Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Very Full Year

So much has happened in 2009. So much that was good and memorable. I would be remiss to leave out a special day in July when us Chickens were Abroad, enjoying our first family European travels. Some years Chickenblog has done a retrospective, highlighting the special events that made up an entire year. Today I will recall just one special day, as a favor promised to a favorite aunt... this one is for you Carol.

Before we resume our Chickens Abroad travelogue, please be advised: This post is a doozy. Get a snack. Brew some coffee, find the lumbar pillow, stretch. Don't hesitate to schedule an intermission.


We were in the Netherlands and thoroughly enjoying the restful and full days after the big city days in London, Paris and Bruxelles. Even our one day braving Amsterdam traffic was lovely and worthwhile. Leaving Rabbit Hill was hard. We had had a lot of fun there. From this very central part of Holland we were heading south, to an area that is a narrow slip of country nestled snugly between Germany and Belgium. Our GPS, flakey yet indispensable, was aiming for the little town of Valkenburg and a certain castle.

It turns out this is not the Kasteel we were looking for.

Not the moat.

Not the cows.

I suppose if we had brought guide books with us, or if we had bothered to learn to read and speak Dutch, then finding the ancient Kasteelruin Valkenburg would not have been so challenging, but then we might not have discovered this beautiful spot. That would have been a shame.

We aimed for town again and realized that the elusive castle was actually right in front of us, or more accurately: Right above us.

Of course. One of the highest points in Holland would be up.

But first, before any more climbs, we stopped for some local brew.

Then we climbed. The most sacked castle in Europe on the right and the entrance ahead of us...

Or so we thought. Even without our GPS, we managed to find the longest route to our destination, so our walking tour of the town was extended as we circled the base of the castle.

If Alex were writing this you would be enjoying fascinating details about castle construction and history, the lives and means of castle dwellers. He was an ideal companion on our self guided tour. His enthusiasm was infectious and his knowledge extensive.

Up we went.

I am not going to provide detailed analysis of the the layout, the features, the history. No time. Besides, it's been done.

Alex was making sense of all of it. He understood that cut stones and crumbled walls were once whole walls and actual rooms. He painted a picture for us, told us stories that filled the space with voices and possibilities. I could imagine dark, cold winters, long sieges, daily life, order and labor.

Narrow passages and medieval justice, made me grateful to have been born in the twentieth century.

There is something stirring and indescribable about standing in ancient places, seeing the hills and trees that were seen hundreds of years before and sensing that somehow there is still a connection between then and now, us and them.

We felt reverent. We were surprised and engaged. It's not a polished site, with everything reconstructed and served up for simple consumption, but I think we preferred it this way. We were on our own to detect the quieted, yet real history all around us.

It was beautiful.

It was neglected and old and messy and interesting. It was great to be there and not have a guide telling us what to think and which direction to look. We touched the walls, and deciphered the purpose of rooms and corridors. We saw the flowers growing between ancient floor tiles.

Looking up or looking down, our eyes met stories told and untold.

It's good to know history, to feel familiar with local culture and language, but there is a pleasure in wondering too. I do not mind mystery, quietly reflecting and enjoying my own experience. A lot of places and sights that we found in Europe were new to me and I have since been inspired to learn more, to read and research, but I am happy to have made my own first impressions as well.

Kasteelruin Valkenburg inspired reflection.
I think this was a baptismal font. The stone was very different from the walls. It was in the chapel.

Here is a chapel arch.

We sat in the chapel for a family portrait.

This is an embarrassing admission: There were plenty of markers and signs that detailed specific aspects of the architecture and some history, and the castle is being restored, but I rarely read plaques and history markers. Isn't that wrong... wasteful or something? I don't know. Maybe I am too absorbed in being there. Facts and dates don't last as long for me as feeling and experiencing. For me reading info can come later, when the real place is far away.

