the living present

A Vase of Flowers, Margareta Haverman, 1716.

September must be high up on the list of "Craziest Months for Moms." Between new school clothes, school materials, packing lunches, PTA dues, and meeting teachers, a mom hardly has time to sit down. And even beyond that, its harvest season. September has to be the best month for eating in North America, because every garden finally has its zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, pears, peaches, and apples ripe and ready. I have been eating fresh cherry tomatoes with every salad at lunch, and pears wherever I can find a reason for them, and peaches every breakfast. I have been canning massive amounts of fruit, making pear butter and apple sauce and tomato marinara.
The month of September gives me the same sense of urgency as a Dutch still life. It is all perfectly full, nearly overripe, act now! The senses are so full, it is all so delicious, but it will fade!
"Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!"

Your children are growing, the garden is fading, capture it, keep it, enjoy it, live it!

....and thank goodness tomorrow starts October. 

dream castles

Our evening routine takes an eternity. I read a book to each girl, say a prayer, and sing to each individually. Tonight we read a book about a girl who lives in a miniature castle inside a museum.
So I asked each girl what their castle would be like. What would you have in your castle? What would you do? That's all I had to ask, and wow! It got their imaginations running wild! I wanted to write about their responses here, mostly so I won't forget them in days to come.
Millie: Her castle has a pool. A pool and a swing. A swing you can fly high and jump into the pool! Every member of her family are present, so she "never has to be alone ever." There are puppies and bats as her pets. This is so Millie. Fun physical activity is most important, and we are all together ALL THE TIME.
Hazel: Her castle has bears and dragons, "like, 20,000," and they are all green and nice. She wears a green dress, and eats green cream of wheat, which is the only thing she wants on the menu both in her dream castle and at home. Seriously, I make this kid cream of wheat for lunch 3-4 times a week.
Josephine: She seemed mostly interested in interior decoration and the look of the architecture. Mostly, how many surfaces can be decorated with rainbows. It sounded al little like Malmaison meets Lisa Frank. Her bed has an actual cloud with rainbows for her comforter, and blue and orange pillows. Her pets are a gray wolf and a white ferret, named Hunt and Shimmer Shiny Shine respectively. I could hardly get Jo to stop talking and go to sleep. I literally had to stop her mid sentence and say, "Jo, your sisters are asleep, and I have more work to do downstairs. You've got to quit talking. I will listen to your dream castle tomorrow, and you can even draw me a picture. But for now, go to sleep and dream about it."

I love my girls, and I am having so much more fun with them now than I ever have in the past. I am loving this stage, school-aged girls with wild imaginations and growing vocabularies. So much better than mewling infants. I'll never miss having twin babies, or three children under 18-months-old, or a baby in the NICU. I will never look back on fondness on the last six years - but I am most definitely loving where we are going. These little girls are so full of life!


Perfect Children's Books

From my experience as a bookseller at both The Read Leaf and The King's English, and also having a mother who read to me and now as a mother who reads to her children, I have read hundreds and hundreds of children's picture books. There are many I love, probably two dozen favorites. But there are very few that I actually think are perfect. Writing for children is exceedingly difficult, because they are the most unforgiving audience. Too long? Forget it. Too confusing? They're outta here. Too grown-up? They don't want to hear the ending. Tonight I thought of my personal list of Perfect Children's Books, which is of course subjective and fairly arbitrary. I thought of it because of a library book I picked up today, which has become a new perfect book in our household.
The House on East 88th Street, by Bernard Waber, Ages 4-7.
I think this book is perfect because the story is engaging, the vocabulary is just advanced enough, and the onomatopoeias are the icing on the cake. Imagining a crocodile sizing up hotel bathtubs around the world makes me laugh every time. Splish. Splash. Sploosh! 
The Rainbabies, by Laura Melmed. Ages 4-7.
The illustrations definitely make this story. Its so magical, and it never fails to 'hit the spot' when we read it.
Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell. Ages 2-4.
This is the best board book of all time. Simple images, lots of room to explore, and animals!
The Merbaby, by Teresa Bateman. Ages 6-10.
This was the book we found today. Fairy tales are probably my favorite literary genre in fiction, but for children they are almost always too wordy. Even the fairy tales marketed for the very littlest kids are too wordy! I felt like this book had the right amount of magic, the right amount of words, and just enough advanced vocabulary to get the kids to ask questions. I just loved this book!
If you Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff. Ages 2-6.
This book is just so funny, and a sure-fire win. I think its perfect because it begs to be read aloud, and the kids are engaged for each and every page turn.
Jamberry, by Bruce Degen. Ages 2-4.
The rhythm in this little book is irresistible. I don't typically like children's books that are all in rhymes because you lose the kids. Even in Dr. Seuss, eventually the kids' eyes glaze over because the repetitive sentence structure bores them. But this rhymed kid's book I love, its so full of joy and color.

