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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December's Last Gasp

From Sunday night, through yesterday and into this morning, we lived inside the wind. It thundered down the chimney, grabbed hold of the window frames and shook them, yanked tree limbs and flung them at our roof. It moaned while pounding the shutters at the side of the house. As the pines out back bent toward the house under the weight of the wind, I abandoned my seat under the picture window and moved toward comforting ignorance in the front room.

We were blessed that our power was out for only two hours Sunday night. I will not complain about having to finish half-cooked spaghetti carbonara on the gas grill in the middle of the blizzard. Such a minor inconvenience—and it left me with a story to tell when half our town went without electricity yesterday too, some folks into today.

While we listened to music by candlelight, the ocean flooded low lying areas.  Five miles away, two houses burned as firefighters in survival suits held hoses and waded through waist high water. “Reverse 911” calls invited us to the emergency shelter at an elementary school, but instead, we listened to the reassuring sound of the furnace kicking in as we settled in for another warm night’s sleep.

The sun joined the wind this morning. By mid-day, ice falling from tree limbs exploded like small bombs as it hit frosted windows, but the accumulation of snow is much less than expected. A huge pine lays uprooted in the yard across the street, but did no damage when it fell.

All day long I peeked out to our own, still-standing pines and took deep breaths. My husband though, can always find humor. The storm started Sunday, the day after Christmas. With hundreds of twigs embedded in the snow out back, he announced that we are now caretakers of a reindeer grave yard.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Time Out

It's time.

It's time to take a breath.  To take a break.  To celebrate this season of joy. To off load some pressure by taking a blog a vacation.  It's hard for me...I worry that if I skip posts on Middle Passages, readers will skip out on me.  But if there is one thing I've learned this year, it is to have faith in myself.  So, I'm letting go for a while...probably until January.  I'll still be reading your posts, lurking if you will, maybe even commenting...some.  In the meantime, please accept my thanks for all your support and know that you have my sincere wishes for wonderful holidays. 

I hope the new year grants you all that you hope for. 
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Count Down

It’s a big year in our family. College applications have been submitted, a couple of acceptances received and we wait for further news. Every week brings an ending…a “last first day of high school,” followed by a “last Homecoming,” and a  "last football game" at which she'll play in the pep band.  My husband and I look at our daughter and say, “I wonder where you will be at this time next year.”

In December 2011, it’s likely she’ll be taking final exams about now—which made it more fun yesterday that we could step out for a shopping expedition to pick up materials for homemade gifts. As always, she teased and or disagreed with me; “Mom, you always stop right in the middle of the aisle,” and “That ribbon is fine, you don’t need to look for more,” but it is all in good fun; we found ourselves giggling more than once. The laughter is what I will miss the most, I think, next year.

And this. We stood side-by-side in the kitchen when we got home, measuring out the ingredients for homemade hot cocoa, chuckling at my bad math. (Heads up, a wet cup is eight ounces; a dry cup, much less. We have a lot of leftovers.) She measured the ingredients; I sifted them into a bowl. Every once in a while, we’d bump hips, jiggle an elbow, spill some sugar or dry milk on the counter. But in the end, the filled jars shined and the plaid ribbons she tied stuck out at jaunty angles. I typed the labels and she attached them in a way that I wouldn’t know how.

We moved the containers to the dining room table, the afternoon having delivered a successful joint effort, a mutual accomplishment; a shared achievement; feelings I’ve been lucky to experience for just about every minute of every day, over the last seventeen years.

Oh, and if I've left you craving hot cocoa,  you can get the recipe for a yummy single-serving version here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chiming in

Even though we’ve been married for ages, each December, when my husband lugs up boxes of Christmas paraphernalia from the basement, I am surprised. He comes by his need to bedeck our home naturally. The first Thanksgiving that I spent at his house when we were dating, I woke up the morning after to his mother decorating a Christmas tree. She had little Santa figurines spread across the mantle and by the end of the day, every common room in the house hosted Christmas décor. This was about as far from anything I was used to, as I could get.

