the ghost of christmas past


We have perfect Thanksgiving weather today– cool and grey.  And even though Thanksgiving isn’t really until tomorrow, I still feel the beginning of the holiday season.  Ironically, one of the most important things about the holiday for me is the food.  This is ironic because I don’t really love to cook or entertain.  It’s mostly about smells and creating memories for Harper Lee and Isaac.  And maybe about reliving some of my own.

I have great memories that all seem to center around my grandparents’ kitchen.  It was never really about presentation or specific recipes.  It was more about what happens when people come together around a table.  People who have a shared past.


At the holidays, I sometimes miss my extended family.  As happens with many families, when my grandparents passed away, we all sort of went our separate ways.  I miss those days when we came together for food and stories and so much laughter.  We had our traditions and tall tales.  There were biscuits and deviled eggs and my mother’s special dressing.  It was all wonderful to taste, but, for me, it was never as much about the food itself as it was about all of us crammed together in a too-hot kitchen that smelled of wood smoke and fresh bread.  It was about the jokes, the prank gifts, and the stories.

There was no fancy table setting, no ornate decorations or place cards.  There was a single Christmas tree strung with old, sometimes chipped ornaments and popcorn balls.  There was a “come fix your plate” call from the kitchen.  We sat where we could because there were too many of us to fit around the table at once.  The children usually sat on the hearth in front of the fire, our plates balanced precariously on our knees.  There was no dressing up– only blue jeans and winter boots.  We were a come as you are family.  There was usually a ham or turkey in the center of the table, but it was no surprise if there was bear meat or fried squirrel.  There were pies and cobblers and Mama made a huge bowl of banana pudding because my Uncle Kent loved it.  Sometimes he got his very own serving bowl separate from everyone else.  I remember the sounds and smells and tastes, but the food was just a conduit– something that pulled it all together inside that tiny kitchen where eventually someone would have to crack the window before the fire “burned our brains out.”


I miss those holidays, and I try to recreate a bit of it through the food I make– ham and deviled eggs, biscuits and pies– but the people are different.  The time and place is different.  And neither can really be recaptured because the people are gone.  Even the place itself is gone.  All of it exists only in my mind.  Maybe that’s why the holidays are sometimes bittersweet.  I love all the joy that comes from a Christmas season with my children, but it’s this season that also creates a dull ache for those who have gone on.  It’s an ache to recapture what once was.  I think holidays are like that for a lot of us– a chance every year to recreate something magical from the past.  Often, it turns out to be a little disappointing though because it really can’t be done.  People die and move on, so the ingredients for that feeling are no longer available.  They have blown away– like dust.

sunrise 3That sounds really sad, like Christmas can’t ever be happy again, and that’s not true at all.  I still find tremendous happiness and wonder in Christmas.  Maybe more so than ever.  But with each passing year, my heart longs for something wonderful from the past, creating a mix of sweet joy and bitter sorrow for things lost.

The ghost of Christmas past comes to visit and sets up on my doorstep for the season. I could fear letting him in lest I forget my current guests and loved ones.  I could become so engrossed in his stories of the past that I forget the other festivities going on all around me.  I could consider just bringing him a quick cup of hot cocoa and tossing him a blanket before gently shutting the door.

But instead, I think I will invite him in to mingle with the others and to warm himself by the fire, to recall all the love that he collected for so long.  To share it with those who surround me now, at this moment.  And to maybe have a slice of pie while he’s here.

*All photographs courtesy of Harper Lee Libbert.

the one about the van

I know I’m setting myself up for endless jokes about Grateful Dead bumper stickers and fur on the floor hippie vans, but I have always, always, always wanted a VW van.  It’s probably only going to add to the misconception that I am a wild, flower-in-my-hair liberal hippie, but I don’t care.  I am, in fact, a wild, flower-in-my-hair girl, but liberal I am not.  Neither am I a hippie.  But whatever.

