Las Posadas, or Making Room

Inez just hanging out with a couple of her closest buds! #nativityscene

A photo posted by izzyortega (@izzyortega) on

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Above: Inez this year; Mary Tobin last year.

Every December our church celebrates Las Posadas, an Advent tradition that migrated from Spain to Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

The church we attend in Nashville, St. George’s, is approximately five thousand times whiter than our old one, Gracia y Paz. So I was not expecting to see a Las Posadas sign-up sheet last year. But since I recognized that Las Posadas was a Mexican thing, I felt like it was our duty, as the representative Mexican family in the parish, to volunteer for hosting Mary and Joseph for a night.

Afterward I panicked momentarily that I’d agreed to throw a huge party. In Mexico, Las Posadas begins nine days before Christmas, and there’s a party at a different house each night. In Tomie de Paola’s book set in Santa Fe, the event is a procession with singers, paper lanterns lining the square, and a procession led by Mary and Joseph (actually: María y José), knocking on doors, sometimes rejected, sometimes ignored, hindered by devils (Boo! Hiss! says the crowd). Another sweet book about this tradition is Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico. Whatever the specifics of a locality’s Las Posadas—posada means hotel or inn— it ends with Mary and Joseph finally finding a place at the stable in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I had not signed up to serve tequila and hot chocolate to the entire congregation. St. George’s Las Posadas is more “flat stanley” than fiesta. It’s a tradition where a family hosts Mary and Joseph—essentially yard art statues—for a night, then passes them along on their journey to the next family, and then they’re ultimately delivered to the church to process down the aisle to the creche on Christmas Eve.

We had our turn hosting the Holy Family on an early December weekend. A couple friends came by the house and I had to explain right away why we had outrageously out-of-proportion nativity figures. We literally had to make room for a place for the Holy Family (JC still in Mary’s belly, I had to explain to Mary Tobin). This got me thinking about the idea of making room during Advent. Sister Angie, in De Paola’s The Night of Las Posadas, talks about “Making room in my heart so the Christ Child can be born.”

How did I make room in my life this December? Some ideas and attempts:

  • Make room in my house
  • Make room in my schedule and my plans. In a word: MARGIN.
  • Make room for . . .
    • people,
    • maybe last minute plans,
    • maybe a need to be filled.
    • Maybe silence that I need.
    • Maybe ABC Family’s new classic The 12 Dates of Christmas.
  • Make room for mystery.

I love that last one. Mystery. The incarnation is history’s greatest mystery, worth pondering every single year. In our Sunday school teacher training for the sweet little [wild] 3 to 6 year olds, we were encouraged to get Socratic on them (my words, and I might not grasp the proper usage). Rather than cleanly tying up a story by issuing the final, correct answers to all questions—as if we could!—instead, we wonder together. I wonder how the shepherds felt? I wonder why God chose Mary, chose Bethlehem? Why did he want to tell the shepherds about it? How did the wisemen know to follow the star? This must have been a very special baby.

I want to get comfortable with the discomfort, the mystery, the not knowing. I want to let go of control and loosen expectations. I want not to be embarrassed by the slightly tacky Marys and Josephs sitting in the living room. I want to clean out the mess and make room for something new to be revealed in the old stories.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Costume Contest


What to wear when you’re falling in love and need to prove it to the world.

Halloween is not my favorite holiday, but it’s still fun and festive, plus I LOVE costumes. Now I’m in a peculiar phase of life: I think we’re beyond clever adult party costumes (not to mention awful sexy costumes), but not yet where our kids have fully embraced dressing up. In college I loved seeing all the students at The University trying to one-up each other in cleverness. I can’t think of a great example, maybe someone being a double helix or something like that, or a lot of plays on words, like one year I was a devil in a blue dress: clever (embodying some song lyrics), while also devilishly attractive (but seeing a picture of it makes me shudder).

And then in the DC young professionals crowd, we had ample opportunity for nerdy, tasteless, topical costumes (politicians, slutty intern and congressman, Sarah Palin; all real examples, but not mine)—so sad I won’t be there to see all the ebola references this year.

This year, Inez will reprise MT’s flapper of 2012, with some updates. Again, we want to take advantage of this magical time in which she can’t express her preference for something annoying. (Part of my parenting philosophy, truly, reasons that in order for something to achieve a healthy sustainability, it needs to annoy me as little as possible. Apply this to: toys, music, TV shows and movies, eating habits. Maybe I’ll try to flesh that out a little more for you in a later post.)

