Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Forgive Us Our Christmases"

Having had three nights in row of nine hours of sleep I am a little slap happy.  Giddy.  Spent ten hours today making doll clothes--which I must say turned out to be the cutest things I have ever made.  My mom and I cranked out three outfits complete with scarves and hats and accessories.  I was getting the giggles over the pom-poms.

My mom has a ton of those cute little keepsake Christmas books lying around the house.  Titles like "500 Ways to Keep Christ the Center of Christmas" and "101 Ways to Simplify Your Holidays."  Those I made up--but there are some sweet ones--and I laughed until I had tears in my eyes from this little anecdote from The Greatest Christmas Ever which I don't feel the need cite because it was published in 1974:

The story has been published of a little girl caught in the pre-Christmas swirl of activity, all of which seemed to be coming to a head on Christmas Eve. Dad, loaded down with bundles, seemed to have an even greater number of worries. Mom, under the pressure of getting ready for the great occasion, had yielded to tears several times during the day. The little girl herself, trying to help, found that she was always under foot, and sometimes adult kindness to her wore thin.
Finally, near tears herself, she was hustled off to bed. There kneeling to pray the Lord's Prayer before finally tumbling in, her mind and tongue betrayed her and she prayed, "Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us."

I'm still laughing aloud. When I was about ten-years-old I was reading one of my mom's little books and feeling a little holier-than-thou.  I decided to confront her.  I accused her of over materializing Christmas.  All the decorations and food and gifts were overshadowing the true meaning of Christmas, in my little eyes.  What a little snit I was--or maybe I was spot on--in any case--I was probably a little high off church camp.  Mother, I take it back--you always made Christmas special.  I'm sure I'm only a year away from Calvin giving me the same lecture.

My mother probably heavily considered taking back all my gifts and using the money to feed the poor.  She didn't.  I mean she did go feed the homeless--just not with my Christmas presents. To this day she and my niece Savannah carry on her tradition of taking food and supplies to the soup kitchen. Apparently you can make family Christmas memories and still contribute to society all while keeping Christ in Christmas. I digress. . .

So--forgive us our Christmases--however we commercialize and materialize Christmas--I hope that the love we put into it and those around us blesses beyond the gifts and the decorations and the cookies.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

So Hallowed and So Gracious is the Time

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

This is Frederick Buechner quoting Shakespeare's Hamlet, in Listening to Your Life, page. 335-336.  Sometimes time seems elastic.  Sometimes the days fly by. Madeleine L'Engle wrote so often about the differences between cronos--our chronological time, and kairos--the sacred timing of events or moments.

I have felt aware of this kairos a few times. Hallowed and gracious times. Times waiting for my children to be born. Time spent with my grandparents and my dad at the end of their lives.  The moment when my husband proposed. Other rare moments in between where that lining between us and God becomes thin and we are truly present, in God's presence. Holy moments.

Christmas is hallowed and gracious to me.  It is just so hard sometimes to sort the grain from the chaff.  I have filled it up so full that it overflows and spills all over and I can't even taste it.  The actual days go by so fast--after all our preparations and planning.

Buechner has another useful quote on page 332:

What deadens us most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought.  

I might add the endless chatter of family life and even music makes it difficult to find those holy moments. Sometimes being involved with church and having the kids involved with church makes it difficult to find those moments in worship as well--there are logistics front and center in my brain, instead of anything too holy.

I did have one particular holy moment of kairos--God's time--this season--it was at church--during the last verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing--when the sopranos came in with their beautiful descant and the organ pulled out all the stops and the lights came on brightly in the sanctuary.  I felt that holy feeling and remembered deep in my heart why we are here and why Christmas is Christmas.

Hail the heaven born prince of peace
Hail the Sun of righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise each child of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King. 

One clear moment to remember the sacred, hallowed and gracious time.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Love

Today we had Christmas with Bill's folks and his sister and her husband.  The kids gave a very nice program--reading the Bible and playing piano, ukulele, and singing. We always have a very special time there.  Bill's mom gave us a new needlepoint stocking with golden instruments and piano keys all over it.  I can't imagine the hours she spent creating it.  Thank you, Mom K. It is priceless.

Yesterday we Christmased here at home with my mom.  Santa didn't bring a bunny and he didn't bring an ipad--but he did go a little overboard.  He brought Mary a gymnastics mat and little practice beam and he brought the family a new 88 key digital piano.  It was the same type of keyboard I saw out in Colorado at the Colorado Suzuki Institute.  I have always wanted an electric keyboard for our family for the basement, computer music and for gigs.  It is a good thing Santa brought it since I would never have spent the money.  It was almost exactly the same amount of money I made out in Colorado last summer which of course was income I wasn't expecting and had I bought it there the money would have gone to a very valid musical instrument charity, but thank goodness Santa took care of it for me.

The kids love the keyboard.  Highlights of the day included the Star Spangled Banner Jimmy Hendricks style with electric guitar patch,  Fur Elise with the accordion sound and Musette in D on bagpipes.  Mary played Arietta on pan flute. . . The keyboard will make it's way to the basement where it can serve as the soundtrack to life in playmobil town.  I hope that eventually Calvin will be able to do his sight reading and and pop and jazz stuff down there, since he can't play the real piano much after school during my teaching hours.  Of course our regular practice will always be on the acoustic piano, but those great sounds on the keyboard spark a lot of creativity as well.

All this and I still ask myself constantly, do we do too much at Christmas?  Is it right to feel so overwhelmed?  The gifts?  The food?  The decorations.  Is this what it is all about?  My friend Michele loaned me the book Unplugging the Christmas Machine.  In my joyful Christmas haste I obviously misplaced it. . .

I love a big Christmas.  I love the traditions and presents and food.  Then, I feel guilty about not keeping Jesus the complete center of Christmas.  Then again,  I don't think Christmas is supposed to be about guilt either. . .


