When a door opens…

By Catherine Keefe

door

It was a time of slamming and silence and being shut out. It was when a white, solid wood four-panel face was more familiar than two eyes and a smile. It was me in the hall knocking. Waiting. Asking, “may I come in?”

It was a card for a special day I swore I’d never forget, but I have. Valentine’s Day? My birthday? It was a note, written in my teenage son’s hand that I’ll never forget.

My gift to you is my bedroom door. Open. For one month.

When someone says, “I don’t need anything,” when you ask what they want, they probably really do want something. It’s just not for sale at any store. If you ask what someone wants, you might already know the answer.

Open a door for someone today. It’s never too late to start again.
~Catherine

For more “Door” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 17,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

Last year I had a party for my mom

By Catherine Keefe.

My mom turned 80, so my dad and three sisters, and our 10 children and their spouses, and our cousins and uncle and aunt threw a birthday bash in my backyard. We ate salads and sausage, turkey wraps and mountains of fruit on a warm summer afternoon, then gorged on chocolate cake and ice cream. We played Heads Up! because my mom loves to laugh and we danced because the entire family loves to shake it loose.

semper

Last year, when my mom turned 80, I wanted to give each guest a party favor to take home. So I bought small pots of semper vivum, a plant also known as hen and chicks. Semper is the Latin word for “always, or continuously.” Vivum means “that which is alive.” I can’t help myself. As a writer, when I throw a party I imbue meaning everywhere. I used the plants as centerpieces, then carefully pulled off the new growth shoots and sent each family member off with a piece of their own party semper vivum to grow at home.

Right before we ate lunch my dad said a prayer, blessing our party and expressing deep gratitude for my mom. Then two of our 10 children made a surprise announcement. “I’m pregnant!” my daughter said. “I’m pregnant too!” my niece blurted out.  Turns out hens and chicks were already happening! The moment dissolved into hugs and giggles and photos and congratulations and general giddiness. The family would be graced with two new babies within days of my father’s upcoming 80th birthday. Last year, we ended the party knowing that new life was on its way into our family.

This year, we celebrate the continued miracle of semper vivum.

mom

When we put out shoots of  green, we remain continually alive. What are you growing today?
~Catherine

For more “Last year” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

So much light lifting

Rise Festival, 2014. Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

Rise Festival, 2014.                                                        Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

By Catherine Keefe

Much has been said in the past few days about how 29-year-old Brittany Maynard died. I’d like to tell you a little bit about how she lived.

Brittany, with a passel of other girls, came to my daughter’s 13th birthday party. We invited guests to attend in their most fabulous feathery, sparkly attire, turned our living room into a mock casino, and created an at-home Vegas Night. I hired a 16-year-old boy from down the street as a Blackjack dealer, and it was at the Blackjack table that Brittany spent most of the night. She flirted while most of the girls were so shy they wouldn’t even talk to the only boy in the room. Brittany bet all her chips and won, then fluttered her red paper prize-redemption tickets like confetti across the room because that was more fun than trading them in for a tube of bubblegum lip gloss. Brittany sashayed through the party like a starlet, trailing feathers from her black boa. She sipped Martinellis with her pinky raised, and laughed more loudly than any other girl at the party. She was, as the invitation requested, fabulous.

To know a girl on the cusp of emerging adulthood is to look through a kaleidoscope and slowly turn the lens. Who she might become is a fractal of who she already is.

Brittany was light years ahead of the other 13-year-olds in the most important way possible. She had a way of living without paying any attention to what anyone else thought about it. She was strong at an age when many girls become weak. For that reason Brittany was the kind of girl a mother loved that her daughter would befriend. My daughter and Brittany remained friends until some time in the middle of high school when their interests and activities slowly diverged.

A little over a year ago, I saw Brittany’s mom, Deb, at Trader Joes in Rancho Santa Margarita. Deb was my daughter’s middle school science teacher, my own particular hero for the way she passionately engaged students with basics of geology, biology, and chemistry. It had been years since we’d seen each other so we caught up in the apple aisle about our girls’ college choices and career paths, marriages and our own lives.

“Brittany always does things her own way,” I remember Deb saying.

“And that’s why we love her,” I answered back, knowing that not everyone likes that trait in a young woman.

In the moment when I knew the chance conversation was almost over, I wondered if someone I’d lost touch with would believe how much she’d impacted my life by no more valiant feat than being her one true self and standing by her daughter when she too was being her one true self.

When you say it’s so good to see you and you mean it, and you hug and move on, and next read about Brittany and Deb in People magazine, life takes a surreal twist. When I wrote in April about my daughter’s friend, recently diagnosed with Astrocytoma Glioma, a malignant brain tumor, I had no idea Brittany would become “the public face of the controversial right-to-die movement.”

