December 1/365 Happy Things

Our house is blessed. We adopted a “bonded pair” of cats three years ago, with no planning. Rich claims that I didn’t even warn him, which is mostly true. Seneca and Opal arrived, our furry Yin and Yang, the best of friends. Never were ears cleaner, or purrs louder.

snuggling 3
No basket is too small.

Then Rufus arrived, this time with every human on board concerning the adoption. A skinny pup standing in the center of our circle, bravely wagging his thin tail. And life was good…until I got crazy and twisted arms so we could adopt Miss Sabine. Only Conor was sure this was a good idea. Now my two brindle dogs, my ink accident (Rufus) and bleach spill (Sabine), sleep curled into one another. Rufus, always the sweetest one, says she smells terrific. She watches him through wise amber eyes, and accepts his adoration.

love.jpg
Enter a caption

December 2/365 Happy Things

Mary called yesterday. When I answered she said, “Will you, can you, come out to play? We can climb up your pine tree.” We laughed together, two friends for over half a century, and talked about dismal knees and aging parents. I so want to end up as next door neighbors again before our end, so that when we are truly old women, we can sit on the porch and make each other laugh. Tree climbing will be taboo, however.

mary
Kim and Mary

December 3/365 Happy Things

I made Hanukkah latkes last night. I put on an Amazon music channel while I fried the cakes, and danced with the dogs to “You Can Call Me Al.” I’m not Jewish, but latkes appeal to my Irish soul. Potato Pancakes. Was there ever a better pairing of words?

 

December 4/365 Happy Things

After the soggy fall, we have a spell of sun-lit days. The temperatures dropped yesterday, freezing the mud pits in the back yard, and I’ve managed to corral the last oak leaves from the front yard. Our early snow had brought them down, but the rain kept us from clearing them. The low December light is lovely on the gray trees, and everything casts long, thin shadows. I am ready for winter.

gap
From Skywood Park, looking toward the Delaware Water Gap.

December 6/365 Happy Things

Let me preface this with certain facts:

  • I am reading a post-apocalyptic book right now.
  • Climate change reports are dropping daily, it seems.
  • Today is a perfect blue winter day.

I could stand in the back yard, under the gray oaks with their rattling, straggle leaves, close my eyes, breathing deeply in cold air, and be perfectly happy. I could stay like that, if time would freeze with me, forever listening to the dry rasps, the hollow wind, and the hum of the world.

winter
When you walk in a winter woods, sudden fires ignite; the dead flowers burn with golden light.

December 7/365 Happy Things

We are a nation of idiots.

I’ve grown used to wearing that motto, etched in scarlet, around my neck, especially when speaking with enlightened outsiders. Shame etches deeply into my heart.

So it was with great joy, and momentary relief, that I stumbled upon videos by a British journalist, James O’Brien, whose call-in radio show/podcast on LBC, appears to exist partly to make me feel better. You see, we aren’t the only nation of idiots! He’s in the trenches with the Brexiteers, much as we are with the Trumpers. So while America goes to hell, I can at least take some solace that the country of Shakespeare, Newton, and Churchill is also chock full of fools.

December 8/365 Happy Things

We brought one of the Old Gods into the house today, and the cats approve. They will sleep in her shadow, and at some point Opal will manage to slip up her trunk, leaving gobs of white fur as tinsel in her boughs. Tomorrow when I hang the decorations on the tree, I’ll be listening to this, and life will just about be perfect.

tree 1

December 9/365 Happy Things

The on-ramp to 80 east at Scotrun merges into the passing lane, making it my least favorite ramp to the highway. You have to accelerate madly, while careening around the curve of the ramp, and merge into speeding New Jersey drivers, who are likely texting, reading, and applying makeup at 80 mph. Today I breezed onto the highway, traffic being light on a Sunday morning, only to have a red-tailed hawk skim over the pavement right ahead of me, a fluid missile of a bird. Rich didn’t notice, probably because he was hand-braking against the dashboard, a habit of his when I am driving. For a moment time slowed, as I willed the bird speed, and watched it swoop down under the lanes going west, heading toward the outlet mall in Tannersville. I hope it caught something tasty, for all that it risked, in that dive.