What if it was all just okay?  Okay to overindulge our kids a little with presents.  Okay to reflect on Christmases past.  Okay to get a little overwhelmed in the act of being generous with family and friends.  Okay to bake more cookies than we can eat.  Okay to use incandescent Christmas lights. All for the sake of a little baby. A little baby who as Pastor Kris reminded us--loves us so deeply that He came to us as the Word made flesh.  God loves us.  It's just okay. It is more than okay--it is the best reason I can imagine to go completely overboard.

God loves me even when I overdo Christmas.  Even when I turn two pages at once on the 11:00 p.m. choir anthem and finally realize the choir is not singing the same music as I am playing and fake my way back to them.  He loves me when things go perfectly and when they are a mess.  When I love Christmas, when I am tired of Christmas.  He just loves me.

That is what Christmas is about.  Love.  God's love.  Our love for each other.  Love.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Wishes

My mother is here and things mysteriously get done.  I turn around and the kids' beds are made.  The tea ring is baking and the toffee reached a hard ball boil before I was even out of bed.  The dishwasher unloads itself.   Thanks, Mommy, I'm glad you are here.

At the Kotrba house Santa comes tonight.  That's the tradition and Santa knows the traditions of each family.

Mary wants a bunny.  A real bunny.  A bunny that would be tortured and killed by three furry cats before the last gift of Christmas was unwrapped.  She thinks Santa's yes trumps Mama's no.

Calvin wants an ipad.  Same hope. . . same futile hope. . .

One year when I was growing up Santa brought us a dog.  Grover.  Grover was a good dog and lived 18 long years.

Dear Santa,
Please don't bring us a dog.  Or a bunny.  Or an ipad.  If you do have to bring the ipad--bring it for me. 
P.S. don't waste the cookies. . . . it took a lot of effort to bake them. 

My mother and I took time today to go and get a manicure.  Usually pianists don't waste money on manicures that only last one practice session, but today I went in honor of my grandma.  Every Christmas when I came home from college she would judge the quality of my mental health by the shape of my fingernails.  "Let's see your nails. . . "  Gulp.

Mama--(that is what I call my grandma)--I'm happy to report that tonight my fingers are stunning--little snowflakes painted on my stubby nails--and I'm in just as fine mental health.  Miss you.

Peace.  Shalom.  Angels singing in their realms of glory.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Snowman in the House

I'm sending you a video Christmas card at the link below.  We didn't plan this.  This short video was some comic relief during our family Christmas picture taking session. You know, the one where Bill has us all sit in front of the camera for an hour while he tweaks the settings on the Nikon.  I can tease him, because I love his photos.

There are a couple things you should know before you watch the video--first of all--the ukulele is not--as you probably guessed--Calvin's primary instrument.  Secondly, he wrote this song a few years ago on piano.  Thirdly, be warned, this tune sticks in your head.  If you had Feliz Navidad playing over and over in your inner ear--this is the cure.   The words are hard to hear--she's missing her two front teeth after all. . .

Snowman in the House
Snowman in the House
Snowman in the House
(you get the point about that. . . )

Water everywhere
Melting down the stairs
Mama's going to have a fit

Snowman in the House. . ..

Merry Christmas from the Kotrbas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Joyful Haste

Come, dear children, don't be dallying,
All the family now is rallying,
Not a moment now to spare,
joyful haste is in the air.
There are nuts to crack
and candies to make,
and birds to stuff
and cookies to bake.
There's many and many a thing to do,
which we have done before.
For Christmas, blessed Christmas
is here once more!

Now begins a mighty scurrying,
each to do his task is hurrying,
All to finish he contrives,
Ere the glorious day arrives.
There are gifts to wrap
and cards to write,
and secrets kept with great delight,
there's many and many a mystery
behind each closet door.
For Christmas, blessed Christmas
is here once more!

O was there ever such a jolly day?
Fam'lies gathered for the holiday.
Home is filled with dancing eyes,
laughter, love and glad surprise.
There are friends to see
and prayers to say,
and songs to sing in rondelay,
There's many a lovely memory
of Christmastides of yore.
For Christmas, blessed Christmas
is here once more!

My mom is arriving for Christmas tomorrow night.  I'm filled with memories of my own grandparents arriving on Christmas Eve, the house spotless and candles aglow, oyster stew on the stove.  Presents wrapped and under the tree.  We were scrubbed and tubbed and hair in curlers ready to open gifts and head out to church at 11:00 p.m.

My house is a wreck.  The candles are making me sneeze. There are Christmas 2011 CDs of Calvin's in every stage all over the countertop.  There is wrapping paper all over the living room floor.  I'm going to have to buy some more tomorrow in spite of my herculean effect to be organized and not run errands at the last minute.  Bill has the computer printer out on the dining room floor furiously printing Christmas card envelopes in between conference calls.  Sorry to report that you will not be getting a hand written note on your card--if you get one at all.  There are four loads of laundry to fold on top of the drier.  Cat litter.

Suffice it to say, loving mother, that there won't be oyster stew on the stove as you pull in the drive tomorrow.  I will be at choir practice, faking my way through four anthems for Christmas Eve.  Can I pick you up a Subway sandwich on my way home?  Chips?  Soda?

I am defeated.  I can't do it all.  I'm sorry.  I give up.
I'm going to bed and some of the presents might get Hello Kitty gift bags instead of coordinated papers from Hallmark.  I went ahead and made appointments for the family to all have rapid strep tests tomorrow, just as a precaution. . . usually tomorrow is the day at least one child wakes up throwing up with a 102 temp.  Tra la la.

But, I still love it.  I love Christmas.  Don't let my complaining fool you.  "Come Dear Children" is still my favorite carol.  I still contrive to finish ere the glorious day arrives.  Joyful--well mostly joyful--haste is in the air.

