Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year Thoughts

I listened today to an interview with a woman who’d survived a plane crash that claimed the lives of many of her fellow passengers. She recounted how a man told her afterwards that God must have had a special reason for saving her, that there was still work for her to do down here. My immediate reaction echoed her own. She said:

“I was quite troubled. It felt like I was saddled with a lot of responsibility ... to figure out, ‘What is this work I'm supposed to be doing?’ And then the flipside is, God didn't have any more work for all those other people, and I don't believe that.”

She decided, instead, to try being grateful every day for what she did have so that she could live with as few regrets as possible. It was hard, she said, because she was not in the habit of paying such close attention to whether she told her husband and children all the time that she loved them. But then she’d think, “I might not come home at the end of the day,” and she knew it wasn’t so hard after all.

My own mother used to thank her God each night for the day just passed, remembering to include each one of us in her gratitude. She began each morning with a similar reverence and taught us to do the same. Though I don’t share her belief in one omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God, I still can see the benefits of gratitude, of wonder, attention, kindness, and appreciation.

I can’t subscribe to a deity who is circumscribed by human thought, whose borders are as narrow as our own. That kind of god frightens me as much as the idea of one so immense and powerful that to know of it would bring instant annihilation. I prefer to admit I don’t know for sure, that I’m open to suggestions, to discoveries, to experiences, to ever-widening horizons and to change. I choose to see an echo of the largest thing in the smallest, to recognize the life force in all things, and to be grateful for what I know I have—five senses that tell me how to survive in and enjoy my world, the ability to reason and explore and to think for myself, the chance to know happiness and love, sorrow and loss, and to know they are irrevocably linked because this is a world of duality, of relativity. It is enough. And because I could lose it all tomorrow, for today, like that plane crash survivor and my mother before me, I am grateful.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tis the Season

Christmas is coming. As a child those words thrilled me. It’s a feeling I still experience despite the fact that I've let go of any religious connection. There’s a sense of eagerness, of bustle, of anticipated sharing that permeates the very air. There are some things that are unique to the jolly season. Here are a few of my favorites:

SNOW… I know it falls and falls and FALLS, for months sometimes, but there’s something special about Christmas snow. Like millions of angels’ wings, the snowdrops tumble softly down, covering the bareness of early winter, transforming bushes and fence posts and last summer’s goldenrod into fairytale props. Christmas Eve snow surrounds streetlights like a nimbus and reflects in tiny glowing pools the reds and blues and greens of colored lights. Snow on Christmas Day lures me out of doors, sled in hand, just as it did when I was a child.

SCENTS… Bayberry candles and spicy cinnamon potpourri, warm apple cider and peppermint candy canes, wood smoke curling from chimneys, the sharp scent of freshly cut evergreens. And the foods! Roasting meats and savory stuffings, fruit pies and mince pies and mouth-watering tortes. Cookies frosted like fat snowmen, jaunty gingerbread men, lush dark fruitcake stuffed with fruits and nuts and soaked in brandy, eggnog, thick with foam and liberally sprinkled with nutmeg. Rich, buttery stolen studded with colorful candied peel. Plum pudding steaming hot and slathered with hard sauce.

SOUNDS… “I’ll be home for Christmas.” It’s almost impossible to not sing along with Christmas songs. The tunes are catchy, the sentiments echo the joy, and occasionally the longing, of the season, and because we hear them just a few short weeks a year, they hold their appeal. It doesn’t matter who sings them or how updated the rendition, the message is the same: ‘tis the season to be jolly—and generous and giving and loving and festive.

GIFTS… The meaning of Christmas can get lost in the pursuit of the perfect present if we forget that any gift can be the perfect one if we’ve put thought and care into its choosing. It isn’t the price or the quantity that determine perfection—it’s the heart behind the giving. Cost and size pale when compared to love wrapped in a homemade card or tied with the ribbons of sentiment.

FAMILY… Distance may separate family members—two of my children and my two sisters are far away in miles—but they can still live in our hearts. Often it’s one of the few times a year we make an extra effort to be in touch with those we hold dear if not near.

GRATITUDE… There is a profundity to the season, a reverent silence that invites us to reflect on who we are and what we have and why we are here. The deep and abiding need to find or make meaning in our lives finds one of its best expressions at this time of year. When we give of ourselves we find that we have been given ourselves.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Love Letter to My Daughter At Christmas

I wrote this letter to my elder daughter the year she moved to Florida. That was in 1992 but my sentiments have not changed in all these years.