Mary Tobin generally has great taste because I give her only great options (I’m sort of joking). Who knows how long I can make it last, but I like the idea of dressing as a beloved book character for Halloween, thereby reinforcing the glory of reading in a new way. Last year, she was the most precious thing I’ve ever seen:
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her favorite, Madeline.

Maybe two or three months out from Halloween, she was asking to read Madeline every day (I can recite it for you dramatically, just ask any time), so Mama Rote went to work on an utterly darling costume. As Halloween approached I realized I’d better maintain Madeline’s favored status so MT wouldn’t suddenly refuse to wear the costume as I’d heard stories about, with other less refined children. Even so, at around 4:30 on October 31, 2013, Mary Tobin lost it. It wasn’t because she’d moved on from Madeline, but just because. Why would you change clothes at 4:30 pm, anyway.

(Don’t worry: We persevered so that we her parents could enjoy lots of compliments on her costume. I was supposed to be Miss Clavel, and thus a pregnant nun, but I lost my headpiece immediately and avoided offending anyone.)

This year, she’ll be Angelina Ballerina, a bow-clad dancing mouse. Stay tuned to instagram. Easy breezy costume. I will be Mary Poppins. Our question mark is Papa/Israel. Mary Tobin’s vote is for Bert, to go along with Mama. Another idea was switching my costume as well for us to be Buttercup and Westley from The Princess Bride (since I just read this fun book!). Other options for Israel include a hippie, Wayne Newton, Marty McFly (the puffy vest is pretty much his daily uniform for fall), or any character who would wear a tux. If you feel strongly about one of these options, or have another idea, please comment below. We’ll head to the thrift stores tomorrow to figure something out.

What about you? Are you dressing up? Anything clever? Have you ever dressed like a book character?

Friday Dance, in the British fashion


One of my besties from college did (and to my knowledge still does) a celebratory jumping twisting dance each Friday, her ritual to kick off the weekend. In honor of Ansley, I’m shimmying my bloggy shoulders and hips to shake out some random thoughts and links I’ve been toying around with in my mind to share with you.

First, the big news. We are in Memphis, and—this is fantastic—so are Harry and William. They enjoyed barbeque at the Rendezvous last night, and tomorrow will be ushers at their friend’s wedding at the Hunt and Polo Club. (The former location was the site of our rehearsal dinner; the latter my bridesmaids’ luncheon! We are now connected in a mystical and very important way.)

Israel believes the monarchy needs to go, but I kind of love it. Here’s one take on why it’s fun to see pictures of the young royal family (keyword: family): Ashley McGuire’s “This Is Why We’re Obsessed with Will and Kate.” That, and Georgie’s clothes: The Royal Baby Proves All Southerners are Basically Royalty.

Unfortunately for us, though, Kate and George aren’t in Memphis. And in a prime example of southern hospitality, a local “gentlemen’s club” decided to leave William’s name off of their sign that reads “Welcome Prince Harry” because they “didn’t want to create any marital strife.” Pure class.

On the subject of baby clothes in the South, Mama Rote laughed at this post about various levels of smocked clothing at different churches“And here in the South, I would say that there are definite circles of high-smock expectations and low-smock expectations, generally based around the Church you go to. They may not be spoken guidelines, but as soon as you step foot onto the nursery hallway, you can almost smell it in the air – which smock denomination (smocknomination?) your church falls under.” (Ours is certainly “smock-optional.”)

On my bookshelf currently: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, then its sequels All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Things Wise and Wonderful.


On childhood road trips—in our killer conversion van!—I first listened to James Herriot’s dog and cat stories on cassette tape. Herriot was a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales in the English countryside beginning in the 1930s, and his stories are at times funny, heartwarming, and fascinating, and always good. You’ll love his narration and his contagious devotion to the country and its animals. As city-bred Herriot works doggedly to win over the stolid farmers, he’s got to take the triumphs together with the looking foolish—as when he’s called out to a calving in the middle of the night, and realizes as he soaps up his arms that the silent Dalesmen can smell the strong, fruity, feminine scent of the soap he’d only used in desperation, borrowed from his housekeeper. The farmers sniffed, but didn’t say a word.

With his hilarious voice and his images of lambs and calves and green, green grass, Herriot has been the perfect spring reading for me. I’ll be keeping these books around for reading aloud to the family in future years.

Sticking with the English theme, another college friend—not a royal, but a member of my personal aristocracy—will be married this weekend. We studied abroad in England together, and so: Mary Hamner, me best bird, I virtually toast you with a turbo shandy!

