One of my favorite Christmas stories as a child was Karin's Christmas Walk, by Susan Pearson. Not only did the author share my last name (I was a Pearson before I married and became a Pierson), but the protagonist was a Karin, just like my sister! (well, close enough anyway - my sister has two r's).

We loved reading about Karin and her walk to the store the evening her uncle is expected to arrive. Karin is so excited for her uncle's visit, and doesn't want to leave the house in case she misses his grand entrance, but she does as her mother wishes and heads out to the store (never mind that her brothers get to continue playing outside the whole time, hmm...). On her way back she stops and talks to various neighbors along the way, and everyone asks if her uncle has arrived yet. You can feel the anticipation build as she nears home. As Karin rounds the final corner she's both excited and afraid of what she'll find: what if her uncle hasn't arrived? What if all this anticipation just leads to disappointment? But then she sees his red truck in the driveway and she runs to the door ready to toss it aside and run into his arms ... but she waits. Just for a minute Karin waits at the door, for she knows what is about to happen and can imagine all the joy that will wrap around her the moment she turns the doorknob. She pauses in anticipation simply to enjoy the feeling of waiting, and what a wonderful moment that is.

The day before Thanksgiving this year I had to go into work for a few hours, even though my parents had already arrived from New Jersey, my sister was on her way up from St. Olaf College, and my grandparents were on the final leg of their drive across the state of South Dakota. And on top of that, there was a prediction of snow! But I still drove in to work, determined to make it home before any of the excitement began. But a few hours later when I pulled into the drive, I noticed three cars parked out front, and I could see some commotion through the kitchen windows. Oh no, I've missed it! I thought. They've already arrived! But then as I rounded the front of the house I paused for a second and remembered the story of Karin's Christmas Walk and how these are the moments, when you know you are about to be whisked into a house full of celebration and love, that should be treasured. Revel in the waiting. So I stood there a moment longer, looking at my front door, and then Evan's head bobbed in the window and before I knew it I was inside.

For children, Christmas is all about anticipation. I remember counting down the days until Christmas, and although I'm sure I was excited about the gifts I might open, that is not what ruled my thoughts. The simple act of anticipating is enough to make any child giddy and send them bouncing off the walls on wings of sugar plumb ferries, to the endless tunes of The Nutcracker (...or maybe that was just us!).

Here's a replica of my childhood advent calendar, made by my mom. Our excitement generally mounted as there were fewer and fewer ornaments to choose from.

This year I'm trying to focus on the anticipation of Christmas and not worry about all the burdens adults like to add to the holiday. So maybe we aren't "fully prepared" in some ways ... heck, we haven't even sent out Christmas cards! (I know this isn't necessarily a burden and usually isn't for me, but this year it was just too much). And I honestly don't have patience to wait in endless lines at the mall just to pick up one more gift. But I am excited, hopeful, and ready for a few cozy evenings with the Piersons down on the farm in Lake City; some quality time together baking cookies, skiing, and playing games; and then jetting off to New Jersey
on Saturday to join my three sisters and parents for a week of festivities and celebration. I can't wait!

... But I'm enjoying the anticipation.

What are you eagerly anticipating this year? How do the children in your life inspire you to see Christmas in a new light?

Karin's Christmas Walk photo taken from here (after I edited it).

Snowed In

This year I am thankful for snow. Yup, that's right, I was actually thankful for the 17+ inches of snow that were dumped on us last weekend, beginning late Friday night and not letting up until late Saturday night. Oh, and in typical Minnesnowtan fashion, this blizzard was followed up by the infamous sub-zero temperatures that freeze nostril hair if you dare step outside.

So why, might you ask, was I thankful for this "winter survival challenge" you may ask?

Let me count the ways ...

1. Reminder of Childhood: Snow, especially large dumpings of snow, always brings me back to the days when my sisters and I lived for snow days. We would bundle up bright and early, and spend the entire day jumping through snow drifts; making snow angles, snowmen (and girls), and elaborate forts (that included slides on the roof, windows, secret doors ...); and just lying back in our own imprint to count the snowflakes meeting our eyelashes. Childhood is naturally filled with wonder and delight, and whenever those silent flakes come down I'm reminded of those days (and actually spend a few minutes sitting in a snowbank to soak it all in again ... hopefully my neighbors don't think I'm weird!).
Here's a photo of one of our early forts. We even drank hot chocolate inside! I'll have to dig up pictures from our later forts, because they were really impressive!
One of my favorite snowfalls of my childhood was the Blizzard of '96. We lived in New Jersey so we didn't have a continual blanket of snow all winter long, but every once in a while we'd get a "Noreastern" -- and boy were those fun! In '96 we woke up to a huge snowdrift that had us captive in our house since it pressed up against the front door and kept our shovel hostage -- which we had left somewhere out in the front yard. So what did we do? We all tumbled on out the front window, of course, to find the shovel and dig out the front door! In hindsight this really makes me laugh, because I'm sure my dad didn't need all 4 of us out there "helping". But what excitement! Later that day Karrin and I went on a hike to the movie store to rent a movie. We didn't make it very far (just to the playground) before we had to stop for a break, sighing "I don't know if we're going to make it ... maybe we should find shelter for a while..." hahaha, so dramatic (I think we were probably reading Little House on the Prairie at that time). We did continue on and made it to the store. What a triumph!