 

December 10/365 Happy Things

Butter, sugars, almonds, hazelnuts, coconut, dates, cinnamon, nutmeg, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, peanut butter, cardamom, cloves, vanilla, molasses, pecans, eggs, milk, flour, salt, cranberries, decorating sugars, cinnamon red hots, Rice Krispies, walnuts, cocoa powder. Check.

Cookies
The best cookie recipes. No discussion or debate.

December 11/365 Happy Things

There must always be fire, real fire. I say to my friend, “I’m putting the candles in the windows,” and she launches into a discussion of her new, battery-operated candles which have replaced the corded ones. I let her go on and on, and it never crosses her mind that I mean real candles, real flames. Why would I go to the bother, when the replacements are so much safer, cheaper, and easier to assemble?

candles-e1544712889250.jpg

Soon after we moved to this house, I bought the lanterns at IKEA, along with boxes of JUBLA tapers. I wish I had bought more lanterns, because these particular ones were a one-year phenomenon: simple, modern, and the perfect depth for our sills. When lit, the warm light dances against the dark windowpanes, and I think about wanderers and those who are lost to me, and I believe for a moment, as all of our sad species has believed over thousands of years, that the fires will keep us safe and bring others home. Only real fire – a gift, a miracle, a treasure – could offer that.

One of my favorite solstice songs, written by Brendan Graham, based on a poem* by Macdara Woods, and sung by Benita Hill:

Winter, Fire and Snow

In winter fire is beautiful
Beautiful like a song
In winter snow is beautiful
All of the winter long

And you, little son come safely home
Riding the tail of the wind
May you always come this safely home
In winter, fire and snow

The day gets dark uneasily
Darker and darker still
And you are gone to Carnival
And I feel the winter chill

But you, little son come safely home
Riding the tail of the wind
May you always come this safely home
In winter, fire and snow

But you, little son come safely home
Riding the tail of the wind
May you always come this safely home
In winter, fire and snow

In winter fire is beautiful
Beautiful like a song
In winter snow is beautiful
All of the winter long
All of the winter long

*Macdara Woods talks about his poem, “Fire and Snow and Carnevale.”

 

 

December 12/365 Happy Things

The tree came into the house on Sunday, and then it waited. The bins were dragged up from the basement, but I didn’t open them. I baked some cookies, I streamed a show or two, I did laundry. Sabine tried to bite a branch and was scolded away. Opal and Seneca also waited.

Today I plugged the lights in to make sure they were good, and began to wrap them in and out of the branches. I put up a step ladder to reach the top, where a bit needed to be lopped off. I turned my back on the ladder.

This just happened. I didn’t pose them. It was clear, on some level, that they expected me to pick up my phone and start taking pictures. They waited, they purred, they supervised.

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December 13/365 Happy Things

Tamales.

The best ones ever – impossibly tender, green corn tamales with a ribbon of spicy pork in the middle, eaten at El Bravo in Phoenix, Arizona.

Good, everyday ones, heavier with less zing – from Ester Reyna’s kitchen, on Washington Avenue, in Kansas City, Kansas, always arriving the day before Christmas, with an invitation to join the whole Reyna family for Christmas Day feasting.

This year on Christmas Day there will be tamales steaming in our kitchen. I will pull out Rick Bayless’s cookbook, roast a bit of pork, char some chilis, whip up the lightest masa I can, and wrap little culinary gifts inside the corn husks for steaming. I’ll draft the boys to help tie little strips of  husk around the bundles because making tamales is easier when more hands are involved. Ester always had sisters and nieces on hand to share in the assembly line. I’ll have make do with my two sons – we’ll only be making a couple of dozen, after all, not the hundreds that the Reyna’s produced!

December 15/365 Happy Things

I took Ivy and Conor out to eat a Mamma G’s, a no-frills Italian joint in Henrietta, NY. I told them they could order anything on the lunch menu, so we ended up with enough food on the table to feed an army. They ate and ate and ate. I often forget how tough the first years of living like adults can be, and how proud my son is of his independence from us. They haven’t been starving, by any means, but they have felt financial stress. Most of the conversation centered on familiar turf for me: budgets, expenses, difficult personal relationships with apartment mates, scheduling difficulties. Then there were the triumphs: Conor getting a T.A. position for the spring semester and acing his first creative writing class; Ivy persevering through a particularly noxious group lab assignment.

