Handicrafts

With the change of seasons, I’m pulling out my winter craft projects. Everyone needs one. “Yeah, sorry, I can’t get up now, I’m MAKING something.” Currently, it’s crocheting baskets. I begin with ripping up fabric like the Hulk tearing off his clothes…it’s extremely rewarding. Arrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Then I take all those little scraps, roll them into balls and (in theory) crochet the strips into a circle. Once you get the circle base, you can crochet up the sides until you have a basket, or a potholder if you really screwed things up. (Isn’t it great that most mistakes in life can be turned into potholders?).

Here’s one my friend made (mine still looks like a potholder.)IMG_2560

I think the balls could be decoration enough in a bowl or basket, don’t you?

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And here’s the thing…this might look like no big deal, right? Sheesh, basket making… but you’d be wrong. It is a very big deal and I’ll tell you why. It’s not just the object itself—the colors, the form, the utility of the thing–it’s the act of creating, slowing down, focusing on something that requires more hands and more heart.

A Swedish friend told me yesterday about a new study recommending people engage in some type of hands-on project daily. According to the study, the human brain is getting too much use, overloaded with technology and information. Too much thinking!!! Here I thought some people weren’t using their brains enough, but apparently, that’s a different problem.

So, tell me…when is the last time you made something? I mean built something, carved something, whittled, sewed, took apart a lawn mower and rebuilt it again. If your answer is Jr. High Home Econ., then you probably lived in the 80’s. And thank goodness you did, because back then handicrafts were “handy” and tax funds were actually allocated for me to destroy a lawn mower in “Shop Class.” Those were the days…woodshop, sewing, cooking, metal shop! Your mom probably still has your potholder.

It’s time to pull out those skills and make something. Because…two reasons.

1. Your brain needs a rest

2. The world is freaking crazy!!!

That’s why. Like what is going on? Wars and people jihading and killing Christians and Ferguson and scandals and Ebola and earthquakes and immigrants sending their kids on boats to America and good people, funny people, nice people committing suicide?

If you can sit down, take your mind off your problems for thirty minutes, who am I kidding, thirty seconds, then do it! String together a couple of torn up pieces of fabric that were headed to the trash bin anyway and make something, a potholder! Call it a good day because you’re alive, because you’re still breathing and you’ve got one more day to tell the people in your life you love them, one more day to witness miracles. Because even though we live in a crazy mixed up world—there are still miracles.

Babies are born, people get married, maybe not the people you want to get married, but fine, can we at least be happy there ARE people willing to say “till death do us part” and stick it out through “sickness and health.” There are lesser miracles too—strawberries, for instance, violins—the sound of horsehairs (of all things) on strings, the fact that you can pull a Kleenex out of a box and another one appears—how great is that? And gravity. Let’s not forget gravity.

Using our brains too much, focusing entirely on the problems of the world, or your own problems, will drive you insane.

You can go insane or rip fabric. Those are your choices.

That’s all I’m saying. Yes, be an advocate, get involved, serve your country, but do some handicrafts too. Carve walking sticks. I’m convinced that is why my father-in-law is so calm and healthy. When you carve you create something that lasts. Give it as a gift and you also create a smile.

Here in Sweden, carving is a tradition. The Dala Horse, famous as the national symbol of Sweden, came about as a result of soldiers keeping their hands busy during wintertime, sitting by the fire, carving horses for children. To this day you can visit the town of Dalarna and buy these hand-carved horses.DSC_0791DSC_0804

Another hugely popular craft in Sweden is “pixel art” with Perler beads. Design anything you can imagine. They sell kits at IKEA.IMG_2011

Knit, water color, tool leather. If at the end of a bad day you can put your hands to a task and your mind to rest, slow your heart rate, give your brain a rest (science says you need to), then by all means do it. Everyone needs a potholder.

 

A Sunday Night in Stockholm

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Last Sunday evening, Cooper and I decided to go for a walk in Stockholm. One of those last minute things…

You want to go? Yeah, sure. OK. Let’s go.

On a Sunday, the city is only a 10-minute drive from home. No traffic. We put on our Nike’s and we’re literally there, minutes later, looking at I’m not even sure what…amazing buildings. That’s what they are, amazing, overlooking the waterways that take you directly to the Baltic Sea.DSC_0003

The weather is perfect. People are gathering at outdoor restaurants, sitting in parks, eating ice cream. I look at Cooper and say, “We live in Stockholm.” I forget sometimes, when I’m busy being a mom, that I actually have access to all of THIS, all of this culture and beauty.DSC_0009

I’m glad I brought my camera. I’m glad I decided to venture out. I’m glad I’m with Cooper and that we have four kids and that we move every couple of years. Suddenly, I’m glad about everything, including this modern structure. I have no idea what it is, but I like it, the vertical steel folding out and in on itself like a roll of wrapping paper come undone.DSC_0021

Stockholm is mix of modern and old, eclectic and dynamic, one moment steel and glass, the next, a turn back in history to Romanticism and Baroque. It’s like one huge museum.

