Happy Christmas, dear friends!

"The Nativity" (circa 1500), based on a lost painting by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
                                                                                  The Gospel according to Saint Luke
                                                                                         Chapter 2, verses 8-14

Happy Christmas, dear friends!

Role Model

Well, November is here, and as usual it has brought out my melancholy side.  I miss my mom with sharper focus in November, the month of both her birth and her death. But this November in particular, I've been thinking a lot about my fabulous mother-in-law, whose birthday was also in November. I wish you could have known her as well as I did.

She was an excellent grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, a fiercely independent widowed single woman, a terrific friend, the best mother-in-law, and an adventurous soul who was up for anything.

She tap danced. She swam. She shepherded tourists around the Smithsonian as a docent at the National Postal Museum. She read The Washington Post from front to back every single day. She hated to drive, but had the Washington, D.C. bus and subway schedules memorized; she used them as she attended theater productions and baseball games and art exhibits throughout the city. She looked forward to and excelled at the competitive sport of bargain-hunting.

More than this, after her retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service and a career during which she and her husband raised three children -- while stationed in places like Cambodia, Libya, Bangladesh -- she traveled the world all over again. She took cruises throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and Canada. She rode a zip line over the Costa Rican rain forest. She went on a safari in Tanzania -- sleeping in the most glamorous tents I've ever seen. 

And then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, almost two years ago. She was told she had a "glioblastoma multiforme." Your Google search will give you all the bad news about this kind of tumor. And you've probably been hearing about this particularly shitty brand of cancer in the news recently. 

I want to say so many things. But mostly:

First -- my religion (which was my mother-in-law's  religion too) teaches me that God's ways are not our ways. This is sometimes (but not always) comforting when I consider the ways cancer attacks us. I watched it take control of my own mother, and then of my dear mother-in-law. And to tell you the truth, both times it took control of my life, too. 

But second, this sucky disease gave me a great and good gift, too. My beloved mother-in-law's illness allowed me to take care of her. It allowed me to be with her at her most vulnerable, and it let me take the most intimate care of her. Ultimately, this brave woman let me and her other children be with her as she approached that ultimate journey -- her greatest adventure yet! It's funny -- nineteen years ago, when my own mother went through a similar ordeal with similar grace, my friend Susan said to me, "her suffering is a gift." Which totally pissed me off. Who would want this kind of present?! It certainly has never been on my Christmas wish list. But she was right (as she usually is). I am grateful that I was able to love them in this particular way, in addition to all the other kinds of love I had and have for both of them.

This is a thing I've come to embrace partly because of my religious beliefs -- but I think that my non-religious friends might have experienced a similar gift. I consider myself devout, but I don't think this thankfulness really has to do entirely with faith. It also has to do with our deepest connections to those we love. And, while I have the deepest sympathy for those who think that this is not a death they should have to experience, I look to both of my cherished mothers as my examples and role models. There are many ways to die with dignity.

Finally, as is often my way, I would recommend a book -- for anyone whose family has gone through something like this, or is in the middle of it right now. Shrinkage, by Bryan Bishop, is a wonderful memoir of his (so far) successful battle against an inoperable brain tumor. I first learned of his story through his fiercely wonderful wife's blog, and have cheered him on ever since. He writes with honesty, grit, and humor, and anyone fighting cancer will find inspiration and hope in his story.

Full house!

The girl in charge came home last night -- very happy-making!  Both the sunny girl and I ran out to hug her before she had really even gotten both feet out of the car, and for a little while there, no one could move because we were all caught in a hug scrum.  It was fabulous -- lovingly claustrophobic or claustrophobically loving, I'm not sure which.  Either way I'm glad she's home!

She drove all the way from Atlanta by herself, which makes some readers yawn ho-hum, and causes other readers to remind me that I drove to Florida  to visit the beloved roommate's family a time or two myself, when I was not much older than the girl in charge. To all of which I say, pipe down!

She did break up the trip by staying overnight with these hipsters, who broke their promise that they would not knock themselves out for her, by making tacos for dinner, and by wooing her with their total awesome-osity.  In the morning before my girl arrived, dudes went out and bought themselves a house.  The day after she left, they got on a plane for the Christmas holiday.  Yet still -- welcoming and loving and awesome to my girl.  The heart just explodes, y'all.

