Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

Among my favorite childhood days was New Year's Eve.

When I was growing up, my parents were tight friends with two other couples - Jim and Mary Lou, and Denny and Marlene. The three women had grown up together and graduated from high school together. Dad, Jim, and Denny had known each other since they were teens. For all of my childhood, well into high school, these three couples rotated hosting New Year's Eve.

For the grownups, the night was spent playing cards, eating, and talking. There was some light imbibing; "7 and 7" was the most elaborate drink in any of the households. There was always a coffee pot going and it was not unusual for more than one pot to be brewed in the course of the evening, as all six adults drank coffee morning, noon, and night. Euchre was the game, although I remember a lot of canasta and an occasional game of pinochle.

For us kids, the night was spent eating, playing, and generally behaving like hooligans. Depending on your youth, pajamas were required evening wear. (That was so that as we passed out, we could be scooped up and put on someone's bed while the adults played on.) Slippers were optional. My best friend Cindy was Jim and Mary Lou's daughter, so New Year's Eve meant four or more hours of uninterrupted happiness for us both.

New Year's Eve meant snacks. No one called them "hors d'oeuvres" in our circle. Even "appetizers" was a stretch. These were snacks. Chips and dip, pretzels, M & M's, Christmas cookies, gherkin pickles, cheese balls, Spanish olives, celery sticks filled with cream cheese or peanut butter. Usually there would be a crock full of chili or sloppy joes, but as a kid, I don't ever remember any of us being interested in the "grownup" food. No, we were perfectly happy filling up on the exotica gracing the card table set up for the sole purpose of holding the food. If my mother was the hostess and wanted to really make a statement, she would make her ribbon salad, which was a multicolored Jello concoction with a layer of cream cheese mixed with pineapple. For me, ribbon salad was the height of gourmet dining.

At some point in the evening, someone would turn on the television so the kids could watch Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians usher in the New Year. Nothing interrupted the grownups from their card game.

All of us who were still on our feet would start shouting the countdown as it flashed on the screen. At the magic moment, we would run around screaming "Happy New Year! Happy New Year!" We might mock kiss one another, laughing manically. At the table, everyone would lay down their hands, husbands and wives would kiss, and then the game would resume.

Midnight though was the signal to start winding down the evening. By then, the snacks were pretty picked over; the olives and gherkins were long gone. Children not stopped completely in their tracks by then moved in slow motion. The coffee pot was nearing empty; cups were topped off one last time. The last hands of cards would be played and the last tricks taken. There would be much crowing and jeering over the results. Sleepy children were collected; coats reappeared from the bed on which they had been piled.

A new year was officially launched and the magic was over for another year.

I don't know the last time the three families gathered to ring in the new year; I think the joint dates petered out sometime during my high school years. Things changed; life changed. We kids grew older and made our own plans. The adult circles changed as well; I remember my parents started celebrating New Year's Eve with other friends. The circles grew smaller. Kids grew up and moved out. Denny and Marlene are now both buried in the county cemetery not too far from the plot my parents own. Jim and Mary Lou and my folks still get together from time to time, but the legendary card games are pretty much a thing of the past.

No one is going out this New Year's Eve. Like I said, things changed.

I still think of those long ago celebrations, now some four decades in the past. Nothing else came close to what passed for glamour in our lives during those years. The New Year's Eve picture above was taken December 31, 1967, at the house on Flax Street, my childhood home. I can tell by the clock on the wall and the stove in the background. The little boy in the snazzy leopard print pajamas is my baby brother Mark, not quite five. His best friend, Bobby, is next to him in the white print top and blue bottoms. The girl with the short hair and glasses in the front left is me.

The girl front right with the curl on her cheek? That's Cindy. We're still best friends.

Some things never change.

Happy New Year One and All!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Looking Backwards and Forward

We are down to the dregs of 2009 and I am in that contemplative state that befalls many of us this time of year. I find myself sifting through the last twelve months - What did I accomplish? What took place? - as well as contemplating the next twelve - What will I accomplish? What will happen?

It is appropriate that the first month of our calendar is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus was always represented as having two faces looking in opposite directions. To the Romans, he was the god of gates and doors, doorways, beginnings and endings, and transitions. To me, he is a reminder of the bittersweet nature of my thoughts at this time of year.