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We walk along the bridge to Gamla Stan “the town between bridges,” and take in the views of the Royal Palace. This is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the 13th century. History abounds. From here we can see the harbors of Skeppsbron and Sodermalm. DSC_0031

I love all the bridges. They’re romantic…something about hovering above the water, the endless deep, catching shadows of your reflection. It’s dreamy. It’s become the trend for couples to celebrate their love by putting padlocks on bridges. And this bridge has its share, locks in various sizes and shapes, some with lovers initials, some with the traditional plus sign, “Axel + Anna,” the equivalent of carving names into a tree surrounded by a big heart. Love in the 21st century.DSC_0065

We move on, walking under the freeway, the E18. I’m not sure why this fascinates me so much. I pause, staring at the concrete pylons, the light reflected off the water, the magic that’s holding up the bridge. How is this holding up the bridge? I think this “underground” has a cool vibe, like it should be in a music video, and the name of a band should be, Under the Bridge. Urban grunge. But then I smell urine (another scent of the city), so we don’t linger for long. DSC_0020

On the other side we emerge and behold…ta, da, da…a massive turreted building, Stockholm City Hall, also known as Nobel Hall, (this is where the Nobel Prize banquet happens). DSC_0033

Built between 1911-1923, it took twelve years and nearly eight million red bricks to put this thing together. I’m in awe. I can’t stop looking up at the golden starlet at the top. I almost trip over myself. I look down to see where I’m stepping and notice the surrounding gardens are magnificent too, a maze of hedges. People are sitting, relaxing, enjoying the views. There’s a man taking pictures of his girlfriend, couples with strollers and kids darting about. It’s a big hit with the tourists, I think, smiling, feeling local (wink).

The sun is going down. I want to get back across the bridge, take a few more pictures, before daylight is gone. We exit the courtyard and as we make our way back, we hear music. Two American folk singers. Their harmony is pitch perfect. Cooper and I hold hands, listen for a while. I feel like I’m back in college. But then the song ends, I remember I have kids and think, they’re probably hungry, they’re probably fixing PB&J’s by now, someone has probably found the ice cream sandwiches I’ve hidden in the freezer, and I don’t even care. I’m having way too much fun to worry about nutrition.DSC_0066

We cross another bridge and it’s dusk. We pass a coral red church. The sky is luminescent. The flowers are in late summer’s full bloom, a pulsing scent of sweet musky fragrance is carried on a light breeze. I breathe deeply.DSC_0071

We’re getting closer to where we parked, but before we do, I spot TGI Fridays. I see the blazing “American” sign and feel proud. Because there are Swedes in there eating plates of American ribs and molten lava chocolate cakes, washing it down with Coke-a-Cola and getting a little taste of home, my home. DSC_0081

We find our car, with our California plates, and I suddenly think…it’s our last year in Sweden. I have to make the most of it, take nothing for granted. I hope that’s possible. This isn’t a typical Sunday. I usually don’t bask in all Stockholm has to offer. I forget. But this is a start, right? A pretty good start.DSC_0085

IMG_1662I’m back in Sweden, making the most of the remaining weeks of summer, trying not to complain about the sweltering 85-degree temperatures when we have no air conditioning. In America I’d be wearing sweaters this time of year, pulling on a cardigan before entering the arctic blasts of restaurants or the grocery section of Super Target. Gosh I need a Slurpee.

I’m down to my thinnest cotton t-shirt and capris. If I take any more clothes off people will think I’m German. My makeup is melting off my face in this heat. I’m getting perilously close to getting a tattoo. On my eyes, that is. Not some big heart on my arm with Cooper’s name on it, thanks but no, (poor Melanie Griffith). I’m talkin’ “permanent eyeliner,” it stays on all day (and night), so I won’t have to look like Russell Brand.

Sitting here with the fan blowing hot air on my back, I’m really thinking I shoulda bought that cooling fan squirt bottle at the dollar store and the hat with drinking straws. God bless America. I’m positively languid, trying to look productive on the outside, while the inner me wants to lounge. To do anything that requires sitting–preferably on the beach. Reading, yes. Closing my eyes, yes please. Sipping something cool, that would be heaven.

School starts in three weeks. I’m not sure I’ll be up to making breakfast for anyone. These summer nights—up till 1 am, sleeping in till 9—are pretty much my new thing. I like stumbling out of the bedroom to find that everyone’s eaten already. Hot pockets, leftover chicken, a chunk of baguette with Nutella. Everything passes inspection in August.

The kids still have to make their beds, mind you. And do chores. I like to keep things somewhat scheduled (for them that is). One day vacuuming out the car, the next refolding everything in their drawers–the right way…NO stuffing, nothing inside out. This is all part of my “Success to Launch Plan.” Chores lead to independence. No one wants to listen to their mom rant forever, right? They will move out, right? Promise me they will. And when they do I will visit them at their house, all the time, in fact, and leave soda cans on their coffee table and my wet towel on their bathroom floor. I’m going to visit them A LOT.

Being that this is our last year in Sweden, I have a list of things I still have to do. I’ll be happy if I do most of them. My kids will be happy if they don’t include them. But again, the before mentioned “Success to Launch Plan” includes museums visits, otherwise known as “culturizing.” If I plan it right, they will grow up, leave home, have children of their own and want to do the same thing to their kids. ABBA museum, yes you will go. And I will make you put your heads through the cut out cardboard faces of the ABBA band members and pose for a picture. I can hear it now. “Do NOT put this on Facebook mom!”

