Lessons from Kids on Destressing

Stressed? Go buy a coloring book and the biggest box of Crayolas you can find. Or sit down in that fancy landscaping you paid a bundle for and play with the rocks. Yes, it is that easy.

I’ve read two articles recently about adults finding calm by remembering what it was like to be a child.

Coloring Book Clubs

ist2_3570575_3d_pebbles_cropColoring book clubs are cropping up all over the country in  cafes, libraries, and private homes. People are seeking a few moments of uncomplication where they can shed all the tough decisions, the crazy people at work, and the problems awaiting them at home. Remember how relaxing it was to hunch over a picture and just color? The only questions we had to face were: 1) what color should I choose, and 2) can I stay in the lines (or not).

In fact, I have been counting the days when I can give my 16-month-old granddaughter a new red crayon without her eating it. I can’t wait to share those moments of peace with her, sitting at a table, the waxy smell of crayons wafting around our heads.

Rock Balancing

Rock balancing on the shore of a mountain lake in Glacier National Park in Montana.

Rock balancing on the shore of a mountain lake in Glacier National Park in Montana.

Another path to inner calm is stacking or balancing rocks. Minnesotan Peter Juhl, author of Center of Gravity: A Guide to the Practice of Rock Balancing, said in a recent article in the Star Tribune, “There is ease in tension.” He admits that pursuing the tension between stones and gravity is actually calming. This art form is called by many names including “equilibria.” By balancing other things, we find balance ourselves.

I have personal proof that it works. On a recent trip to the playground with my granddaughter, two older boys were roughhousing, throwing rocks and sand, until I suggested that they stack rocks instead of throwing them. Their focus became defying gravity instead of annihilating each other (and my granddaughter in the crossfire). Peace—or equilibria—reigned on the playground (much to my grandmotherly relief).

This idea of inner peace and how we find it is a big part of my Maya Skye mystery series. Maya, a yoga teacher who attracts mayhem like I attract mosquitoes in summer, still works to find inner peace—even when chasing a killer. Maya believes answers and peace are found in living “in the moment” and isn’t that what we are doing when we color pictures or balance rocks? When our focus is on the here and now, we not only create art but we reset to calm.

______________________________

What kid activity brings you calm? Drop a comment.

What’s next for Maya Skye? Book 2 of the series is available: Warrior’s Revenge.

Crazy about Numbers

How to Build Cathedrals

How to Build Cathedrals

I can’t balance my checkbook, but I am crazy about numbers. You can suck me into any tourist trap with the word “biggest.” I once drove out of my way to see the largest frying pan in Iowa (just off I-380 in Brandon). It weighs 1200 pounds and is 9 feet 3 inches in diameter. Think of the Paul Bunyan-size pancake that can be made in it. It’s not the largest in the world, but you can fry 44 dozen eggs in it at one time. Bon appetit.

On a recent trip to Austin, Texas, I visited the presidential library of Lyndon Baines Johnson. I’d never been to a presidential library before and have to admit it was much cooler than I expected. You walk in the door and the first thing you see is LBJ’s custom-built black stretch limousine, his town car for tooling back and forth from the ranch. Weighing 5,100 pounds, the limousine is equipped with a TV, telephone, and reserve gas tank. There is a specially designed communication system within the car for contact with the Secret Service. This vehicle, however, is not armored, bullet-proof, or bomb-proof. Imagine how much weight the presidential rides must carry.

At the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, I count myself lucky to have seen another amazing number spectacle. It was a piece of artwork named “How to Build Cathedrals” by Cildo Meireles. It was made up of 600,000 shiny copper pennies, 800 communion wafers, 2000 cattle bones, and 80 paving stones. A critique of Jesuit missions built in colonial times, Meireles’s work suggests that the conquest of the Americas was as much about economics as saving souls. (By the way, Cildo, great title. I dearly love artwork that has a name.)

Some might say I should just keep a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records on my night table, but I don’t like being bombarded. I like being surprised, happening upon a number frenzy in an art museum or down an Iowa country road.

Perhaps I like all those crazy numbers because they are proof of the human spirit pushing the envelope. Some man or woman sat there in a studio, a garage, a basement and thought: How can I make a better this or a bigger version of that?