I didn’t really talk all that much during our long lunch together. I watched my son and his heart’s soulmate, and considered how lovely they are. The corners of their eyes were crinkled from laughter, and though their tired faces were a little too pale from exams and projects, there was so much life in them, clear and glowing right through. It was the best lunch I’ve had, in a very long time.

December 16/365 Not So Happy Things

My mother grows smaller during my absences. I am afraid to hug her too hard, for the bones beneath her skin seem to have become avian, crushable tubes meant for flight, rather than for earthbound life. Her hearing fails, even when she remembers to put the little buds into her ears, and I always talk too fast, too mumbled, too full of clauses and asides. We struggle to be in the same conversation.

But that struggle has always been between us. Fifty-nine years together has not simplified one bit the conundrum of our difference. We had a brief respite when the boys were little, and raising children became a common interest. She was pleased, I think, to discover that I did pay attention to many of her suggestions, and I made sure to never let on which ideas I was shelving away into my “Oh God, Not That!” file. But now the boys are grown, and I remain the daughter of difference, the cowbird’s brown-headed interloper that somehow she raised as her own.

So I hug her fragile little body gently, and try to speak loudly, and simply, of nothing much that matters to me. And she loves a daughter, who she has never understood by half, who always manages to hurt her somehow by leaving and flying away.

December 17/365 Happy Things

A report on the Christmas tree and the cats: Remarkably little damage.

Seneca did cement about five whiskers together with a big gob of pine sap (probably snagged when he was drinking from the magical elixir in the tree stand), which resulted in the loss of only one whisker. The tree skirt is catawampus each morning, probably from feline frolics or perhaps a tango. So far, no field mice in the tree or under the skirt (that was last year), and peace is still on earth.

December 19/365 Things, Some Happy

Today is day 353, and I have nothing worth saying.

I sit in a pool of light in a dark house. I love that phrase “pool of light” – the ooo’s of pool just turn your mouth round and hollow, waiting for the bite of “light” that fills everything.

Darkness, night, the shadow. Solstice almost upon us, I cannot escape the long night. I close my eyes and revel in no sight, no sense. A velvet cloth, a mask, a death.

To bed! There is no sense to be had in sitting at my desk, the pattering of the keys, and the voice, my voice, echoing in my head. If no one read the words back to me as I typed, would the sentence still form on the page? I hear the unspoken written word as clearly as a shout, always in my voice. Even that word, “voice,” the vowel stretching out lazily with my upstate nasal “oy.”

To bed! It’s night, and dreams should be, and I should not.

December 20/365 Solstice

The rain begins this afternoon, and should pour down until Saturday morning. Inches of cold December rain. So during the Solstice tomorrow, there will be no sighting of the full Long Night Moon, nor the Ursid meteor shower. The fenced yard will turn into a mud pit; the dogs will lay their ears back and look mournful when I insist that yes, they must go out. This is not the Solstice anyone wants.

But perhaps it is the right one for this year of things no one wanted. No one wanted children in cages on our southern border. No one wanted fire tornados dancing over scorched California. No one wanted a hurricane slowing to a crawl over land, and washing everything away. No one wanted the drum beat of bad news that seems to be a new normal for this time. No one who is sane, or kind, or compassionate, or given to rational thought, that is. (The fact that I need to clarify “no one” depresses me to the core.)

But that is the year that was, and I cannot spin it any other way.

So there will be fire, in candles and wine and whisky; we will embrace the soggy darkness because there is no arguing with a storm. If the wind blows, and the oaks groan, I will remember that this is also the Wolf Moon and the Oak Moon, and think upon the wisdom of ancient people who found reserves of hope to get through the bleakness of mid-winter. And there will be music, good Solstice songs, like this one.

Arlington
by Tara Nicole Mehta

Where do you go little bird
When it snows, when it snows
When the world turns to sleep
Do you know, do you know
Is there something in the wind
Breathes a chill in your heart and life in your wings
Does it whisper ‘start again’
Start again

Where is the sun in the night
Is it cold, is it cold
Does it feel left behind
All alone, all alone
Does it wander through the dark
Does it wait for the dawn, wish on a star
Does it stray very far
Very far

Where is your home restless wind
Is it there, is it here
Do you search for a place to belong
Search in vain, search in fear
Or is your spirit everywhere
Is your voice every tree
Your soul of the air
If there’s no home is there no death
Is there no death

December 21/365 Happy Things

Harry: “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’ – does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances? It doesn’t mean that if we happen to forget them we should remember them which is not possible because we already forgot them.”