So, if you go there and want to know how many times the castle was under siege and sacked, or when the Wolf's tower was constructed, it's there. You can read all about it. You can study the detailed models too. This one shows an earliest version of the castle. (Very Monty Python, I thought. Peasants packing mud etc.)

At its best, when the paint was fresh and all the light bulbs were working, it must have been amazing.

And when I was thinking of the castle walls tall and intact, the gardens tended, the wells full, I marveled at what people accomplish, what nature erases, what time takes away. And I am still trying to understand why, after all this time, I still felt something living there, something from then, when it was a working home, a real place. What is that intangible, elusive sense that history is present and its voices are still around us?

So much to ponder.

Even when historians can fill in the gaps and I can read all about it in a book, there is a tremendous privilege in seeing it and exploring it for myself.

Alex believes this must have been the great hall.

And Max knew these were the arrow loops. He took aim. He was there.

She was there.

We were all there.

And we are looking forward to this new year and the new places we will go.

Happy New Year dear friends.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Older and Wiser?

Nothing confuses, frustrates and distresses me more than my birthday. Except taxes. And the wrapping on a DVD. Oh, and choosing paint color. I digress.

Nothing confuses, frustrates and distresses me more than my birthday. My birthdate falls in the void between Christmas and New Year's Eve. People are tired, shopped and partied out, out of town... etc. It's too soon after the big build up of the holidays to imagine one more party-celebration-cause for gift wrapping. We have gifted all we can. We need time and space to replenish our stores of good will and party stamina. Who can bear to look at another cheese platter? I know. I understand. This is why it's been eleven years since I last offered myself a party in my honor.

I was going to say more, but at this point confusion and distress are seeping in to my thoughts. Do I really want a party? How about just a take out container of sauce slathered ribs, some onion rings and one of Geoff's Margaritas? I could invite my most tolerant friends over to alternately cry and laugh over a ridiculously rich chocolate cake.

I am confussed. I cannot spell. Oh dear. I really am getting old. All my girlfriends have been warning me about reading glasses... how in your forties everyone needs reading glasses. I still hadn't noticed, until recently when I realized that I have no idea what I am shaving under my arms. I am armpit blind. Seriously. It probably looks like some cattywampus mow job, or like I have mange.

This is the year I am going to start lying about my age.

My name is Natalie.
How old am I?
Why, I am fifty years old tomorrow.
What's that?
I don't look a day over 43?
You're so sweet.
Have a Margarita.

****Uh... evidently lying about my age was not such a hot idea... I am getting sympathy and encouragement. I must actually look closer to 50 than I thought.****

Monday, December 28, 2009

*Dancing on clouds with Ponies and Sliding Down a Rainbow Into The Bathtub

*Not a song title.
Not our New Year's Eve plans.
Not remotely close to anything we have ever nurtured or ingrained or stimulated or suggested, and yet there it is... twirling and flitting from the active and highly colorful imagination of our daughter, Self Rescuing Princess-Ballerina-Cowgirl Maria.

She asked for two things for Christmas.
1. A fez, just like my Max and Alex.
2. A horse puppet and the horse has all the colors, like a rainbow.

Every time she described the horse puppet, sometimes pony puppet, and its rainbow colors, the boys and I would exchange glances. My expression was one of distress-amusement and the boys' expressions were of amusement-sympathy. No one had any idea where she got the notion that such a thing could be procured. No one had any idea what such a thing could even be. So, I kept my eyes open where ever I shopped, and the day I got to visit my favorite independent toy shop I began to narrow my search. I found a rainbow tattooed unicorn that definitely would have struck a chord with her love of all things fancy. But other than being garish, pricey, tacky and very commercial (gee, Natalie, why not tell them how you really felt about it?) I did not see any play appeal, any lasting value, and it wasn't even a puppet. Then I remembered all the times she admired and pined for a hobby horse. A head on a stick, I reasoned, could be a kind of puppet. As for the rainbow factor, she never was too specific about whether the horse was a rainbow, had a rainbow, or just adorned itself in rainbowiness.