Christmas Blessed Christmas is here once more.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hope's Legacy

Today is the one year anniversary of Hope's death.  My family asked if I would include the message I spoke at her funeral.  Today I have just been thinking about how blessed  I am to have such a family.

If you are in a Christmas hurry--don't feel like you have to read the whole thing--I just wanted to share it.

Grandma Hope, I called her “Mama” because that is what my mom called her—was the single most influential person in my life,  after my mom and dad and sister Susan.

Mama taught me about the importance of family traditions.  She taught me that there is meaning and connection in our family rituals.  When I was little, every Friday after Thanksgiving, she and my mom and Susan and I went Christmas shopping.  We ate at Bishops Buffet and got the same ham, French fries and chocolate pie every year.  Every year she and Grandpa came to Eldridge on Christmas Eve. Come rain or snow, they pulled in the drive before dark.  They never missed a year. Before they arrived, my mom had everything ready and perfect—candles lit—hair in rag curlers, and  we tried to nap while we waited and waited for them. When at last they honked the horn in the drive,  we unloaded from the car, the box of gifts, without name tags.  Every year we helped put the gift tags on from the same little box of tags, stored in a baggie, with a clothes pin fastening it shut of course.  Year after year, Christmas Eve dinner, we fished the oysters out of the oyster stew and gave them to Grandpa, settling for the warm milk that was left behind. 

Every year she and Grandpa came back only two weeks later in January to celebrate my birthday.  And every summer I spent two weeks alone with them on the farm.  This is where I learned that Mama did everything better.  The laundry.  One of my first complete sentences was “Mama washy better.”  She toilet trained me.  She did everything better.  This included her home made vanilla pudding—three egg yolks, 2/3 cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 3 heaping tablespoons of flour, and 2 cups 2% milk—add butter and vanilla at the end.   Lastly, but very important,  you must cover the bowl with wax paper and fasten with a rubber band.  Years later I realized that the true secret was that she stood there and stirred it the whole time it cooked.  No lumps.  She never left the stove.  She never multitasked like we all do nowadays.  Never.  Sometimes this made Grandpa have to wait a long time. 

Her unwillingness to multitask was integral to her most treasured characteristic, her ability to listen deeply.  Mama listened deeply.  My first experience with this came at the very tender age of four years old.  Little four-year-old Sara Jo—I poured out my heart to her.  I told her about how I had never really been happy.  At four years old, I had never truly been happy because I was bored—bored of watching my mom clean up after the cats.  Hope was probably holding back hysterical laughter, but she listened.  She listened sitting down.  Incidentally you also knew she was listening because she took notes.  Really good notes.  A lot of notes.  Sometimes that wasn’t such a good thing.  But in the very best way, her ability to listen deeply has carried through my whole life—right up to a few months ago when she listened without interrupting, without trying to fix things, this time--to a not such a little girl Sara Jo—pour out my heart again, this time about my sick dad.  She just listened.  Deeply.

Mama taught me that there is meaning in objects, not in a materialistic way, but in a way that preserves history and family stories.  Consequently my home and garden are filled with memories of she and Grandpa.  We have volunteer pines trees from their forests, and hundreds of ferns have grown in my garden from the seedlings I transplanted from north of their house.  The rocks in our Eagan fireplace were handpicked from Grandpa’s fields, and carried one pickup load at a time from the 80 to Minnesota.   We are still burning wood in our fireplace that Uncle Dave and Grandpa split.  Everywhere I look around me I have reminders of the legacy of my Grandparents and the memories I share with them.  That made Hope happy.  It makes me happy too.  

All these memories and stories we can share are really special to me, but the greatest legacy that Hope leaves with me, is the legacy of her faith.   She and I  talked about our faith together, but mostly Hope gave me books. All with a hand written message and date in the front cover.  She gave me my first Bible, and C.S. Lewis books.  Then came books by Martin Luther, Oswald Chambers, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and the list could go on and on.  My favorite was Madeleine L’Engle.  Last January when she moved and I took home a stack of books—her Madeleine L’Engle was as dog-eared and highlighted as mine.  We highlighted many of the same lines.  She would have called that a “God incidence.”  She found God incidences everywhere.  I think actually her whole life was a God incidence to me.  One of her favorite words—we all know the magnet on her fridge—was: Shalom.   And her favorite song was “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”  So, Hope is finally in complete peace now, the ultimate Shalom, ready for an eternity of God incidences and we will go forth and each in his own way continue her legacy.  Shalom. 

Sara Stephens Kotrba
Eagan, Minnesota
December 20, 2010

The Gift of Music

Friday night eight students shared their music at the Clare Bridge Nursing Home in Eagan.  Aidan, Lena, Cassy, Solomon, Nehemiah, Mary, Calvin, and Sami played for Sami's grandfather and the rest of the residents.

Things were restless when we got there, getting 36 memory care residents into the foyer with chairs and wheelchairs and walkers is no small feat.

As soon as the music started a hush came over everyone.  They were all there.  Listening.  Sometimes singing along in quiet voices. Attentive and responsive. Appreciative. Focused. One hour of peace.

Music touches a very deep part of the brain.

When Ralph Harrel was in the hospital and suffering pain, Doris tells the story of the nurse bringing up a handful of CDs for him.  She tells how humming the bass line to the middle movement of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata soothed him when no pain medicine could.  Peace.

I think of my dad and his fear and confusion after his cancer induced stroke.  He struggled to form complete sentences, but easily sang bass through the whole LBW hymnal with me.  A morning of peace.

When I was so nervous to perform my graduate piano recital, my friend Ginny wrote me a note.  She died, but the note is glued in the front of my Bible and it says: Congratulations, Sara--Tonight the Lord will Bless you as you bless Him with the gifts He has given you.  Love, Ginny.

Music can raise us up from pain, confusion, and fear.  It isn't about us and our fragile egos--music is a gift.  It is a gift from God that we are meant to share--from Mary and Calvin's Jingle Bell duet at the nursing home to Easter Church's Christmas choral service with handbells, choir and orchestra.