Dear Jen,

The little people—that’s what your Pepere used to call you and your brothers and sister. Nothing pleased him more than hearing that the little people were coming to see him. Now the four of you are grown and on your own, scattered across the country from one coast to the other and nothing pleases me more than knowing any one of you is coming home, if only for a short visit. You are the first to be married and your new home is far from here. You will not be making the journey to be with me for the holidays.

It is almost Christmas Eve. The tree stands in its customary place, waiting for bits of colored glass and tinsel to work their magic. Each ornament I lift from its nest of tissue evokes some memory of Christmas past. Here’s the small blue angel your Memere gave you when you were just a toddler. With your gold-spun hair and your big blue eyes you looked like an angel yourself. “Let me do it,” you insisted, hanging the trinket on the highest branch you could reach.

Trimming the tree is a task for children. How your eyes sparkled, reflecting the lights your older brothers strung carefully among the branches. I lift a small elf out of the ornament box, a homemade dough creation given to you by your fifth grade teacher and think, “You should be hanging these on the tree, Jen.” Early Christmas morning I will get up before everyone else and turn on the tree lights, remembering the morning so long ago that you sat in your bunny-feet pajamas and gazed at the twinkling lights, saying over and over again, “Isn’t it pretty, isn’t it nice?” I will whisper the words softly to myself and think of you.

For more than twenty years you made Christmas cookies with me, decorating them with gobs of colored frosting and sugar sprinkles. Each year you became more adept at rolling and cutting and decorating. On each gingerbread man I make alone this year I will put a big frosting smile in memory of the little girl who helped at my side.

I hum along with the carols playing on the radio as I work and remember how we sang aloud every Christmas carol we knew as we baked or wrapped gifts or marched from store to store in search of the perfect present. How excited you were on Christmas morning when you and your brothers saw that Santa had come in the night. To this day there’s still a gift “from Santa” under the tree for everyone. This year your perfect present is on its way to you. I can picture the look on your face when you open it and will hear the echo of your voice—“Oh, thank you, Santa and you too, Mom!”—across the miles.

Isn’t it odd that a heart can ache and be joyful at the same time? We will all sit a little closer at the table so your place won’t look so glaringly empty. We will take turns talking to you on the phone, wishing you a happy Christmas. And I will wish this for you, my daughter, that all the joy you’ve brought me through the years will be returned to you a thousand-fold.


Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Great Sled Race

Photo prompt from Magpie Tales 

When I was a child snow often fell over the Berkshires shortly before Thanksgiving. It would catch first along the hedgerows and in the tall dead grasses that lined the roads. Soon lawns and fields were covered with a thin blanket and we children began to get excited. Toward the middle of December, when there was a good six inches of snow on the ground, enough to slide on, my brother Frank would take the sleds down from their storage place over the garage rafters, oil the runners well and tie new knots in the frayed tow ropes. My sisters (who were twins) and I, well wrapped in snowsuits, scarves, boots, and mittens would tromp up the hill behind him.
West’s Hill was the best place to go sledding. The middle of the hill was quite steep, studded with large snow covered rocks that made marvelous jumps. We would plant our sleds at the crest, back up a bit to get a good running start, and belly flop on the sled, shrieking and yelling as down we sailed. At that bottom of the hill there was a barbed wire fence that Farmer West clipped in the middle. He made a loop of one end and hooked it over a fence post, allowing us to unhook it and fold the fence wire back when we wanted to slide. Most of the time we remembered to open the wire gate, leaving a space wide enough for two sleds to get through side by side. Now and then one of us lost a hat or felt the stern prick of the wire on the backs of our heads when we forgot.
The January I was ten there was over a foot of snow on the hill. We had a big race planned with the three West children who lived at the top. They had boasted that their three flexible flyers tied together could beat our new Christmas toboggan any day. We met at the top of the hill on a snowy Saturday afternoon to test their brag.
The wind blew the words out of our mouths as the twins and Frank and I argued over who would steer the toboggan and who would stand at the bottom of the hill to declare the winners. If the race was to be fair only three of us could ride the toboggan down the hill. The fourth would have to act as judge.
Frank dropped the toboggan down. He knelt on it and bounced it a little to wedge it into the snow, making sure it would not take off without us. One of the twins was elected to referee the race. She trudged disconsolately down the hill and stood with her back to us, pouting. The other twin and I took our places on the toboggan.
The neighbor kids’ three sleds were tied together. The oldest boy sat in front to steer, his brother sat on the middle sled, and their little sister brought up the rear.
“We’re ready!” Frank yelled down the hill to the referee.
She looked  up. She yelled something back.
“What?” Frank hollered, but the answer was indecipherable. She just stood, waving her arms and kicking the fence post.
“On your mark, get set, GO!” Frank bellowed and with a running jump, landed solidly on the back of the toboggan. I heard our opponents give a whoop as the three sleds took off beside us.
We plowed headlong through the snow that blew back in our faces, blinding us. The toboggan hit a boulder and veered off crazily, landing with a thump. The three of us shot up into the air and came back down with great emphasis. The bottom of the hill was coming up fast. My little sister suddenly leaned back against me.
“Hemph!” she shouted.
“What?” I yelled back?
She pulled her scarf away from her mouth. “Fence!”
The word was suddenly clear. In our excitement over the race, none of us had thought to move the barbed wire fence out of the way. Now a single strand of that wicked wire lay in wait across the path of our speeding sleds. The referee twin was frantically scrabbling with the loop but the deep snow had half buried the post and she was too little to budge the wire.
“Bail out!” I screeched, grabbing my sister’s shoulders, tipping us both to the right as hard as I could. Frank’s feet, hooked around my waist, came along and we spilled into the snow. Right beside us I saw three bodies catapult off the sleds and plunge into the snow in a wild tangle of arms and legs. The toboggan and the sleds went on down the rest of the hill without us. We lay for a moment in stunned silence then, “Tie!” hollered the referee in the direction of the empty sleds and she stomped off for home.