2009 brought much good to my life. It was the year of my great garden adventures, of both of my sons making some sweeping lifestyle changes (I believe for the better), of greatly satisfying accomplishments both professionally and as a volunteer, of a rich and full life with Warren, of one amazing Symphony season ended (the 30th) and another one begun that will reach fruition in 2010 (the 31st). It has been an incredible year full of warmth and support and love and friendship and joy, so much so that I would stitch its memories into a quilt if they had tangible form.

And yet…

And yet I have to temper my assessment of 2009 with the reality of the Great Recession and its impact on family, friends, and community. Holiday cards arrived bearing news of difficult times. Both of my sons are looking for work, having spent much of 2009 unemployed. We saw 168 clients at our community's free Legal Clinic this year, a 83% increase over 2008. Our local United Way last spring had fewer dollars for more needs as job losses took away from the former and increased the latter. (As I write those words, I am already gearing up for the allocation discussions to come this spring.)

So many of us - institutions and individuals alike - did more and more with less and less in 2009.

I expect 2010 to follow suit. I believe the Great Recession will hang on longer at the grassroots level than the pundits and politicians realize or admit. It will change us as a people, as a community, and as individuals, just like the Great Depression did 80 years ago.

And yet…

And yet I am not soured on this year now ending or the one to come. Scrooge sneeringly denounced the Christmas season as "a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer." I am no Pollyanna - these times are hard and many of us are not only not an hour richer, but many hours poorer to boot - but I am no Scrooge either. I see the year now ending as one which gave me many gifts and responsibilities in these hard times; I see the year about to begin as being endless in opportunities.

I am not one to make New Year's resolutions. If I could not make life changes during the course of the year, why should I think there is any magic to making one now? So I will make no pronouncements here or anywhere as to how much weight I hope to lose or how much I intend to exercise or how many blog posts I hope to write in the year to come.

Instead, I have a sense in my heart of which projects will rise to the top of my list for 2010 and of what I plan on planting in my gardens - literal and figurative - in the months to come. Some of them will undoubtedly make their way to this blog. Time will tell.

Two centuries ago, the sage Hillel said "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, then what am I? And if not now, when?" Decades ago, I posted that saying on my wall above my desk. I have had it committed to memory for almost as long. I take it out now and hold it up against this time of year, against endings and beginnings, against old and new.

It has served me well all this time. It will guide me again in the year to come.

As I finish these words, it is early Sunday evening. A thick snow, the thickest yet of this winter, is silently scrolling down out of the dark, blanketing the lawn, kissing the outdoor holiday lights. By morning, our neighborhood will be a white slate upon which to write the day.

2010 - a long, clean slate upon which to write the year - is waiting.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmases Past

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"Long past?" inquired Scrooge…
"No. Your past."

I had intended this post to be a series of photos only, from Christmases past, but the popcorn balls intervened, so indulge me while I talk about popcorn balls.

My grandmother Skatzes, my beloved Grandma Skatzes, loved Christmas. It was her favorite holiday. She always announced loudly that Christmas was for children, not for adults, and she meant that. I think though that Grandma always carried a child's delight in life in her heart, and she reveled in the Christmas season.

Christmas in that household meant popcorn balls and Grandma was the sole possessor of the recipe and the sole maker of the balls. Until I was 13, we lived in the same house - my family upstairs from my grandparents - and I loved to come downstairs on popcorn ball day to be with her. When I was very young, she would give me a handful of popcorn or a few caramelized pieces and shoo me out of her kitchen and out of her way. But as we both grew older, she slowly started letting me help - first bagging the balls, then shaping them, then working alongside her cooking the syrup. Even after we moved out of the house, I would come back on popcorn ball day. On one of those days, she finally decided it was time to pass along the recipe to me.

I still have it.

Grandma Skatzes was all but blind, and so cooked the syrup by feel and not by a candy thermometer. Under her tutelage, I learned to judge its consistency with my fingers as it passed from soft to hard stage. (It occurs to me as I type these words that her extremely limited vision was yet another reason she did not want a rambunctious little kid hanging at her elbow while she handled the hot syrup.) She taught me to dip my hands in cold water before shaping the balls to minimize burns. (I quickly learned that burns were part of making popcorn balls.)

Everyone in her large family watched and waited for Grandma's popcorn balls. It was the one flavor that Christmas needed to be complete. Grandma made them in massive quantities; I remember bagging over 300 one day. She made them for the families of her children and any adult grandchildren who were known to be coming into town for the holidays. By the end of popcorn ball day, there would be paper grocery bags filled to the brim on all of the kitchen chairs.