I am sure there are more I could put on this list, and I know this is a subject people have strong opinions about. But according to me, these are the creamiest of the cream of the crop.



Does anyone remember this, two years ago? When I showed those beautiful dolls to my mother, she knew how much work I had put into them, and therefore asked me, "Are you going to let them play outside with them?!" I told her yes, because I think children's toys are objects they project themselves on to, and conduits to work out their own world. 
My girls love it when I sew them dolls, whether I spend months or just days making them. Josephine especially loved the doll pictured above, and wow, did it become a projection of herself. In fact, the doll underwent a total transformation:
Yes. That would be the same doll, with tiger stripes, water stains, paws, and leaves and twigs in her hair. Its like she was marooned in a forest in Guinea, and turned native. Its a perfect reflection of Jo's wild imagination.
This last weekend I sewed all four girls another doll for fall, a bat girl for Halloween. (My kids love bats, and usually when they play games they are a family of bats. I read Stellaluna to them last summer, and it stuck.) I liked how Josephine's turned out the most:
I don't know how long it will last looking this cute, but I do know it will be loved.


Notes on St. Petersburg, II

Aug. 27. The Zoological Museum & Kunstkamera. A sampling of the wonders we saw today:

  • A giant's skeleton
  • An entire blue whale skeleton
  • An infant preserved in formaldehyde with one cycloptic eye, more than 250+ years old
  • An actual wooly mammoth, discovered in the Siberian ice pack in 1903
  • Birds the size of a quarter
  • Birds the size of my whole self!
  • Skeleton of siamese twins
  • An Inuit coat made of whale intestine
Russian genetics really favor the men in this country. I have seen a lotta good looking Russians, yo.
Swan Lake at the Alexandrinsky Theater. Exquisite and utterly magical. The prima ballerina was so graceful, it was a joy to behold. Her male counterpart was powerful, making mighty leaps several feet from the stage. The costumes and sets were exactly what I would want for my ideal production of Swan Lake.
Aug. 28. Round 2 of Hermitage. I should re-read my basic art history text book again, this time cover to cover.
How have I never heard of Christina Robertson?! Must do some research when I get home.
I am convinced the two most quotable movies of all time are "The Princess Bride" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Or maybe just for my family.
Jan Provoost, Virgin, God-bearer.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition vi, 1913
People who say "My kid could paint that" as a critique of Picasso, Matisse or Kandinsky, are determining the value of art solely on technique, not considering composition or inspiration. We all breathe, but some learn to hold their breath to pearl dive. Did you have the idea for that composition? No. The desire? No. But they did! What of the philosophy behind these paintings? The zeitgeist?!

My favorite painting at the Hermitage: Lucas Cranach the Elder's Madonna with Child with Apples, 1520-1530. Incredibly lovely. Got a print of it.
Saw some teeny tiny wooden triptychs, carved so delicately you'd think a breath of air could damage them.
Got really excited about the tapestry series The Virtues, Flemish 15th century. Wish I had known about these tapestries when I was writing my thesis.
Nearly all of 19th century Romanticism can be summed up in Colosseum by Night, Franz Ludwig Catel.

The importance of mass-produced oil paint in tubes cannot be overstated in the history of art.
Holy crap they have hobbit armor. 

Aug 28. Russian Museum - housed in a lovely neoclassical palace painted yellow and white. A grand staircase. Wish I'd read the Russian fairy tales before I came here. Favorite painting: Ilya Repin, Sadko, 1876.

St. Petersburg has always been a university town, and it give the city a lively atmosphere at night. Lots of night clubs, all-night cafes, groups of walkers along the canals at all hours, lovers kissing on bridges. Its all exhilarating. There is definitely an edge too, most obvious with the motorcycle gangs. Groups of 5-10-20 motorcyclists roar down Nevsky Prospekt at all hours, especially Saturday night. There are also loads of street musicians. I've heard hipster electric guitar boy bands, a rapper with a heart-thudding sound system, girls singing traditional Russian songs, a solo saxophonist, and a violin duet. And can I say rapping in Russian sounds downright scary?!