Sally: “Well maybe it just means that we should remember we forgot them, or something.”

“When Harry Met Sally”

Tonight Jon Batiste made me love “Auld Lang Syne“. Turned it inside out, started out with a hidden bit of Gospel and then let all of Bourbon Street roar by the end. Were there ever hands more made for a piano than his?

 

 

 

December 22/365 Happy Things

I am finally reading Good Omens. I like the idea of the ultimate Good Cop/Bad Cop duo of an angel and a demon, working together to delay the end times. The problem is that I’m reading the book right before falling asleep, and I’m making such slow progress because I’ve been pretty spent each night.

I did get to the point when the Spawn of Lucifer, who has been misplaced due to human error, and raised as a normal child, has named his Hell Hound “Dog.” It’s endearing that this magically causes the HH to take on characteristics of a real dog, thus undermining much of the point of being a HH. This caused me to fantasize for a moment that we could just rename a whole bunch of horrible powers in our current world, to morph their energies into good.

ICE agents become Icing agents, spreading sweetness around our borders.

Police Departments become Polite Departments.

White supremacists become whale supremacists – which makes more sense, if you think about brain size, after all.

If only.

December 23/365 Puzzling Things

The young woman was standing near the shopping carts at Aldi’s but not moving toward them. Her face looked drawn and sad, so I found myself asking her, “Are you okay?”

She blinked and said, “I just woke up.”

I quickly responded, “I debated if you were sad or tired, and just felt I should ask.”

Then I latched my cart into the chain of carts, pulled out my quarter, and walked away. She probably thought I was a crazy woman who routinely butts into other people’s lives.

I never do that. I travel among people in my private bubble. Oh, I smile and say hello, because lord knows upstate people are raised to do that instinctually. I also hold doors and elevators, help with baby strollers, and get items off tall shelves for elderly shoppers. But I never tempt disaster by showing concern, intruding upon someone else’s privacy, without being invited.

I wonder why I did today, and what about this woman made it seem necessary to me.

December 24/365 Happy Things

The Eve is upon us. A squall line laced the bare trees with snow last night. As we drove through the higher elevations, I marveled about how that light brushing of snow creates the illusion of winter. We’ve had temperatures hovering around 60 this week, and torrential rains have raised the Susquehanna enough to swallow up her islands. The grass on the fairway of the golf course in Wysox is still green, though no one was playing when we passed.

A sign along Route 6 said that the next right would take us to The Best Holiday Light Show. We didn’t turn. That was because we once saw The Best Holiday Light Show for real. There was a neighborhood outside Kansas City, MO, where the houses were clustered around a small lake, which was split by a road. Someone in this neighborhood had started decorating with strands of lights in a different way, and once the neighbors saw the effect, they all joined in. This involved baseballs, strings, lots of men standing around throwing things into the trees, and some really good pitching arms. One end of each strand was caught high in a branch, and the plug end was stretched tight, secured to the ground and joined with other plug ends into an extension cord. The lines of lights made random straight crisscrossing patterns in the bare trees. Strand after strand, all different, and yet echoes of each other, until a landscape emerged not unlike a mountain range above the houses, and reflected beneath them in the lake as well.

We drove over from the Kansas side to see this display, and as we crested a little rise in the road, the lights appeared and we gasped. I do not believe in heavenly hosts, but I have to admit, if there ever was a gathering of such beings, bringing tidings of great joy, it would have looked something like the ethereal landscape of that night.

NOTE: That night was ages ago, before we had cellphones, before LED lights and noxious music-choreographed displays involving animatronics. We took no photos, but I expect the effect would have been lost in translation. Because Kansas City is known for its more traditional lighting displays, I’ve never been able to find anything about the neighborhood online other than a mention of the display by someone who was inspired to try the method in another state. Perhaps the neighborhood, like a sort of Midwestern Brigadoon, arose for us only on that night, and then sank back into the mists.

