Our Christmas Card: The Extended Version

The first couple of days of Christmas break are always wasted in a flurry of movie-watching, cookie-baking and snuggling with furry things on the couch (blankets, animals, unshaven husbands.) Suddenly, on Christmas eve, I realized we hadn't done Christmas cards. I half thought of scrapping it, since we'd been good about it for our first ten Christmases, but I realized what I said last year is still true: I like the whole process, the hassle of changing addresses and names and the fun of scribbling little notes by hand and the nice finished product at the end -- a pile of pretty stamped envelopes waiting to join our friends all over the country.

So, those are on their way to you, and meanwhile, for those of you who really want a play-by-play, here's what we've been up to this year:

First, we had a lot more work to do with our two new end-of-2011 projects: dog and kitchen. It took me a very, very long time to get used to having Mishka in the house, but I do enjoy her company, as well as the protection she offers me from burglars, the UPS man and umbrellas. (Bubble wrap, however, is a different story. If bubble wrap ever broke into the house, she would hide in the corner while it made off with all the valuables.)

Looking for things to sniff.

She also forces us to get outside more, which is definitely a good thing, as she has an endless capacity for running, sniffing and chasing. On one recent foray in the woods near our house, I enjoyed calling her back with a whistle: I would hear nothing, then a very faint rustle growing louder as she trampled through the fallen leaves coming toward me. The last time I called her back, however, the rustling grew louder and louder until I saw, with much alarm, half a dozen deer charge over the crest of the hill in front of me, on high alert with tails up. A hundred yards behind them was Mishka, having the time of her life.

Snow is like crack for dogs, apparently.

She loves the snow, but unfortunately, this little dusting was it for the year until this week. Thankfully, we got in a visit to our dear friends in Colorado and saw some real snow, along with real mountains, trees and blue skies (you think we have these things on the East Coast, but you're so wrong!)

Mountains, Gandalf!
Mountains, Gandalf!

Spring brought more raised beds and another attempt at filling them with our favorite heirloom varieties. Unfortunately, our summer traveling always interferes with the crucial work of watering and harvesting, but we still got quite a few tomatoes, beans, berries, carrots, beets and greens, plus all the fresh herbs we could handle!

White on White
White on White

Some pretty flowers, too, especially in the spring -- and yes, we still have the cat, and yes, she tolerates the dog who wants so badly to be friends with her.

Church is a constant source of peace and healing for us amid the stresses and trials of everyday life. I am grateful for my job as protopsalti, training and leading the other chanters; it keeps me connected to the community of Holy Cross, and to the Cross itself, eliminating the possibility of intruding busy-ness. We had a beautiful Lent, Holy Week and Pascha this year, including this lovely flower-covered bier with which we processed around the church on Holy Friday, commemorating the Lord's death and looking ahead to the promise of His Resurrection.

 Bier in church?!

Bier in church?!

In the late spring, Rob and his dad, along with some friends, rode in Bike New York -- a a 42-mile ride that spanned all five boroughs and gave them some great views and an even greater workout. My mother-in-law and I happily tagged along for shopping, dining and a beautiful visit to the new Ground Zero park.

 Giant waterfalls outline the footprints of the original Twin Towers, surrounded by a peaceful tree-lined arcade. The names of the fallen inspire personal tributes like this one.

Giant waterfalls outline the footprints of the original Twin Towers, surrounded by a peaceful tree-lined arcade. The names of the fallen inspire personal tributes like this one.

Then we turned right around and went the opposite direction, to beautiful New Orleans for a weekend filled with sunny weather, beautiful music and way too much good food. We also enjoyed a visit to nearby St. Francisville to spend time with some dear friends who took us out for crawfish and stopped for cracklins on the way home (that comment about too much good food? I really meant it.)

New Orleans may be Party Central for most, but to me it's more a place of peace than anything else. The people we meet, the cocktails we toast with, and the streets we walk are all infused with a quiet, refined grace that trickles down into the days and weeks following our return. I couldn't ever get enough of the place.

Trees

Almost as soon as we returned from these trips, and as we were wrapping up the school year, I ended my 21-year academic career by walking the stage at Loyola University to receive a Master of Arts in Teaching along with a Secondary English teaching certification. In other words, after ten years of private instruction and seven in the classroom, I am finally, officially, a teacher.

 At last!

At last!

As the school year ended, I signed a contract making the leap to full-time employment; I would have my own classroom for the first time, as well as increased administrative and supervisory duties. I was a little nervous about this, but Rob assured me it was not all that different from what I had already been doing as a part-time instructor. He's still full-time at the college level, teaching design courses to diverse classes that include both starry-eyed teenagers and professionals older than he is. One of the biggest perks of his job is that every other year or so, he gets to run a travel study program in Paris!

Monmartre at twilight: Ooh, la la.
Monmartre at twilight: Ooh, la la.

Like any good husband (and he is the very best) he brings along his French-speaking wife so she can enjoy herself and help him out of Metro limbo when necessary. This year we ventured further south of the city on our days off, seeing some incredible chateaus in the Loire valley.

 One of countless spectacular views!

One of countless spectacular views!

(For more about our travels in Paris, I invite you to read my Top Ten series. Loyal readers (all four of you) will notice that not all of the ten pieces are published yet, but please enjoy what's there and I promise to finish soon!

Upon returning, we hosted a huge, fancy dinner in honor of Bastille Day, featuring five French courses paired with hand-selected American wines. The most prestigious Louisianan journalists all covered the story.

We spent time at the ocean as the summer ended, and also attended three beautiful weddings -- a longtime friend of mine in a three-part French-Indian extravaganza, a longtime friend of Rob's in a sweet homegrown ceremony on a farm, and a cousin's eclectic celebration in some local ruins:

Wedding.jpg

School began again this fall, and with my increased class load, I made the difficult decision to stop teaching private piano lessons. My students were an important part of my life for nearly ten years, and it was hard to say goodbye, but I know they will be successful elsewhere: several have transferred to my mom's studio and are already making great progress. Meanwhile, I've enjoyed teaching a French class in addition to the English that makes up the bulk of my workload. I credit Rosetta Stone with my quick recall of vocabulary I learned when I was my students' age! 

We've made time for lots of fun weekend trips this semester, too: besides the weddings, we also took in a couple of concerts and enjoyed the stately beauty of Williamsburg with our family. And a friendship that began at the summer Sacred Music Institutes took me to Boston for two weekends in a row, to rehearse and record as part of Charlie Marge's Boston Byzantine Choir. I was so honored and humbled to be a part of the incredible musicianship and camaraderie of this group, and we enjoyed quality time with our Boston friends in my free time. They call this the "Hahbuh."

Harbor.jpg

We were out of town so much this fall that I'm afraid I was a bad mother to this blog. I hope this New Year will bring some more stability, but I also have to blame social networks for some of that: although Facebook's time-sucking capabilities have kept me away so far, I have enjoyed the simple beauty of sharing photos via Instagram (in fact, many from this letter were originally published there; it's a nice backup in case, say, your hard drive crashes when your laptop falls off the couch and your last month or so of data is unrecoverable.) I've also enjoyed reviewing restaurants on Yelp, and as one of their Elite members I get to attend fun events around town. You can check out the content on the left-hand sidebars, and if you share either hobby, please look me up!

And now, having celebrated the glorious Nativity of Christ with a late-night festal Liturgy, and having feasted and clinked glasses and given gifts and sung and laughed, we prepare for an end-of-year gathering with family and friends to do more of the same -- and we wish you as much peace and joy as can fit into your hearts.

Crabby Christmas.jpg

Merry Christmas from Baltimore!

Love, Emily and Rob