Leaving you with some spring-y images from our outdoor painting en plein air session yesterday. (Please infer: we are artsy, worldly, sophisticated . . . if only little Georgie were here for a play date!):

Final question: how can I make some cash off my daughter being a child model? Let me know your thoughts.

Midweek Motivation: Do something hard.

The Dirty Life Kristin Kimball

This summer I picked up The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball’s memoir of her first year running a farm with her idealist husband. She knew just enough to know that she wanted to throw her lot in with his, but not enough to know how crazy and near impossible their project was. She almost left him. She was worried about money, about failing, but that wasn’t even part of his thinking:

In his view, we were already a success, because we were doing something hard and it was something that mattered to us. You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure, he said. Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you were moving in a direction you thought was right.

Wow. Do I shrink from the difficult, or do I choose what’s hard but matters to me, whether or not it appears successful?

Whatever your crazy project is, whether tackling a marathon or persisting in kindness to an ornery coworker, take heart! You are already a success. Reminds me of Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own: “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

(If you were interested in Ben’s work at the farm, you’ll find The Dirty Life fascinating. Hard work, defined.)

Reading List: Operating Instructions

anne lamott operating instructions

He is so full of energy and muscle, teething, ranting, crazed, but he’s the best baby you could ever hope for. Still a baby, though, which is to say, still periodically a pain in the neck. Donna was saying the other day that she knows this two-year-old who’s really very together and wonderful a lot of the time, really the world’s best two-year-old, but then she added, “Of course, that’s like saying Albert Speer was the nicest Nazi. He was still a Nazi.”

A few bloggers I love have read and recommended Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. (Their reviews here: idaclare, tulips & flightsuits, A Cup of Jo.)

Ann Lamott’s characteristic irreverent reverence is so fun to read, and she captures the full spectrum of parenting. As a new mother, there are times when your heart swells with love; you scale heights you didn’t think possible. You are proud of each of your baby’s tiny developments: “He’s very brilliant, this much is clear.”

It’s also National Sam Lamott Neck Control Day. We’re talking major, hard-core neck control. I changed our answering machine to say, “We’re apparently out celebrating National Sam Lamott Improved Neck Control Week, but operators are standing by to take your call . . . ” People left the most supportive messages, as if Sam had triumphed over muscular dystrophy, like “All right, babe—go for it.” Larry’s message said, “Oh, it’s all too much for me. Please give the little savant a huge hug from all of us.”

But then again, sometimes you feel very matter of fact, and realize, impartially, that truly, the baby is just a bore and/or a pest, viciously cramping your style: “Yesterday Sam was horrible, whiny and wired and just in general the most worthless and irritating little person.”

Lamott records sweet daily observations about her son, and the joy and gratitude that explodes in her chest when she realizes how well her tribe is taking care of her. But then, there’s also the despair: she’s a single mom, people and things are missing. In so many ways, the world is awful, and now you have a baby, and all you want is for him to outlive you. I identify with her desperation. Many times, since Mary Tobin arrived, a fear invades my mind, or I hear someone else’s tragic news, or my lack of control confronts me dead on. I think: Dear God, have mercy on us.

Lamott raises questions about life that she can’t pretend to answer. I appreciate her honesty about the insanity of motherhood, her own limitations, her striving to treat herself with love and gentleness. After reading Operating Instructions, I simultaneously dread and yearn for the arrival of Bebe Dos.

But above all, I laughed. Here’s the first passage that made me laugh aloud, when baby Sam is two weeks old:

I’m crazy tired. I feel as stressed out by exhaustion as someone who spent time in Vietnam. Maybe mothers who have husbands or boyfriends do not get so savagely exhausted, but I doubt it. They probably end up with these eccentric babies plus Big Foot skulking around the house pissed off because the mom is too tired to balance his checkbook or give him a nice blow job.

Hey oh.

It’s beautiful that Lamott’s openness about her loneliness and screwed-up-ness can meet her readers in theirs, and in the process we all realize we’re not alone. (So, our challenge for today: open up!)

Though some of her thoughts are heavy, it’s a breezy read. And though Operating Instructions is a lot about motherhood, it’s also about friendship, family, recovery, faith and doubt. So I’d recommend to anyone. You’ll feel inspired to go take care of your people, whoever they are.

Civil War Reading: The Killer Angels

You may have heard that last week (July 1-3) marked the 150th (sesquicentennial!) anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. I don’t normally plan my reading this well, but earlier this summer I enjoyed Michael Shaara’s classic civil war novel The Killer Angels.