Thank you Lord for the gift of music.  Help us to share it in meaningful and beautiful ways.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Suburban Courage

Twice in the last 48 hours I have had my heart race, pounding violently in my chest.

Thursday night at 12:10 I was just drifting off to sleep when the sound of a helicopter over my head aroused me. After about ten more minutes of the copter noise I got up and looked out my bedroom window, to the back yard and the hill down to the pond.  We have 3/4 of an acre of property in a pie shape down to Blackhawk Lake.  The copter circled our back yard and the pond.  I sat on the bed and thought about why this would be. A lost child?  Coyotes after a pet? Animal loose from the zoo?

Then two men with flashlights appeared running down the hill and I decided that would be just a good of a time as any to pick up the phone and dial 911.  Guys in the backyard is never really a good sign.  Eagan police rock.  The dispatcher answered on the first ring.  (I have made calls to report accidents driving home late from gigs in Austin where I was put on hold for up to five minutes. . . )  I told her I lived on Blackhawk Road and there was a helicopter over my house and two guys with flashlights in my back yard.  She was totally tracking.  She said--those are our officers (relief. . . ).  They were chasing a burglar (not such a relief).  They went sprinting down the hill.  My heart was pounding. . . I locked the (thanks Kathy Trimble) solid oak doors with brass locks to the kids rooms and went to the piano room to look out front where three squad cars in full regalia were parked in front of the driveway.  Great.  Last time I checked, they weren't sending out helicopters and multiple squad cars for high school kids toilet papering houses. . .

The copter left by 12:50 and by 1:10 the three squad cars were gone. I called the police back and she told me they had cleared the area (good news) and they were convinced he wasn't there (not such great news).  I was hoping she would say they caught the burglar.  Should I go to bed. . . I asked her?  I'm alone in the house with two kids.  She said--yes, if my doors and windows were locked I should go to bed.  I felt so much better then.  Not. . . .

So I laid in bed and thought about how our house was made of love and nothing but love could surround it and about how angels float around the perimeter and I actually drifted off to sleep. I wove prayers into our house while we built it--I have never been scared here. I was scared then. Suburban courage.

The other time my heart was racing was to play my one big anthem with the choir tonight. This time, it was a good racing.  A happy excited racing.  Not a panic racing.  But it still took courage.

I thought about how much courage it takes to make the world go around.  Yes, there is performance anxiety, and people who do public speaking--but I thought about those folks who deliver food in Africa for Feed My Starving Children.  I thought about my friend's husband on the Houston swat team.  I thought about our baby sitter's husband Scott in Afghanistan using his bomb sniffing dog to "clear the area."  I thought about those cops running down my backyard into the dark woods.  I hoped they knew the pond wasn't frozen through yet. . .   I hoped they didn't trip over the stump we left on chain saw day. . . to say the least. . . how their hearts must race.

We saw a play last night at Eastview High.  It took courage for those kids to get up there and act so well.

It takes courage to change bad relationships.

My friend is an attorney to who defends people.  It takes courage when someone's future is on your shoulders in a court of law.

It also takes some courage to write down your thoughts and share them.

I guess when push comes to shove, it takes courage to do just about anything of any value.  To teach.  To parent.  To lead. To design buildings people will use for years.  To train bomb sniffing dogs.  To chase burglars.  

Left to my own accord--it wouldn't take too much courage for me to stay in my house and make sure I had all my drawers cleaned out--some days that is what I feel like doing.  But, I want to be brave and put myself out into the world.

Here's to us all--cops and musicians--and all the big and small courage we share.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Hearts & Glitter

Report cards came home last Friday.  In homeroom the kids get a grade for listening and following directions.  This never goes over so well at our house. Could it be that my kids just have so much on their minds that it is unbearably hard for them to listen and follow directions?  Or are we just not strict enough?  It is true--how many times a day to I have to say Mary. . . Mary. . . Mary. . . before I get her attention.

How can you learn anything if you are so busy with whatever it is in your own head at that moment the teacher is. . . . . what?  I'm sorry. . .what did you say?   Sorry. . . hey, can we get out some glitter and glue and make a Christmas tree?

I digress.  No wait--it was Mary that got me off track again.  To work on this I instigate the happy hearts game at the piano. I love this game. Basically--you relinquish any pianistic goals. The only goal is listening and following instructions--with a happy heart.  I draw a heart with a happy face in the middle of a piece of my famous white card stock.  Every time she does what I say without me repeating it she gets a tally.  Each tally is worth a nickel.  Or a hug.  Or ten tallies equals an airplane ride.  Or m&ms if it has been a particularly taxing day.

It is a glorified "Simon Says."

We have had two great practices already this week, just by using this game.  And pianistic goals were met after all.

I have also had students play the "yes Mom" game.  If the student can't/won't do what the parent says at the practice, then stop everything else and make compliance the goal.  It is not a power trip, it is the only way we can learn.

Somewhere between chaos and squashing my children into conformity I'm trying to find a balance.
I want to make that glittery tree too--it's all in the timing.

Yes. . . mama. . .

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Grandaddy and Harry Potter

Calvin was given an assignment from school.  What six people would you want at an imaginary dinner table.  They could be alive or dead, fictional or real.

He choose: himself, his Daddy, me, Mary, my Dad and Harry Potter.

I'd say he has his priorities on straight.  I might have chosen Jesus over Harry Potter--but I'm not ten years old.

Yesterday my email account got hacked.  My first indication of this was that I got "failure to deliver" status notifications from the two people in my address book who are dead.  My dad and my dear friend Ginny. Thanks hacker--for that reminder.  Good luck figuring out my new password.  It is so long and complicated that even I cannot possibly remember it.

Daddy and Ginny--I hope you are so busy singing with the angels that you have no time for email hacking worries.