Aug 29. Taxi ride at 3:00 am to catch first flight to Paris. The taxi driver was the same one who delivered us from the airport to the hotel. He has his radio tuned to 'Sappy Love Songs from Around the Globe,' which is funny because I can't even imagine him doing a two-step shuffle.

Charles de Gaulle airport. I only have an hour here. There is a very real temptation to NOT board the flight to Minneapolis. Can I just say it physically pains me to be so very close to a place I love and not get off?!?!

Now on the last flight, heading to Salt Lake City. I am happy to see my littles and give them hugs and kisses, and get a great big bear-hug from Trevor. But I'm sad the adventure is over. Sad to return to a hot, dry desert, driving kids home from school, homework, cooking, dishes, diapers...I find joy in domesticity, but it is work. A lot of work - all day, sometimes all night, monotonous, often obnoxious, loud, demanding, Disney-Junior-infused work. I mean, how excited can I be? I loved having a week with no expectations. Nobody asked a thing from me. No one interrupted my reading. I didn't have to clean up another mess in the bathroom, the carpet, the kitchen.
I actually got time alone! I wasn't in a hurry, I didn't have to coax anyone to eat vegetables, I got to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner when it was still warm, and I didn't have to clean up spills. Not a minute of this trip was wasted on me. I slept soundly every night with no feeding bags, Eloise retching, Hazel wetting the bed, or Jo and Mille crowding me in my bed and stealing my pillow. I didn't even move when I went to bed in St. Petersburg. It was heaven. Can anyone blame me for being sad to come home? I wish I lived in Europe, was European, and leaving makes me sad. I wish I was more free. It was exhilarating using parts of my brain trying to recognize Cyrillic letters, listening to Russian and that thrill when you hear a word you understand!

I follow my passions as best I can, but the necessity of daily work is soul-crushing. I know this is a 'chapter' in my life that everyone assures me will pass quickly, but its been 6 years already, and I have so many more with Eloise. She still doesn't eat sufficiently orally. I have to work crazy hard with that.

I'm grateful I got to get away. It was lovely to feel like a woman - independent and curious. I got to wear my high heels and hear them clack along a metropolitan European city. Folks I met didn't know which language to use first - Russian? French? English? I made friends with a worker at the Hermitage. I asked him where he would've guessed I was from. He answered, "After you talked I knew American. Before you spoke? No idea. France? England? Russia?" Of course that pleased me no end. Sometimes I feel like I must look like a cookie cutter Mormon mommy. There's nothing wrong with that, but its not who I am, and I don't want it assumed of me. Its hard to feel like a smart, attractive woman wearing clothes covered in baby snot and spilled milk.

Now its back to my fairly uninviting reality. I mean, when I get home 2 days later I'm bringing Eloise to the hospital for a dilation. They are awful ordeals, and we've done more than I can remember. I better get these tears under control before I attract the airline hostess's attention...


I've been home a week now, and it feels like St. Petersburg was a dream. It's been an excessively difficult week. Eloise's dilation went alright, but she handled it badly afterward. She's still not acting normal. The day after she had an absolutely horrible blue spell that I'm frankly surprised she survived. I don't exactly know why, but Amelia was an absolute basket case her first week of school. She threw up in the trash can at school, and bawled until I picked her up, every day. There was a problem with my kids starting French this year because of district-wide policy changes, and they can no longer attend Madame Bois' class. This caused me a lot of tears and a meeting with the principal. Every night was interrupted with Eloise gagging and retching on her own spit. It has been completely insane. And when Millie told me, "I cried every night you were gone. I missed you SO MUCH. Did you cry because you missed us, mom?" I had to tell a bald-face lie. "Yes, I missed you every minute."


Notes on St. Petersburg, part I

I am recently returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I kept a journal of sorts while I was there, not necessarily with a blog post in mind, but a series of blog posts it has become.

Aug 23. Salt Lake City to Fort Worth/Dallas airport. Hey there's a yoga studio here, gotta check that out!