The winter of the big snow and the house where we lived. The hill was just up the road from here.

Thanks Hilary!

Friday, December 03, 2010

This day began with a hundred geese that rose from the pond at dawn and flew eastward into the sun, the light gilding their undersides. Their cries roused me from sleep, stirring some ancient longing to flee the coming cold. I look out my window at the colors of winter, the buff colored grasses, the shadowed woods, the trees inked in black against a steel sky, and watch the sun paint it all with a gold that spills slowly over the bare tops of the trees and into my yard.

Except for a few days last week when the temperature dipped into the 30s overnight, the weather has been mild. October was a glorious riot of color and somber November has so far boasted temperatures into the 50s. I set off into the early morning with only a jacket. Great drifts of mahogany leaves line the road and here and there a few bittersweet berries glow orange. The pond is a pewter plate, empty now of geese until the afternoon. The mornings belong to the crow and the jay, the chickadee, and the flocks of little purple finches that winter over. The cardinal that sings me awake at 4:30 on summer mornings is silent now, though I’ve seen him at the feeder, he and his dun-colored mate, eating the sunflower seeds I’ve set out for them.

The roadside brush is showing its bones. Great tangled vines of bittersweet curl over leafless bushes. Milkweed pods have dried and burst. I stop to release a last bit of gossamer fluff into the wind, sending the attached seeds on their journey, wondering, as I watch them lift and disappear, where the winter winds might take me. There are times when my life seems as insubstantial as milkweed fluff and I, too, am at the mercy of the prevailing wind.

By noon, the sun is still only a few feet over the horizon and as it descends into the afternoon, the air grows cooler and the wind quiets. By five o’clock the sky is violet and then gray. Night drops its cloak over the day and stars are visible by suppertime. I close the curtains against the dark and listen to the geese gabbling on the pond. One day soon they will fly south instead of east. Despite what the calendar says, that will be, for me, the day winter begins.

Thanks, Hilary!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Keep The Light On, Please

For Magpie #43
A few days ago, my former landlady came from Maine to visit me. It gets dark early and I'd turned on the outside light. "Ah," she smiled when she saw it. "You've got the 'Mother Light' on."

She explained to my puzzled look, "When my mother lived in your little cottage, she would turn that light on for me and I would think, Oh, Mom, I've just gone for a walk. I know my way back. But then I'd realize what she was doing. She was just letting me know she was there, as a mother should. I came to think of it as the Mother Light."

I thought about that, about ways that mothers light the way for their children and how we do it long after they are grown and no longer need us. My own mother used to leave the porch light on for me if I'd gone for a walk and darkness fell before I returned. If I took the car, the garage light was always on when I came home after sunset. She didn't need to do it. I was perfectly capable of finding my way in the dark. It was a courtesy and a small sign of mother love that kept her turning on lights for me long after I needed her to.

There was, as well, the light in her eyes whenever she saw any of her children, and the light in her heart that expressed itself over and over in countless doings for each of us. Never did we go out but that some light - porch, hall, stair - was left burning for us. And when she died, she left the light burning in our hearts so that we could see where it was we needed to go.

The physical lights of porch and stair are symbols for the mother light that shines internally, eternally. They say, I am here in a visual way, just as the spoken words resonate in a child's ear and heart. What better task for a mother to take upon herself than shedding light where there is darkness?