Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bountiful Biscotti

I used to bake lots and lots and lots of cookies at Christmas. Cutout cookies, kisses cookies, macaroons, apricot jam crescents, crinkle cookies, snickerdoodles, cream cheese twists, peppermint sandwiches - cookies, cookies, cookies. Besides eating them "in house," I also gave away plates of cookies to friends and family.

I still bake lots of cookies at Christmas, but over the years I have reduced the types of cookies I make. Some of that is a function of age: it was a lot easier and more fun to make dozens of different types when I was younger and had more stamina. Some of it is a function of time passing: I'm not baking for my boys anymore, and they were a huge part of the fun of baking different types.

Some of it is the realization that I bake some types of cookies better than others.

What I bake now, almost but not quite exclusively, is biscotti. I always bake the same type: a plain pecan type spiced with cinnamon. I bake biscotti by the dozens and distribute it widely, leaving a trail of biscotti crumbs as I go. This year, I baked six or seven batches, or some 500 plus biscotti. They went out from coast to coast, with the heaviest concentration of them of them being sprinkled through the Midwest.

Over the years, friends and family have asked me for the recipe. I never hesitate to hand it out: it is not a secret family recipe, but rather one I probably found in either Family Circle or Woman's Day many years ago. This year, blogger friends Sharon and Ellen both asked for the recipe. In responding to Ellen, I wrote: I don't have a great story like the peanut brittle story to go along, other than one of friendship and good flavors (well, I guess that IS a great story!).

So here is the biscotti recipe. It is full of flavor and helps fortify friendships. Make some yourself, pass it around, and see if you agree.

BISCOTTI
1½ cups pecans*
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon**
5 eggs
2 cups sugar
½ cup melted butter***                   
1 ½ tablespoons grated orange rind****

Notes on ingredients
 *This recipe originally called for almonds. I prefer pecans; I have made it both ways.
**At a minimum. If I am using what I call OTC cinnamon (the regular, widely available stuff as opposed to more pungent specialty cinnamons), I usually use 3 to 4 teaspoons.
***Original recipes calls for unsalted. Salted will not kill the recipes. I have never made this with margarine or any other substitute, so I have no experience with using something else.
****Use it if you have it. Will not make or break the recipe. (I often omit this step because I rarely have grated orange rind available.)

Steps
  1. Preheat over to 350°. Prepare 2 baking sheets: I use parchment paper, but you may coat lightly with vegetable spray or Crisco.
  2. Chop (by hand or with food processor) ½ cup of pecans fine (like flour); set aside.
  3. Coarse chop the remainder of the pecans and place in small bowl with flour, baking powder and cinnamon.
  4. In large bowl, beat eggs on medium speed until fluffy. Add finely ground pecans (the ½ cup), sugar, butter, and orange peel. Beat until blended. Note: I use a mixer through this step. Stir in flour/pecan mixture to form dough. The dough should be fairly stiff and heavy, but not dry.
  5. Divide dough into quarters. On well-floured work surface, roll and shape each quarter into a log approximately 12 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. It is like rolling "snakes" from clay; dust your hands with flour. Place 2 logs on each baking sheet and bake 25-30 minutes, until "firm in center" per the original recipe. There is no magic to this: 25 to 30 minutes in a stove at 350° will get the desired results. Note: you can bake both sheets (all 4 logs) at the same time, rotating top/bottom, front/back at 15 minutes. I used to do this, but now bake one sheet of logs at a time.
  6. Let logs cool slightly: 10-15 minutes. While still warm, cut each log diagonally into ½ inch thick slices (or whatever other thickness you desire). Place slices face down on baking sheets (as opposed to on edge). Bake 7-8 minutes; turn slices and repeat on other side. Again, you can bake two sheets of biscotti at the same time; rotating top/bottom, front/back. Depending on your cutting and layout skills, you may get all biscotti cooked at the same time. They can be crowded together, as they do not spread. Cool on wire rack.
  7. Makes up to 80 cookies, depending on how thick you cut the slices. I tend to get 20 cookies to a log.
This is a pretty sturdy recipe and allows for imprecision in the kitchen. The baking time on the slices is as much a function of personal preference as to crispiness of biscotti as it is the clock. In a pinch, you can even get away with not turning the biscotti over for the final baking, but just bake them longer on the same side. It all depends on your patience and tolerance for handling hot cookies.