The Prayers of Christmas Past

Our recital was Saturday afternoon.  There are students who always shine and I appreciate them.  There are also students who occasionally steal the show with an exceptionally awesome performance from the heart.  This year it was Kathryn playing Harmony of the Angels.  I was breathless.  She really got it. Hope's Mary Did You Know was also very special.  Congrats to everyone!

This morning I ventured out for groceries.  I bought grapefruit and yogurt in hopes to make up for five days of eating nothing but leftover sugar cookies and chex mix. I have this awesome grocery delivery service. I truly believe it is worth the extra nickel here and there. The thing is, in order to really take advantage of the service you have to actually order the groceries.  They don't read minds. The deadline was last night at 11:00 and I was practicing and forgot.  So I had to go to Kawalski's where I am tempted by much more than a nickel's extra in impulse purchases.

Last night after I missed the grocery order deadline I went down memory lane. I pulled up the last ten years of Christmas recital programs. Highlights of the ghosts of Christmas past haunted me. One of them was Scott playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. He begged me to play it, against my better judgement I let him. It wasn't in my curriculum for him and I didn't spend much time on it. It was his own baby. He nailed it. He might have been Beethoven himself hunched over the piano in concentration. Then there was Stefanie, Jackie, Grace and Cassy playing O Holy Night as a quartet.  Getting four giggly teen age girls to play as an ensemble was a great test of my coaching ability.

I loved playing the secondo for Aidan on Sleigh Ride, even if we took it ten counts too fast, but if I had to pick one moment from the last eleven years, it would be Stefanie singing "The Prayer" with Cassy accompanying her.  We had a group lesson that Friday night which served as a dress rehearsal. No parents. I had just learned that Katelyn and Kelsey were moving away. Grace and Jackie had just learned that their mother had breast cancer (happy to report she is cancer free).  Other students were having their own private issues. Every kid in the room had something going on. When Stefanie and Cassy started, I walked to the back of the studio pretending to be listening for the balance.  In truth, I was choking back sobs and hoping nobody would notice.

They captured the piece. Kids get it. Sometimes they just get loud and soft where you tell them to, but now and then they really get it.   When they do--you never forget it.

I pray you'll be our eyes, and watch us where we go
And help us to be wise in times when we don't know
Let this be our prayer, when we lose our way
Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace
To a place where we'll be safe

I pray we'll find your light, and hold it in our hearts
when stars go out at night, 
remind us where you are
Let this be our prayer, when shadows fill our day
Help us find a place, guide us with your grace
Give us faith so we'll be safe

And every heart that's broken will be mended
And we'll remember we are all God's children
Reaching out to touch you
Reaching to the sky

We ask that life be kind, and watch us from above
We hope each soul will find another soul to love
Let this be our prayer, just like every child

Needs to find a place, guide us with your grace
Give us faith so we'll be safe

Click here to go to youtube:  Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli--live (not Stef and Cassy, but a nice reminder. . . )

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Miracle Moms

Bill just dropped the kids off at school after our crazy weekend.  I went around the house looking for my coffee.  I found it on a shelf in Mary's closet. Cold coffee. At 7:59 a.m. I was frantically taping photos onto Mary's Star of the Week Poster, which I remembered at 11:00 p.m. last night.  Thank you, Lord, for the ink levels in the photosmart printer.

I'm thinking of the miracle that we pulled off this weekend.  Saturday was the piano recital at our house, I'll write more on that later.  Sunday I played with the choir at two regular services, the kids had choir practice, Mary had her first gymnastics competition, Calvin played handbells and was Herod in the two pageants.  I made it to every event.

I'm not alone.  I'm thinking of all the moms that pull this off all the time.  I know there are a few Dad's out there who are chief operating officer of their family life and they know who they are, but let's face it, most of the time it is the moms.

I have the best husband in the world, but even he who juggles mass amounts of data for a living was looking glassy-eyed at breakfast yesterday when I ran the schedule by him.  He had to go and sketch a spread sheet of the day. . .

I'm thinking of a mom in my studio who managed to get four kids ready to play, and they all played lovely.  I'm sure the two younger siblings sat nicely and quietly while they older kids practiced so diligently.

I'm thinking of my pastor friend who juggles work and family life with such grace.  She is one of my heros, always smiling and never complaining like me.

I'm thinking of my own mother, who taught junior high home-ec when I was growing up.  She worked long hours and yet always managed to pull a Christmas with all the trimmings out of Santa's bag.  I don't know how she did it.  She is my hero too.

Here is to all the moms who trim the proverbial tree, sometimes with help and sometimes alone.  May you be safe, and healthy, and find your moments of peace within your heart as you make Christmas special for your little and not-so-little ones.

Friday, December 9, 2011

All Aboard the Christmas Train

My husband gave me a strange look, back in September, when I brought home the Christmas clothes for the kids.  Little boy: two pairs gymbucks corduroys, three Target white turtlenecks and one festive vest.  Last year's vest will still fit for backup.  Little girl: one black dress, one colorful dress, and extra tights.  Dress shoes.  Check.

He's not laughing now.  The Polar Express is running straight ahead to the North Pole.  No one gets off and no one gets on and you sure don't want to be the one to pull the emergency break with a trip to the Mall of America between now and Christmas.   If I need anything I might as well walk from here, rather than try to find a parking spot.

Last night was the Deerwood fifth grade band concert. We shimmed it in between gymnastics, teaching and bedtime. I forgot about dinner. Mary ate a sandwich during the concert. It was very good--the concert that is. Susan Smith is the director and she pulls that miracle of starting all these kids on different instruments and forming an ensemble ready for a concert in three months. And she was smiling the whole time--the biggest miracle.  One of my favorite moments was when she addressed the parents something like this: in two months you will be registering your kids for middle school.  You will call me to see if they are good enough for middle school band: they are good enough. They are all good enough.