The point is I’m really excited about this van.  I rarely, if EVER, want things.  I don’t have a list of things that I must have.  For the most part, I really don’t like things—you know, stuff.  Junk to clutter up my house and drawers.  Things disguised as “conveniences” that really just take up space.  Holidays stress me out to the max because I hate all the STUFF that comes with it.  I would love to have a holiday that was about the tree, a fire, good food and hanging out.  This is a concept that really tears some folks up—presents are apparently really important to some.  But for me, the ultimate gift is time.  Always has been.

Yet I have found myself coming back again and again to the VW van.  I should add here that if I were not married to Rob, I still would not have the van because I just don’t buy things.  It’s a major undertaking to purchase new underwear and socks, so a van would probably rank under “stuff that’s more trouble than it’s worth,” and that’s OK because that’s just who I am.  But since I am married to Rob—the man who loves to buy things, especially things that require fuel—I am willing to accept this one purchase.

I hope we use it as much as I have long imagined we will.  I like to travel and see things.  So do the kids.  I imagine us driving (no more than 60 mph, mind you) to different cool places across the US and stopping along riverbanks and at the foot of mountains and setting up camp beneath the stars in our groovin’ van—complete with awning and vinyl webbing lawn chair.  (I am so buying a white and blue-green striped lawn chair with vinyl webbing that conforms to my butt and will eventually wear through.  Heck, it might even come with one.)

I see sweaty, mud-caked runners coming in from a leg of a relay run or stopping in for refueling and rehydrating during a 12 or 24-hour endurance event.  I see running crazy long trails across mountains and then coming back to a bed and heater and a cold beer in the camper.  I see kids hanging out while Rob and I race, either on foot or bike.  I see random, spontaneous trips to the great outdoors.  That’s my fantasy anyway.  It will be interesting to see if that’s what we actually do.  Sometimes, obligations get in the way, but with this, I’m hoping we can say no to some of the “shoulds” and just take off on the open road.


No obligations. 

play as practice

This photo has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but I have to announce the purchase of my dream van.  Woo-hoo!  Family race and road trip vehicle– the Westfalia. And, no, there will be no bumper stickers.  At least, no stupid ones.

WestyA post dedicated to this is forthcoming. Stay tuned.

So here’s the real post…

I keep reading that the things we do when we are little are a pretty clear indication of what it is that we are meant to do or at least love to do and should, therefore, be doing on a regular basis.

Have you ever thought about this? What did you love to do when you were little?

Basically, I pretended to be a pioneer girl living in the woods and building houses in laurel thickets. I made books out of paper and staples and tape and colored pencils. Most of them were illustrated. Some of them even came with sheet music (none that an actual musician could read, but…). I drew cartoons. Lots of cartoons. I raided the discard pile at the elementary school on teacher work days when my mom worked as a teaching assistant and took home stacks of old grade books, plan books and bulletin board materials so that I could be a more effective (and often mean, I’m sad to say) teacher to my unruly classroom of stuffed animals and ratty-haired baby dolls. I colored and painted and kept my art supplies in an old cigar box. I dug in the dirt, mostly archeological digs behind the tobacco barn. I walked miles and miles along paths through the woods and across cow pastures. I acted out scenes from old movies, wearing my grandmother’s nightgowns and scarves and costume jewelry, in front of the mirror. I memorized hours of dialogue, mostly from Gone With the Wind, but also from a variety of other classic films—everything from John Wayne to Abbott and Costello routines. I also played mommy and kept house.

Any indicators there about what my life might look like in the future?

I love examining what my kids are into in this way.

For Harper Lee, I see definite trends toward performance and competition. She wants to lead and be in charge. She also wants to be around lots of people. She has always expressed an interest in medicine, but she also loves to read and write and make jewelry and clothing. She has a flair for fashion—usually on the eclectic and unusual side. She also has a deep affection for miniature animals. I don’t know what that might turn into, but it will be interesting to find out.