Forced fun. That’s what I’m all about. Three weeks. It’s going to be great. It’s going to be a lot of fun before school starts. Now if someone could just please bring me a Slurpee, I might go tell the kids to clean something.

No Man Is An Island

“No Man Is An Island” is the title of John Donne’s famous poem and inspiration for the exhibition at one of Stockholm’s premiere museums, Artipelag.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

IMG_1032Artipelag opened two years ago, designed by Johan Nyren, and is fast becoming a “must see” attraction. It’s aim: a vision of art, music, furniture and sculpture inspired by the archipelago. The creators behind it…Bjorn and Lilemor Jakobson, the couple famous for creating the company BabyBjorn–(baby carriers and other innovative baby gear…are we surprised?)

Remarkably, they took on this project while in their seventies! Their mission: to bring the extraordinary beauty of Sweden’s countryside to the public’s attention. Its location is in Halludden, just 20 minutes outside of Stockholm, and I can tell you, (because I went there this week), it’s a little piece of wilderness heaven. I still can’t decide what the coolest thing about it is, the architectural structure itself or the gigantic open windows giving you a view to nature outside (with the artwork), or the combination of acoustical inspired jazz and artwork…or maybe the lunch buffet (seriously), everything is prepared from scratch (oven baked turbot with prawns and butter fired sourdough bread!?!?).

The buffet getting set up…

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This stone, worn smooth by inland ice, was preserved in the building–a special request from Bjorn.

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Nature and art together…IMG_1057

Here’s what Bjorn had to say about his vision: “I want people to come here and experience the nature. There are so many beautiful trees, ant-hills and moss-covered stones to look at–and rocks to sit on with views of Baggensfjarden bay. I think I could talk about this place until the cows come home.”

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A sculpture of swimmers jumping into the water

I agree. I don’t even know where to begin (or stop), the archipelago in Sweden consists of 30,000 large and small islands wrapping around the country, some rocky, some lush, some relatively abandoned, some teeming with tourists. Take your pick. Ferry there, fly, canoe, make a raft–like the youth group at my church did out of recycled bottles–and row from island to island, (I’ll pass, but okay, it’s possible).

Pictured below: the large artwork by Evert Lundquist and the smaller pieces by Ebba Reutercrona (husband and wife). Notice how much care goes into the hanging of each piece to create the right visual effect and feeling.IMG_1052

 

Here is a closer view…notice the movement in the brushstrokes…IMG_1037IMG_1039IMG_1038

Another artist included in the collection is Prince Eugen (1861-1947). Born to a Duke who later became King Oscar II, he was fourth in line to the throne, however, he was much more interested in landscape painting than reigning and devoted his life to art. IMG_1041

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These next two paintings are by Bruno Lilejefors (1860-1939), one of the most influential Swedish wildlife painters of the late 19th century.

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The sculpture below is outside, near the entry. Vegetal elements and bones in a kind of bronzed collage make up this unique piece. We viewed it while listening to the jazz improvisation of Madeline Jensen–a sometimes melodic, sometimes hiccupping scream of a caterwaul interpretation (to put it nicely). Her archipelago is obviously one of extremes.

IMG_1033 But that’s just it, that’s what Donne is trying to say, what this exhibit is trying to show…it’s everyone’s archipelago. Nature is a mirror in which to see ourselves, our connections, our relationships. While we may feel like an island, no person ever is, because no matter how small we feel, our life ripples outward, creating the currents that move all of us along. It’s kind of remarkable to think about. And why on the back steps of the museum, leading out to the promenade, the Milky Way is depicted on the steps–not only are we not an island, we’re not even a universe, we’re a multiverse, 1 of 10 to the 500th!! (That’s a 1 with 500 zeros). It’s hard to grasp. That’s why it’s a good idea, every now and then, to turn off the lights, drive out of the city and stare up at the heavens. It’s all there, we just sometimes forget we’re a part of it. But no man is an island.

Walking Tour Starts Here

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I realize it’s been a little quiet over here at Spare Change…not because I don’t have a lot to say, but because I’m just saying it in another place–working on a project (that with a little luck and a bit more work), will be finished by next year. The gist of it is “unpacking the expat life,” a bit of light-hearted practical advice for the global “hauler,” (it’s hauling, not traveling, when you’re bringing along everything plus your suitcase).

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy with the end of year school stuff, the usual suspects: dance recital, rugby and basketball tournaments, choir concerts, a 6th grade camp to Åland (an island off the Finnish coast)—okay, so not the usual 6th grade experience, but yes, Jonah is enjoying the perks of growing up where insurance companies don’t limit the fun you can have in school. I’ve yet to see a “waiver,” I mean for anything, not at my gym not at the doctor…I don’t think they have waivers in Sweden because everything is covered by state health care…you don’t need to be concerned about personal injury or whose going to pay. That’s pretty darn nice.