December 25/365 Unhappy Things

I broke Santa’s sleigh today, and knocked at least six reindeer legs off in the process. It cannot be fixed because the parts that broke exploded when they hit the floor, and we can only find half of the missing fragments. Duncan and I crawled around with phone flashlights, ran long skewers under the TV stand to see if any of the lost legs were there, and finally took the tree skirt off and shook it.

santa

The ornament was at least sixty years old, so fragility is expected. I was changing a light in the Christmas village, the one in the white house, and had placed Santa et al. on the bookcase. I must have set it at an angle, because as I started to move away, the ornament crashed to the floor. I heard the pieces fly.

It was my favorite, so tiny and old. It balanced just right on the roof and gable of the white house, just as if Santa was taking off in flight. He was, of course, in a way, just not so magical in the end.

December 26/365 Happy Things

Antique stores must hate people like me. I wander through them with no intent of purchasing anything, no money to spare really, and entertain myself with laughing at the bizarre belongings of long dead people. No dealer cares if I used to own ten troll dolls, if I won’t purchase their one (a sadly bedraggled purple-haired fellow); no one wants to hear my opinions about decorating with dead animals, when their shop is full of moth-eaten deer heads and a stuffed weasel. Conor and Ivy wanted me to come along while they looked at jewelry and strange bits of military stuff (I am still unclear about what exactly they are in the market for), but I didn’t want to follow them around the warren of shops.

So I wandered alone among the gaudy plates and faded photos, I fingered the fox stoles and peered into the glass cabinets at tiny tin soldiers and plastic reindeer. I found some lovely etched wine glasses from the 1930s and an oak box with seven drawers. What is it that makes cabinets with multiple drawers so enticing? Why do I covet the furnishings ripped from old pharmacies and dry goods stores, where slots and cubbies meant for hardware or medicines or embroidery needles promise places to put everything? And must all the clothes be so very small? I found a lovely pair of gloves but could not waggle a single finger into their delicate shape. In a booth full of Asian “antiques” (all looking far more likely to be products of modern factories), I found some pretty teapots, but none covered with hundreds of cranes like the one that my sister gave to me, the one that needs a new lid. I didn’t find another miniature Santa and sleigh, nor anything remotely close to it. Conor pointed out that my Kmart-purchased flour and sugar canisters were offered as antiques, and I have to admit, I did buy them about 40 years ago, so perhaps they are.

We wandered until the announcement was made that the stores were closing in ten minutes. No purchases by us. The dealers were probably glad to see our backs.

December 27/365 Wistful Things

Remember the long boring days, when we were children and there was

NOTHING TO DO

and we

WISHED THE TIME WENT FASTER

and it didn’t?

I would have paid almost anything to get one of those days to spend with Duncan now. Just a wonderful long sunrise to sunset when the hour hand would barely budge, and the whole day would stretch out before us as stubborn and fixed as those Sunday afternoons long ago.

Instead, the morning hours raced by, and before lunch he was on the road.

December 28/365 About Writing

In four days, there will be 365 entries and this project ends. Then I will hand it over to my son to help with formatting the blog so that it displays chronologically, and has more useful search buttons. And it will then become static, a thing done and finished. I don’t know right now how I feel about that, or even how I feel about the collection as a whole.

Writing plagues me. Reading soothes.

Amos Oz died today. I watched an interview with him on PBS where he talked animatedly about how the muse worked with him. He started with characters, always with fully-developed people interacting in his head, creating dramas, long before putting a single word on a page. I thought, how very Jewish that seems, to have a whole shtetl in your head, how loud it must get as the dynamics build, and how this would motivate a writer to get to work. Anything to get these people out of your head!

No one is in my head right now, no voices but my own.

I cannot put a finger upon the thing that works for me. I cannot touch the center of the moment when a word forms that seems right, and then the next that simply belongs with the first. There is in this process a mystery, and there is in it also a basic flexing of a muscle, an exercise of some part of the brain that needs to be trained. I am in bad shape, flabby, a lazy person at heart who would rather curl up in the safe arms of a book.

I rely too much on the mystery.