Enjoy!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Christmas That Fits

It is the day after Christmas. There are some occasional snowflakes coming down outside - more fretful than anything serious. The house is warm. Warren was on the couch, tapping away on his laptop, but now he is down in the basement, sorting out music. Xylophone music - a recording of virtuoso George Hamilton Green - rattles its way back up the steps to the kitchen. I was folding laundry; now I am baking biscotti. There is a quiet to the house and a peacefulness.

My thoughts have been all over the board today. I had an email this morning in which a good friend wrote: Yesterday was a total bust!  Spent most of the day on the couch.  Wasn't sick, just couldn't make myself do anything!  Mom & I wanted to go shopping but of course nothing was open!  With our family doing Christmas on Christmas Eve, and no other family to go to any more, Christmas Day is nothing!

I laughingly replied that one major way in which she and I differ greatly is any day of the year, no matter what, I would NOT want to go shopping. I then tried to answer her in a more serious vein, giving up for fear of sounding preach or goofy or both.

But a thread of thought about Christmas has tugged at my fingers and at my conscience all morning, so much so that I am sitting down to write it.

It has been a different Christmas for us this year. Let me start out by noting that for the five Christmases Warren and I have celebrated together, the hallmark of them all has been low key celebration, not free-for-all shopping sprees and wild extravaganzas of consumerism. Neither our budgets nor our personal tastes lean in those directions. But even by our standards, this year was very quiet.

The blogger at I am the working poor honored me by linking to an earlier post of mine in her Christmas Day post. I commented back that economic conditions are still grim (and in my opinion grimmer) than when I wrote the post a month ago. Our biggest holiday outlays this year were for family members whose budgets are way past tight. Some are struggling to keep food on the table or a roof overhead. Some have lost that roof; some are getting their groceries from food pantries. In those situations, even a "small" gift - $25, say - is enormous.

When faced with that kind of need, Christmas is simple.

I guess the real question for all of us to answer is "why do we celebrate Christmas and what do we expect it to be or feel like?" Your answer will differ from mine, and that's fine. It is when your answer differs from your celebration that you run into difficulties (or at least I do).

My answers have changed several times in my lifetime. As I look back, I seem to be constantly removing layers of expectations from my thoughts about Christmas, not unlike peeling an onion.

Christmas 2010 was very low key in terms of commercial consumption, yet rich in all the ways that count, starting with family. We breakfasted on vegan cinnamon rolls that Warren and his children had baked the night before. We then opened presents together, laughing and teasing. Warren's children moved on to Christmas with their grandmother and a small wave of my family moved in for lunch. It was a simple meal, a good one, and the flavor of the food was matched and exceeded only by the talk and the laughter around the table. Our "daughter" Amy showed up in the evening with her fiancé; I talked by phone with both of my sons. After everyone was gone, Warren and I cuddled together on the couch and watched "A Christmas Carol" with George C. Scott, one of my favorite holiday films.

And that was Christmas 2010. Other than wishing that Ben, Alise, and Sam were also joining us at the table, it was one of the better Christmases I have spent when it came to how I felt about the day. I have often found Christmas hard to deal with both from an emotional standpoint and also in terms the rampant consumerism. By choice and design, our Christmas was quiet and personal and frugal. It fit.

I hope yours did too.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Grandma's Voice

The first time I saw the movie "Peggy Sue Got Married," a 1986 film with Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage, I cried at one scene. I have seen the movie once or twice since then, and that same scene still gets me.