Oh how I’d like to hug Deb now, to tell her how much strength and love our family is sending to her in Oregon. How I’d like to remind every mother to hug her daughter a little more tightly just now. How I want to insist that everyone who has followed and commented upon Brittany’s story to remember Deb, a mom called to be braver and stronger than she ever wanted to have to learn to be.

A woman whose spouse has died is a widow; the girl who loses both parents is an orphan. There isn’t a designated word for a mother who loses a child. It’s a black hole in the language.

Rise Festival, 2014   Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

Rise Festival, 2014                                                                 Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

Some die like a candle snuff. Others expire as a sonic boom. Brittany died the way she lived, a meteor lighting up the darkest desert night sky. She was an only child, but there was nothing “only” about her.

She was, and will always remain, fabulous.

Cheers Brittany, dah-ling. You impacted our lives for the better and for that we’ll always be grateful. Thank you Deb, for sharing your Brittany with us. We reflect back to you all the light and love your daughter spread.

Peace,
~Catherine

Many thanks to photographer Lauren Sepulveda, another one of the passel of girls, who shared her images of The Rise Festival for this post. You can find more of Lauren’s images at Voz Collective.

Let’s have a party

By Catherine Keefe
Faced with a choice, I’d prefer to throw a party than offer almost any other gift.

invite 2

Invitation by Paperless Post

If you want to know how deeply I love to celebrate your new baby granddaughter, jubilate in your high school graduation, rejoice in your 79th birthday, or revel in your nuptials, just come in my open front door, grab a plate, some cheese, a glass of Viogner and we’ll dance late into the evening. Motown. Van Morrison. Maybe a little Michael Franti & Spearhead.

I want to hear about your trip to Crimea, your knee replacement surgery, the tai chi classes you’ve begun and what it’s like teaching English to newly arrived immigrants in Korea Town. When I hug you hello, I want you to feel like you’re home and when I kiss you goodbye, I’m not really ready for you to leave. Don’t even ask; I’ll refuse to let you do the dishes.

J will scrub the big pots and pans, stack the plates into the dishwasher while I hand wash and dry the goblets with a white cotton sack cloth. In my mind, your face is still smiling and I feel your spirit warming my home, sure as the candles flicker low.

Yes, we’ll talk about you. T looked good. D seems so happy right now. It’s too bad about G‘s brother. We’ll compare notes as we wipe the countertops, thank the dog for licking crumbs off the floor, turn off the lights and sink into bed.

For an introvert who can get physically exhausted by conversation, I have an amazing capacity to entertain.

For a joyful person, I write a surprisingly deep well of sad poems.

When I was a new writer and first realized this, I felt sure I was in my “tragic artist” phase, a period I’d outgrow once I left graduate school.

When I’d sufficiently drained my tolerance for this, I tried and tried to write happy poems. And I did. Write them. Over and over and then I edited them to death because they sounded like Hallmark card jingles that deserved to languish unpublished.

Then, like Goldilocks finding the just right chair, I discovered “The Party,” a poem by Jason Shinder. Reading it feels like looking into a mirror.

The Party by Jason Shinder

And that’s how it is; everyone standing up from the big silence

of the table with their glasses of certainty and plates of forgiveness
and walking into the purple kitchen; everyone leaning away from the gas stove

Marie blows on at the very edge of the breaking blue-orange-lunging-

forward flames to warm another pot of coffee, while the dishes pile up in the sink,perfect as a pyramid. Aaah, says Donna, closing her eyes,

and leaning on Nick’s shoulders as he drives the soft blade of the knife

through the glittering dark of the leftover chocolate birthday cake.
That’s it; that’s how it is; everyone standing around as if just out of the pool,

drying off, standing around, that’s it, standing, talking,

shuffling back and forth on the deck of the present
before the boat slowly pulls away into the future. Because it hurts

to say goodbye, to pull your body out of the warm water;

to step out of the pocket of safety, clinging to what you knew,
or what you thought you knew about yourself and others.

That’s how it is, that’s it, throwing your jacket over your shoulders

like a towel and saying goodbye Victoria goodbye Sophie goodbye
Lili goodbye sweetie take care be well hang in there see you soon.

Shinder knows that gathering friends is “warm water,” a “pocket of safety,” how true art captures the bead drop between celebration of life and death. Shinder wrote “The Party” after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia. It was published posthumously in Stupid Hope. I didn’t know all this when I first read the poem, but now it makes sense, this abuttal of celebration and loss.

On Monday my daughter tells me one of her 29-year-old friends has been diagnosed with Astrocytoma Glioma, a malignant brain tumor expected to kill her within the year. “It’s so sad I can’t even bear to think about it,” my daughter moans and I hug her close, impressing her sweet scent in my mother heart.

On Saturday, instead of writing or editing or grading or submitting poetry to journals, I’m hosting a baby shower for the daughter-in-law of one of my dearest friends. This isn’t my friend’s first grandchild and this isn’t the daughter-in-law’s first baby, so the event has surprised some. Why have a shower now, they ask.