Isaac has always adored collecting things. He loves motors and figuring out how everything works. He likes to build with his hands. He likes chemistry and figuring out problems. He reads like a maniac—mostly non-fiction (though a good Beverly Cleary or Kate DiCamillo book will more than suffice), and he LOVES animals (in particular, mice) and caring for them. He also bakes, (again, the chemistry—future Alton Brown?) and he could easily become a professional online shopper for obscure and valuable collectibles.

One of my favorite questions for kids is, “What do you want to be?” It’s not because I believe that what you do for a living defines you. Not by a long shot. But it’s so much fun to dream about the things you love and being able to do those things while actually earning a paycheck.

For a while, I imagined that I would like to become a professional writer or artist, but when push comes to shove, what I really love to do is teach. I love teaching writing and literature. I love introducing students to bizarre and fun stories, to ideas, to language. I love coming up with creative lesson plans and artsy-fartsy activities. I love making posters and bulletin boards. I love performing on stage. I love talking to kids and, hopefully, making their lives (or at least their day) a little better than it was before. I love learning from them and laughing with them. I love teaching.

For a while, I thought, “Is this it? Grading the same essays with the same errors every semester? All the testing bullshit I hate? Goofy state mandates? Policing bathrooms for cigarette smoke? Really??? This is my life?” And then I remember the days spent teaching my stuffed dog, Fluffy, his multiplication tables on my chalkboard that Santa brought, and I realize, “Yeah, this is your life. You are where you were meant to be.”

Perhaps, someday, I will also be writing books, complete with illustrations, or performing a one-woman show of Gone With the Wind to sold out audiences. Heck, I might even jump in the new Westfalia and drive to the middle of the wilderness where I can live off the grid in a laurel thicket and write poetry about groundhogs. Until then, I’m happy teaching and performing on stage at the Arts Council on the side.

But, like I said, our vocation does not define us, and while I am a teacher first, I still have those other facets of my life that I want to nurture and cultivate. I think those parts of ourselves that are not necessarily related to our paying job but are an integral part of who we are must be tended to as well.

This winter, for instance, I’m planning on dedicating a good bit of time to learning and practicing ink illustration. I dabbled in it for most of my younger years, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn more about, so I’ve put together a small sketch book and a box (couldn’t find an old cigar box, darn it…) full of fine-tip markers and ink pens and colored pencils that I plan to carry with me like my journal. I promised myself that after the play I would pick up a new project for the fall and winter, so I’ll let you know how it goes. I also plan to pick up where I left off with the fiddle during the summer.

The beauty of these two projects is that neither of them is required. I’m doing them for the pure joy of it and nothing else—much like my writing over the past six months. I think that my art and writing and performance and, shoot, even digging in the dirt are all part of who I am and may be, in many ways, related to my profession and what I do in the classroom, but even if they weren’t, even if they were completely unrelated to my work as a teacher, they would deserve no less attention from me.

Rob builds boats in our garage and rides miles and miles of mountain trails and pores over automotive websites in the evening. None of these things relate to IT or banking, but they are every bit a part of who he is. How sad it would be if he never made the time for those things.

How sad for all of us if we never made time for the things that make us who we are, because for most of us, our jobs are only a fraction of who we are in this world.

If you’ve never given it much thought, take some time today to think about the things you loved as a child. How did you spend your hours when they were yours to spend exactly how you wanted? What element of those activities do you see present in your life today? How much time do you give to those activities? To digging in the dirt? To playing basketball? To competing? To making concoctions in the kitchen?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Be that.


fistfuls of summer

This month I’ve been like a little kid whose just been told he can have as much candy as he wants.  The only catch is that he has a very short amount of time to grab as much as his grubby little hands can hold.  In short, I’ve been grabbing fistfuls of summer and stuffing them in my pockets like a greedy five year old hoarding as much of the sweet stuff as I can carry.