For those of you who are not familiar with the movie, Peggy Sue faints at her 25th high school reunion and reawakens in her high school past with all of the knowledge of her adult life. The scene that never fails to get me takes place in the family kitchen. The phone rings, Peggy Sue answers it, and it is her grandmother. In Peggy Sue's adult world, her grandmother, who she adored, had died several years earlier.

Kathleen Turner plays the scene exquisitely. You see the love and pain cross her face as she realizes she is hearing her grandmother's voice again. She fights tears, her voice catches, and then she thrusts the phone at her mother because she is so overcome she cannot talk.

My grandmother Skatzes, "grandma Skatzes," was that beloved grandmother in my life. She had been dead some eight years when I first saw the scene in the movie. More than once, I have wished I could hear grandma's voice again.

Yesterday my mom came over for tea and talk. Halfway through the conversation, she asked me if I knew any way to convert cassette tapes to CD. She has no cassette player, none of the my brothers has a cassette player. Did I know what could be done? Sure, Warren can take them to OWU when the audio/visual department reopens after break and they'll do it.

I asked mom what was on the tapes, assuming it was music. She said "well, it's two full cassettes your uncle Buster did of Mom talking and telling stories. I've had them in a drawer for years."

I stared at my mom, dumbfounded. She's had two cassettes of grandma Skatzes "for years" and I am just now finding out? (I had previously known of the tapes, but had heard they had long disappeared.)

"Mom, I have a cassette player. Do you have the tapes with you?"

She did. A few minutes later we were listening to grandma telling a story about her grandfather. I couldn't understand all the words because she was so soft spoken, but I knew immediately the rise and fall of grandma's voice - an almost musical lilt she had that I remembered so well even all these years later.

My eyes filled with tears.

That evening, when Warren and I were out running errands, I started to tell him about the incident. I related the movie scene that had moved me so much so many years ago, and my voice choked up as if on cue. I then told him the wonder of hearing my grandma's voice again after so very many years, and my voice caught again.

The tapes are now on my desk, waiting to be converted. Mom and I listened for about five minutes yesterday. The longer I listened, the more I could understand grandma's words. I haven't turned them back on; I don't know if I am able yet to handle them except in the tiniest of doses. Even something as pure as joy occasionally needs to be meted out.

I have written before about grandma's love of Christmas. I find it somewhat more than coincidence that these tapes should appear at this time of year. It is a seasonal touch from her that I am blessed to receive, grateful to hear her voice one more time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nothing Says "Christmas" Like…

Nothing says "Christmas" like...

…a dead mouse.

Well, to be accurate, an ornament with a dead mouse as an integral part of it.

Yesterday was the annual Shade & Shade Ornament Exchange and Luncheon. Shade & Shade is the law firm I worked at for almost a decade when I moved back home in late 1990. I don't remember when it happened, but somewhere along the way, someone, probably my dear friend Laurie, one of the secretaries there, organized an ornament exchange among the staff. We'd gather for lunch at the office, each bringing a wrapped ornament, eat together, and then draw numbers and pick an ornament from the wrapped pile. Over the years, some of the faces have changed, but the tradition rolls on. I left the firm in January, 2000, but have continued to participate in the Exchange every December.

While I don't remember every ornament I have received over the years, there are many I look at as I am decorating the tree and instantly think "ah, Shade & Shade."

This year's ornament will forever be first on that list.

Yesterday was fun. It always is. Of the eight of us in the room, most had worked together for over a decade, over two decades or more in some cases. (Laurie, who is a few years younger than I, started as a secretary there when she was 17; it is the only job she has ever held.) Dave Shade, who founded the firm and was a big influence on my becoming a lawyer, joined us for lunch and wry editorial commentary, at which he is excellent.While we ate, we talked and then got to telling stories from past years. Laughter and good feelings filled the room.