Why not, I say. Faced with a choice, I’d just as soon compose in strawberries and champagne, a little Lorde music and pink lace. Is there any better gift than gathering young mothers with wise elders to sit and bask in the sun? For one afternoon, let there be nothing but joy.

Cheers,
Catherine

The way to a friend’s heart

Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault.  I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine

Miracles HappenBy Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.

The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?

Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00.  We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.

Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?”  I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.

We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.

We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat.  “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.

I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.

Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.

Untitled

Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.

I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts.  As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.

I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.

Want to come over for dinner soon?
~Theresa

Putting Pen to Paper

wooden dip pen with ink on tip

By Susan Greene
Wrapping and packing up the holiday accoutrements, produces, in me, a conflicting sense of sadness and excitement. Sadness for the end of the holidays and the joy of spending extra time with family and friends yet, excitement in the start of a new year. The house appears barren when the holiday decorations are gone but an opportunity to take a fresh approach to the everyday decor presents itself. With the new year, comes a chance to re-evaluate and set new goals for the next twelve months, a blank piece of paper to fill as you wish.

hand writing on blank paperThis year, the backyard sisters are using literary terms as springboards for stories, photos and teaching; maybe even some food.

writing with dip pen

Sharing thoughts, experiences and emotions with others, through writing, is an art. The writer of the sisters will provide the terms and offer her insights while I will supply a photographic interpretation. I am excited to see what the “writer sister” of the backyard sisters has up her sleeve for challenging and sharing with us.

wooden ball point pen on paperMy tools are ready for the inspiration. Writing is an important part of how we communicate and to write well is a gift. Our backyard father has been sharing his memories of growing up through an ongoing book titled “Jaunts with the Memory Elves”. Each year at Christmas, for the past ten years, he gifts us with the addition of a new chapter. These are priceless gifts and I am grateful for the ability to experience, through his narration, not only our grandparents as parents but also living in New York and driving and moving cross country.

keyboard typing handsMy fingers are ready for typing and my pen to be put to paper.

dip pen tip on paperI am anxiously awaiting the first term, sister . . .

~ Susan

The Weekend Dish-Christmas Quiz

You know that golden moment we dream each holiday will hold? The one where we’ll pause for one beat, inhale the scent of cinnamon and cloves, look around in candle glow at the family gathered around, listen to laughter and stories, and say this, yes this is what Christmas spirit feels like.
079I know this feeling is something that doesn’t come in a box from the mall and yet, like a hamster on a wheel, at some moment in December I find myself wandering from shop to shop wondering what the people I care most about want or need.

It was after one of these seemingly futile ramblings that I developed the Christmas quiz, a short fill-in-the blank opportunity for the entire family to reflect on gifts of the year while also offering glimpses into what might be treasured under the tree.  I tried to cover multiple topics – learning opportunities, gifts of time, ways to have fun, needed or desired things, ways to make memories and guidance on how to make another feel loved.  These lists guide me, not only as a shopping list, but as a way of discovering how to spend special time together in the coming year.

      The Christmas Quiz

I only wish I could learn to…
I wish I had time to…
A long-term fun goal for me is…
If I had one whole week off I would…
The best Christmas present you ever gave me was…
If I could have one new item of technology it would be…
If I could have one new item of clothing it would be…
If I could have one new toy it would be…
If I could have one new item of self-care it would be…
If I could have one new thing for the house it would be…
My favorite date this year was…
I would feel very loved if you…

My family teased me at first and wondered why we couldn’t just exchange lists like “normal people.” But after the first year, we looked forward to taking a moment to really reflect, not only on the many things that we dream of, but the many ways we do gift each other in ordinary time.

I wish I’d saved these lists from year to year. If I had it to do all over again, I would.  I recently discovered those dated December, 2004 and I’m amused and amazed at how these quizzes offer a snapshot and time capsule.  What was important once, still threads through the things we like best.

When my son was 17, he wrote that he felt very loved when “you keep providing me with food.” My daughter treasured Disneyland trips as her favorite date, and J wished he could “learn to play the piano.” Funny thing is, nine years later, I still show my son love by cooking when he’s home, still know that my daughter’s favorite dates are to the Magic Kingdom, still remember the year I gave J piano lessons because he plays the piano – quite well – all the time now.

You want to know one more funny thing? In 2004 I wrote, “If I could have one new toy it would be an art easel.”

This year, I again asked for an art easel, thinking it was some random new tangent, me wanting a space to create images as well as word play. I’d entirely forgotten my previous desire, but they say if you write something down, set a desire as your intention, that eventually it will work its way into being.

Some times repeat gifts – of time, love, and attention – are perfectly fine. In 2004, my daughter wrote, “I would feel very loved if you do the same things you always do.” So I guess once again I’ll pull out the Christmas quiz. Want to join me this year?

~Catherine