But I’m not going to debate the merits of healthcare, not yet anyway, because today is a holiday, Ascension Day. Swedes may not be all that religious, but they do observe religious holidays that give time off work. And today I’m going on my (almost) daily walk with Cooper and Maggie and bringing you along for the show–Sweden puts on a spectacular performance each spring, nature strutting all her best stuff. Grab a jacket, it’s still a bit windy…let’s go.

It begins here, by the water just down from our house. Sometimes I forget how marvelous it really is, but not today, today I feel it…it’s glorious.

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A little further down you’ll see this sign pointing the way to a bridge to Bockholmen island…it’s a small mound, really, without roads, just a trail that wraps around to wonderful Swedish restaurant. It’s a nice little stop off if you want to linger by the water.

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This road leads you through a neighborhood and as you can see, the bushes are heavy with lilacs all along the way…the scent is euphoric.

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Here’s one of my favorite traditional Swedish homes. Whoever lives there keeps a lovely garden. What you don’t see from this angle, are the potted plants in front.

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Once you enter the forest, there’s any number of trails you can take. I’m always mesmerized by the shapes of shadows cast by the leaves.

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Once through the forest, you emerge by the university housing for students. For some reason these buildings are quite famous. There’s a lot of these tenement “blocks.”

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Around the bend you’ll discover this little village of summer cottages in quintessential Swedish red.

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Through a tunnel and here’s where you come out–right by the lake.

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I never get tired of walking by this incredible view.

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Maggie stops to admire the wild flowers and make mischief (of one kind or another).

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It’s sunny and we’ve walked for about an hour, so we deserve to stop at our favorite Kafe Sjostugan for a slice of rhubarb pie–it’s open everyday now until fall. Don’t you love how they decorate? Hang a stick and some paper cut-outs and voila!, you’ve got style…there’s always something creative draped from the ceiling.

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We sit outside. Because we can.

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Maggie said it was her lucky day when this little feller landed on her jacket. We now have a caterpillar in residence.

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This orchard used to be filled with sheep. Come late summer the apples are going to be amazing.

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The Swedes have a great tradition, dating back to WWII, (when people moved out of the city to grow their own vegetables because produce was scarce), of living in these summer cottages. I keep thinking I’m going to spot the Seven dwarfs.

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And now we’re home…let’s do it again tomorrow!IMG_0937

 

The poppy is a symbol forever bound to WWI because of a poem, In Flanders Fields, written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae—a Canadian medic and soldier. McCrae witnessed the horrors of the front line while battling in Flanders, Belgium—seventeen days and seventeen nights his battalion held their position against the German attack.

Later, when burying a friend, he noticed how the poppies flourish on barren fields around the soldier’s graves, the seeds having been disturbed in the soil and watered by the blood of those laid to rest. He penned the poem the very next day while riding in the back of an ambulance. Unsatisfied with the words, he’s said to have discarded the poem. However, thanks to fellow soldiers, the poem was retrieved and eventually published in a London-based magazine

Today the British International School in Sweden, along with the British Embassy and schools throughout the UK, and around the world, commemorated the 100 Year Anniversary of the First World War. In honor of the soldiers who gave their lives, the children planted poppy seeds–hoping that come August 4th, the day in 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany, the flowers will bloom.

The children also wrote poems for the occasion and my 11-year old son Jonah was selected to read his poem entitled, Fallen Soldiers, during the ceremony. It expresses more feeling and understanding of the events of that day than a book report could have captured (that’s why I love poetry for children) and is a stirring account of how a young man in battle might have felt that fateful day. (You could say I’m pretty darn proud of him.)

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Fallen Hero by Jonah Wimmer

I shivered as the wind whipped my face,

I wrinkled my nose at the smell,

I wished I could pluck out mine eyes.

I saw thousands of young men sprinkled across the battlefield.

 

There was no time for mourning

Our enemies didn’t wait,

The bombardments kept us sharp as knives.

I was weary and scared–my heart pumping out of my chest,

I was dreading the moment I would be sent over the top.

 

I was proud of the soldiers, who bravely conquered their fear,

But I was no soldier.

How could I perform such a heroic deed?

I couldn’t take it anymore; the pressure was just too much.

 

But I thought of my fallen brothers, the tunnelers who suffocated,

The men who had been so brutally murdered,

Then I thought to myself,

I’d rather die fighting than betraying my country and living.

 

I sat up and got ready,

I cried as I prayed for my family’s safety.

I walked over to the captain who was a gatekeeper to hell,

I stood at the gate waiting for him to say one dreadful word…

Go!

 

I sprinted into no man’s land

Embracing my inevitable death.

 

I was a bird with no wings lying on the forest floor.

There was no cover, no crack nor crevice to hide in,

I watched the men fall one by one.

 

The blue sky came out and the wind died down.

The stench didn’t bother me.

As I lay on the mutilated field, I saw my friends and family carved into the mountainous clouds,

The dead soldiers who died fighting this war would be remembered as heroes…

And so will I.

Time must not diminish our history, our mistakes, our sacrifices, nor our humanity. Remembering is a conscious act to hold in the present the events and people who have shaped our past. Our world wouldn’t be the same without them. We can each choose how we want to remember…a moment of silence, reading a poem or watching a documentary or some other meaningful ritual to honor those who make freedom ring. This Memorial day, as you make it a point to do something to remember, you’ll feel just how much we have to be grateful for today.