___________________________

For a book about art and the creative spirit, but not numbers, check out Maud’s House.

Holiday Stories for Sharing

HOLIDAYstoriesTake a break from all the shopping craziness and preparations, put your feet up, and enjoy a holiday story, a sweet remembrance, a peek into someone else’s celebrations. This is the season for sharing. We hope you enjoy this small collection. Happy Holidays!

3 Things That Remind Me of Christmas: keeping the holiday spirit on a deserted island.

Christmas Shopping by Twilight: when shopping was quieter and sweeter.

7 Tips for Making Your Christmas Cookie Party Merry: it’s not all about the baking.

Christmas Unplugged: a short story about rivalry amid the holiday decorations.

How to Make Your Own Holiday: to all the children born in December.

Let There Be Light: the gift of illumination.

Christmas Pajamas: a cozy holiday tradition.

Christmas Cookies at the Peacock Bra Bar on the Planet of the Kings: disappearing kings, the box that won’t go away, and cookies with a high PITA factor.

Christmas Pajamas

I welcome friend and fellow writer Janet Lunder Hanafin to share the memories that evoke the holidays in her heart.

Janet-pj-01I’ve heard of families who spend all of Christmas day sitting around in their pajamas. That wouldn’t be my family, but sometimes I have wished it so. I am a grandmother now, and pajamas take up more of my Christmas effort than my five grandchildren would ever imagine.

My own grandmother had a dozen grandchildren, and every Christmas I can remember, each of us got a new pair of pajamas—flannel pajamas, that wonderful, soft, comfortable, comforting, cozy, cuddly fabric that seems nonexistent these days. Nobody worried about whether we would come in contact with a Christmas candle and immolate ourselves, so our pajamas didn’t have to fit like a second skin or be treated with some death-inducing chemical that was guaranteed to give at least our parents nightmares. The little kids who got pajamas with feet didn’t have rubber treads on the bottom. They took their chances with slipping on linoleum or pine wood floors, and learned to walk carefully.

Every year the pajamas were all different. Even my twin cousins, boys almost a year older than I, got the same style in different colors, the only time I can ever remember them not being dressed identically. The pajamas came often from the JC Penney catalog, sometimes from the local Amundson’s Dry Goods store. We may have seen them, and wondered where Grandma would shop, may even have longed for exactly the pair we received, but we never hinted or suggested, and certainly never asked.

The year that I was in seventh grade, a “big, grown-up girl” if you know what I mean, Grandma decided that I was old enough for a robe. I wish I had never worn it out, or outgrown it. It was the most elegant garment I had ever owned—soft, cozy flannel in an exotic pink, gray and white print. The mandarin collar and cuffs on the three-quarter sleeves were trimmed in hot pink corduroy. It had patch pockets with corduroy piping, and square pink buttons. I wore it when I went to slumber parties (the precursor of sleepovers). We seldom slept, so I could wear my robe from 10:00 p.m. popcorn until pancakes in the morning served by a bleary-eyed mother who, if she was really lucky, had managed to doze off between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.

And after that, Grandma always gave me a nightgown, still flannel, but meant for a mature young lady, until the year that Grandpa died. I was in high school, my sisters still in junior high and not grown up enough for either robes or nightgowns. That year my grandma knitted mittens for all of us, and watched us open her gifts with tears in her eyes.

I hugged her and she whispered, “Oh, sweetheart, I couldn’t afford so many pajamas this year.” We all understood and were only a little disappointed.

Years later when our son came home and brought along a young woman whom he thought he would marry, I had to do some fast Christmas shopping. What was a little personal but not too personal, expensive enough but not too, showed some thought but didn’t look as if I’d shopped the entire mall or lain awake all night thinking about it? Something that didn’t read more into the relationship than might already be there? Pajamas, of course, flannel pajamas. Comfortable, warm, but not seductive. Pale blue with white snowflakes for a girl with blue eyes and blond hair. They were perfect.

And some more years later when he brought home the young woman whom he really would marry, I zipped out again and bought flannel pajamas, this time red ones with white snowflakes. Perfect again! She still has them.