The big moment arrived: the Exchange began. We drew our numbers from a coffee cup. Laurie arranged the gift bags and boxes on the center of the conference table. I was six out of seven, so I watched while One through Five chose various bags. By the time my turn came, one of the two bags left came from the other remaining participant, so I chose that bag so Seven could get someone else's ornament.

A note about Number Seven: Matt was number Seven. Matt is an associate attorney who started there several years after I left. Matt has an excellent sense of humor, especially when it comes to quick comments with a deadpan look.

I thought Matt looked a little uncomfortable that I got "stuck" (his words) with his ornament. I soon found out why.

We opened our bags. "Oohs" and "ahhs" filled the room. There were glass ornaments, there were delicate metal ornaments, there were shimmering, gossamer ornaments. On either side of me and all around me,  Carly, Kelsey, Lindsay, Eileen, Laurie, and Matt were pulling these light, airy wonders out of their wrappings.

Mine came out of the bag with a tug. I looked at it and burst into loud laughter. Matt now looked extremely uncomfortable and started to turn red.

"April, what did you get?"

That was Laurie, who is one of the world's sweetest people.

"I got a dead mouse," I promptly replied and held it up for all to see.

Matt had bought a cat ornament. The cat is curled around a candy cane and looks very happy. Small wonder. It has a spring dangling off one paw, and at the end of the spring is a mouse. The mouse does not look happy. The mouse looks doomed. The cat is clearly toying with it, ready for the kill. The mouse, if not dead already, will soon be lunch.

Matt tried to explain. Of the seven of us exchanging ornaments, four are huge cat lovers. So Matt bought the cat ornament, assuming one of them would pick his. "What are the odds? What are the odds?" he kept asking.

Apparently not good enough.

Dave made the final dry comment. "Well, it looks like six of you got great ornaments…"

The Exchange ended with laughter and hugs and best holiday wishes. I came home and hung the cat ornament high on the tree, the mouse dangling in dread.

My friend Cindy and I exchanged emails this morning. Knowing I was at the Exchange yesterday, she wrote "Glad you got to do your ornament exchange. I remembered you do that every year. Tradition!  That is what helps make Christmas CHRISTMAS! Traditions!"

Cindy is right. Traditions are what makes our family and community life so rich. That's one of the reasons I continue to attend the Shade & Shade Ornament Exchange: it is a deeply embedded part of my holiday traditions.

And apparently those traditions now include one cat ornament, complete with dead mouse.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Little "c" Christmas

I think I finally have it right - have me right. I am celebrating christmas this year, but it is a low case, little "c" christmas.

And that's all right.

The typical trappings and trimming are a bit absent. Christmas cards? In a box in the closet, where they've sat since last December. They probably won't make it out the door. Baking? Yes for the Legal Clinic last night, and yes for some friends and family both far and near, but otherwise not really. Presents? I don't really want anything.

I just want a little "c"  - not a big "C" - christmas.

Warren drew the line at my suggestion to skip a tree this year, and I'm glad he did. We bought one last Thursday after work, and only Sunday evening did we start to hang a few ornaments on it. Until last night, the ornaments were in the percussion room, scattered on the floor by the timpani. I found it peaceful to hang only a few at a time. I have ornaments dating back to the early 1900s, ornaments that mark my children's lives, ornaments that Warren and I have purchased together to mark our years, and carrying from one room to the next one or two at a time gives me a chance to reflect on what they mean to me.

There is a hand-blown glass icicle, with the original hook, made by a cousin of my grandmother's back in the early 1900s. He was a glassblower who died young as a result of his trade and my grandma Skatzes, then in her teens, nursed him in his final days of his life. As a little girl, I had several "special" ornaments that I always wanted to hang (The sparkly bluebird! The pink angel!), but this was the most special of all. (I also still have the sparkly bluebird and the pink angel, considerably worse for wear than the icicle, but beloved all the same.)


Pluto is one of Ben's ornaments.  

That is because when he was a little boy and we would go to Disneyland, he loved Pluto and didn't want to leave his side.