 

 

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THE GREAT thing about a road trip is you can travel almost anywhere, five hours (or less), and find yourself in a completely different landscape, different country, different world. Denmark is considered part of Scandinavia, but when we drove there it felt less like Sweden and more like Nebraska in the middle of The Netherlands. Flat as a postage stamp, Denmark’s countryside is quilted with swaths of phosphorescent green fields, dotted here and there with quaint thatched homes reminiscent of Frodo and the Shire.

IMG_0316Farms cover 63% of Denmark’s peninsula—the kind of dry arable land made for agriculture. No surprise their soils have been cultivated since 3,900 B.C.!! (Denmark has been inhabited since 12,500 B.C., somewhere around the end of the Paleolithic Period but who’s counting right?).

Denmark stays ‘green’ another way, giant wind turbines, on land and sea. They make the most of their natural resource—wind. Twenty-eight percent of electricity runs on the stuff of kite’s dreams—clean and efficient and free. Denmark has installed more than 90% of the world’s offshore wind turbines. (In case it ever comes up in Quiz Cross.)IMG_0313

Denmark is also home to Lego. The word comes from leg godt, meaning ‘play well.’ The toys are innovative, efficient, cubic and well…a lot like Denmark. Lego is still a privately held company and has been since 1949. Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter and the inventor of Lego, made his motto, det bedste er ikke for godt, meaning, “The best is never too good.” (And anyone who has bought Mega Bloks knows he’s right!!)

We spent a day at Legoland in Billund, the original theme park for Lego. “Everything is awesome” there, (but not quite as awesome as the San Diego Legoland.)

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First try and Jonah won this thing…we drove it all the way back to Sweden too!IMG_0634

We also spent a day at nearby Lalandia, Northern Europe’s largest indoor water park. I thought I was used to the Euro way of doing things, but the locker rooms were a shocker. The lockers were stacked three narrow rectangles high, hundreds of them. At six o’clock when everyone with a tattoo and bikini was told to exit the pool (that was everyone), we were stuffed like cannoli into the space of single floor tile to dry and dress. I was trying to pull on underwear and jeans over my still damp skin, sweating from the heat, while one woman’s hair kept dripping down my back. Ewww! (The way Jimmy Fallon says it.)

Lalandia thankfully had other family friendly attractions. Maggie loved the cable trampoline jump. And ice-skating was nice, until we froze like popsicles in the minus 5 degree indoor rink–we had dressed for a water park, not the Arctic! After twenty minutes we exited and bought their overpriced hot chocolate. I think they were onto something.IMG_0436IMG_0453IMG_0333

The free indoor playroom was big fun–a jungle gym filled with balls and climbing equipment. We let Maggie play until we were sure she was ready to conk out for the night then drove home to our rented cabin close to the parks.

Seeing as the hotel options were limited in Billund (pop. 6,000), I felt the much-advertised cabins were the way to go. They weren’t bad actually…three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, free internet. It just didn’t include towels or bedding or toilet paper. We rented linens and made our own beds (and bought toilet paper) and for three days took out the trash and recycling. Somewhere written in the small print (in Danish) must have been the extra charge for heat, water and electricity. The charge was shown courtesy of our TV screen the day of departure, in English. If we ‘disagreed’ with the charges all we had to do was track down whomever at somewhere and make a big point of nothing. We paid the charge.

Our high-roller weekend (with more skin than a show in Vegas), ended in the capital city of Copenhagen at the Marriott. Ahhh…I love you Marriott!! We used our points for a free night and slept on fluffy pillows, bathed with full-sized towels, ate a delicious breakfast and had toilet paper—it’s the little things.IMG_0615

Located in the heart of down town Copenhagen, right on the water, we felt somewhere between a dream and a Hans Christian Anderson tale—Denmark’s most celebrated author. Copenhagen’s stunning cityscape is reflected on the water—neoclassical architecture mixing with modern high-rises, surrounded by promenades. We strolled past Tivoli Gardens down to the famous Little Mermaid Statue, enjoying every second of every sight along the three-mile stretch. I fell in love with the colorful homes built along waterways with brick sidewalks and bridges stretching past regal houseboats.IMG_0638 IMG_0640 IMG_0641

We also made it a point to visit the Christus statue in the Church of Our Lady, located in a not so nice area of downtown. The statue by Bertel Thorvaldsen is something of a shrine to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since it’s replica (made in 1838), stands prominently overlooking the grounds of Temple Square in Salt Lake City Utah. Seeing the original up close was a treasured moment for us and for our dear friends The Strauss family, who joined us during our Spring Break excursion.IMG_0568IMG_0567IMG_0587

About an hour outside Copenhagen is this 14th century castle gem…Egeskov Slot. Moat and all, it’s said to be Europe’s best preserved Renaissance water castle.IMG_0504IMG_0495Denmark is an incredible country filled with much more to do than time to experience. I’m glad we drove, not because we ate at McDonalds three times, but because we got to see more than flying would have afforded and we got to experience the Øresund bridge—a 5-mile expanse of steel and miracle engineering. The bridge is the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe!IMG_0305IMG_0306

Our time here in Sweden is growing short, but if I can fit in a trip back to Denmark I most certainly will. Farvel fair city.IMG_0422

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“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”  ~Epicurus

I get overly ambitious and buy too many vegetables, thinking ‘I’m going to juice something,’ and then I remember…I’ll have to clean the juicer. (What…and give myself extra chores?) Or I’ll buy a cart full of zucchini and think ‘I’ll make puree to add to the kids mac and cheese,’ (you know Sneaky Chef stuff). But let’s be honest, 30 minutes to cook dinner does not include time for stealth nutrition.