Isaac- triathlonIsaac’s second triathlon in Sparta– he came in third in his age group and had a blast.  For a guy who really doesn’t get into organized sports, he can rock the swim, bike, run.

art club signArt Club at the Surry Early College is off and running for its second year.  An amazing group of kids and an excuse to stop and make stuff– every week!  What could be better?  So far we’ve been working on contour drawings and figure drawing with models.  I’ve been harboring a secret desire to learn more about illustration, so it’s nice to have an afternoon to work on it– and with free instruction from some pretty talented kids.

selfie in the airportSelfies (I hate that word) at the airport.

We were waiting to board for a long weekend in Orlando where we finally visited Epcot and Medieval Times.  I have to tell you that I assumed Medieval Times would be a fairly cheesy tourist trap, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how much fun we had.  In the words of Isaac, wearing his crown, a stein of Sprite in one hand and a chicken leg in the other, “This is my kind of restaurant– fighting and eating with my hands!”  Yeah.

There were jousting matches and sword fights and we got to cheer for our knight– the guy next to us was a HUGE fan of our knight, but it was all in good fun, and Harper Lee won Queen of the Tournament when our knight offered her his banner after winning his match.

outside the lego storeAnd there was the much anticipated stop at Downtown Disney for the LEGO store.

The rest of the month has been mostly school, school, and more school, which– surprisingly– has been much better than I had imagined.  I was so worried about the transition into middle school and third grade, but so far, this has been one of Isaac’s best years, and Harper Lee is enjoying the new freedom of middle school– student council, community projects and soccer.  But during the in-between– after school and on the weekends– we’ve squeezed out a few more drops of summer sweetness and savored the ever shortening days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKickin’ up his heels at Stone Mountain


One of our many swimming holes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARob strumming his guitar for us around the campfire

swimming in mitchell riverAnother favorite swimming hole in the Mitchell River

sunset at mitchell riverThe sun setting on the other side of the river

view in franklinA long weekend with good friends in Franklin, NC– the annual fall writing retreat.  This was the view from my bedroom.

Yesterday, I swept piles (seriously, PILES) of acorns from the back patio.  It’s one of the first sure signs of fall.  That and the red berries on the dogwood tree.  Turning the air conditioner off for the year.  Opening the windows.  The sound of crickets at night (they’ve been here all along, but now I can enjoy the sound with the windows open).  The cool air as we sleep.  The sun setting earlier each night.  All signs that another summer is– for real this time– coming to an end.

As I was running this evening, I could feel just the slightest change in the air around me.  And it occurred to me:  “I love running in the fall.”  Actually, I love the fall.  Period.  October has long been a favorite month.  And fall brings cross-country, race season, pumpkins, Halloween, Harper Lee’s birthday, corn mazes, open windows and fresh air, light sweaters and fallen leaves.  All the things I love.  Really, really love.

I’ve been feeling an impending sense of doom for about a month– maybe even longer because I’ve been dreading winter.  Last winter was such a dark time for me, and I guess I’ve been afraid of all that descending upon me again.  Never mind that I’m in an entirely different place now.  I’ve been, in some ways, dreading winter so much that I’ve actually felt a little panicked– a sort of “hurry up and enjoy life now because it’s all going to go to hell pretty soon.”  Yeah, I know– dark.  And maybe a little twisted.  But there it is.

The predictions for this coming winter are that it’s going to be a cold, snowy one– maybe even colder and snowier than last year–, and while those forecasts have struck fear in my heart a few times, I think I’m warming up to the idea that it doesn’t have to.  Each season of the year– each season of our lives– is different, isn’t it?  Just because winter has been hard for me in the past doesn’t mean it has to continue in that direction.  In fact, when I think back, I can remember quite a few things about winter that I have enjoyed.  A lot.

Christmas, of course, and long trail runs with a friend in the snow.  Curling up in front of the fireplace.  Hot apple cider and hot cocoa with marshmallows.  Homemade vegetable soup and freshly baked bread.  Quilts– lots and lots of quilts.  Good books.  Long Sunday afternoon naps.  Snowmen.  Sledding.  My favorite hat and gloves.  Boots!

So my goals for the next few weeks are to:

Enjoy the fall– every crisp, delicious day.