Sam, on the other hand, felt that way about Bert and Ernie, which is why those two ornaments belong to Sam.





And Warren and I will never, ever forget our trip to Montana this summer, including stopping at the incredible Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.



One of these days, my sons will get "their" ornaments, and they can start their own holiday traditions. For at least this year, though, they still hang on my tree.

Warren and I talked about Christmas this past weekend and again this morning. He said he isn't "feeling" it. Things are just too rushed and too crammed up against each other. There are family members who are struggling due to the Great Recession and finances are tight at the Symphony as well as at home.

I think Warren could use a little "c" christmas.

I recently wrote my friend Katrina, "Well, I know ''tis the season,' but I am not very seasonal this year." But the more I think about it, I don't think that is true at all. I think I am very seasonal, just not in the ways our consumer culture recognizes. I want to take the malls and the dollar signs out of my christmas and turn it instead to reflection and quiet celebration.

I am not feeling "Bah, humbug!" at all. Instead, the hope - the prayer - I seem to be uttering this year is "let christmas come quietly, please."

A little "c" christmas.

 Warren played his last holiday concert Saturday night in Mansfield, an hour's drive from here. The concert included excerpts from Handel's "Messiah," sung by the chorus. The part that moved me the most was not the "Hallelujah" chorus," which I most definitely do not enjoy when sitting in the front row of the balcony, but the "For Unto Us" chorus. Listening to the cascade of voices, I felt my spirits soar. The next afternoon we went to a concert given by our local community chorus. I liked sitting there in the packed church and having a sense of it truly being this community come together to listen and share.


After the concert and after we ran some errands, Warren's children, David and Elizabeth, came over and helped him make Hyer peanut brittle. They spent several hours, working alongside their dad and sharing the evening with us.



That was a little "c" christmas moment too. I saw the lines in Warren's face relax and his smile reappear.

Packages went out yesterday to Montana and Oregon, Utah and Virginia. Some deliveries I'll make right here in person. Mostly it is baked goods and Hyer brittle, made and given with love.

It feels right. It fits right. 

Let christmas come quietly, please.

I am realizing that what I like best this season - and what is so hard to hold onto - is indeed the thought of christmas with a small "c." It is making it happen that takes thought and effort. It is reminding myself that More and Bigger and Expensive will not make my holidays any brighter or more meaningful. It is reminding myself that it is family, and support, and love that will carry us through this season.

It is keeping my eyes on the events - the miracle of birth, the promise of hope - that bring us together in these dark, bleaks days of the dying year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Irdy's Christmas Brittle

Although I have often written about my dear, late mother-in-law, Ellen, I have not written about my father-in-law, Arthur. The slight is not intentional: I never met the man during his lifetime. I knew of him - knew of him, in fact, long before I knew Ellen or even Warren - but was never introduced to him.

Warren has passed along to me some of Arthur's story. A veteran of World War II, he was one of our town's optometrists for 41 years before finally retiring when he was 80. Older than his wife by a decade, he was a quiet, no-nonsense man who early on shelved his love of drawing and art for the more practical and necessary problem of making a living: first to help out his family while growing up, then to support himself, then to support his wife and three children. A handsome man, he had a wide, bright smile in his younger days that dimmed to a muted but still pleasant hint of one as he aged.

Arthur Irvin Hyer, known in his family as "Irdy" until he enlisted in the Army, didn't have it easy growing up. The oldest son in a working class family, he worked during high school to help the household. He graduated from high school just months before the Great Depression hit, causing him to shelve his art studies and find paying jobs wherever he could. Joining the Army in the late 1930s to support himself, he was set to muster out in January 1942 before Pearl Harbor put an end to that plan. Art, as he was now known, spent the next three years in the Pacific as part of the Signal Corps of the 37th Division, taking part in the Solomon Islands campaign, until the physical and mental toll sent him stateside to recover in a military hospital in Virginia. It was there that he met a vivacious and striking Red Cross volunteer, Ellen Wilson, who was visiting recovering soldiers before she shipped to England. Four years later, after a courtship in Chicago, they were married, and two years after that, they moved to this town, establishing a practice and a family. Over fifty years later, he and Ellen died five weeks apart at home.