Christmas at my house was a subdued affair. Tree, check…we pulled it down from the attic the week before the holiday, unbent the wire branches and poked them into the holes drilled in the stem. Wreath, check; it hung from our red front door with a spotlight focused on it.

That, as they say, was that, except for a Christmas music box that my aunt sent to my mother when she and my uncle lived in Germany before I was born. That instrument completed the sum and total of our family Christmas decorations. Adorned with a tubby Santa reaching into an actual cloth bag, it hosted tiny gifts, a wooden doll, a trumpet and a petite Christmas tree. Cherub angels sat on the rim of the rotating base playing with the presents that St. Nick has just passed them. Two blond haired angels leaned over as they gazed into Father Christmas’s bag.

Maybe it was the hand painted Christmas trees decorating the red wooden stand or the chiming melody that emanated from the box, but as kid I loved the thing. Mom sat it on a table in the living room and I’d tiptoe in, turn the key as many times as possible and listen as Santa and the angels circled. I wasn’t the only one, and over the years, the piece got some tough use. Puddles of hard glue pooled where one of the angels fell off; a toy soldier tipped at a precarious angle.  The white paint on the base yellowed and cracked. But even so, long after I grew up and moved away, whenever we visited during the holidays and the box was out, I had to give it a play.

Nowadays, our house is decorated inside and out. Lights adorn holly bushes, large wreathes hang in front of the picture windows; another centers on the chimney and I drink in the festive feel my husband’s collection of nutcrackers bestows upon the rooms. Each year, our Frasier fir sheds a few needles as we deck it with gold ribbons and white lights. There is no mistaking Christmas here.

But in spite of our wealth of decorations; all it takes is a vintage music box to get to me. It became mine when my father moved out of his house to an assisted living center a long time ago. Each year, when it comes up the stairs and out of its protective wrapping, I wind the key.

Every single time, the music takes me home.

What is your favorite holiday decoration?

Friday, December 10, 2010

On Line, All the Time

Before I dared call myself a plain old writer, I was the world’s most prolific letter writer—single-handedly keeping the Post Office in the black for years before it started to tank. Beginning at age 16 until well into my 30’s, I wrote copious, and sad to say, long-winded missives to all my distant (i.e. anyone who lived more than a half-hour from me) friends. I stalked the mail box hoping for return posts, but to tell the truth, no one could (or had the energy to) keep up. Then email came on the scene and as with the rest of civilization, my letter writing habit dwindled. I still communicated, just via a different medium.

In spite of this evolution, there remained one area in which I refused to give up on pen and ink until a few years ago. Starting the day after Thanksgiving, I’d generate a Christmas card list, sit at the dining room table and write each recipient a detailed note, going at it each evening after work until my elbow ached. It seemed important to reach out to those I care for but rarely see—perhaps these personal letters would remind the receivers of how much they mean to me, in spite of the years and lifestyles distancing us.

Then, somewhere in the mid-2000’s, time took a 100-yard dash away from me. That year, I agonized for a while, but finally wrote a first ever “blanket letter” that I sent with apologies to everyone on my Christmas card list.  The kicker is, no one seemed to mind. By then, those who remained in the card-sending-world (and I acknowledge my dinosaur status in this regard) had embraced the one-letter-fits-all short-cut; the few folks who even commented on my defection to the dark side cheered me on.

Nevertheless, it still doesn’t feel right, and after purchasing Christmas cards today (note, a full two weeks after Thanksgiving), I gazed into the dining room.  For a moment, I thought about replicating the diligence of those earlier decades, but naaa. The inventory for LCSPrints resides on the table in there, leaving no room to write 50 (!) something cards. Off I went to the computer to craft a year-end update.

Before getting started though, a quick check of email revealed a first-of-the-season online Christmas card.

That figures.  Here I am worried about sending a generic letter, when as usual; I’m miles behind the times.  Electronic everything it seems. Yes, I know, send it online, save a tree, but since when can you hold an E-card your hand?