Kirsten, my oldest sister, used to love sticking her face in snow and just sitting there. I don't know if she liked the challenge of seeing how long she could stay before she turned numb or if she was pretending she was an Eskimo or something (I'll have to ask her!) but something about that experience in the snow called to her.

What snow experiences do you crave every year? Is it something cooky like plunging your face in snow? Or perhaps it's an activity like cross-country skiing or snowmobiling, or even just a late night walk? My aunt and her family started a neat Christmas tradition where they go on a walk at midnight on Christmas Eve, and sometimes they are lucky and there is a fresh carpeting of snow underfoot. Magical.

2. Provides natural exercise and adventure! If you're from Minnesota, or any place that has experienced gigantic heapings of snow, you know what I mean when I say snow = exercise. Especially if you don't own a snowblower. Thankfully we did invest in a snowblower this year. But even with it, I got quite a workout over the weekend and was even sore the following day. (Photo is from earlier snowfall)
You see, a snowblower doesn't help much when you have to shovel out your car, and when you have to push your stuck car for the third or fourth time (no photos from those feats). Uffda! ... although we did try putting our snowblower to work out in the street. I think it helped a bit ....
But when it was all said and done, it felt good to really get out there and work on something with a purpose.

Even going to the gas station (to get more gas for the snowblower) was quite the experience. When it snows, it's like the world is inverted and simple tasks turn in to big adventures, traffic rules are tossed aside, and people come together to help each other ... which leads me to ...

3. Helps develop a sense of community. There were probably 6 cars that got stuck at the end of our street in one day. And those were only the ones that I saw. But every time I'd see a car stuck, I also saw a group of people crowded around it, figuring out how to work through it together. Evan and I got stuck twice on our way out of the alleyway, and once when trying to move our car parked out front. Every time, without fail, some random neighbor I'd never met before (and often times a whole group of them) would appear, seemingly out of nowhere and just start pushing the car! Once one of our helpers was a high school aged boy who said he's been shoveling people out since 5am. He could have been sitting inside playing video games, but no, he chose to be out there helping his neighbors. What a great way to establish a sense of community! Here's Evan doing his share of "community service", attempting to plow the street with his snowblower (the plows didn't come through for a couple of days).

It's almost like a natural disaster, only there is no real rush or urgency. Time is measured out by how many neighbors you can meet, how many cars you get unstuck, and how many times you have to go out and re-shovel or blow your driveway -- and you can forget your to-do list for the day.

4. allows me to relax (when I'm not out shoveling, of course). I don't usually find time to just sit. If I'm sitting, I'm also working on my computer, doing homework, or organizing something. Seriously, I probably have a "must be productive" problem. But I found that on this snowy weekend I discovered something:

I actually sat down, even took a nap (!) without even reading a book! Just sat in our cozy living room. Not only did I not worry about cleaning, I also didn't worry about mess, as is evident here:
I should learn to live like this more often!

5. Provides clarity, inspiration, and a new beginning: I think Calvin says it best:
I love Calvin and Hobbes, and even have the book with this particular strip in it sitting right next to my bed. I read it if I have trouble sleeping, if I need help relaxing and calming down, if I want inspiration, or even just a good laugh. This is my favorite strip as it reflects exactly how I feel about snow ... and life. Have you noticed my reference at the top of my blog?

6. Provides challenge so we can prove we are resilient. When it is dark and cold and many people yearn for the balmy days of summer, that's when it's most important to see the glass half full. This is our chance to make our own warmth and "light". Read more about my thoughts on the importance of the colder months in this post of yore.

Right before Thanksgiving I attended a concert hosted by Garrison Keillor (Gratitute, Gravy, and Garrison, with VocalEssence). In the program notes he spoke to the Minnesotan who is faced with this challenge every year -- of surviving a bitter winter and deciding to see the challenge as something positive:

 "We have the good fortune to live in a beautiful state where people care about each other and where ... we look out our windows every morning at a dazzling whiteness and put on our down vests and take a brisk and invigorating walk and feel the blood in our veins and the stimulation in our brains. Nothing like a Minnesota winter -- you get the sensual pleasure of it, plus you get to complain about it."

So thank you Old Man Winter, for all of the "quality time" ... and now I'm off for a "balmy" vacation in New Jersey!