This photo was swiped from Maggie's Facebook.

By the way, Maggie is the MVP of the family, and Mr. Maggie knows it.  The girl in charge reports that he distributed all kinds of tips for the future about married life.  Maggie and Mr. Maggie got hitched in June.

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So,  hey!  Books for Advent!


I read Louisa May Alcott's novels over and over and over when I was younger -- I was drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to the Little House books.  And like Laura Ingall's Wilder's stories, each of Alcott's books has a Christmas or winter adventure.  Several Christmases (some joyously happy, some bittersweet) are lovingly described in Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys.  Polly and Fanny have very different ideas about how to celebrate the season in An Old-Fashioned Girl.  And in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, Alcott shows Christmas through the eyes of a little girl, and of that same girl as a young woman.

But the Alcott Christmas story I love the most is the one described in Jack and Jill.  In this novel, the catalyst for the book's story arc is a sledding accident that occurs in the first chapter.  When Jack's mother takes in gravely injured Jill and her mother, she transforms their lives by turning Jill's sickroom into a Christmas-y wonderland.  As Alcott describes the decorations, the treats and gifts, and the friendship of the two young companions, a modern reader is swept right into the scene.  It's lovely!


People, look how beautiful this book is!  The text of We Three Kings, illustrated by Gennady Spirin, is taken from the well-known carol about the three magi.  But the images are so lush and detailed and gorgeous!  This is the kind of book that makes you want to stroke the pages -- the jewel-like colors are printed on yummy thick paper. It's a work of art.  The carol's old-fashioned language is hypnotic, and even young listeners who might not understand everything they hear will be drawn into the exquisite intricacies of the images.


Winter Holiday, by Arthur Ransome,  is the fourth book in the beloved Swallows and Amazons series. Readers who know that series already get how great this snowy adventure story is.  The Walker children (the Swallows) and their friends the Blacketts (the Amazons) team up with Dick and Dorothea (the D's) when the lake freezes: obviously they can now head out for the North Pole!  But when the D's disappear, will the Swallows and Amazons be able to find them? Fabulous capers ensue!


In A Night the Stars Danced for Joy, Tim Jonke's illustrations are so creamy and dream-like -- they are a lovely accompaniment to the story by Bob Hartman about a shepherd family that follows a glowing star.  I do love picture books and storybooks like this one.  Even when the text is simple or familiar, a beautiful image or intricate detail can draw us in and trigger our imaginations.  This book is out of print, but I found it at my local used book seller (shout out to C&W Used Books).  I bet you can get it at your local library, too.

I choose hope.

I don't know who created this artwork, which has been traveling around on Facebook for the past couple of days.  But I totally affirm its message.  I do know that the world is full of good people.  I am lucky enough to feel surrounded by them every day.  So during times like these, I choose to look to the Light.  I choose hope.


And as we prepare for Christmas, that's the core of what we are all preparing for. So today I chose this beautiful book to share with you during our Advent -- our time of preparation. The First Christmas uses the Nativity stories from the Gospels according to St. Luke and St. Matthew as its text, drawing from the gorgeous language of the King James translation.  The artwork really helps you focus on the interplay of light and dark, with intricate silhouette designs and silvery inks.  It's a lovely book to read as we ready ourselves for the birth of the Light of the World.

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Eight

Well, so this book has always been in my family's basket of Christmas stories, even though to some its connection to the Advent and Christmas season might seem a little tenuous.  But bear with me!  The story of The Painter's Cat concerns Micio, the spoiled kitty who belongs to an Italian painter.  Micio is a little miffed when his owner ignores him in order to concentrate on a painting.  Micio decides to head out on his own, but soon realizes that he misses the life of an artist's cat.  When he returns home, he discovers that he has been given a prominent place in his owner's painting -- his owner must have missed him, too!

Our cat-loving family was tickled by this kitty's-eye view of the creation of a real Renaissance painting: Micio takes center stage in Lorenzo Lotto's The Annunciation.  And that's where the Advent part comes in; this painting depicts the moment when Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her what God asks of her.
 Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favor.  Look!  You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.  (Luke 1: 30-33)

See!  That's pretty Christmas-y! 

Our copy of this gorgeously illustrated storybook came from the sunny girl's godmother.  We have loved it ever since -- and every time we read it, we think of our dear Lou.  So that makes it double fabulous!