What I never knew was when and how this tradition got started. Was it something Grandma began in the depths of the Great Depression, trying to make Christmas a little more festive? Did it date back to her childhood? All I know is that we all looked forward to the sack of popcorn balls arriving each December, and how everyone - young and old alike - regretted when there was only one left, because that meant the end of the popcorn balls until the next Christmas.

Grandma died in early 1978; she had stopped making popcorn balls some years before that. When she made her last batch, she gave me two pans - a large roaster pan and a very heavy pot - which were the critical pieces of popcorn ball making equipment. I have carried those pans from here to Chicago, to Oregon, to California, and back again to my hometown for the last 30 some years.

Over those years, I have made popcorn balls sporadically, but never in the volume Grandma did. My life was complicated and there were other demands. My children have only had them a few times at the holidays.

This year, I am making popcorn balls.

I popped the popcorn this morning - four pounds of it - dumping it into grocery bags to cool just like Grandma always did. I have already burned a finger on the heavy pot - the one in which I will make syrup later today - because I forgot that somewhere in its past the wooden handle came off and my grandfather's repair included a large threaded nut that gets as hot as the pan. It will scorch your fingers if you forget and touch it while cleaning up.

Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned popcorn balls more than once in her Little House books - they were on the church Christmas tree in Plum Creek and they appear again at a Christmas in De Smet when Almanzo surprises Laura by coming home early from a trip east. They appear in Robert P. Tristam Coffin's Christmas memoir, "Christmas in Maine," where they were "big as muskmelons." My guess is that popcorn balls are woven into the fabric of our country's past and probably make more literary appearances than even I could imagine.

They are certainly woven into the fabric of my past.

It is that fabric that will be swaddling my heart later today when I make them. I cannot wait for the smell of the syrup, for the crunch as I shape them, and even for the small scorches which are part and parcel of the making. They will bring me memories of Grandma Skatzes, memories of my childhood, and memories of Christmas past.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Christmas, 1957

Christmas, 1962

Christmas, 1986

Christmas, 1991



Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Spirit

I am sitting at a rehearsal writing this in pen. This is the last weekend of concerts for Warren in a month full of them.

It is the Friday night before Christmas.

While the musicians and chorus were taking their places on stage, I plumped my jacket up on the seat back next to me and tucked myself into the briefest of naps.

I am that tired.

The performances this weekend are in Mansfield, about an hour north of us. With the short days, it was already deep dusk by the time we left the house tonight. Much of the drive is through rural areas. The crops are all in; the bare field stretch away into the dark. In the cold evening gloom, the Christmas lights here and there stood out sharply.

The county immediately north of us is one of the state's poorest outside of Appalachian Ohio. There was a sign in the town square of the county seat that there would be a food drive, right there, tomorrow morning.

Just a small reminder of how hard the times are.

Despite the times, even the shabbiest houses have a string of lights on the door or a tree in a window. This reminded me of a scene from the short story, "Star Across the Tracks:"

Then Ernie signaled and the little procession swung down out of High View and circled into the part of town where the blocks were prosaically rectangular and everything became smaller; yards, houses, Christmas trees.

"Look!" mamma said happily. "Ain't it nice? There ain't no patent on it. Everyone can make merry. Every little house can have its own fun and tree, just the same as the big ones."

"Star Across the Tracks" was written by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a Nebraska writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Aldrich, whose legacy is a whole handful of novels, also wrote a number of stories mostly set in Depression-era Nebraska. A number of them, all about Christmas, can be found in her collection, Journey Into Christmas.

Aldrich wrote about what she saw and experienced firsthand in Nebraska during the 1930s. She wrote of the shock of losing the family business or the hard-earned savings of a lifetime. She wrote of everyday men and women struggling to stay afloat during a holiday time and feeling only a dullness as the holidays approached.

I like Aldrich's Christmas stories because while they often end on a quiet, positive note, she keeps them grounded in the reality of the era. Jobs are not miraculously restored; savings are not replenished. Her characters have to dig deep inside themselves to resolve the conflict in their hearts between the promise of the Christmas season and the reality of their daily lives. They invariably do so (it is fiction, after all), but not without considerable effort and thoughtfulness on their parts.

I have written recently that I have not found my Christmas spirit yet this season. If by "Christmas spirit" I mean the holly, jolly, jingle bells, deck the halls kind, I can safely say I probably won't be finding it this year.