And look forward to winter– to build the anticipation.  This winter, I’m going to change my attitude and HAVE FUN.

If you dread winter like I have been, why not join me in writing down all the things you’re looking forward to about this winter?   I mean, seriously, who doesn’t love a good snow day?

I’m not even going to sweat the dreaded make-up days in June.  Just let it go, man.  And happy Fall!


Last night, I dreamt that I was late. As usual. Only this time, I had left one of my children at a library camp, which had ended half an hour earlier, and I was still an hour away and attempting to pick up the second child from… somewhere weird. But the main thing is that I was stressed and panicked and really, really angry with myself for not being where I was supposed to be.

I also dreamed that Harper Lee tried out for several academic clubs and was devastated to learn that she did not make the math team but was accepted as a member of the vegetarian meal planning team.

School starts tomorrow. Can you tell?

I’m just a little bit anxious. Thankfully, I went back to work three weeks ago, which really ticked me off at the time. I mean, my kids had nearly a month of extra summer. Now, however, I’m happy that I settled back into a routine before we started getting them settled back into theirs.

Harper Lee begins middle school this year. And Isaac is entering third grade. If you live in NC, you know what that means. It’s going to be a time of big transitions– my favorite thing in the whole world. (That sound you hear is Rob laughing hysterically.)

I’m trying really hard to go with the flow. (I realize that trying really hard is sort of the antithesis of going with the flow, but we do what we can.) And I think I’m doing pretty well—nightmares aside. It’s a new phase for us, particularly for me. I feel a little weepy that we are moving from little kid phase into–scary Psycho music in the background–MIDDLE SCHOOL. For me, middle school was sort of like… well, let’s just say it—hell. I hated every bloody moment of middle school. If I don’t make it to heaven, I’m pretty sure I will end up roaming the halls of A.C. Reynolds Middle School. If I’m really bad—like I end up being a psycho killer or something—I’ll probably be at that same school, except on a Friday night at a middle school dance.

It will be different for Harper Lee. She is an entirely different kid. And I admire her immensely. I even helped her streak her hair blue the other day. She was worried that her teachers might get a bad first impression and think she is a “rebellious street kid,” but I assured her that they would probably not think that. I like that she is comfortable being exactly who she is. I hope that she stays that way. Let’s face it—school isn’t always the place where being who you are is OK.

So it is with more than a little trepidation that I send my children off to school each year.

But I’m going with the flow here…

And it’s all good.

As our last week of summer wrapped up, Harper Lee and I volunteered on Saturday at the Continental Divide Trail Race that our friends, Jason and Alison, put on every year. We always look forward to running the finish line and handing out the awards. This year Harper Lee got to take photographs of the runners as they raced up crazy, mountain goat trails, and she helped with first aid. There was a bit of excitement this year when a nest of yellow jackets wreaked havoc at one point along the course, but everyone came out of it, in the end, just fine. Plus, Alison made quesadillas post-race, and I met some new and interesting friends.

CDTR startThat’s one thing that trail racing is sure to offer—new, and VERY interesting, friends, one of the many reasons I love it.

So, now the house is quiet. Everyone is tucked in early. The backpacks are packed. The lunchboxes are lined up and waiting on the kitchen counter. The multiple information forms are filled out and signed. The coffee is in the maker and ready to brew.

And I am finally sitting down and taking it in– this new phase that is about to begin.

What if tomorrow is the beginning of something wonderful?

 Harper- CDTR







baby isaac

My dearest little baby boy,

Words cannot express how deep is my love for you. To put it down would be impossible. It would come out all clichés. Even when I whisper to you at night as you breathe your heavy sleepy breaths, the words are not enough. Inadequate. Not quite right. Maybe there isn’t a word or a sound or even an image that can capture the feeling I have in my chest, my stomach, behind my eyes every time I think about you. Maybe the feeling isn’t meant to be caught or labeled or contained. Perhaps, instead, it is meant to fill us up and spill out in eternal waves of the inexplicable.