Our granddaughter was born six weeks before Christmas. Her first Christmas present from Grandpa and Grandma was a little red sleeper with feet and a tiny reindeer on the chest.
We’ve added three grandsons and a very special great niece to the mix, and I start shopping for pajamas in September, guessing at sizes, and wondering what will go on sale a week after I spend an exorbitant amount for the cutest ones yet. One year Granddaughter #1 got Hannah Andersson snowman pajamas (on sale) that were such a hit she threw a two-year-old tantrum whenever they were in the laundry. Over the years Spiderman, Angry Birds, Hello Kitty, and the girls from “Frozen” have found their way into toddler-sized beds. Flannel has fallen from fashion, and the chosen fabrics are fleece and thermal weave. The kids are fussier now. One likes feet, another wants the legs to fit tight around the ankle. One doesn’t like buttons because they catch in her hair.

This year the chosen themes are polar bears, reindeer, a snowboarder, and a mouse for the littlest dancer in the Nutcracker. Merry Christmas, my little sweethearts. Sleep tight! And no, you can’t sit around in your pajamas all of Christmas Day.

_____________________

Janet Lunder Hanafin grew up on a South Dakota farm, transplanted herself to St. Paul, MN for college, and grew deep roots. Her writing has appeared in local and metro-wide publications including the St. Paul Almanac. She and her husband have two children and four grandchildren (all above average) and enjoy the companionship of two very fine cats. The cats do not have pajamas.

Christmas Cookies at the Peacock Bra Bar on the Planet of the Kings

Ann Woodbeck's wall hanging

Ann Woodbeck’s wall hanging

This holiday blog post is brought to you by Ann Woodbeck. I am happy to have my writer friend as a guest. We have been writing about things that evoke the spirit of Christmas in our lives.

The kings travelled far, coming to rest in Nonnie’s living room, high up on the wall over the sofa where the painting of the ships used to be. Even without the camels, they were tall, regal with jeweled crowns that sparkled against the velvet sky. Nestled into their opulent robes of purple and gold, small treasure chests held the gifts they carried to the baby Jesus, my grandmother said, for he would bring joy to the world. Fashioned by my grandmother and her spooky old sisters, The Kings were passed along to my mother and hung for many years on the barn wood wall of the house at the river, watching over the piles of coats, boots, and snow pants in the entry way. More Christmas than the tree, the candles, the mystery of mass at midnight. It was a shock to realize that no one knows what became of them.

Years later, I set to work on a wall hanging that would appear like magic every Christmas to stir up wonder in the children. We’d travelled far from the beliefs of our own childhoods and Peace on Earth was more impossible than ever. My boys wanted telescopes to gaze up at that starry sky, impressed by images of a blue planet sent back by astronauts in spaceships. A sequined branch was easy enough to applique on the big square of burgundy velvet. The challenge was the earth—stuffed and silvered, the continents shining beneath a big gold bow. With every stitch around its circumference, I remembered Christmas past: carols around the piano, the flicker of candles in the dark sanctuary of the church, the rush of affection that enfolded us when we came through Nonnie’s door.

When our children were young, we all came “home” for Christmas, shuttling back and forth between the river and the airport, filling the house to the rafters with joy. Stacks of presents grew around the tree, stirring up a frenzy of excitement in the growing collection of little ones with wide eyes and chapped cheeks. But the biggest prize under the tree never went to the little ones. The howl went up the moment the wrapping paper was torn enough to reveal the pale aqua Peacock Bra Bar box. Initially, the box held the most hideous peignoir—kelly green and white flowers on a robe that put the Kings’ to shame. Now, year after year, someone got the box, usually filled with underwear of a more practical variety. No one can remember who was the first man in the family to don a pair of ladies’ underwear on his head. But like the box from the Peacock Bra Bar, it became a treasured family tradition.

