Friday, December 30, 2011

Trebuchet Trouble

"Trouble" with a smile, that is. This dad-designed trebuchet brought endless joy, as captured in the smiles shown below as the kids launched, then were pelted by, water balloons.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mastodon Matrix Project

Mastodon: Cousin to the Woolly Mammoth and elephant
Matrix: Mud and muck found buried along with mastodon bones
Our mission: To sort through the dried dirt and catalogue what was found. It is part of a citizen science project in which the data we gather is added to that catalogued by others to help scientists learn more about prehistoric times.

Background: About ten years ago, in Hyde Park, New York, a family unearthed the bones of a mastodon in their backyard. It turned out to be one of the most complete mastodon skeletons ever discovered; nearly complete with the exception of a few small bones. The bones, mud, and matrix around the skeleton were all determined to be between 9,000 and 12,000 years old; the shells, bark, twigs, rocks and seeds that we pulled from our relatively small sample were from the same era. Yes, we've been handling 12,000 year old twigs, shells, rocks, and mud for the past two days!

Sorting through and examining some in more detail...

The size of one (relatively large) shell against K's finger; the same shell in gorgeous detail under a microscope.

Data painstakingly collected and then sorted.

It was a fascinating, if tedious project. The researcher had been reluctant to allow our group to do it, requesting middle school aged children instead, but the kids did a good job. The instructions recommended having the kids focus in just 30 minute sessions, but they lasted nearly an hour and a half each time, coming back after play breaks for more. Moms and kids alike experienced some of the tedious nature of scientific work, itself a good lesson. More amusingly, I found myself giggling to realize at one point late the first day that the kids were doing something else while the moms were playing in the dirt. How often does that happen?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hurray for the First Day of Christmas!

Thanks, Santa!

Thanks, Aunt Monica. Overheard from Gabriana when this was opened, "this is the best present ever!!"

Belle, the Princess from "Beauty and the Beast," looking at Baby Jesus in the Nativity Scene. And on the right, playing touch football (sort of) in the backyard.

Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus.

Playing a board game after dinner (on left) and hugging Uncle Paul (right).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas (Eve)!

A full day of final preparations, then a celebration: making a snowman cake with Abuela; the most gorgeous shepherd I've ever seen; shepherd and angel by Abuela and Grandpa's Cmas tree; angels preparing to go onto the altar; and finally, after the "gospel re-enactment," Katherine's dream - another girl who likes to battle with swords.

We were in the sacristy, waiting for the homily to conclude and it wasn't exactly appropriate... on the other hand, they were at least silent, and that was the immediate goal. (My new title: "angel shusher." Also "soldier transformer." Coupled with my "fairy director" role last November, my CV is looking quite impressive! Hee, hee....

Friday, December 23, 2011

Improptu Performance

This was my Christmas gift, early. Oh, that wasn't their intent, which was part of why it really was a gift. At a party last night (wonderful; thanks R&Bs!!!) families were invited to share a poem or song. The girls wanted to sing three songs that they love from a little-known cartoon about a dog's Christmas Carol. The way that they did it just made my heart sing, for they so clearly worked together, trading lines, occasionally "in conversation" (in the very best sense) over what came next, and holding on to each other's fingertips in an unconscious way that showed their bond with and love for each other. I cried!

I love them so. I like them so much too; lovely amazing people.

Flash Mob Mall Carolers

Pretty inspiring. Wish I had a singing voice!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Trip to Bethlehem

Wow, this was an amazing event: a living Nativity, stretching to cover many elements of Bethlehem - from Herod riding along in a chariot, to patrolling Roman soldiers, people gathered by wells, cooking over fires, live animals (goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, llamas, rabbits, chickens, camels), and much more.

In the picture on the left below, the girls are studying the map, deciding what part of Bethlehem to visit. A live and adorable rabbit is on the right, one of many animals available for petting.

A legion of angels on the rooftop were one of the first things we saw; the dry ice effect was spectacular.

Below on the right, K is "paying her taxes." The coins we'd been given at the gate were pretty cool and she was hoping not to give it up. Just how I feel about taxes.... Roman soldiers on the right.

Here she is checking out the children learning from an ancient Rabbi.

Below left, they are signing in for the census. On the right is a lavishly beautiful vegetable market.

Petting a donkey with Daddy-o.

A camel! Wow. K got to feed one. And of course, a cave, a manger, worshiping shepherds, and angels rejoicing. What an event (and free, too. Love it).


It is always fun to see the Nutcracker, even in our "nosebleed" seats. And we were with some of our favorite people, family and friends, which makes it especially fun.

I do love the great decorations, especially in these fabulous buildings.