But if by that phrase I mean the quiet, thoughtful kind of spirit, then maybe just maybe I am already halfway there. It was in the faces of the church school children caroling the other morning in the downtown coffee shop where I happened to be with Margo. It was in Warren's voice as we drove to rehearsal when he suggested we get a tree Saturday morning. It will be in Mt. Gilead's city parking lot tomorrow morning during the food drive.

And maybe, if I look deep inside myself, it might just be inside me too.

Postscript: We woke this morning to the first real snow of that season, both of us catching our breaths at the transformation of outdoors. That was enough to get us out the door early; we even bought a Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ben's Birthday

My son Ben is (gulp) 24 years old today.

24? How did he get to be 24? Wasn't he just 16 last week? Or 7?

Didn't I bring him home from the hospital just the other day?

A kaleidoscope of images dance in my head. Ben laughing the first time, learning to walk, learning to swim, learning to read, starting school, discovering music. Destination Imagination, marching band, In the Know. Books everywhere. I remember his coming back from a weekend visit to Reed and announcing he had found the college he wanted to attend; I remember him joyfully showing me the email announcement when he was accepted.

Ben headed to college in 2004 and, after the summer of 2005, never returned to my home again except as a visitor. He set up his own apartment and life elsewhere. He's been way far away all of that time. Until a few weeks ago, he lived in Portland, Oregon. He and Alise, my almost daughter-in-law, recently moved to Helena, Montana (her hometown), which brought him 700 miles closer to my front door, but it's still a long ways from here to there.

When Ben arrived at college, he was instantly home in ways he could not be elsewhere. He found acceptance and friendship and respect and Alise, all at the same place. From afar, I got to watch him assemble his life with the concentration he once brought to his building blocks. And while all the blocks aren't in place yet, I stand back and look at his life with the same amazement that I had when he was four.

The bond that Ben and I have shared from his birth forward is books. I read to Ben before he was two days old. His first night home from the hospital, I propped him in my arms, opened Are You My Mother, and began.

"A mother bird sat on her egg."

Every night of that first year - through colic, through croup, through teething - I read. Almost every night after that for the next 14 years, I read. I loved books and this child of mine also loved books. Once he learned to read, Ben took off on his own literary adventures, but we continued to share an hour at bedtime most nights, my reading aloud to him or sometimes the two of us taking turns. Then someone interfered and demanded that it stop. That broke off our time together reading, but it never broke that bond.

Books and more books. When Ben was in 4th grade, he had two desks, side by side. One was for him, the other was for his books. When he went off to college, he had to leave his books behind, but quickly began acquiring more books. When Warren and I moved into this house, I boxed up Ben's books and put them in the attic. There are nine or ten boxes up there. Maybe more. (And I didn't even box the children's books.) After Ben and Alise moved to Montana, Alise emailed me about the move being seamless, "only a little stressful trying to fit all of our beloved books into the small space in the car." I can only imagine.

I don't know what the future holds for Ben. I am quite sure it will continue to hold books. Like Thomas Jefferson, Ben cannot live without them. I hope and trust it will continue to hold Alise - funny, bright, engaging, loving, caring, theatrical, passionate, book-devouring Alise, who has brought joy and light to Ben's life.

Whatever it holds for you, Ben, know that I am there too, championing you.

I look back at all the books that flowed through our hands, from Redwall to Mordor, from dinosaurs to Feynman, from Seuss to Sutcliff. Whether we were down the rabbit hole with Alice or on the road with Stuart Little, Ben and I journeyed together, sharing a love of the story, a love of the books, a love of one another.

Happy 24th, Ben.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December Oncology Report


Such a fragile word. Such a powerful word.

I saw my oncologist today. My oncologist, the wonderful and skilled and thoughtful Timothy Moore, and not his colleague, Dr. Bully.

My appointment was for 10:30, and all morning before leaving, I paced and rehashed (briefly, briefly) the disastrous July appointment. I was in tears from time to time and wondered if I could keep my voice from breaking at my appointment.

By the time Warren picked me up, I was tense and edgy. Thinking I was masking it well, I immediately said, "I'm not happy. I'm tense and edgy."

Warren did not roll his eyes, which he would have been more than entitled to do. Instead, he squeezed my hand and said "I know."

On the hospital elevator to fourth floor, I felt the tears coming dangerously close to the surface. "I'm nervous. I'm scared." "I know you are, it's okay." "I'm scared Dr. Bully is going to show up."

As I checked in, just short of hyperventilating by then, Warren pointed to a large sign that said "Dr. Moore." Okay, so my doc was in. Whew. Then as we sat in the waiting area, I heard Tim's voice down the hallway.