I stitched rainbow ribbons to the bridle and let Santa himself make a special delivery on Christmas Eve. We have wonderful friends, and one in particular with a very jolly laugh. And now Maria has a rainbow horse puppet that she rides all over the yard, and through the house. She loves her horse. She loves her fez too. By the way, a fez is a much easier gift to procure.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

It Is Christmas Day

And there were shepherds out in the field,
keeping watch by night.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them,
and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
Luke 2:8:9

I love the sheep and the glory, the stars... their light.

And in our home, I love the blessing of being together preparing, playing... the laughter and whispers, the carols and the frosty-jingle songs.

I love the flurry of motion when we ascend upon our stockings.

I love that they want one gift opened at a time, so that we all pause and enjoy the discovery of new treasures.

I love that the fun is for one and for all, so that by the end of the day we have all shared in the play.

I love that William and Alex baked Christmas cookies... a new recipe, a new tradition.

And I love that we are home, where Santa knows where to find us...

So that, just like last year, he can come by with a special delivery for a little one who has been very good.

And this time, she had a gift for him.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Merry Christmas

A Merry Bird House Christmas

All together under our very own roof, we are preparing for Christmas.

Max made a snowman in school. A clever way to use a sock, and we love the fez.

This school project I got to help with, when I joined Max's class in reverse painting on glass. Looks like a starry and peaceful night. I recall the magic of a snowy Christmas. All the children were so intent and creative painting their holiday plates.

Maria mastered paper chain making, and hung this one with our stockings. Have not figured out how to hang them from the mantle. Maybe because I am too cheap to buy six hangers? We have a tradition of hanging them from a banister.

I finally tried adding ornaments to the tree, only to discover that it is so parched and crisp the branches fracture and collapse when I touch them. Ah, I remember our 2004 Christmas and the tree we hurled out the door, over the railing and in to the pitch black of Christmas Eve. It was so dry we feared it would spontaneously combust. Fortunately, Maria has been making and adding pretty touches. The tree is loved. Fragrant, dry, lit and loved.

William and Alex are together in the kitchen, deciphering an Alton Brown cookie recipe. They are baking. Brilliant. They are cleaning... brilliant and radiant beams of motherly gratitude.

Geoff wrapped gifts with me. Absolute awe. Proof that even after twenty years, love will surprise you.

Max and Nick are playing together. Christmas is for family.

Maria helps in any way she can. Sitting outside the *workshop* door, she asked 42 questions about our progress. We played her favorite opposite game.

Mommy: Santa wears a bathing suit.

Maria: No. He wears a fluffy-fluffy suit. And it's red. He has a hat.

Mommy: What about the magical rats that pull his sleigh?

Maria: Mommy! Reindeer pull his sleigh. Not rats.

Mommy: Oh. Well, I know Santa smells like french fries.

Maria: Santa smells like joy


I hope your home smells of joy, and that your Christmas is merry.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Few of My Favorite Things... Christmas Style

Like Nikkipolani, I have some favorite things and these last days before the big day I am feeling the magic and rush of joy as we go all the way to Christmas day. Some of my favorite things came all together yesterday...

Favorite number 1: The majesty and pageantry, the utter charm and mild chaos of a Christmas service with the children. There was nothing exclusive about this telling of the Nativity. All of God's creatures were welcome to the manger. Maria joined the children from learning circle, as a kitty, and sang (or as Max points out, she mostly lip-synched) "Do You Hear What I hear?"

I loved seeing friends, hearing music, reflecting on peace and love and hope and joy, and having my family around me.

Favorite number 2: Having family around me. It's official :: We have a Christmas tradition. We got to enjoy a second annual Downtown Cultural Holiday Extravaganza. We took Ruth to Holiday Pops. We walked to the Gaslamp and saw favorite sights, like The Bondi, and the home of our favorite annual convention.

