to read and the news rather ordinary: “I have had the flu but am well now.”

I folded that letter, stuck it back in the envelope, and picked up another. My heart tightened in my chest. Written in black cursive on the envelope were these words: Jimmy’s Socks.

Inside were tiny baby’s socks—probably a first pair. I had a great-great uncle named James Harvey. His mother, Clara, must have labeled the envelope. In an instant, she came to life for me, all because of her gentle gesture of saving her baby’s socks. And Uncle Jim? Before this moment he was merely one of the two men in the blurry photos of “the Kansas Folks” that my mom showed me, reminiscing about her childhood visits to these elderly relatives. Now in a flash, those tiny socks created a continuum: he was born, he kicked his fat baby legs, he grew to manhood, he had lived and breathed.

I had never before thought about my great-great uncle Jim, much less cared about him, until I held his tiny cream and blue socks. Now he holds a small place in my heart and I will never forget him.

So, what do I save and what do I throw away? How much do I cram into the basement and closets? What will my great-great niece pull from a box that will make her catch her breath, suddenly aware that her aunt Martha once walked the earth?

Have I already thrown out too much?

For certain, I’m afraid, my daughters’ baby socks are long gone.

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NYC and me

Barely back from France, I spent a quick weekend in New York City to see friends. I’m not a great fan of The City. I wish I were. People looooove NYC, but I’m “eh” about it.
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Maybe I hold a grudge. When I was in my 20s and living near New York, visiting on the weekends, it was kind of scuzzy and dangerous. A friend of mine was mugged standing in line for movie tickets on a Saturday afternoon on the Upper East Side. People around her were kind afterwards, but no one was going to step in when that guy brandished a gun. Hipster haven Brooklyn? A few parts were being gentrified, but much of it was still scary. A friend living there had her cat killed by a pack of wild dogs, and a few weeks later a guy high on crack busted down her door with a sledge hammer. New York was, of course and as always, a multi-cultural and creative place. But it was far from the playground of hip restaurants and trendy shops that it is today.

Every time I’ve visited in recent years, the city seems crowded, dirty, loud, and not very pretty, even though it is slicked up and safe. Give me a European city any day. Nevertheless, three days of wandering the city with friends was a blast. And maybe I succumbed to its charms just a bit.
I liked the neighborhood vibe and low-scale of Notlita.
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A stroll through Chinatown markets was a visual adventure.
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The Ginger Mojitos and the views of a fast-moving thunderstorm from the lobby lounge of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel were a great way to spend a late Sunday afternoon.
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Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, I felt like I was on stage, or in a movie — that I was supposed to be belting out a song about the Bronx and the Battery, or concrete jungle and the Empire State. Now you’re in New York!
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My friend visiting from Vienna insisted that we take a helicopter ride over Manhattan. A helicopter ride? Really? Who does that? Well, for one, the doorman at our building said he’d been twice. And from the long line of European tourists at the heliport, I concluded it must be a bucket-list item for many. The twenty minute ride around the harbor and up and down the Hudson River — magical.
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Hamburgers in Paris

My hometown is in beef country USA. So I know a good burger when I taste one! The best burger I have ever eaten in my life? Recently at Cosy Corner, 94 Rue des Dames in the 17th arr. (A wonderful street lined with casual restaurants, by the way.) Their hamburger was perfectly cooked with a delicious bun and served already garnished with a to-die-for sauce.

Another favorite burger in Paris? From Le Camion qui fume food truck, which parks in various locations around the city. The day I indulged, the truck was parked in the place de la Madeleine–which offers a perfect picnic spot, especially on a rainy day. Run by a Californian named Kristin Frederick, Le Camion qui fume does it right with superb burgers and hand-cut fries. A long line forms and when they run out of meat, they close up and roll away.

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Hungry yet?

Why women love Paris

I was on my cell phone, talking to a young man at AT&T to sign up for an international data plan. When I told him that I would be traveling to Paris he said “Oh, that’s every girl’s dream!”

Yes, I admit it. I am a cliche. Women — middle-aged women in particular — love to escape to Paris. Remember Carmella from the Sopranos? Here’s her reaction to Paris.

Of course, it’s not just women who love Paris. Case in point: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But for many of American women, Paris and France hold a special allure.

I think one reason is that Paris is a 24/7 experience of sensual pleasure. American women have spent a lifetime being judged for our attractiveness. We dress, diet, exercise, groom with an eye on the mirror and a self-conscious sense of how others perceive us. But how often do we allow ourselves to turn our sights away from the impact we make on the outside world and let the outside world afford us delight?

For years middle-aged women have focused on the needs of others. We are pragmatic and disciplined. And then we arrive in Paris. Everywhere it is a feast of sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. The city surrounds us with beauty, harmony, history, artistry, and elegance. The food, the wines, the museums, the bridges, the river, the light, the street fashion, the architecture, the fragrances, the style, and the heightened aesthetic of living.

Paris delights us. It offers us beauty and asks nothing from us in return. The people might judge us, but Paris does not. It asks us to be free, to take delight in all its pleasures — directly, individually, and solely for ourselves.

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Next stop: Paris

I reluctantly leave beautiful Villefranche-sur-mer…but it’s time to try out my fledgling French language skills in the big city. My apartment in Paris is on the Right Bank, a few blocks from the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. During past trips to Paris, I have stayed on the Left Bank, so this is new territory to explore.

My apartment windows look out on a courtyard. I hear French voices and smell fish cooking.
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The decor includes pillows with a welcome reminder of my dachshunds back home. What a funny coincidence.
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Life in small spaces

Until a year ago, I owned a large house with seven bedrooms, a living room, two family rooms, a breakfast room, kitchen, four full bathrooms, two half bathrooms, a two-car garage, and an attached shed. Older, rambling houses such as this are common here in the Midwest, dating from the 1910s and 1920s when people had big families and often live-in maids and cooks. When my husband and I bought this old house, in need of repair and TLC, our two children were young — and we were young — and it felt like a fine adventure to lead our lives in this large space. And it was. We had room to spare for treasure hunts, visits from friends and relatives, sleep-overs, birthday parties. We had one family room devoted to messy art projects and rambunctious playtime.

But here’s the thing: I never felt as if I truly owned the place. I felt like a visitor. A piece of dandelion fluff floating from room to room. Only since we sold the big house and moved to a small rental (with three small bedrooms, a living room/dining room, and a kitchen) do I realize that I was born to inhabit small spaces. I don’t know how else to explain it, but that large house was just too much space for me to possess.

The funny thing is that my dachshund felt the same way. At our old house, he was never happy hanging out in the large backyard. But he will stay for hours outside in the tiny yard of our new house. I think he feels that he can “own” this space — patrol it and control it.

Now in my small studio rental apartment in Villefranche with a bed nook, sofa, small dining table and tiny kitchen, I am once again realizing the joys of small spaces.
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Giving up the big house that I loved but never truly possessed has given me the money to travel to this new small space where I study, write, drink wine, entertain a few friends, and eat goodies from the market and boulangerie.

My apartment is small. But my world is growing ever larger.
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Roses on the Cote d’Azur and a little prince


“If someone loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened…And you think that is not important!”
From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you haven’t read this little book, do.
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It’s particularly beautiful, of course, in French.

“–Si quelqu’un aime une fleur qui n’existe qu’à un exemplaire dans les millions et les millions d’étoiles, ça suffit pour qu’il soit heureux quand il les regarde. Il se dit: ‘Ma fleur est là quelque part…’ Mais si le mouton mange la fleur, c’est pour lui comme si, brusquement, toutes les étoiles s’éteignaient! Et ce n’est pas important ça!”