Besides, there’s the guilt. After all, it was likely the reduction in volume resulting from my switch to email in the 90’s that dragged the Post Office down in the first place and I won’t kick a guy once he’s face-planted on the dirt.  Therefore, I refuse to contemplate how much a Christmas E-communication would save me on the cost of stamps.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


In the middle of the night, I sure can tell a story. Lately, the bewitching hour so to speak, seems to be somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00, when I wake up, not nearly rested enough. It would, of course, be better to go back to sleep, but since I have no control over that, I daydream, well, night dream— oh, you know what I mean.

For some reason, in spite of the desperate exhaustion inherent in those foggy, half-eye-open moments, that time happens to be the most conducive to good ideas—my favorite blog posts and writing projects have been born during those quiet hours. Perhaps I’m still attached to my subconscious, maybe dreams still resonate— I don’t know. But whatever the cause, sentences slip in like spilled baby oil, smooth and clear. If I could somehow pour them directly onto the page, we’d be in fat city, but those rivers of words never make it to print.

Before you ask, yes, I have a pad of paper beside my bed. Sure, when these thoughts erupt; I jot down notes, but it’s in the dark, without my glasses—when I can find the pen. So while the concepts make it, the liquid free flow that seeps up like ground water in the spring doesn’t. I can never convince myself to get up and fully record the detail. To tell the truth, it’s unlikely the pen could keep up for one, and besides our Yankee skin-flint mentality dictates that the heat goes off in our house at 9:00 p.m. It’s New England y’all. It’s just too darn cold. So the ideas that I ultimately find scribbled on a piece of paper tend to look like this.

Hours later I stare at the scrawl and pull at the lingering threads of memory that remain, knowing that the easy writing, that genius composition that arrived during a sleep deprived half-life has faded away— as happens with all the most comforting dreams.

Now I have to dig for it.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Another "Stars Hollow"* Moment

Early each December our town throws “Christmas on the Common” in which the churches ringing that swath of public space hold a holiday festival. I read the list of activities from the paper the other day to our visiting Australian niece, and she commented: “That sounds like fun…”

It is fun, but before we departed, I clarified to the 25-year-old that the event was “pretty rinky-dink.” She replied in her soft Aussie twang, “I don’t know what rinky-dink means Lize.” Rinky-Dink: small town, simple, unsophisticated, basic—in other words, low key for someone who just completed a trip that included stops in England, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy. Assuring us that the town she grew up in is smaller then ours, niece, daughter and I departed.

A cold wind whipped our faces as we made our way to our first stop, the Unitarian church on the common. Inside, the town-wide band made up of former high school players, ranging in age from recent graduates to senior citizens—all volunteers, mind you— performed a Christmas Concert. Eighteen years ago when we moved to town, this rag-tag group of rusty musicians played with more heart than talent, but after a decade or so under the tutelage of one of the school music teachers, they tackle complex pieces seamlessly. At the end, we were asked to join the band in singing a selection of carols. Gazing down from the choir loft to a tuba player with a stuffed Grinch hanging from his instrument, at a granddaughter in a red jumper sitting on Grandma’s lap and an elderly couple belting out "Joy to the World"—oh heck, I don’t know–this performance always chokes me up.

The band still played as we tiptoed out to walk across to the Congregational church, where a bake sale/craft sale/cheese sale was in full swing. Ignoring the announcement that we had only five minutes left to purchase our tickets for the meat raffle, we threaded through the crowd with a single purpose—to acquire three steaming bowls of clam chowder sold with plastic baggies of Saltine crackers at the back. With our servings slopping over onto a blue plastic tray, we scored a table in the side room and dug in.

My husband doesn’t love chowder, so my daughter and I have made partaking in this particular delight our annual tradition. Once, about five years ago, for some reason the church volunteers changed the recipe, offering up a weak broth filled with sandy clams. In subsequent visits, my daughter and I have taken a deep breath before spooning into our brew, sighing in relief when we realize the error has not been repeated—the soup we slurped up Saturday was salty, thick but not too thick, milk-based, not cream, with a pleasing ratio of chopped clams mixed with sweet onions and tender potatoes. Our niece agreed that it was perfect snack for a cold December afternoon. The piece of achingly sweet baklava that the three of us shared for dessert topped off the meal.