That's a snapshot of Art Hyer. That is the bare bones frame on which I hang whatever I have come to know about him. But there is another side to him that does not come through that lean retelling of his life and it is this: Arthur Irvin Hyer loved Christmas.

Absolutely loved it. Per Warren, Art loved the lights, the decorations, the songs, the spirit. He loved A Christmas Carol and often listened to a recorded retelling of it with Basil Rathbone playing Scrooge. I have seen family photographs and movies spanning many Christmases: there were wreaths, there were evergreen swags everywhere, including draped over paintings, there were the children, sequentially older, trooping to open their Christmas stockings.

Yes, Art Hyer loved Christmas. Our first year here, I filled a small wicker sleigh with an assortment of bulbs and set it on the chest in the front hallway, so you would see it first thing when you entered the house. Warren paused a moment and said, quietly, "Dad would have liked that."

An annual Christmas ritual in this household was the making of Hyer peanut brittle. Warren makes it yet; his brother also makes it. The recipe is set out at the end of this post, but I will tell you right now that you won't have quite the same experience, although you will have excellent brittle if you make it. It is not merely that you will lack the large waiter's tray from the Edgewater Beach Hotel on which to pour out the molten mixture for cooling - any buttered surface will do. No, you will catch a taste of a Hyer Christmas if you make this brittle, but you will miss the ineffable flavor that comes of making the brittle down through the generations, of knowing when you make it that you are carrying out traditions laid down long before your birth.  

I started this post by saying I never met Arthur Hyer during his lifetime, but that is not to say I never met him at all. Over four years after Arthur and Ellen's deaths at home - this home, after years of increasing tension and discord in this home as Warren's marriage crumbled and broke, after over two years of Warren being barred from here and kept from contact with his children, we married, moved back in, and made our first Christmas.

Warren commented often how comforting and sheltering the house was now that we were in it. I often felt the presence of Ellen as I worked in the home that she had loved and raised her family in, especially when I was baking in the kitchen. All during our first Christmas season in this home, Warren would get tears in his eyes at the restoration of peace and love.

One evening, after dusk had deepened but not yet turned to night, I stepped into the family room to retrieve something. The Christmas tree was not yet lit, but the lighted Chicago buildings that Warren placed on the window seat were. Warren was sitting in the recliner, rocking gently and looking at the lighted buildings. In the shadows, I could not see his face, but I could feel his contentment. Turning around to get the item I had come for, I asked him some small question. Warren didn't reply, so I turned back to ask him again, thinking he had not heard me.

The recliner was empty.

"Warren?" I quavered.

Warren was in another part of the house, had been in another part of the house the whole time. As I told him what had happened, I realized - we realized - who had been rocking in the recliner, enjoying the quiet and the lights and the peace.

It was Arthur, it was Irdy, come home one more time for Christmas.

Arthur Hyer's Peanut Brittle

1 ½ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups corn syrup
1 pint (2 cups) of water
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ lb. raw peanuts (note: raw peanuts, not roasted)

Cook sugar, water and corn syrup to hard ball stage (use candy thermometer or drop small sample in cold water to test).
Add butter and peanuts.
Cook slowly, stirring often, until peanuts roast. You will smell them roasting and they will change from the pale, almost white of a raw peanut to brown.
When peanuts are roasted, add vanilla and soda, stirring in quickly.
Immediately pour mixture onto a buttered tray, spreading it out to as even a layer as possible.
Break into pieces when cool.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Giving It Up & Getting It Back

The first thing I heard Sunday morning was the rain. Not heavy, but steady.

It was very early. It was very dark.

Warren was playing two morning church services in Columbus before dashing back to Delaware for the Symphony's two holiday concerts in the afternoon. We got up, showered, dressed, ate, and were out the door before the sun was up.