Much like our Christmas cookies. I remember the dog-eared cookie cookbook with buttery stains on the page with the recipe for Aunt Ella’s Sugar Cookies. Whose aunt Ella remains a mystery. In my earliest memory, Nonnie makes them in my mother’s kitchen on Prairie Street, sending us off to wait for the dough to chill in the refrigerator until it was firm enough to roll out on a flour sack towel. We’d hand her the cookie cutters—a mitten, a small Santa with a pack on his back, a Christmas tree, a leaping deer—and Nonnie would transfer the fragile cutouts onto the pan and into the oven. A whisper of almond signaled that they were perfectly golden around the edges, ready to slide off the pan and onto a tea towel on the counter where they cooled and waited for a thin glaze of icing. We picked numbers to see who would be first to stand on the kitchen chair to behold the rows of delicate golden cookies, shiny with glaze, awaiting our artistry with colored sugars, the silver balls that looked so cool but broke your teeth, or tiny candy stars.

The Rintelmann family Christmas cookie has a very high PITA (Pain-in-the-ass) factor. And we still bake them. Every year.

Ann Woodbeck takes words seriously in Excelsior, MN.

3 Things That Remind Me of Christmas

IMAG0433It was not a parlor game. You know, what would you take if you were stranded on a deserted island? I really was here, alone, a drip of humanity in an unending sea. Usually, in the parlor game, someone says they would bring a book and not just any book. It has to be Ulysses. Right. Like I want to spend the rest of my days in a loop with Leopold Bloom.

So when the unbelievable actually did happen and I found myself shouting on a beach in who knows where, I was grateful that I was wearing my holiday backpack. Because if I wanted to bring anything to the rest of my life, it was the spirit of Christmas.

I sat down in the sand, the tide trying to calm me with its whispers, the breeze patting my face. There, there, what do you have in the bag? the curious wind asked. I unzipped the pack and pulled out: music. My phone had no bars, and Pandora was far away, but when I pressed a button, tunes magically lifted from the speakers and danced on the air. Carolers from Mariah Carey to Bing Crosby sang of mistletoe and sleds and wished me a Merry Christmas. Monks chanted in ancient cathedrals, and cellos and violins crashed with uncontained joy. The wind liked the music.

It tugged at my hair. What else do you have? the wind asked. I entered my pack once again and brought out: light. Strings of lights that stayed on perpetually even though I had no power grid on my island. There were my favorites, the twinkling white ones that smooshed together in my vision when I took off my glasses. But I’d also brought the multicolored variety because if you are birthing a whole new society, you don’t want to start off setting a policy of discrimination.

The mercurial wind demanded, “More, more.” I rummaged at the bottom of my pack and found: the smell of pine forest. Spruce deliciousness flowed into the wind’s arms, and it laughed. How wonderful, it cried. The wind played with the evergreen aroma like a ball of energy, spinning it, tossing it, lifting it then letting it shower down on me like rain.

Finally, in a wistful voice, the wind asked, “More?”

I shook my head. “That is all,” I said.

“That is enough,” said the wind.

____________________

Some friends and I challenged each other to write about three things that evoke the holiday season. What about you?

For more holiday reading, try “How to Make Your Own Holiday” or “Let There Be Light.”

In the Save the Butterflies Business

When I am tagging Monarch butterflies, I feel like the klutzy nature lover Elaine May in the cult classic A New Leaf. In the movie, she is a rich professor pursuing botanical discoveries while her gold digger husband Walter Matthau tries to dispose of her on a crazy camping trip. He ends up falling for his brilliant yet bumbling new wife, of course.

Just as I have fallen for Monarchs. In August and September in Minnesota, the Monarchs shed their green chrysalis and hit the fields of goldenrod, chowing down for the long trek to Mexico to winter. That is when my partner and I, net and tags in hand, try to capture them—for the good of science. We are volunteers for Monarch Watch, which tags and

Happy caterpillars.

Happy caterpillars.

monitors Monarch butterflies in hopes of learning more about how they navigate, migrate, and survive. The more we learn about Monarchs, the more we are able to help keep the species alive.

But as I said, I am not a natural in nature. In three years of doing this, I have discovered a few things:

1. Monarchs do not stick to the hiking trails. They drag me into places full of nature “things” such as tall grasses, thorny bushes, hidden holes that eat ankles, and other insects. I do not like any of these things to be touching my legs or ankles (the creepy crawly factor).

2. Monarchs are fast. And I am not.

3. Monarchs love hot afternoons in hot, buggy fields. And I do not.

Monarch habitat.

Monarch habitat.

4. Monarchs enjoy teasing humans, fluttering by when you are sans net—when you are driving the car, biking, or sipping margaritas on the patio.