Walking downtown we saw lots of fun holiday sights. I count fun and good humor as a favorite.

No school. That's a favorite for sure. Not just for these dear boys, but for me too. I am so thrilled to have them home. I need the free labor. We are going to have some good times.

Last year our downtown walk was a scramble to find Symphony Hall and it was really cold. This year our walk was leisurely and the weather... So Calwonderful.

The Pops were in great form and they were joined by Mariachi Champaña Nevín. Feliz Navidad. Before the concert begins children are invited to the "petting zoo," where they can acquaint themselves with the instruments. Maria returned to the violin she remembered from last year. So many favorites... live music, sing-alongs, new experiences, dressing up, a camera battery that holds up just long enough for a few snaps.

After the concert we had a downtown dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory, then we enjoyed the Christmas lights all the way to Holly and Rich's front door. More favorites... lights and decorations lovingly displayed for the holidays, and dropping in on family for a casual visit.

The calendar for today includes haircuts for the boys, which means a nice visit with a dear friend. Maybe some shopping... hmmm... maybe just window shopping. I definitely need to do some housework. After visiting Ruth's beautiful home and Holly and Rich's beautiful home I am super motivated to put actual ornaments on our tree... beyond that, I am a realist. One more favorite, because I think of it on a daily basis :: A Christmas Story from Clover and Alicia. I think Clover may be my favorite dog in the world.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fine Art
Guess who got a portrait paint set for her birthday?

Admission: I let the children make messes, but what may appear as utter chaos, near anarchy, is my own version of controlled chaos. No one get hurts and the mess can be easily rolled away in one fashion or another. This is evidence of my creative-liberal mothering and my semi-control-freak mothering. I will hide paints, playdough, glitter, glue, and 42,000 piece puzzle sets until I am ready to play.

Maria must know she has to make her move fast if she's gonna get her chance. She did not give me two seconds to shelve the new toy. She did not ask for help to pull off the cellophane, to break open the box. She found her own apron, and while I was gabbing on the phone distracted, she asked me to tie it on for her. She was a stealthy and dedicated anarchist.

She was deep in to her project before anyone noticed what she was in to.

Please Note: She was not alone. Geoff and William were equally immersed in their own project, at the very same dining table... only inches away from the artist. This proves that being in the room and being aware are two different kinds of supervision.

So this is about the point when I was called in. When frantic voices were rising up. When paint had hit the table and floor. Big glops of wet acrylic. Wasn't she clever to remember an apron? Didn't she do a good job setting up the easel and opening those little jars?

Disclaimer: No, that is not a faux pumpkin, leftover from two months ago, sitting next to Christmas presents. No. Who would do that? Please.

Ta da!
I slipped in some butcher-type paper under the easel. I wiped paint from the table, the floor, her extremities. I slipped in a few tips about painting with acrylics and letting the paint dry between layers... just a few basic suggestions. Obviously she didn't need too much advice.

Speculation: See the olive-green paint? The one at the edge of the table? Want to guess what happened? Technically no one knows the specific details of what happened, but we can make educated guesses, right? I am thinking that the little jar didn't merely tip and fall... I think it flew in a terrific arc, because the paint was not only on the carpet three feet behind her chair, but it also hit the ceiling, the wall. We never will know how it went down, because being in the room and being aware are two different kinds of supervision.

The self portrait is coming along. She's going to finish it tomorrow. Today her class is singing Holy Baby in the school pageant. Max's school break starts now, which is wonderful. I am very, very looking forward to having all of Team WAMMO in the house.

Priscilla, I am afraid that if I thank you for the birthday gift, you will think I am being disingenuous or trying to implicate you in a crime. It's not like that at all. We loved the secret mission style delivery. We loved the still warm from the oven brownie cake. And we love the paint set... every drop. Honest. So, thank you. Thank you. Let's get together soon and make some new kind of messes... whether it is fine art, or fun art, or fun-fine art. Or we could just eat more brownie cake.