City Hall's Christmas tree is full of origami peace doves, impressive and spectacular.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solstice Celebration

Among the ancient Redwood trees, it was pitch black, with views of stars that we could barely see through the branches. Appropriate setting to recognize the solstice, which turned out to be a diverse celebration in the best sense, with science, pagan symbols, and Christ-welcoming caroling all occuring in harmony. This picture is one of the trails, marked by luminaries set on the edges, but otherwise unlit. Mysterious, solemn, and celebratory.

Unfortunately, it was also super-crowded; mom took K in while I circled with G, looking for parking that wasn't (literally) a mile or more away. We ended up stationed by a heat lamp, looking for them and it was so dark that when they walked right by, Mom didn't see us (K did, though!) If I'd known how crowded it would be, I probably would have skipped it, but I'm glad I didn't know, as it was worth the trip and even the traffic for the experience and the company.

Christmas Time in the City

When I was a kid, one of my favorite memories was taking the subway downtown on Christmas Eve Eve (Dec. 23) to deposit our allowance savings (in coins, mostly) at the bank, then walking around to see the Christmas decorations. Our bank isn't downtown so we skipped that part, but we did join up with friends to take the subway, ride a glass elevator, see Christmas lights, watch ice skaters, and even run into old friends.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Our Mary

Our friend Mary died this week. “Our Mary.” Such a lovely way to refer to her. She is a woman who inspires others to want to claim her as their own, someone who has a wonderful knack for making others feel special, drawing us closer.

Our Mary. Our girls started to speak of her as, “Mary, who is not the mother of God,” distinguishing her from the other Mary they know. I love this, as somehow it reflects the closeness that those two Marys have with one another, that in my girls’ eyes they need that verbal delineation. That our Mary passed away on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe was important for many, undoubtedly significant to her, too.

When I met her, in 1997, she was in her 30s and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She was on the Young Adult retreat committee with me, but was never at the meetings, too busily occupied with treatments, chemo, surviving. I remember when she popped her head into the room where we were planning, greeted everyone individually, looked at me where I was sitting at the corner of the table, feeling shy and uncomfortable because I didn’t really know anyone very well, and said, “Therese. I haven’t even gotten the chance to know you.” That she knew my name, that in the midst of her own crisis she wanted to know me was a memorable welcome, captured memorably in few words spoken from her generous heart.

We celebrated at the retreat; Mary had put together a lovely slideshow, the music to which reminds me of her every time I hear it. (Joan Osborne's "What if God is one of us?")  In the years that followed, we shared more experiences, friends, milestones. All the time my heart was warmed by her presence and I gained such admiration for so much about her, especially her storytelling abilities. I remember one night watching her in a corner of the Parish Hall tell a story to a group of enthralled listeners that was about someone who, as far as I could tell, none of the listeners even knew. And yet she had such a capacity for drawing people in, for engaging. I so admire that.

So many of my life’s most important moments have occurred over the last 14 years and so many of them have included Mary. The night I met Charles, she and Trish were there, dressed as liturgical dancers. A month or so later at a Toys for Tots party a comment by Mary sparked a response by Charles that revealed him to be far more intriguing than I expected. That was the first night I kissed him and the memory is tied not to a random occurrence, but to that spark of authentic interest that I felt when Mary drew him out. It wasn’t even a conversation I was part of, just one that I happened to overhear, and yet it likely changed my life.

We shared a wedding year. Her happy face at our ceremony is forever vivid. She was there when I revealed that I was pregnant the first time, for she was sharing a kitchen with Cristina, who was my NFP coach. Later, in the latter stages of a different pregnancy, she and Tom hiked with me as I puffed over the hills of the Miwok trail in Marin, significantly out of breath, my lung capacity limited by the daughter inside me. Less than a month later, she and Kathleen hiked with me on the same trail on a glorious Good Friday morning, taking fabulous pregnancy pictures. I felt enormously blessed to experience the gift of her talent in celebration of my daughter’s life and in the creation of such a lovely and enduring image of my happiness.

Storyteller. Artist. Friend.

Always late and always welcome, it was great to have a party and know that if Mary hadn’t yet arrived, she would. You could count on her to charm the “party-is-over” blues with her late arrival and extended visit. Parties that simply end will feel forever more dismal now.

I knew that she was sick, but also knew that she was so busy living that she rarely returned calls or email. So I started just stopping by when I passed through San Anselmo, usually finding her out and leaving notes instead. On a recent November day, I knocked on her door, again unannounced. After a long delay, the door slowly opened and a gaunt, yellow Mary greeted me. I had just seen her CarePages pictures from Washington, but she seemed to have changed much in just a day or so.