Note: Calvin and Hobbes image taken from here, although it's originally from the comic book It's a Magical World"

Rivaling Recipes: Chocolate Chip Cookies

I just got back from a run in the snow. It proved to be quite a challenge, and my typical pace was forced to retard to what my dad fondly refers to as a "pitter-patter run". I know I wasn't able to get a great workout, but there's nothing quite like breathing in the fresh (and quite frigid) air to wake you up. And receiving questioning looks from bundled up neighbors shoveling their walkway is quite priceless as well.
I don't have a photo of me running in snow, but here's my sister Karrin!
Here's some of my favorite cold-weather running buddies, although without snow in this photo. (Sisters Karrin and Kirsten, and dad, last Tday around Lake Harriet). 

And the best part of all, when I got home I was inspired to write a blog post about cookies!
(well, although it is the season, I wasn't actually thinking about Christmas cookies. I know I should be craving gingerbread men and snowballs, but tonight I'm feeling another type of cookie!)

Wondering how cookies came to mind while dodging snow banks and avoiding the ice? You see, I have a strange gift: I see food in the landscape. Yup, I told you it was strange. But some of my family and friends can attest to the fact that I'll comment on the covered hay bales that resemble mozzarella balls as we drive down the road;

the smooth, wind-whipped coating to a snow-covered field that simply screams meringue pie (picture this photo at sunset when the snow picks up a yellow tint);

or the mashed potatoes tracks churned up under the tires of a truck (can't you just see where a hand mixer went to work making them all fluffy? Mmm, grab some butter!);

or the toasted-wheat topping to a field of snow (I'm sensing a snow-theme here) that is reminiscent of something edible, but I haven't quite figure out what ...

But my favorite is the slightly churned chunks of snow that are just starting to show flecks of dirt, that without fail, always brings to mind chocolate chip cookie dough. What can I say, I guess I like to eat!

Take a look outside (or the next time it snows) and I'm sure you'll start to get a cookie craving too! (edges of roadways are usually a good place to look).

And to accommodate your next craving I'll leave you prepared with two new recipes to try out! For the last few years we've been devoted to my aunt's The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe. It really is simply perfect: light and soft, will not harden (thanks to a ton of butter!), with a perfect hint of vanilla.

But in my last Whole Living Magazine (see how we scored a year's subscription for free!) I was tempted to test out another recipe. This one beckoned to me with its whole wheat flour, craggy figure, and big chunks of chocolate. And boy did it live up to my expectation!

These are two very different cookies that are both worth dying for trying! Test them out for yourself and let me know which one wins your heart! I know they both won me over : )

The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie
From Sonia Sykora, as my sisters and I affectionately referred to as the Chocolate-Chocolate-Chip Lady in our younger days.

1 cup cold butter cut into chunks
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp. salt (optional)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla (sometimes I do 2!)
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 bag semisweet chocolate baking chips
(optional 2 cups walnuts, chopped)

Beat butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and salt until creamy and no butter flecks remain. Beat in eggs and vanilla until blended. Add flour and baking soda and beat until blended. With a spoon, stir in chocolate chips (and walnuts, if desired).

Roll into balls (approx 1 1/2 inch-diameter, or 2 1/2 Tablespoons). You are supposed to chill the balls for several hours before baking -- we can never wait that long.

Place on cookie sheet -- flaten and wait about 30 minutes until room temp -- of if you skipped the chilling part like we do you're ready to bake!

400 degrees. 8-10 minutes. Golden brown all around the edges but center is still pale. Ensuring you don't over bake is crucial to making the perfect cookie. You may not think they are done, but they firm up when the cool.

Whole-Wheat Chocolate Chunk Cookies
From Whole Living Magazine, December 2010, p. 111
(although I simplified the directions)

3 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt

8 oz. (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup brown sugar (they suggest dark, but I used light)
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into 1/4 and 1/2 inch pieces (I used Ghirardelli. I believe the better the chocolate, the better the cookies)

Mix dry ingredients into large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix butter and sugars until just blended. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until each is combined. Mix in vanilla. Add wet ingredients to flour mixture and blend on low until just combined. Add chocolate and mix on low until evenly combined.
The directions recommend finishing your mixing outside of the bowl on a work surface with your hands, but I think as long as you don't overmix it, you can keep everything in the bowl. Scoop mounds of dough (about 3 Tab) onto baking sheet, with 3 inches between them, about 6/sheet. Bake at 350 for 16-20 minutes. They recommend rotating sheets halfway through, but I haven't done that. Remove from tray as soon as you can to cool, since the chocolate chunks might stick to the cookie sheet. Another option to avoid this is placing a sheet of parchment paper underneath the cookies before baking. Cookies are best eaten warm from the oven or later that same day. They will keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

I like to make the dough and freeze it in balls in little baggies so I can pop a couple in the oven whenever I have a hankering!

My friend Jenna, over at Through Mommy Goggles, has yet another wonderful chocolate chip cookie recipe I've been meaning to try -- this one featuring oatmeal! Head on over there if you haven't yet gotten your fill of chocolate chip cookies!

All photos mine, except for the covered hay bales, taken from here

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