I have good intentions. I serve my kids cut raw veggies. Sometimes I even make faces out of the peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes and when I do, Maggie eats a whole plateful, (so long as there’s Ranch dressing).

But making stock is ingenious, it’s the best way to add nutrition and use up all those extra vegetables…the ones you thought you were going to cook. Stock is a flavor base concocted from almost anything you have in the veggie bin: pristine organic carrots, a turnip past it’s prime, a couple of white onions (doesn’t matter if they’re sprouted), celery (just fine if it’s as flexible as a bendy straw). Stock is about taking what’s salvageable and putting it to good use.

All you need is a pot of water, some less than perfect veggies, a couple of bay leaves, a tablespoon of whole peppercorns, maybe some chicken or beef, and fresh thyme, if you’ve got it, and dried thyme if you don’t, (I improvised with fresh chives in the above photo). Here’s a recipe from Allrecipes to get you started.

Okay, get it together and let the whole thing simmer for a couple of hours while you go organize the garage, sew buttons on dress shirts or clean your kid’s bedroom. You know I’m kidding right? This is cooking time. Tell everyone you were busy ALL DAY MAKING STOCK. They won’t know you were reading a book. Any shirts with missing buttons, donate. I’m all about doing good deeds like that.

Shhh…let the stock do the work for you. No need to stir, hover or stress. How many meals can you say that about? Let the magic happen then after a couple of hours, strain out the chunks and behold, a liquid gold that has the power to conjure almost anything. Add shredded chicken and ramen, infuse with a stalk of lemongrass, lime juice and coconut milk, plus a few extras, and you’ve got Thai coconut chicken soup. (Here’s a recipe from Tyler Florence that is entertaining worthy.)

Not feeling that energetic? I get it. Go heavy with the salt and pepper and you’ve got a tasty broth to eat with a crusty loaf of bread and Gouda cheese. Add some fruit on the side and you’re Super-mom.

Making stock is an apt metaphor for making stock of another kind…life. Because life can be made out of anything too, happiness can come from the magnificent and the mundane. We just have to take stock of what we have to appreciate it.

This week I made stock of another kind, searching for reasons to be grateful, reasons I already had on hand, I just had to put them to use. Here’s a short list…

~ Maggie was heartbroken. She’d been up all night coughing and was about to miss her class Easter Party in lieu of a doctor’s visit. It was my task to convince her that we were going to have more fun than her classmates at the “bunny hop” on the egg hunt. Really? As we waited for our appointment, Maggie found her shoes made a lovely tapping sound on the office tile. Soon she was tap-dancing her way around sick patients, delivering a performance and getting smiles in return. I’m grateful for her spunk and spirit.

~ As the room “mum” at The British School for Jonah’s 6th grade class, I received a text three hours before the class Easter party: “Did you know the party is at 1:30?” Now normally, Jonah’s teacher is very on top of things, but this had slipped his mind and now it was ‘go time’. It just so happened, I’d opened a box from my parents that morning. It looked as though they’d robbed Wal-Mart and sent me the loot. I had Peeps, Jelly Belly’s, Cadbury Eggs, gigantic York Peppermint Patty bunnies, (I never told the kids about those). I’m grateful for moms and dads who come to the rescue.

Loot in an undisclosed location.

Loot in an undisclosed location.

Three hours to pull of an Easter Party...all worth it for that smile.

Three hours to pull of an Easter Party…all worth it for that smile.

~ After returning from yoga one morning I found my normally studious 15-year-old skipping school. In all fairness, he wasn’t as much skipping, as sleeping. Too many late nights doing homework and a killer basketball tourney had left him exhausted. I gave him a “pass,” and he volunteered to help me vacuum and clean out the car. (I think he would have rather gone to class.) I’m grateful for his sense of duty.

~ During circle time at Maggie’s pre-school, four-year-old Wilhelmina volunteered my name as someone deserving of recognition for The Good Friendship Award. I’d helped her put on her winter mittens. Talk about being grateful for the little things. I’m grateful to Wilhelmina for giving me an award I’ll never forget.IMG_0284

~ I drive the same stretch of road so often–to school, to piano lessons, to the store–I don’t even notice it anymore. That was until an amazing sight captured my attention, a tree decorated like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Suddenly everything felt new again. Curiosity sparked in my heart as I imagine a Stockholmer, tired of winter, creating this “spring gift.” I’m grateful for the seasonal boost.IMG_0263

Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “It is easy to be grateful for things when life seems to be going well. Could I suggest that we see gratitude as a disposition, a way of life that stands independent of our current situation? In other words, I’m suggesting that instead of being ‘thankful for things’ we focus on being ‘thankful in our circumstances’—whatever they may be.”