I started by saying, “I just stopped by to say hi; I don’t have much time…” I really didn’t, that day. I was still an hour’s drive from home and needed to be at work soon. I didn’t make it that day though, for she answered, saying, “I don’t have much time either, Therese.” My heart stopped and my brain froze, simultaneously knowing and refusing to comprehend. As my girls played with her cats, she and I sat down on the front porch and she said words so dreaded that I stupidly made her clarify. “I have about two months,” she said. “You have two what?” The concept wouldn’t register for a moment and she had to repeat the horrible words while my eyes met hers in sadness. Oh, oh! Sadness for our loss, knowing that our time with her was so agonizingly short, but grief and empathy too for what lay ahead for her, for in her face as she revealed her impending death I saw fear and despair, knowledge that she was in tangible ways losing everyone and facing a journey that is inherently unknowable.

And yet in that moment Mary’s gaze also held strength, love, resolve, and faith, together a powerful combination that informed the conversation that followed, one I feel deeply honored to have shared. There was something so deeply tender, so incomprehensible and yet so agonizingly and humanly real about sitting there with her, talking about her death. We want death to come with guarantees, but Mary is too honest, too authentic, to pretend to be sure, to offer false and petty assurances. Her faith is real and imbedded deeply in her humanity, the depths of which informed everything we love about her, so our conversation was equally authentic, drawing on both deep faith and the agonizing reality of human fear and suffering. Later, reflecting, I felt a whisper of Gethsemane.

We talked of her funeral site (Saint Dominic’s, she told me, with a memorial service later in Lodi. “Do you think people will travel to Lodi for it?” And later, “I guess I should call Father Xavier...”) We talked of her call that morning to hospice, of being unable to speak the words. (“Did I call? Now I can’t remember. Maybe Tom called.”) We talked of her concern about Tom. She was so lovingly practical, wanting Charles to teach Tom to barbeque so that after she was no longer there, Tom could respond to friends’ suggestions about getting together, “sure, let’s barbeque!” with friends bringing the food. She wanted to organize her photos, landscape the backyard to make it drought resistant, give her clothes and baking supplies to her sister and girlfriends. To neatly wrap up her life in a way that lifted burdens from Tom.

As she spoke, we wept and held each other while I told her how sorry I was that this was happening. Later, I was told that I should have laughed, told her stories, distracted her. But I can’t imagine wanting someone to change the subject or tell a joke if I revealed my own imminent mortality. And Mary isn’t one to duck the messy but authentic realities of life, with “bring it on!” as a more “authentically Mary” approach to embracing the vulnerability and sorrow that can be the cost of deep, unhesitating, and unconditional love.

Most memorably, she shared the limitations of her own imagination about heaven, explaining that she did not find most images either interesting or comforting. She rejected both the “universal energy” concept (“I don’t want to be a drop of water in the ocean. I want to be me!”) and the more childish “floating on a cloud” image (“too boring!”)

I couldn’t help but agree, so when she asked what I thought heaven was like, I tried to describe C.S. Lewis’ images as an anecdote to such unsatisfying pictures. I read the last book in the Narnia series earlier this year and it absolutely knocked my socks off. I did not expect in a children’s book that all of the main characters, including much-loved Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, would be killed. Killed! The book is even more remarkable in that their deaths are both joyful and reassuring, for the story follows their journey through death, which is described as a sudden arrival in “Aslan’s country,” a familiar and yet infinitely better version of beloved Narnia. In Lewis’ description, heaven was created with love by the same Creator who sang more familiar worlds into creation, yet differs in that it will last for eternity. Marvelously, it includes familiar loves – family, friends, and others – living joyfully and without the need to be concerned that this wonderful adventure will end. Fiction, yes, but a fiction created by one who was familiar with God’s promises and thus informed by an imagination that suggests possibility.

I do not know if I was able to effectively communicate the images that had been so comforting to me. Still, I do now love the thought of Mary in “Aslan’s country,” a more perfect version of our own world where she is happily surrounded by loved ones and able to merge that infinite world with the essence of this one, perhaps unbounded by time and thus without any real distance between us. The limitations of this world keep us temporarily from experiencing her in the way that we are used to, yet these are inherently time bound whereas Mary is but a momentary step ahead of us on a more eternal, joyful, lovely, and familiar journey.

Go in peace, our lovely Mary, and hold us close to your heart. You have always expressed confidence in prayer and told me even on this day full of the emotions of this newly revealed grief that you would continue to pray for us. We too will continue to hold you in prayers of deep love, warm affection, and eternal appreciation. Until we join you, we will continue to hear your laughter, the inflections of your voice, and your loving presence both when we recognize their reflections in others whom you have touched and in our hearts, for you have left us with graceful lessons about life, love, friendship, and beauty that are living blessings, far too vivid to fade.