Perhaps, instead, I can only let it wash over us—this unnameable thing and feel its presence when we are curled up in bed, reading Hardy Boys mysteries by lamplight or when we are pulling tomatoes from a vine in the garden and our hands touch as we drop them, juicy and gold, into the bowl. Maybe it is in this moment only. And in this one. And this one.

It will just go on forever.

drooly baby


giraffe head

sand pit

isaac- mud pies



Happy Birthday 

sweet july

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA An early morning visitor

One evening last week, we came home to a visitor helping himself to our apple tree.  I had been under the misguided assumption that a fence would keep animals out of my garden, but I was obviously wrong.  Once he saw us, he hopped quite nimbly right over the fence as if it weren’t even there.  A few mornings later, I took my coffee out onto the back porch, and he was back.  Apparently, fences and Freckles are not deterrents for apple thieves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“This is the best dough I’ve ever made.”

True to our plan, we are baking and canning our own food like crazy.  Personally, I’m getting pretty sick of canning and freezing tomatoes.  Every year I swear I will NOT plant as many next summer, and every spring I plant more.  So far, I’ve made several quarts of pickles and cucumber relish, frozen bags of shredded zucchini for bread and soups, canned and frozen tomatoes for sauces and stews, and made several batches of peach pie filling.  The rest we’ve eaten fresh from the garden.

Harper Lee never tires of kitchen experiments so we’ve had good bread, homemade pretzels and lots of delicious fruity desserts.  The apron she’s wearing was a gift from Grammy.  Rob’s grandmother made it, and it’s a new favorite thing.

I also promised a list of meal ideas and resources for those of you joining us in the real food revolution, and obviously the best way to keep from doing something is to tell you I’m going to.  But better late than never…

Here are some very simple– because that’s how I roll– meal ideas for you and family.

Summer Salad

Friday Night Pizza

Veggie Frittata

These are the ones we’ve tried from Barbara Kingsolver’s website, but there are dozens of others.

Some other really simple ideas that we love:

Roasted grape tomatoes with a sprinkle of olive oil and parmesan cheese

Fresh cucumbers, green or red peppers, tomatoes and onions mixed

Frozen or fresh raspberries blended with lemonade

Any kind of fresh bread and good cheese

Hummus and raw veggies

Grilled fish– my kids LOVE salmon

Grilled kabobs of chicken, button mushrooms and fresh pineapple


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’re ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille.

The highlight of our summer, besides much-needed family time, was the Foothills Arts Council’s production of Little Shop of Horrors.  We spent most of June and July in rehearsals, and wrapped up with three shows last weekend.  Both Harper Lee and I have been bitten by the acting bug, and this is something we will do again and again.  Even Isaac got in on the act by running the spotlight at one of the dress rehearsals.  He loves the behind the scenes work.  It just goes to show what good things can come from stepping outside your comfort zone once in a while.  Besides, we got to wear lots of eyeliner and red lipstick.  Aren’t we glam?

And then…

Isaac turned 9! 


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We, naturally, had a science party on Monday with lots of chaos.  I planned several experiments for the boys, which fairly quickly degenerated into a messy tangle of eight and nine year old boys covered in shaving cream, corn starch and food coloring.  Sometimes I feel as though our party invitation should come with a disclaimer and waiver form. 

They had a blast! 

Want to try your own?

Elephant Toothpaste

Food Coloring and Cream

Mentos and Diet Coke

Homemade Moon Sand

After everyone had been thoroughly washed down with the garden hose and were barefoot and shirtless, we released helium balloons with our names and address, so we might be able to track the distance traveled.  The word’s still out on that one. 

There were great science gifts (plus some fake dog doo, which was extremely popular) and a “lab experiment” cake that I was quite pleased with.  It was a super easy ice-cream sandwich cake if you’re ever looking for a kid-pleasing dessert idea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then, like the flash of a lightning bug in the summer darkness, July was gone.  Another beautiful memory to tuck into our growing collection.