Full disclosure: I read it because it’s been sitting on our shelf since two Christmases ago when I bought it for my husband Israel, who hardly ever reads fiction, but loves Civil War history. I thought this could be the book that would entice him over to The Lightside. (More disclosure: I just googled “opposite of dark side” and found the answer.)

[There’s a lesson here. If I wasn’t last minute Christmas shopping and had thought for more than one minute, I would’ve realized this is the worst type of gift. Don’t buy someone a gift that you actually want, or use it as a chance to subtly suggest that the recipient do some self improvement. No exercise equipment, ok guys? The best gifts are something that the person wants but would never buy for him- or herself.]

So, I haven’t given up hope that Israel will love this book, but I went ahead and broke it in for him. Shaara follows the points of view of generals from the Union and Confederate armies in the days leading up to and through the battle of Gettysburg. The tone and style of the chapters vary depending on the general: some stream of consciousness, others much more disciplined and regimented in their self-talk. I was caught up in the characters, and to put it plainly, found the book very readable.

We get to know best General Longstreet, of the Confederacy, a military genius who can foresee the battle’s tragedy but whose loyalty trumps his pragmatism; and General Chamberlain from the Union Army, a mere college professor from Maine, whose unexpected bravery and leadership at Gettysburg earns him great renown. General Lee was portrayed as highly respected and deeply devout, but aging and tired. After seeing the battle from multiple points of view, the reader is left wondering whether the great losses at Gettysburg were inevitable.

I got the feeling that Shaara treated the Confederacy more sympathetically than the Union. That may have been a device for effective storytelling (mid-way through, I had to confirm with Israel: the South lost at Gettysburg, right?), or maybe I brought my own background to the interpretation. If you read it you’ll have to let me know what you think. But for both sides, the fictional format was effective for exploring the men’s motives and beliefs about the war.

I was struck by the strong emotions of classmates from West Point who never expected to face off opposite one another; soldiers sipping coffee in the early morning on the day of the fight, too charged up to sleep any more, like a modern day football rivalry; men drinking and singing around a campfire late into the night, not thinking too hard, because they know, if they survive, they’ll never find camaraderie like this once the war ends.

Not your basic chick lit summer read . . . I was never averse to war as the subject of a story, but still, I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did. If you’d like to feel smarter about the Civil War, but you’re more of a fiction fan, this is a great choice.

Reading List, Football Edition: Paper Lion

In honor of Sunday’s big game, I’ve got a football-themed recommendation for you.

(I’ll probably root for Baltimore in the Super Bowl, just because of proximity and Michael Oher. If you’re undecided or don’t really care, take a line from my dad and say, “I think Coach Harbaugh will lead his team to victory,” when someone asks what you think about the game. You clever devil, you!)

Whether you care about football rabidly, or just for fun, or nil—you’ll probably enjoy George Plimpton’s Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback.

It’s a sports classic, and the most entertaining example of participatory journalism I’ve read. George Plimpton (whom I knew in my childhood from his gig hosting Mouseterpiece Theatre on the Disney Channel!) talked his way into joining the Detroit Lions pre-season camp, not just as an embedded journalist going along to watch, but as a player trying out for the team along with the other guys. The players find him out pretty quickly; and he hilariously describes how they react to his ivy league New Englander accent, his loping run, and his confusion about where exactly to put his hands when receiving a snap from the center.

Plimpton’s humor sparkles in his portrayal of players you just can’t make up, characters like Alex Karras and “Night Train” Lane. He captures the team’s camaraderie (think: pranks, card games, making rookies sing their alma mater in the dining hall), the complexity of the game (you’ll be fascinated and impressed by dumb football players from now on), and the heartbreak of squad cuts (bottom line, players are trying to make the team and provide for their families).

Plimpton’s writing is so good it makes me want to quit writing. The dialogue is downright funny.

I trotted up in time to hear Joe Schmidt call out a red coverage—man-to-man again.

Back in my position, Night Train called to me from the sidelines: “Jawge, this time, recall to shout out there . . . talk it up.”

The spectators, their soft-drink bottles poised, leaned in behind Train, listening.

It was awkward, their being there, but I called to Train nonetheless: “What . . . what sort of thing do I say?”

“Disclose what your man doing,” he called out. “If they float your zone with people, disclose that. Disclose the defense what is goin’ on.”

Paper Lion would be a great gift for a boyfriend/husband/brother/dad (that the girlfriend/wife/sister/daughter might want to steal—after he’s read it of course!). I loved it.

P.S. Other football posts: my family’s trek to Lambeau, and my dad’s memories from the Greatest Game Every Played.

O, Come Emmanuel, or, Advent LOTR Style.