Warren nudged me. "That sounds like Tim."

I nodded. My breathing started to return to normal.

I don't think I quite believed I was seeing my doctor until he blew through the door of the examining room with his trademark grin and hearty handshake. We briefly discussed what happened in July. Tim offered neither excuses nor apologies for his colleague's bad behavior, but said, firmly, "you will only see me from now on."

And then we moved on to my myeloma. My myeloma, which has gone unexamined and without thoughtful review for months now. My myeloma, which I have now known and lived with intimately for five years and one month. (But who's counting?)

Last week I had a kappa free light chain assay - the new gold standard for monitoring myeloma - done for the first time.

And the results?

I am still floating in Cancerland. My numbers show the same low-level myeloma activity that has gone on for the last three years. Because this was my first light chain done, I had no baseline for self-comparison, but Tim pointed to one number and said "see that 5? It should be below 2 in a person with no myeloma. My patients with full-blown myeloma? That number is in the hundreds."

Floating, floating, floating. My spirits started to soar.

Tim and I talked about myeloma treatments (none of which I need yet), about my swimming and walking, about my energy levels, about our respective children. We talked about my lack of medical insurance, about this country's failure to solve the healthcare issue, about my potential lack of options (because of cost) should my myeloma reactivate. We talked about all the amazing treatments today that did not exist five years ago when Tim and I first met. He decided which lab tests in which sequences he would order so as not to bankrupt me, then said "I'll see you in March. Have a great holidays, you two!," flashed his grin, and was gone.

The weight of the stress I had been carrying since July was off my shoulders. I all but danced out the room with Warren trailing behind. My cancer is still floating! It's there, we all know it's there, but it is behaving itself! The KGB hasn't moved in yet!

When I got home, I had a voicemail from my friend Doug, who is in the middle of a battle with stomach cancer that makes my experiences look like a cakewalk. I caught him by phone before he left his office, and we caught up, first on work, and then on cancer. Doug is going through increasingly stronger chemotherapy, with the goal being surgery in January. Despite the nausea, the energy loss, the uncertainty, Doug's first words were "I am so blessed." Blessed because he appears to be responding to treatment, blessed because his family and friends and colleagues are all standing shoulder to shoulder to help him through this trial, blessed because he is still alive. I shared with Doug my own Cancerland news and could feel his genuine joy through the phone lines.

Talking with Doug was the unexpected icing on the already substantial cake I'd been given earlier this morning.

I then emailed my friend Cindy the news and she responded gleefully. She thought maybe now I could feel some Christmas spirit.

Maybe I will. We'll see.

I do know what I feel right now though. Grateful. Blessed.

And full of hope.

The Book Bunch

Tomorrow is my son Ben's birthday and I am finishing the post for his birthday. It is also the birthday of my friends Ada, Margo, and Scott.

These four birthday celebrants are among the most avid readers I know. I have some other friends who are also Big Readers, but these four take the cake. All but Ben live here in Delaware and the two most common sentences I exchange with them are "so what are you reading?" and "have you read [fill in the blank]?"

Is that merely coincidence?

There is a Talmudic passage that states that every unborn baby has a lit candle by its head so that it can see both into the past and into the future. The unborn baby is all-knowing. At birth, an angel taps it on the lips and the baby forgets everything it learned in the womb, so that it may enter the world in innocence and purity.

When I look at the December 16th bunch, I wonder whether that same angel nonetheless gave them each a little nudge and whispered "try reading."

Happy birthday, my bookish friends!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Clementine

Sunday morning was gray and cold. We were loading the timpani in the rain, in the dark, as Warren had an early morning rehearsal for a church service he was playing. I started laughing as we grew soggy; life really is never, ever dull around Warren.

We were both quiet on the 30 minute drive to Columbus. Warren admitted he was thinking of music - of the service that morning, of the Symphony's holiday concerts that afternoon. My mind was on…everything. Sam, work, baking, the legal clinic this Tuesday, the medical bills still lingering from Dr. Bully running roughshod over my medical care and my budget last July, this Tuesday's appointment at long last with my oncologist, Ben's birthday midweek, Montana, our not having any Christmas decorations out let alone up, the concerts later that day.


The church Warren was playing at was Maple Grove Methodist, where he always plays for the Easter services. I have written about Maple Grove before. I like the minister there. I like the feel of the church. It is very oriented to service - not just within its congregation but also within its community.

I like that. I always come away from a Maple Grover church service feeling cared for and uplifted.