I’m not always grateful. I complain when the heater breaks (happened six times this winter), and when there’s a mouse subletting the storage room in our basement (five traps to catch the bugger), or when there’s too much cold or too much heat, or the Subway Sandwiches they sell in Sweden don’t taste as good as they do in America. But I try to remember to take stock of the little things in life.

John F. Kennedy said we should all “stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” There’s so much to be grateful for. It’s amazing how much good we see, how much good there is, right in front of us, how much we already have to make our stock.

 

 

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 “Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen all at once.” – Paulo Coelho

Balance in life is what I strive for, but struggle to attain. Sometimes I get close to just the right mix of work and play (those days feel great), but they’re rare. Most of the time I feel like my To-Do list is a deluge of things I’ve committed to, stuff I’ve promised someone, and laundry.

When I first arrived in Sweden, I knew no one, I had no phone, no one to call, no car, nowhere to go. It was a strange kind of silence, an isolation both freeing and frightening at the same time. Without commitments I designed my day from scratch. My mantra:

Wake up and eat something.

A few days of that and I promise, the excitement wears off. Not to worry, the unfettered life is not that of a mother’s. Little by little my life got busy again, not just busy but hectic. Between volunteering at school and church, working on writing projects, entertaining guests, scheduling lunches with girlfriends (because that’s what I do to stay sane), and all the stuff in between with kids, housework and activities, my days are now chock full to the brim.

Some people cope by under committing, I cope by saying “yes” to everything and complaining about it later. I like to think I can do it all, but the truth is I can’t and if I try, no one has clean underwear. The laundry needs me.

I’m lucky because I get to be home. But sometimes I’ll admit, that feels hard too, not Gwyneth Paltrow hard, mind you, but hard. Like I wonder if my brain cells aren’t suffering just a tad in the absence of a career challenging workplace? Yesterday my 11-year old son asked for my help with a word problem on the “co-efficient of friction” and tyre tread (spelled the British way) in Formula One race cars. When I googled the question he asked: “Don’t you know this stuff? Why do you have to Google EVERYTHING?” Yes, I still feed him dinner, but seriously???

I’m not in the baby stage anymore. Many women my age are looking to get back into a career or start a new one (and when I have to help my son with homework I start thinking about those options), but even though my youngest is five and can work the DVD player (her brother taught her), I still feel like there’s a lot for me to do at home.

Motherhood has become my career. It wasn’t what I planned, entirely; I intended to have a career and motherhood, the two things fitting together. The details were always fuzzy, but it went something like this…me in a corner office, wearing nice power suits, carrying a designer bag, a chef cooking all organic meals at home, my personal trainer coaching me through Pilates, while in between it all I could hug and kiss my angel children.

In reality, that’s not how it all went down. I’ve got four kids and a resume that might get me a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart, (I’m friendly). As it turned out though, what I’ve got is even better, not in a I-have-a-great-wardrobe-sort-of-better, but a I-have-something-that-will-last-from-now-and-through-eternity-an-awesome family better.

Motherhood pays dividends. I didn’t know this when I first invested, back when I couldn’t get a decent night sleep and by body felt overtaken by aliens. But later, years later, I’ve come to appreciate this vital truth: you can’t outsource motherhood. Maybe if I had, you could argue the kids would have had better nutrition (I’ve been known to serve cereal for dinner), or had their needs met in a more capable way (had there been several paid individuals on the job), but I would have missed out. Yes me. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be in the thick of it all, the day in and day out, learning, growing, reaching my fullest potential as a human being raising another human being. There’s nothing quite like it.

This past week my son came home from boarding school with an injured knee. His winning try on the rugby field, while being tackled from behind, left him with the glory and damaged cartilage. I was there to take him to the doctor and out to lunch. The next day, as he recovered on the couch watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I made his favorite lumberjack breakfast and baked snicker doodle cookies. He’s back at school now and his bed is made and his room is clean (it’s the only time it ever is), and I miss him. I was happy for the time we had together because I realize, as he’s about to leave home, it doesn’t last.

Home is a launch pad, not a landing dock. These years that feel like they’ll never end, eventually do.

This fall he’ll be submitting his paperwork to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Before long he’ll be in another part of the world, handing out Books of Mormon, wearing a name tag and riding a bicycle, experiencing rejection as he tries to tell people God loves them. It’s not a small thing. Thinking about it makes me consider long and hard the years that have gone by and how I’ve prepared him. Did I do enough? I don’t know, but I’m glad I was there.

I admit there are occasions when I wish I had a career. It would make conversations smoother, being able to pull out my list of accomplishments without relying on the fact that I make really good homemade tortillas. But if I’m honest with people, the best parts of me are because of my children and the years I’ve spent supporting my husband to fulfill his dreams. It’s not politically correct, but in my case, it’s the truth.