Next, we climbed the steep hill to the Episcopal Church, where all three of us enriched our personal libraries at a used book sale. We skipped the jumble sale in the parish house in favor of the holiday festival at the organic farm a few streets away. There, crafters offered handmade jewelry, wool scarves and tasty jams but, after the director informed us that the “fields” were still producing, we headed into the barn for fresh veggies. Producing yes, but since they were mostly sold out for the day, we headed home.

There we discovered one more festival—while we were out, my husband strung Christmas lights on the bushes and unpacked and displayed our collection of 30 something nutcrackers. With carols blaring, he was still arranging holiday décor as we stepped inside, rubbing our hands in the warmth.

*If you are a past "Gilmore Girls" viewer, you'll understand the reference.  If not, substitute the words "Small Town" and you'll get the gist.
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Friday, December 3, 2010

Checking it Off

Our traveling Australian niece  has returned to the U.S. from her jaunt around Europe. Yesterday, she and I planned to meet in the city for a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,  which she had never heard of and I have always wanted to explore. If you ever come this area and get a chance, take the time to view this magnificent but approachable collection, developed by a unique woman with a passion for culture.

The story goes something like this: Isabella Gardner and her husband amassed a wealth of cultural and art objects, and after Isabella inherited her father’s fortune they decided to create a museum. Her husband died before they could achieve their goal, but she persevered. Purchasing land in a (then) little used section of Boston, she built an extraordinary building that houses amazing artifacts spanning thirty centuries.

According to the museum website, Isabella said: "Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could." Her fascinations included Venice as well as horticulture, so the building was designed as a 15th century Venetian dwelling surrounding a four story courtyard, featuring stunning plantings arranged around raked stone paths. Depending on the time of year, the gardens reflect the season; yesterday, lush green plantings were offset by mounds of brilliant red poinsettias and crimson amaryllis.

Slowly we toured the tiled and creaky wooden floored building, fascinating by the groupings of relics that were arranged to the specifications of the museum creator, who dictated in her will that no arrangement be changed. Her request has been honored, with the exception of a bold and unsolved robbery in 1990,  in which two robbers, dressed as policemen knocked on the door in the middle of the night. Thirteen priceless paintings were stolen, including works by Degas, Manet and Rembrandt. As we walked through the museum, we came upon empty frames and I realized the enormity of the crime…in removing the art the perpetrators not only stole from a collection, but also from you and me…

At the end of our tour, we rested a velvet cushioned bench for several minutes, gazing at the courtyard, where filtered light brightened stone fountains and untouched pathways cut beside marble statues. The trickle of water soothed, arched windows peered down at succulent greenery, and everyone, visitors and workers alike, spoke in hushed voices embellished with smiles; in awe at the this gift of beauty a generous benefactor left for a city.

Plan your visit on your birthday and receive free admission. Oh, and by the way, if your name is Isabella, consider yourself in a world of lucky. You can visit the museum anytime. For free.

Happy Friday all!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Just Keep Swimming

I am strugglingforcing myself actuallyto get through Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oats, which is killing me, because I expected to love it. But no.  It’s been sitting face down where I left it on my bureau several days ago. When our daughter departed for her stage manager duties for the upcoming school production this evening, and my husband was late coming home, I sighed and picked it up again. Inspiration is the last thing I expected from a book that has been sucking me as dry as a raisin.  But then, early on in today's effort, the perfect words appeared. Something good and writing related happened this afternoona teensy victory I’m afraid I’ll jinx  if I share too soon. Keep that in mind though, as you read the following quote:
"What advice can an older writer presume to offer to a younger? Only what he or she might wish to have been told years ago. Don’t be discouraged! Don’t cast sidelong glances and compare yourself to others among your peers! (Writing is not a race. No one really “wins.” The satisfaction is in the effort and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any. ) And again, write your heart out."   Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oats
Nothwithstanding that in my case, we need to swap out the words "older" and "younger" with "experienced" and  "inexperienced," here I am folks. Writing my heart out.

Today I received an inkling that, inch by tortoise-loving inch, it might be getting me somewhere.

Whose words inspire you?