Yesterday was no exception. A line in one of the offered prayers caught my ear: "Help us remember you do not ask us to heal everything, but rather simply find a way in which we may lighten someone's burden."

I liked that line. I wrote it down on a Mini-Methodist Doodle Pad with a pencil, both of which I borrowed from the children's corner.

Reverend Croy's sermon that morning was on living the repentant life. He spoke about John the Baptist's message to early followers. "Share. That's what he first told them to do. If you have, give. The repentant life is as simple as sharing a coat or a meal."

I carried those words out of church and back to Delaware and through two holiday concerts (really wonderful, excellent, superb holiday concerts) and through two more hours of breaking down the stage and hauling instruments back to our house. I thought about them this morning as I started my day.

They were still on my mind when, walking back home after my Monday morning walk with my friend Patricia, I heard someone shout my name. It was Ruth, who is Cora's mother, Cora being a friend of Ben's for the last 16 years and a young woman whom I have had the extreme pleasure and honor to know and watch grow up over those years.

I have known Ruth for 16 years as well and always enjoy talking with her, even though our lives don't often intersect. Today we talked (me standing in the street, Ruth with her car window rolled down) for 15 minutes about Cora, about Ben, about ourselves, about Life. We laughed, we sighed, we shared ourselves.

Reaching for a notepad to write the title of this blog down, Ruth pulled a small orange sphere out of her purse instead. "Here," she said, handing it to me through her car window as she continued to scrabble for the notepad, "have a clementine." We were talking about sharing, about how so many women write blogs because we like to share.

Ruth sharing her fruit was automatic and effortless. I laughed and told her I would blog about the clementine.

We went our separate ways and I walked the remaining two blogs to the house. I thought back to the sermon yesterday.

Share. If you have, give.

Ruth did that for me this morning. She shared, she gave. Not just a clementine, but her thoughts, her friendship, her warmth.

I came away uplifted.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Losing the Lip

Somewhere, in some short story I read in some age long past, there was a colloquy between a little girl and the household cook in which the cook, commenting on the girl's pronounced pout, said something about her lip being stuck out so far that someone (get the idea I can't quite pull the quote out of the garbage bin in my mind?) could hitch a ride on it.

In my mind, if not in person, my lip feels that far stuck out. Someone, or something, could hitch a ride on it.

Oh, I'm not in a bad mood. Not at all.

I'm just in one of those I-can't-turn-around-without-stepping-on-myself moods that hit from time to time. I spent much of yesterday baking. A chunk of today will be spent that way as well. I enjoy baking, but I am about "baked out."

Last night was spent with Symphony board and volunteers decorating Gray Chapel for the holiday concerts. I drew the "program stuffing" detail, which meant first refolding almost 1000 inserts "right side out" and then stuffing it and two other pieces into 1000 programs for tomorrow's two concerts. There were five of us on this task, one a professor of ornithology who told us stories about all the places he has been - all over the world, including Antarctica - and the things he has done in pursuit of his subjects in such a droll way that I laughed my way through the folding and stuffing. Still, it was A LOT of folding and stuffing. Following on the heels of my baking all day, it finished off my energy and my hands, putting the final chapped layer on top of skin already battered from a day spent drenched either in or hot soapy water as I washed dishes.

If I rub my fingers together, there is the faint sound of very fine sandpaper.

And the Christmas cactus, which has not had a good year, just dropped the lone bud it managed to produce.

Sharon at Musings of a Midlife Mom recently posted about having no Christmas spirit yet. I commented "I am having trouble finding my own "Christmas spirit" this year - so much so that I keep trying to write a blog post about it and can't even get that out! I don't know if I feel like saying "Bah Humbug!" - mine is more the "let me sit quietly over here and not think about it."

I still feel that way. I am not in the Bah Humbug camp and hope I never am. If I were ever a character in A Christmas Carol (one of my favorite books), I might echo Scrooge's nephew Fred, who defends Christmas to his uncle in an oratory burst that ends with these stirring words: "And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

But the Christmas spirit per se? It hasn't kicked in yet, despite the radio being turned to the station that plays Christmas songs continually and despite the greeting cards that are starting to appear in our mailbox and despite the smells of baking that permeate this house.

But I don't think I am pouting about my lack of Christmas spirit. Oh, it will come, but it might be a little later and a lot more pensive this year. That is not what is making me pout.