Life isn’t over yet. Yes, there’s still time for my career and Ph.D. and that book deal, but I no longer need it to feel okay. I’m enough as I am, even it if doesn’t say so on paper. My life isn’t what I dreamed it would be, but I’m confident now it’s turning out even better.

 

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“I forgot to get the pictures I painted,” says my 5-year old Maggie, leaving me to wait at the preschool pick-up as she races back inside the building. My eyes scan the parking lot now filling up with cars. I glance at my watch. Another few minutes and it will be packed with moms and dads. When Maggie returns she’s carrying a stack of papers.

“What’s this?” The top sheet is still damp. A white paper coated with blue and green wavy streaks.

“I painted a lake.”

“I can see that.” My patronizing tone does little to disguise my real concern–the cars pulling in behind me, filling up the lot—we need to go before we get parked in. “Come on, let’s hurry,” I say taking the pile of papers.

She inhales sharply. “No. I forgot one. I’ve got to go back inside.” Her voice is as stoic as a soldier’s. Unwilling to leave one of her own behind, she takes off running.

“Hurry back,” I call after her.

I wait, gazing at her drying lake, the paint still glossy in patches. The shades blend together in dark marine hues, the colors the middle-deep of the ocean. For a moment I forget the cars, the traffic, the whatever-I’m-doing-after-school and look at her artwork. Really look. I’m astounded.

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Each drawing, collage and picture means something. They’re expressions of her growing personality, her style—whimsical and thought provoking, her views of the world.

Days before I’d read a sign on the wall of the coatroom. This is what it said about children’s art…

“Through making, looking at, and talking about their own artwork and the art of others, three-, four-, and five-year-old children are doing the following…”

Expressing their feelings and emotions in a safe way.

Practicing and gaining fine muscle control and strengthening eye-hand motor coordination.

Developing perceptual abilities.

Being given the opportunity to make choices and solve problems.

Seeing that others have differing points of view and ways of expressing these than they do.

Becoming aware of the idea that, through art, culture is transmitted.

Experiencing success.

Making connections between the visual arts and other disciplines.

As a child, I was lucky to be the subject of a study by two well-known Penn State art professors, Brent and Marjorie Wilson, co-authors of the book Teaching Children How to Draw. (Now in its second edition, the book is the definitive work on the subject.)

I spent several weekends and evenings in their Soho-esque home art studio, engaged in conversations as I drew. Sometimes they’d want me to draw an object. Other times we’d play creative art games starting with something like…me drawing a fish, Brent adding to it, then me drawing, then him, back and forth, telling a story with our pictures until the page was filled with wild details. The portraits I drew of him, five different expressions, is included in the book. It never occurred to me I was learning about emotions or what it meant to be fearful, silly, angry, sad or surprised, it was just plain fun.

I also gained self-confidence; adults were listening to me, even encouraging my thoughts! Brent and Marjorie were vocal proponents of the children’s art movement–nothing radical for their times…these were the 70’s. Nobody was none too worried about art education back then. Every school had an art teacher, every classroom a stash of Elmer’s glue, markers, crayons, and scissors. We even got a free pad of paper and a pencil on the first day of class. Who could have imagined a future without art?

Fast forward to post 2000…

Our family moved to California just as the housing meltdown was turning volcanic. Schwarzenegger was governor (still married to Maria) and educational budgets for public schools had tanked. There was zero to zippo money for art. (And these were the good schools.) Worried my kids were missing out, I volunteered as an “art helper” in my eight-year old’s classroom. What I discovered both amazed and disturbed me.

These young elementary kids were hungry for art yet, without much previous experience, many felt uncomfortable drawing or creating something of their own. I’ll never forget one little boy who cried tears of frustration because I asked him to draw a simple picture of his choice on a blank sheet of paper. That white sheet might have been the most frightening experience of his young academic career. The children lacked confidence. They’d sit patiently, waiting for me to come around to help them. In some instances, I had to put my hand over theirs and guide them to begin.

During the course of that year we painted like Michelangelo, lying on our backs, coloring papers we taped to the bottom of their desks. We cut paper like Matisse. We made paintings consisting of only dots like Seurat. While they came to enjoy the lessons, I never felt it was enough to make a real impact. There were always the few who agonized over the creation process, upset if their project didn’t turn out as planned. I tried to make this part of the lesson too. We all fail sometimes, but we learn in the process. This was perhaps the toughest art lesson of all.

To create is to risk. Art is the best medium for children to test the outer most boundaries of their limits. To fail is to learn how to succeed the next time.

As human beings we must create or lose the part of ourselves that feels and interacts with the world at large. Art is universal and ageless. Art requires nothing but imagination.

Bob Bryant has written, “Today’s students are inundated with data but are starving for meaningful learning…. an effective education in the fine arts helps students to see what they look at, hear what they listen to, and feel what they touch.” Kids need art, as much as they need math, science and reading. Brent and Marjorie Wilson had no idea how radical they really were.

I’ve got Maggie’s lake on display in the kitchen, along with her fairies, fish and other creations. Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” When I look at Maggie’s artwork I see her world, a child’s world, something better than my own. She reminds me of what is good and beautiful and possible. If nothing else we need children’s art to remind us how to dream.

 

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