Thanks, Susan, for not setting limitations, even on the squeaky clarinets.  We can't decide about our musical future based on a few months' study of an instrument.  Especially in fifth grade.  I was a french horn major at a prestigious music school and I didn't even start playing until 7th grade.

Another favorite moment was when Ellie's hair went flying up every time she played the crash cymbals.
Bravo kids!

After we got home and I got the kids to bed, the tears came.  Those pre-holiday how the heck am I gonna get it all done tears.  Called my mom and she cried too.  When you start crying about one thing, sometimes you end up crying about everything.  We'll miss my Dad and my Grandma this year. A table that was set for ten not too long ago will be set for five this year.  My sister and her husband are going to Texas for Christmas.  Paul has family there.  This will be the first Christmas of my life that my sister Susan will not be there. Ba hum bug.

As usual, a good night's sleep cures almost all panic. Tomorrow is the Christmas recital here and I am pretty much ready except the food, programs, and cleaning the house.  (See, I am in better humor today)

I am still sad about Susan, and I am still sad that on Sunday, I will not be able to see everything the kids are doing.  Mary has a gymnastics event that I really want to see, and Calvin is playing his first handbell performance before the pageant.  The pageant. . . is the straw that broke the camels back this year.  Calvin is excited to be Herod. Dan and Sara C. are doing an awesome job directing it, but I should have known better.  I can't be in two places at once and I volunteered to help cue the kids' narrations.  So I will stay as late as possible at the gym and rush to the church in time to help, but I'll miss the handbells.

This morning on the way to school Mary asked when we were going to have a normal weekend, just us home to play.  Even when you are going to the North Pole sometimes the train ride is too long.  Hang in there Mary they are serving hot chocolate soon.  Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask

Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.  I have said that before, but it bears repeating at this time of year.  We cannot be of any good to anyone passed out on the floor, or sick, or tired. I challenged myself to do 20 minutes of yoga everyday in December, come heck or high water or pageants or all night gift wrapping sessions.  So far so good.

I am also vowing to do my advent devotion each night.  As Pastor Paul said in the children's sermon, to prepare for the huge party and forget to mention the birthday is almost sickening. . .

Lastly, I bought a huge package of dark chocolate sea salt caramels which I hid for myself.

Tra la la.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Cupcake Christmas Tea

As I write this cat hair tumbleweeds are gathering around the floors of my house and I have sixty people coming to my house on Saturday for a piano recital.  Procrastination.

Last night was the Christmas Tea at Easter by the Lake.  Kris and I hosted a table again.  I think both of us might have been wondering what business we had doing this.  She is preparing for umpteen Christmas worship services in the next three weeks and I have piano recitals and kid's stuff and choir obligations looming.

The reason we do this is grace.  Christmas is about God's grace given to us in Jesus.  Even in it's chaos the tea is about a moment of grace in a busy time for busy women.  It is about taking time to bake and laugh with a friend.  It is about sitting down at a candlelit table, set as beautifully as possible to reflect a little with music, prayer and conversation.  We try to invite different women every year.  This year I brought Bill's mother.  I wish I could invite every woman I know--my sister, my mom, and all my dear friends.  Kris tries to. . . she inevitably calls me on the way out the door to ask me to bring one more table setting.  That's what pastors do. . . keep inviting people even when the table is full.

From the amount of tears I saw falling around me (actually Lutheran women stifle them well in public, but I heard the sniffing) while Jenn Alexander sang her tender songs about the ups and downs of life and death,  I know that we all needed that moment to sit and just be.

Even if one person's tea cup didn't match and it took us awhile to actually get everyone served any real tea and I have to say that church basement decaf is really bad,  I hope it was moment of grace and a really awesome cupcake.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Convention Kudos

My little students in Austin gave me these ornaments almost 20 years ago. Now they are all graduated from college. Kristen is teaching Suzuki Piano in the Austin area. Emily was off in Africa doing some global good last time I heard.  

My students in Minnesota are growing up too.  Three of the little ones who started when they were three-years-old are all juniors in high school now.  I am tickled to report that they have been chosen by DVD audition to play in masterclasses at our National Suzuki Convention next May.  

Aidan and Alec will play in the new repertoire masterclasses--performing the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor and the Granados Spanish Dance, new from Books 6 and 7.

Cassy was selected as an alternate to play Debussy in the post Book 7 category.  

Only a handful of kids get selected, so I am so happy for them. I have to say as well, that they are each truly deserving of this accolade. Like all my students, they are really fine hearted kids, who have made music a priority in their lives, while still enjoying scouts and sports and band and choir.  These kids are what Dr. Suzuki was talking about when he said music will change the world.  

I'm proud of all my students, but today I'm especially proud of these three kids!  Congratulations!!!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Perfect Day, the Perfect Practice and the Perfect Tree

Some days are diamonds.

There was no school on Friday.  Great timing I thought, I have so much to do and now the kids are home all day too.  Instead of the day long wild rumpus wrestling match I was anticipating--we had the best day.  We seemed to fit everything in with room to spare.

There was one low point. . .

. . . the family trip to buy the Christmas tree.  We are at my favorite all season greenhouse and I haggle with the customer service clerk to find out exactly where the sale trees are--those trees from the exclusive customer email I received yesterday--which of course is mysteriously no longer on my phone for me to show her.  Huh????  Sale????  High school kid outside in the lot was more helpful.  Those sale trees are over here--just a short hike to Wisconsin. . . .

As the temperature plummets the four of us go through every single sale tree to pick the perfect one.  We are successful and the high school kid writes KOTRBA in sharpie on the tag and takes our perfect tree to the loading area while I go pay.  Bill takes the kids and gets the car to the loading area only to find that there is no perfect tree that says KOTRBA.  Except the one on the station wagon that is driving away.  Big tears. They loaded our perfect tree on someone else's car. It only take us 20 minutes standing around as the wind chill becomes annoyingly low for them to acknowledge that we actually had a perfect tree with our name on it.  KOTRBA????  Tree???? Friendly high school kid is no where to be found.