No, I am pouting because in a (I hope rare) fit of self-indulgence, I am feeling put out, put upon, put to work, and put to the test, all in one breath! I am worrying too much and counting my blessings too little. I am dwelling on the small moments of irritation and not the small moments of great reward. I am thinking too much of all the things as of yet undone, and not enough of what truly is meaningful and necessary to turn my hand to and complete.

In the movie "White Christmas," Bing sings "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" to Rosemary Clooney. It is an annoyingly cloying song, but the point is well made. Only my version would be "Count Your Blessings Instead of All Your Annoyances," which would be not at all alliterative and difficult to rhyme to boot.

It is early morning here. The sun is bright despite the thermometer reading of 17. Warren headed out to Gray Chapel just after sunrise to set up the percussion section and do last minute office work before rehearsal. He just now zoomed in and back out again to grab a conga drum. (Life is never, ever dull around here.) I have butter coming to room temperature on the counter and a bag of sliced apples and one of grated zucchini thawing in the sink. I told Warren I would come over to rehearsal later this morning and take some pictures for him, so need to gear up for that shortly.

I plan on walking, knowing that the brisk, cold hike will do me good. I am counting on it to give me time to lose the lip, shake off my mood, and turn my heart to the gifts of the day and maybe, just maybe, the gifts of the season.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Tree Cutter

"We're really hurting for work."

The speaker was a young man, maybe all of thirty, but maybe younger than that. He was part of a small crew taking down a tree next door. He saw me watching the operation from the back patio door and a minute or two later was at our front door, offering to make an estimate on some tree work in our own yard. In his opinion, the pine in the front needed elevated; a couple of small trees in the back should come down.

He looked at me and said "if you let us do any of it right now today while we're here, I'll give you an even better price."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that the likelihood of our hiring him or anyone else to take down the trees was slim at best. Warren does a lot of that work himself and our dollars are pretty much earmarked for other projects. I let him do the estimate and then stood outside in the cold while he did so out of sympathy for someone looking so young and so worn down.

His name was Daren and he talked his way through the estimate as he wrote it out. He had enough of a hills accent in his speech to be noticeable, so I surmised he may have grown up in southeastern Ohio.

Daren's hands were calloused and work-hardened, but his handwriting was tiny and delicate. The only place where his dialect slipped into his writing was when he wrote that the price was negotiable "a lil bit."

Daren talked about the company while he estimated the job. They had come over from Springfield, about an hour from here. They weren't getting much work in that area, so they were taking jobs farther away.

Daren said that he had a bigger truck with a chipper attachment, but that a flywheel had gone out and it would cost $1600 to fix. "I don't have that kind of money right now," he said, explaining why instead the crew was driving a pickup truck with a small trailer for hauling. He said by the time they paid for gas and for a dump to take the debris, they barely broke even on most jobs.

I told him about a local company that will take yard waste at no charge because after composting and mulching it, they sell the results back to landscapers and gardeners in the community. I volunteered to look up the number for him, telling him maybe he could dump the tree branches there on the way out of town. Daren gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write it down for him, thanking me when I brought the paper back out.

I wish I had just taken a pie or a tray of cookies from the oven and could have offered it to Daren and his crew. I wish I had a pot of coffee that I could have carried out to them. Not to play Lady Bountiful, but to let them know I knew that they were doing cold, hard work and that these are cold, hard times. But I didn't have any cookies or coffee and I couldn't think of any gesture, short of hiring them, that would have been meaningful.

Eventually they brought the tree down. The four young men sawed the trunk up, which they stacked neatly for our neighbor's fireplace, and carried the branches to the trailer. I heard rather than saw them drive off, imagining the drive back to Springfield and how much, if anything, they cleared on this job. I hoped they called the company I mentioned so they could lighten their load and save a few dollars.

I know I won't see Daren again. It was one of those small encounters that we all have - a stranger in the checkout line, the person riding the elevator at the hospital, the couple also waiting to be seated at the restaurant. All the same, I find myself wishing fiercely for better times for this young man who is trying so hard just to stay even, let alone get ahead.

I don't know what Christmas holds for Daren but I doubt it is a new flywheel. I hope at the very least it holds a year to come for him - for all of the Darens out there - that is less hurtful and more secure than the one that is just ending.

We could all use a year like that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving Pie

"I didn't know you could," Carrie breathed, looking wide-eyed at the pie.