 

 

December 29/365 About Writing

I have a section of my library shelves that still contains all the books I’ve collected about the process of writing, of being a writer, of thinking like a writer. I marvel how little I consider taking a book off that shelf for a look. In a sense it’s the conscience of my book collection, my Jiminy Cricket. If I actually read the words contained in those books, then I’d become a keeper of them, responsible for them, and perhaps need to apply them to my life. So, could I just make them go away in the next clean-sweep before the library book sale? What!? Do without the collected wisdom of Eudora Welty, William Gass, Stephen King, Gwendolyn Brooks, Christopher Isherwood, John Gardner, and E. B. White? I may not dare to open their books these days, but the writers on this shelf inform my idea of who I am as clearly as my family’s genealogy.

I do dust them, as regularly as any other book.

Today, just because I need something to write here, I open Brook’s Young Poet’s Primer, a 15-page tome that is thinner than a Broadway showbill. The text is a list, a starting off point for discussion and instruction about things every beginning writer needs to know.

“1: Use fresh language.”

What a mouthful that idea actually is, Ms. Brooks.

December 30/365 About Writing

While wasting time, I stumbled upon yet another treasure trove of intelligent broadcasting that I can stream on my TV. (NOTE: I’m one of those irritatingly proud people who like to tell everyone that we’ve UNPLUGGED from cable TV and are only streaming WHAT WE WANT TO SEE now. We say this as if that means that we’re only indulging in premium, intelligent, witty, informed programming, where in fact we are streaming total muck just faster than cable-bound people are able to watch. This post, however, is about something that is truly high-brow and yet amazingly entertaining.)

There appears to be a happy convergence of debate and thought called IQSquared, or Intelligence Squared. The episode I stumbled upon was a debate concerning which writer was the preeminent novelist of the 19th century: Dickens or Tolstoy. Immediately, I had a few bones to pick because, well that’s what readers do. But since the structure of debate is fundamentally male, pro or con, right or wrong, it makes some sense that we should posit two leviathans, two male whoppers, against one another. What drew me in was that one was Tolstoy, always Tolstoy.

I know I would not like the man – do not get me started about his goofy religious thought or the bizarre unfairness that his greatness depended on his wife handwriting those novels over and over – Jesus, man! Hire a fucking clerk or give her a byline! But I fell into War and Peace at thirteen, and came back changed. I wonder what would have happened if I had read it in Russian, given that I assume something must be lost in translation. Would I have burst into flame, spoken in tongues, or become a mystic?

The format of the debate includes a cast of good British actors reading the texts and breathing life into the characters. Dickens gave the actors more to work with, as far as variety and peculiarity, but Tolstoy pushed them into translating souls. Watch for yourself, if you have an hour and a half to spend, and see if you agree. (Or you can fast-forward to Tom Hiddleston and the childbirth scene from Anna Karenina, at about 1:05 or so.)

December 31/365 At The Close

Brilliant Venus and a sliver of moon this morning, 5:50 AM, no one should be awake and yet we are. Dogs and Kim in the dark, in the cold, stamping feet to keep from thinking about how thin pajamas are against winter. I look back at the windows of the house, as if checking to make sure that haven is still there, and will be there again in five minutes, as Sabine takes her time, and Rufus waits. In winter I am aware of breath more; in the blackness the sound of my lungs thunders.

The last day of the year.

I feel the expectation of all the memories that New Year’s Eve brings, and the apparent necessity of sharing those thoughts with others. New Year’s Day is the altar call of American culture – our collective embracing of saving grace, cleansing and wiping the slate clean of all our flaws, while not dealing with them constructively. A random day, unconnected to the natural world, or even to our multitude of religions, a day selected by Romans long dead, for bureaucratic reasons. Tomorrow all over the country people will start diets, stop smoking, walk around a block, call their mothers, and resolve a million different ways to be better people. Then they won’t.

At last, Sabine finds relief, and we storm into the house. I think, as I often do, how much a blessing heat is. Simultaneously I think, many are cold. My mother would be proud of me, that I cannot experience joy without sorrow. I start to form a resolution in my head about making things better…and stop myself. If I will do a thing, then I will do it. I will not plan to do it, for therein is the flaw. Only the plan is done.

So on this last day of a year, a day like any other, if I will be, then in the being will be the proof. The words will flow, or not. Friends will be found, or not. Coffee will definitely be made, right now.