We love you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Our lovely friend Mary died this week. It has been a devastatingly hard period, praying for her recovery, then for a miracle, then for peace, now for her eternal life and healing for her husband Tom, her family, and the community of those who love her.

I have been restless with this grief, unable to sleep much, and took the opportunity that this unusual state brought me late one night to write my own reflection about her. It is imperfect and yet unshared, though. I'm finding it hard to capture the essence of her deeply loving spirit, harder yet to reconcile the very real but conflicting emotions of despair and faith that she expressed through her life, illness, and death. The vigil service and funeral were absolutely lovely, though, filling me with much-needed faith, love, and a desire to be a better person, more like Mary.

The programs both included a statement adapted from St. Augustine called "If you love me, do not weep" that captured this faith in the reality of the eternal life. Reinforcing the importance of the education I am getting from learning along with the girls, I coupled these words with images from the last book in the Narnia series, which we read earlier this year. In that book, the children, the heroes for the seven books in the series, are ALL killed. Yes, horrible and startling! Yet when Queen Lucy dies and finds herself in Aslan's country, her joy is palpable. Through this intense, joyful, and extremely lovely image C. S Lewis provides emotion and familiarity to enhance the comfort of St. Augustine's words:

"If you only knew the gift of God and what heaven is! ... if you only knew the new paths in which I walk! ... when your soul reaches heaven, you will see [Mary] who loved and still loves you. You will find her heart the same, her tenderness even purer than before...."

Why then do I weep? I find these words and images truly comforting. Having plunged into the darkness of disbelief in the past few weeks, I have emerged stronger in faith. So my own tears puzzle me, leaving me to reflect that the separateness between that world and our "land of shadows" is a painful one, not just in terms of those whom we have lost to death, but because our own souls long for our eternal home where we can be unbounded by pain, fear, and discomfort. And yet we live with an undeniable calling to love here, to embrace life with enthusiasm and passion, knowing that our mission is to reflect heaven here on earth by creating beauty, by building authentically loving relationships.

In the musical production of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Andrew Lloyd Webber has the main characters sing, "To love another person is to see the face of God." In loving Mary, the face of God is close and dear; we deeply miss her so much already.

Photos by Mary

Friend. Storyteller. Artist. She specialized in pregnancy photos though she was not able to have children herself because of an earlier bout with a different cancer. Her photography is beautiful and joyful; I love these images and so many more....

The Gift

Notre Dame de Namur University's musical "A Christmas Carol" was fantastic in all aspects - set, costumes, music, dancing. We had an absolute blast and were blown away by the quality of the production.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Country Day - Italy!

I love love LOVE this photo, as it shows how much fun K had with her presentation this month. In addition to painting upside down (a la Michelangelo), simulating stained glass (Italian cathedrals) and making canollis (I need more work here), we built a volcano, erupted it, then seperately staged an ancient Roman town with dolls and "destroyed" them on video to demonstrate the effects on Pompeii in AD 79.

Oh, filming it was a major mess, as I used powdered sugar mixed with brown sugar for the ash, but Katherine successfully narrated each segment of the film clips, using her recently-acquired knowledge of ancient Roman life to set the stage. The drama in her voice was awesomely fun, "it was a normal day in Pompeii. Gladiators were fighting. Bakers were baking. Children were playing with their toys. Suddenly, there was a huge boom...!"

K seemed to have fright, which is unusual for her, and at first refused to present unless her sister was with her. I was surprised, but actually it was pretty neat, to see their connection. G had been sitting in the back and seemed surprised too, but she had, in fact, helped with the video production and so hesitatingly came forward, trying not to grin with happiness that her sister so needed her. She sat in the front row with the big girls, super proud of herself AND of her sister. Awesome.

We also heard a great set of presentations from the other kids: Venice, military strategy in ancient Rome, the significance of the Italian Carnival celebration, Italian disasters, Leonardo da Vinci, family history, the Colosseum, the history and making of pizza, Italian food, Italian Christmas celebrations, and more. The food was fabulous, too - no surprise there!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent Crafts

When it comes to crafts, I have some sort of deficit disorder; it is just not something at which I excell. Still, I do love the idea of new tree ornaments and homemade gifts as representative of the season. So we had some friends over and I was pleased to see that things turned out pretty well... and, more importantly, kids and moms both had fun. We made decorated Cmas trees out of popsicle sticks, soap snowballs (nicely wrapped in red in the photos below), photo-frame and round "stained glass" ornaments, and more. Many thanks to the friends who came and made the day such a "preparation celebration!"

This final photo isn't a craft, but the cool reflection of the Three Kings from our nativity scene on the wall early one morning. "Following yonder star...."