Re-park the car. Get the mittens and hats back on and hike back to the North Pole where they let us pick out a non-sale perfect tree and put a $20 gift card in my pocket. Amazingly, the perfect tree was the first one we saw. They all look perfect when it gets dark and the temp hits twenty degrees. Tra la la. They are still my favorite all season greenhouse. They know a good customer when they see her. . .

Note to self: never go tree shopping on an empty stomach with low blood-sugar.  Pack snacks.

Back to the perfect day--before the tree trip--in the morning--I vowed that we would still practice--even with Christmas hubbub.  At 11:00 a.m. Mary and I headed up to the piano and had the best practice ever.  We did every task and after forty-five minutes I said we were done and she said, "but we only practiced 10 minutes."  I was reminded how important it is to practice at the child's time of day. For three months now we have been practicing after school when she is beat. There isn't anything I can do about this. She sleeps in the morning and Calvin wakes up early to practice. After school we just have a window to practice before I teach. It was already tricky for me to get that 45 minutes worked into my teaching everyday--I don't know what else to do. We are always rushed. I realize that it takes a toll. So, I will just have to keep setting my expectations lower on those school days and commit to having relaxed and lovely practices on the weekend. It is better to have a short focused practice than to try to rush through everything, like I often do.

In any case, it was the perfect day and the perfect practice.  And. . . the perfect tree.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lay My Burden Down

Kids do the darnedest  things.  Tonight when I got done teaching Calvin wanted to show me a computer video project he was working on.  He pulls up a slide show of photos he took on his camera of my Grandma Hope's house after we had it all cleaned out and before we left and locked the door.  He took a picture of every empty room and every sidewalk square.  Every out building on the farm. The pictures are dated 5-29-10.

I was completely overcome.  I didn't even know he had taken these photos.  Each empty room was a childhood of memories for me.  They weren't empty then.  They were filled to the brim with baskets and quilts and books and little tumblers of pens and fingernail files.  It all comes flooding back.  My grandma passed away last December.  Even though she was over 90 and it was a normal kind of grief, it is still so close under the surface.  Calvin looks at me tearing up and says, "you were there when you were little too."

To top it all off--he paired the images with an Alison Krauss song--Lay My Burden Down.

Gonna lay my burden down
Gonna lay my body in the ground
Cold clay against my skin
But I don't care at all. . . 

When I get to the other side
I'll put your picture way up high
But I'm not coming back to you
It's just too far. . . 

When I sleep the angels sing
But I cannot hear a thing
Eyes closed
Dreaming of better days gone by

When I wake the trumpets play
And I'm standing at the gates
Fall down in joy
I know my race has just been run. . . 

Kids do the darnedest things.  And they process their own grief in their own time.  I don't know if Calvin knew how profound his project was.  At least it was to me.

Here is my first attempt at a youtube link: (Calvin taught me this too. . . )
Alison Krauss--Lay My Burden Down

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Paper Chains

It's that time of year. . . we are getting linked in.  Not social media--actual paper chains.

I'm getting excited. The piano kids are getting ready for the winter recital. These paper chain links represent each of their perfect repetitions. The finished chains double as decorations on the pianos. They have been working hard.  Each child will play one classical piece and one holiday piece.  This is my favorite recital of the year. By 4:30 on Saturday December 10th it will almost be dark and we will have some candle light to set the mood. For the past 13 years, one of the moms, Linda, has made these extra special cookies to delight the students after the recital.  It is an awesome kickoff to the holidays.

I love it for another reason.  The truth is, in fifteen years, these kids may or may not be playing Mozart or Brahms or Beethoven, but they probably will sit around the piano and play Christmas music for their families.   It might be music of their own faith traditions or broadway musicals. . . but. . . they will play it very well, with poise and beauty. . . and a little fun.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Breath of Heaven

Breath of Heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of Heaven 
Breath of Heaven
Light up my darkness
Poor over me your holiness
For you are holy
Breath of Heaven

We are back from Austin.  I'm not asking for any sympathy, we had an awesome weekend.  But, reality is looming.  The cats have thrown up everywhere while we were gone.  Laundry looms.  There are no groceries in the house. I'm teaching extra to make up for missing yesterday.  We haven't even talked about buying the Christmas tree yet.  The recital is ten days away.  The tea, the choral service, the pageant.  I was scurrying around like a chicken with my head cut off this morning and this Amy Grant song came on my stereo.  I actually had the presence of mind to stop and remember that it will all get done, and that I will enjoy doing it.  This time is supposed to be holy.  It can be holy.  We can be holy.  At least for a moment.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Memories

Hope and John's Farm 2009
My mother was waxing melancholy on the phone tonight.  Her company went home.  Empty house.  She reminded me of the Thanksgivings when we were growing up.  Oh, the traditions we had.

Each year we spent Thanksgiving Day with the Stephens clan--at Grandpa Gene and Grandma Ethel's or Dale and Maureen's or Jim and Peg's.  They all lived within miles of one another--close to Washington, Iowa.  Sometimes, but not always Aunt Kathy, Stacey and Scott would drive over from Omaha.  It was always cold.  Sometimes bitter cold--I remember once my Dad blow-drying the car's engine block when we went to leave.  The ten cousins played.  Once an inner-tube was hooked up behind a tractor in the snow.  That was an uncle.  My dad never would have done that.  (Daddy would haul us over hill and dale behind two huge Percheron horses in a rickety wagon--but the tractor just wasn't safe.)  One year there was quite the scandal when Aunt Peggy already had her Christmas tree up.  Oyster stuffing.  Yuck.  Dale and Maureen had a wooden toy barn with animals in the basement.  How I loved that toy.  For years my mom planned some elaborate craft for after dinner.  Eventually we switched to wine.  How many little felt ornaments and quilted hoop things can you make?  Aunt Maureen would eventually pull out the hymnal and some sheet music and four part harmony singing would ensue.  As Alison Kraus sings--oh how I long to hear that harmony. . .