Dallas - Amsterdam. Sitting next to me is a lovely Sudanese high schooler, starting school again in two days. Her father is Dutch, her mother is Sudanese but raised in London. She and her two sisters live two hours south of Amsterdam, learning Dutch and English. We are getting along famously, until I spilled my cup of water on her. *doh!*

The flight attendant asked me a question in French, assuming I was French. This makes my day (obvs). 
Surprise! Five hour layover in Amsterdam. I asked to be dropped off a the Rijksmuseum. I see Vermeer's Milkmaid, and I am moved to tears by seeing a Vermeer for the first time. The colors?! Unbelievable. I see Rembrandt's The Nightwatch, and I am surprised at how overwhelmed I am by it. Rembrandt isn't my favorite, but seeing this painting brings it home to me why he is a master. I visit the Flemish 15th century tapestries, and revel in their mille fleurs brilliance.

Aug. 24. Fly to St. Petersburg
Welcome to Russia! We will lose your luggage, and make you fill out 6 separate but identical forms about it!

We almost die in the taxi ride. Twice. Worse than Italy?
Arrive at the Taleon Imperial Hotel. In a word: opulent. That Catherine sure knew luxury. I've never stayed anywhere so grand. It feels like a sleepover at Downton Abbey.

There is a female mannequin next to the hotel desk, wearing a blonde wig and a crimson flamenco dress...um, why?

I don't believe in jet lag, but it believes in me. 
Aug 25. We find a delicious bakery around the corner from the hotel, Le Pain Quotidien. I eat a croque madam, almond croissant and peach camomile tea for breakfast, and enjoy every morsel and drop. 

Hydrofoil to Peterhof. Vern Swanson always says the national bird of Russia is the construction crane, and its true. I've never seen so many in one place. 
Oh my Peterhof - could you be lovelier? Fountains are glorious!
Church on the Spilled Blood. Oh my, tesserae! 
We returned to the hotel, and guess what?! My suitcase came! I went for a swim in their exquisite pool, and was much refreshed. I don't want to go home.
Canal boat ride, loved every minute. The boat has a warning sign: "Dear guests! There are 500 bridges in St. Petersburg. But you only have One Head. So be careful." People ride jet skis through the canals, and it looks like so much fun. 

Dinner at a delightful cafe called Katyusha on Nevsky Prospect. Menu offered things like elk meatloaf and veal tongue. I asked for a slice of Bird Cherry Cake, but they were already sold out. Now I'm a bit obsessed with figuring out what on earth that is, and if I can replicate it at home. 

Walk back to the hotel, and the city is abuzz with live music, people and movement. I make a realization: I am in love with this city!!!
Aug 26. Hermitage. Can I just not write anything about the Hermitage? It overwhelms all the senses in its vast majesty and brilliance. Its hard to believe such a place like this exists. 
Waiting for the Peacock Clock to chime. It is so crowded, so overheated, so airless that there are a couple of times I knew if I unlocked my knees, I would probably faint. 
I know "personal space" is an American mental construct, but it is nearly impossible to ignore. I hate being crowded and can't help feeling like others are being exceedingly rude by jostling me. 

I wish I lived in Europe. Whenever I say that, people respond, "No you don't, because blah blah blah." I'm 30 years old now, and I have wanted to live in Europe for as long as I can remember. So who is it to say that I wouldn't want to live there?! Why do people presume to know more about me than I do? And why the hell have I listened to them for so long?! Its going to be harder to go home than I imagined. 
Aug 27. Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, the mass burial site from the siege of Leningrad, 1941-43. The German attack on St. Petersburg was not what it was on Paris. Hitler wanted Paris for himself, and didn't cause damage. He ordered Leningrad to be wiped off the face of the earth. If the Nazis were allowed to breach the siege ring, it would mean absolute destruction for the city in every feasible way. It meant annihilation. I don't believe any people have suffered like the Leningraders did during the siege. From the psychological terror of living within a ring surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies, cut off from food supplies and support, and the bitter, bitter cold...I doubt any other group of people have suffered quite like that. Everything I have seen in St. Petersburg was hard won, great sacrifices were made to keep it standing.  

I shed some tears here, but not for those who died. They were relieved of a horrific situation. I cried for the people left behind, for the families that were torn apart. Before I came here I did extensive research into the siege, and some of the children's accounts are beyond comprehension. 

The United States has never faced anything like this as a nation. 
I make a realization in part about why I love Europe so much: History is accessible to the senses, in art, architecture, language and food. It is so much less so in the United States, you have to work so hard to see it, and its all so relatively young. By and large, American culture is not aware of history, and where I live particularly, it is expected of me to be happy and blithely ignorant of anything sad. But here's the thing - I have heartbreaks and cemeteries and sadness. I believe leaving that accessible leads to a richer life, rather than an empty smile.