I don't know yet," said Ma. She slipped the pie into the oven and shut the door on it. "But the only way to find out is to try. By dinnertime we'll know."

from The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilders

Longtime fans of the Little House books will recognize the above lines from the time Ma made a green pumpkin pie as a surprise for Pa. Upon tasting the pie, he pronounced it a success: "Ma always could beat the nation cooking."

Ma was on my mind this weekend as I took stock of the remaining Thanksgiving leftovers. Most of what has not been consumed went into the freezer, but there was still a small bowl of homemade cranberry sauce sitting in the refrigerator. What to do, what to do?

When in doubt, bake.

Over the years, I have seen several recipes for cranberry/apple pies. I never made one, but remembered they took fresh cranberries, not cranberry sauce. My sauce was fresh cranberries stewed with sugar and nothing else. If I drained the sauce off and mixed it with the apples, then I wouldn't need anything more than spices to make my pie complete.

So that is what I did this morning. The result is cooling on the table as I type. They say the proof is in the pudding, but in this case the proof is in the pie. We are off to a waffle supper at Margo and Gerald's this evening and we will cut it then. Margo and I frequently talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books, so Ma's quote nudging me this morning fits just right.

The other quote that went through my mind as I crimped the crust today was my favorite from World War II: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."

Another era, another book, another time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hunger Knows No Season

Note: When I first posted this yesterday, I wrote that "one in eight" is food insecure. I did my math wrong: it is one in SIX of us! I corrected the post below.

Just ten days before Thanksgiving this year, the USDA released its annual report on food insecurity in this nation. "Food insecurity" is the measurement of the degree to which one's access to "enough food" (enough to meet basic nutritional needs) is limited by a lack of money and other resources.

The news was not good.

Here are some of the grim facts, compiled by Feeding America in its review of the report:

  • In 2008, 49.1 million (16.4%) Americans lived in food insecure households compared to 36.2 million (12.2%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 17.2 million (14.6%) American households are food insecure compared to 13 million (11.1%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 8.3 million (21%) households with children are living in food insecure households compared to 6.2 million (15.8%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 16.7 million (22.5%) children are living in food insecure households compared to 12.4 million (16.9%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 2.3 million (8.1%) households with seniors were living in food insecure households compared to 1.8 million (6.5%) in 2007.
  • The number of individuals who are food insecure increased 36% over 2007 and the number of children increased 35% over 2007.
The short version is this: one in six of us is food insecure, unless you are talking about children. One in four of our children is food insecure.

Just this past weekend, the New York Times ran an article about food stamps. Guess what? Food stamp programs nationwide are seeing a huge influx of applicants. About 20,000 people per day are added to the program. In some parts of the country, the rolls have more than doubled in two years.

In the Times article, an undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, is quoted as saying, "[t]his is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression. It's time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people (emphasis added)."

We are all growing hungrier and hungrier - some of us literally, some of us figuratively. Some of us do without or skimp on meals so there is more for others at the table. Some of us have family members and friends who struggle to get enough food. Some of us prepare food wondering who in our hometowns is going hungry tonight?

One in six of us is.

Many of us just celebrated a holiday dedicated to eating. Coming up next is a season of multiple holidays in which foods play an important role.

Locally, People in Need (P.I.N.) is gearing up for its annual Holiday Clearing House, which distributes food, toys, and necessities for the holiday season to needy families. Last year, P.I.N.'s holiday efforts helped 491 families and 168 seniors/disabled households. This year the numbers are even greater; P.I.N. had over 500 families registered more than two months ago.

And that's just for the holidays. In 2008, P.I.N, which runs our emergency food pantry, provided 51,650 meals to 1845 households. In those households were 3246 adults and 2554 children. That was a 10% increase over 2007. 2009 will see even greater numbers.

As the staff and volunteers that run P.I.N. know, hunger is more than just a seasonal affliction. We know that in our household - the Symphony's Board of Trustees has already given Warren the go-ahead for another benefit concert in 2010 to help fill the shelves of P.I.N.'s food warehouse.

I have written about hunger before and I will in all likelihood write about it again. To me, hunger is the face of the Great Recession. I see hungry clients at our monthly legal clinic. I see hungry individuals at court when they sign in at the bailiff's table. And sometimes I see a hungry family member at our own table, which makes me quietly pack a bag of groceries, grateful that I have something to share, even if it is just peanut butter and crackers, pasta and homemade tomato sauce.

In this holiday season, while we are planning our holidays meals, let us not forget those of us whose cupboards and refrigerators are bare. Find a food bank or a meals program. Donate dollars, donate food, donate time, not just for this season, but for all seasons.