Still, I love placing a tiny tag on a beautiful orange-and-black wing, feeling the butterfly’s sticky legs hanging on to me for a moment in some quiet interspecies communication before I place it on a flower and wish it safe travels to Mexico.

So this year, in addition to tagging the wild ones, we are rearing our own Monarchs. We bought a habitat at the local bird seed store, found four caterpillars in the wild, kept them supplied with fresh milkweed (their only food source), and watched them spin their chrysalises. Any day now they will come out, dry their wings, and be ready to travel. That’s when I will tag them (without wading into the creepy tall grasses).

If this is cheating, I don’t care. After all, those little caterpillars could have been eaten by birds

Safe in their chrysalis, the butterflies are forming.

Safe in their chrysalis, the butterflies are forming. Stay tuned.

and never reached this point, without my assistance.

Please do what you can to help the Monarchs:

  • Restore milkweed; it is the only plant where Monarchs lay their eggs and the only food they eat in their early stages. Milkweed is always under attack by development, the spraying of herbicides, and roadside mowing.
  • Contribute to and become involved in programs researching the Monarchs and trying to boost their numbers: Monarch Watch; Save Our Monarchs, which seeks to plant more milkweed; and the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, whose volunteers monitor milkweed for larva at more than 900 sites across the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Quotes on Babies, Unicorns, Smart Women

despicable me

Agnes from Despicable Me

A lot of people are saying a lot of cool stuff, and I decided, because I am a daughter of a man who had Alzheimer’s, to jot them down before they disappear from my brain cells. Some are from favorite authors, some from my own stuff, and some from friends and family (sorry).

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You knew my father. Prepare to dine.” — Text from Rubbertoes on the way to picking up Chinese food. It’s always a good day when you can channel The Princess Bride.

“A smart woman always carries a book and a credit card—the book for when she has nothing to do and the card for when she has too much to do. Oh, and darling, she always wears moisturizer.” — Smart woman advice from Book of Mercy.

“The first thing we ever learn is that the touch of someone else’s hand can ease pain and make things better. That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.” — Skin Game by Jim Butcher. I am a big Jim Butcher/Harry Dresden fan, but this quote really hit me because I have been holding my granddaughter a lot lately. Stroking her back, pulling her close, reminds me that holding another being can be absolutely heavenly.

Speaking of granddaughters, my son-in-law told his new daughter: “You are cuter than a puppy riding a unicorn up a rainbow.” It made me want to go right out and watch Despicable Me again, and so I did.

My daughter’s pre-baby quote: “The baby was partying all night and slept all morning. I am gestating a college student.”

My daughter’s post-baby quote on taking her child for her two-month check-up and shots: “I have two observations: 1. As I am unused to taking other humans to the doctor, I find that my inclination is to say that I am taking my child to the vet. I should probably work on that. 2. Infant Tylenol (which we used for the first time after the shots) is grape flavor. How strange that my daughter’s first taste of anything other than breast milk is artificial grape!”

“I’m sure Sister Wilma would say Ella once wrote a perfect poem—in a former life—and now all she had to do was remember how she did it. It was just as Ella thought: Memory (or the lack thereof) was the bane of her life. Perhaps memory, not comets, is the stuff of life. It too visits us in fleeting moments, leaving sparks of recognition, embers that might have told us something if only we had paid attention to them instead of shoving them aside and saying ‘I’ll think about that later—right now, I have to worry about what to cook for dinner or how Junior’s going to get through college or whether there will be Social Security when I’m old.'”  — Maud’s House

Final disclaimer/confession: I have always been the type of person who didn’t understand how other people could keep notebooks of quotations. Did they seek guidance, inspiration, a good laugh? Were these arsenals of words ammunition in the next argument? Now, maybe I get it. Maybe they were just afraid that some day they would wake up and not remember how to spell “crayon.”

Just Go On Into the Bathroom; I’ll Be Right with You

The Glass 1989 Sofa Tub

The Glass 1989 Sofa Tub

I don’t sit around thinking of trouble for my characters all the time. Sometimes, I have to pursue writing that pays. One way I keep the wolf from the door is by writing press releases for Karastan and Mohawk Home. I love beautiful rugs, and I love writing about them. Part of my job is to follow trends in home textiles.