Remember when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was coming out in theaters a few years ago and everyone was so Tolkien crazy? (I was in college at the time, and I even used LOTR as a template for a paper in one of my religious studies classes: “Durkheim to Barth by way of The Lord of the Rings.” I hope the Tolkien mania is refreshed with The Hobbit film.)

I read something today that called to mind this excellent quote, a remnant, programmed into my brain from those LOTR-crazy days of yore:

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

Love mingled with grief felt poignant. Then I saw the lyrics to “O Come, Emmanuel” and listened to a beautiful, mournful version of the song. It’s actually pretty depressing: captive Israel is mourning in lonely exile, waiting. Asking God to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” “Close the path to misery.” “Free thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”

But then: Rejoice!

I know Advent is about waiting for Christmas. But, I forget that waiting is a big deal only when where you are now is not so great. You wouldn’t excitedly anticipate conditions getting worse. And no need to wait and hope if you already have what you need.

Ashley wrote some great posts about Christmas in Denmark. It is a big freaking deal there. (My favorite is the kalenderlys: Christmas countdown candle!). In a land where it’s getting dark at 3 in the afternoon, it makes sense for Christmas to develop into a huge festival. Otherwise, how could one survive winter? (And good thing the church co-opted whatever pagan festival it was before…)

A life of faith is about learning to live with joy and pain at once– love mingled with grief, as Haldir/Tolkien said. Or Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” So, I acknowledge the darkness. People are sick, relationships are crappy, and sometimes there are no answers, at least not easy ones. But then: Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Great Gatsby Summer

We’re excited for the release of Baz Luhrmann’s version of the Fitzgerald classic (even though it’s in 3D. Bummer.) . . . but it’s not coming out til Christmas! That seems wrong; seems like it’s a hot summer story.

Instead we netflixed a 2000 version starring Paul Rudd as Nick; it left quite a bit to be desired.

So today, on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, grab your gin and tonic and go ahead and go with 1974’s Robert Redford (or of course the book itself) if you’re jonesing for a bit of Gatsby.

P.S. Check out the trailer for the Luhrmann adaptation here, old sport.

P.P.S. How to dress like Daisy Buchanan.

Reading List: Peace Like A River

When was the last time you read something that made you go, “Phew, that was so good,”? (Or “shwoo” or whatever sighing noise you prefer!)

It had been way too long for me.

Friends, trust me. Find this book and read it:

(I technically didn’t break my commitment to buy no new books, because it was passed along, and highly recommended, by these two.)

Leif Enger’s novel is the best thing I’ve read in quite awhile. It’s just one of those great reads . . . when you finish the book, you have that bittersweet conundrum. You don’t know whether to cry, to rejoice, to just go to sleep, or to run out and conquer the world. I finished the story mid-morning on a week day and had to ask myself what to do with my life when it was through (or at least what to do with the rest of that day).

Three elements I loved:

  1. I love the narrative voice of Rube, who looks back and takes us through the formative events of his youth, sharing the wisdom of years and hindsight, while retaining the awe and perspective of a 12 year old. I won’t summarize the plot for you because I can’t capture it; but I’ll say that Rube’s story brings us face to face with themes of revenge, loyalty, right and wrong, destiny, faith. Big issues, but through such a human and humorous voice.
  2. What I may have loved most were the relationships in Rube’s family: a father with a miraculous faith, a big brother in hero’s shoes, a little sister with a sense of justice bigger than the West. And, as we go, some honorary family members are grafted in.
  3. His little sister, the wonderfully named Swede, is a budding poet, always reminding us that what’s happening is actually the romantic quest of outlaws who are heroes, riding against the vastness, beauty, and barrenness of the landscape of the upper Midwest. Throughout, Swede is working on an epic poem featuring a cowboy named Sundance, knowing that she’s just got to figure out how it ends in order for her big brother’s story to end well, too. As an aside, I love this element in general, of the story-within-the-story driving the action. My favorite paper I wrote in college was called “An Onion Brings New Wine: The Transformative Power of Story in The Brothers Karamazov.” I was so proud of that title. Can you tell? And my TA called me a woman after his own heart. I loved him. But he had a wife and two or three cute daughters, one of whom was named Charlotte. Adorable.

Much like my relationship with that TA, Peace Like A River is tragically beautiful and beautifully tragic.

So, I know I’m sappy and gushing, but don’t let this review hold you back. It’s like when you read a book jacket that’s utterly unappealing . . . fortunately, the book jacket writer didn’t author the book itself, so go ahead and dive in anyway. You won’t be sorry!