The drive home across the Iowa back roads was the all-clear to start Christmas.  Susan and I would sing and sing and sing all the way home.  Hark how the bells. . . . The year of the engine block heater my feet never got warm the whole drive home.

At home, Mama and Grandpa would be waiting--having driven in the daylight from Lime Springs, four hours north.  We would all eat leftovers.

Early Friday (not "Black Friday" not 3:00 a.m. and not midnight) the girls went Christmas shopping.  My mom gave me $20, and maybe I had saved a little money, to get everyone a present.  We went to the downtown Davenport Peterson-Honored-Von Maurs departments store.  I'm not spelling it right--but it doesn't exist anymore to look it up.  Now it is just Von Maurs.  There was no gift that couldn't be bought there.  And all for $20.  We dressed up.  Lunch at Bishops.  A slice of ham, french fries and french silk pie.  Three generations.  Then Susan would take something to the car and lose the car keys.  They would turn up in a dressing room of the teen section of Von Maurs--called "The Loft."  Sorry Susan--but it's part of the story. . .

At 6:00 p.m. I would start to cry as it became painfully obvious to me that we weren't going to make it home in time to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on CBS at 7:00 p.m.  If I was lucky, we made it home by Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  Otherwise, you had to wait a whole year to see it again.

We hurried to hide all our gifts in our closets. Grandpa would have the woodbox filled and the floor vacuumed and the table set.  Who knows what else he did all day?

It is no wonder my mother is melancholy, there are so many happy times to reflect on.  This is her first Thanksgiving without her mother.

We were blessed to have all those times together.
Now we turn around and make new memories for our kids to write about.  They won't be the same, but they will be just as precious.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Blessing

It is Thanksgiving Eve and the kids sang at church and then we had choir practice.  Tomorrow morning choir sings again.  I'm feeling ever so slightly over-churched. . . .but every now and then even when you love it, a gig is still a gig and you must show up.

The themes seem to be gratitude and blessings.  Pastor Kevin's sermon posed gratitude as a metaphorical family member, who accompanies us, all through our lives.  Even it seems--in death.  Perhaps in the end gratitude is the best--or dare I say the only--path through grief.

Pastor Kris' last blog entry ( was about the beatitudes and what we deem as blessings in our lives.  If health, wealth, and wisdom are blessings, are the poor, the sick and the simple unblessed?  Did my Dad's life stop being a blessing when he got sick and died?

Not if we have a God who counts the hairs on our head and calls us by name.
Not if this is not all there is.

We are still blessed.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Food, then Music

I had a reader from Kenya yesterday.  Who knows why and probably by mistake, but nonetheless.

It got me thinking.  Feed My Starving Children is doing a big relief effort for the people in the horn of Africa who are suffering from a six year drought.  Easter church is participating, and I'm sure FMSC will take a donation on their website.  Bill and I had the privilege to go to the Minneapolis FMSC banquet a couple weeks ago.  We had a nice time.  As nice of a time as you can have, eating a fancy meal watching a program featuring families without food or water and children without parents.

FMSC is an awesome charity.  Seven year old Mary sent in a little money in honor of the celebration of American abundance called Thanksgiving.  Her $4 will feed some ridiculous amount of children.

Perhaps if we ever get to the day when everyone's survival needs are being met, then we can start to share each other's music.  Each child can have the chance to take the music of his own culture and develop his own talent.  Dr. Suzuki had the dream that music could change the world.  My guess is it has to start with food.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Change of Attitude

It is Sunday night and I've pretty much had it up to here after a weekend with the kids and activities.  I put them to bed and was looking at the photos Bill took today of the first snow.  Sometimes looking at photos of the kids reminds me how much I love them.  Of course photos are so quiet and never interrupt your train of thought. Tomorrow is a new day to face with a happy heart.

I also treated myself to a new Christmas coffee mug.  It is huge.  Holds a whole pot of coffee.  It makes me smile and laugh. It has a dove and a heart on it. I believe the message is: if we have a big enough cup of coffee, we can face Christmas with peace and love.

Pastor Kris laughed about my pre-advent highs and lows.  She sent me this "pre-advent" prayer.  I don't know who wrote it:

  My brother, Jesus. It happens every year. I think that this will be the year that I have a reflective Advent. 
I look forward to Sunday and this new season, Jesus. But all around me are the signs rushing me to Christmas and some kind of celebration that equates spending with love. 
I need your help. I want to slow my world down. This year, more than ever, I need Advent, these weeks of reflection and longing for hope in the darkness.
Jesus, this year, help me to have that longing. Help me to feel it in my heart and be aware of the hunger and thirst in my own soul. Deep down, I know there is something missing in my life, but I can’t quite reach for it. I can’t get what is missing.
I know it is about you, Jesus. You are not missing from my life, but I might be missing the awareness of all of the places you are present there. 
Be with me, my dear friend. Guide me in these weeks to what you want to show me this Advent. Help me to be vulnerable enough to ask you to lead me to the place of my own weakness, the very place where I will find you the most deeply embedded in my heart, loving me without limits.

It is a little heavy, but a good message.  Jesus is not missing from my Christmas, but I agree that I might be missing some awareness. I'm too busy practicing Christmas music and running lines at the pageant rehearsal to think about Him. . .  I was venting about having volunteered to chaperone the first grade field trip tomorrow.  I really would love to stay home and get a leg up on my laundry and Christmas decorations, practice some choir music.  Then my sister reminded me that because she is a jr. high teacher, she was never able to do anything at her daughter's grade school.  She also reminded me that the day will come where Mary might not want me along on her field trips.

Tomorrow is a new day to face with a happy heart.  And a big cup of coffee. And some more pre-advent reflection.