In the June 2014 issue of Home and Textiles Today was an article about “The Living Bathroom.” Apparently, the bathroom is becoming the place to hang out, just like the living room. Manufacturers are producing “bathroom furniture”—freestanding wash basins that look like contemporary art, tubs shaped like sofas or lounges, and showerheads that resemble the floorlamp in your living room.

Waterproof wallpaper is replacing tile, and conversation areas (sofas and armchairs) are being brought in as well as pillows, cushions, and carpet. Towels are taking on the look of afghans. TVs and fireplaces in the bathroom are no longer just the purview of ritzy hotels.

Axor Lampshower by Nendo

Axor Lampshower by Nendo

Walls no longer separate the bathtub or shower from the rest of the room. It all blends into one cozy living space. But can there be such a thing as too much togetherness? People do weird stuff in showers, and I don’t really want a front-row seat to the display. Plus, if there are no walls on your shower, how do you keep your friend sitting in the armchair discussing the stock market with you while you do your ablutions keep from getting his own shower? I’ve been a splasher since the age of two.

Now, the sofa tubs look inviting and the lampshower is cool, but I am worried about all the pillows and carpets. My bathroom can be as steamy as the Amazon jungle. As for watching TV in the tub, that is simply too much of a temptation. My friend wraps his Kindle in a Baggie and reads in the tub until he comes out like a raisin.

The fireplace sounds romantic, unless it is one of those fireplaces that draws all the heat out of the room instead of putting it in. Goosebumps are not lust inspiring.

So, I am not sure I like turning my bathroom into a living room. There are definite advantages and disadvantages. Still, it all seems a little too public. I feel exposed enough between Facebook, Twitter, and this blog.

_____________________________

I don’t discuss bathrooms at all in my books. Oh wait, in Maud’s House, I do talk about a bathroom where the corner was painted like the Sistine Chapel: “My father looked up as he shaved in the morning and saw men welcomed into heaven or sentenced to hell. ‘What a way to start the day,’ he growled.”

Book Club #2: What Is Harry Potter Without Hogwarts?

I love to travel so I am a fan of settings in books. But I don’t have much patience with pages ofhowthelightgetsincovLRG purple prose about snowy cliffs or waxy magnolia-guarded plantations or dark Victorian mansions. I like when settings infiltrate the heart of a book. Here are a few atmospheric reads that I’ve recently visited or revisited:

  • Any of Erin Hart‘s mysteries set in Ireland. She’s a Minnesota writer with dark peat dirt under her fingernails. She writes about the mysteries (both human and relic) preserved in the peat bogs of Ireland and the dark secrets of those who live near the bogs. Check out her latest, The Book of Killowen.
  • The Alaska-cooled mysteries of Dana Stabenow. Her main character, Kate Shugak, who is an Aleut and born in the Park, draws you in like a warm fire on a blizzardly night. She understands this place, this life, and through her, so do you.
  • Hogwarts will forever be in our blood, thanks to the writing of J.K. Rowling. And the movies don’t harm the ambiance either. What’s your favorite scene at Hogwarts? Mine is anything set in the dining hall, especially hundreds of candles floating in the air. What better way to set the scene for a magical story?
  • Three Pines. If you are a fan of mystery writer Louise Penny, that’s all I need to say. When reading remarks about this tiny Canadian village with the big body count, I am amazed at the number of readers who say, “I want to live in Three Pines.” Penny’s irresistible Inspector Armand Gamache is a cross between a Canadian Mountie, Dr. McDreamy, and your ever patient and wise Uncle Somebody.

Author Eudora Welty said this about setting: “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else . . . Fiction depends for its life on place.” Welty also said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

One final word on setting from comedian Steven Wright: “Ever notice how irons have a setting for permanent press? I don’t get it.”

______________________

What settings in books do you get and like to go back to? Please leave a comment below.

As for my books? Maud’s House is set in Vermont, where individualism runs rampant. Book of Mercy takes place in North Carolina, where I lived for nearly 20 years. And Down Dog Diary is a mystery set in Minnesota, where Maya Skye chases a killer through state parks and national monuments.

 

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