My heart was not into it. Nether was my mind or my body. I was going through the motions, but even those were clumsy and forced.

Warren knew I was struggling. "You don't have to go with me, you know," he gently offered. "I can do this on my own."

I knew he could. He did it for years on his own - he and his then spouse often going their separate ways to their separate activities, so much so that by the time the serious marital problems began, there were few common ways left to build upon. So I wasn't terribly enamored of Warren's offer to go alone. We do as many rehearsals and performances jointly as much for the opportunity to spend time together and stay connected as anything.

We left the house. I commented briefly that it would be dark again before we got back home.

The drive to Columbus was silent but for the windshield wipers shuusssshing out a rhythm. Warren was quiet. I was quiet.

It was early. It was dark.

After several miles, I reached over and touched Warren's hand on the car seat. We didn't clasp hands, but linked our fingers.

A little touch. A warm touch.

Connected.

As we drove, the dark lightened and the landscape started to take shape. Inside, my dark lightened and my internal landscape started to take shape. Slowly, I started to give up my negative feelings: that I was tired, that this weekend was all Symphony and nothing else, that I felt - oh, not sick, but achy and out of sorts, that Monday was almost upon us and nothing was done.

I let them go, gently tugging free the little claws they'd sunk into me. I loosened them, one by one, until they were gone. And then I sat there: empty of the negative but also empty of anything else.

It was early. The day was coming into view, but it was still gray. I watched the lights go by, watched the rain kiss the road.

I silently reflected on what was left when the negative was gone. The car is warm, my health is good, I have a wonderful husband whom I love dearly, I…

Warren broke the silence.  "I'm so grateful for you," he said, squeezing my fingers. "It's so wonderful to have you here with me."

A little touch. A warm touch.

Connected.

Postscript: I penned most of the above post sitting in the sanctuary of the church while the musicians tuned. Earlier, I'd listened to the choir warm up, lifting their voices to the soaring ceiling of the beautiful modern structure. My spirits and my heart rose with them.

As I predicted when we left the house early Sunday, it was dark long before we returned home. The rain turned to snow early on, adding a new dimension to the day. It was late when everyone finished breaking down the stage and hauling the equipment off, later still when we finally got the first hot meal of our day as we joined Dave and Kermit for a late night, snowy night supper downtown.

Having emptied out the negative feelings, I had ample room to let the good of the day - the music, our good friends, the snow, the community, sharing the fun (and the work) of concert day, Elizabeth with me at the concerts, coming back to the quiet of our home after it was all over - fill me anew.

They were little moments, warm moments.

Connected moments.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Flaming Christmas Robins

In Blogville, when another blogger leaves a comment on one of your posts, it is good form, if you have not yet "met" the blogger, to visit her blog and leave a comment of your own. I have met some wonderful friends that way. That is how I recently met Stacey, a young mother in England, who blogs at Stay at Home Mummy.

Yesterday, Stacey wrote about holiday traditions, listing some of her favorites. As I was skimming over her list this morning, one in particular caught my eye: "Hide the robin - buy a Christmas robin with wire feet and he hides around the room, children have to come into the dark room with a torch and find him - a tradition when we were little!" [Emphasis added.]

I thought about that for several minutes. A torch? Children in dark rooms with torches? I was thinking of a stick with cloth wrapped on the end and set on fire. It took me more than a few moments to realize Stacey was talking about the children using flashlights, not firebrands.

While I am now convinced that England is not at risk to go up in smoke from robin-seeking children (although the riots over tuition hikes may indicate that other problems are smoldering), the image of entering a dark room with a flaming stick to look for an ornament has stuck with me all morning.

When my boys were young, they regularly played a self-invented game, called, I believe, "Dark." It was a simple game: players gathered in Sam's room (which was big) at night, all the blinds were closed, all the stuffed animals in the house were heaped in piles in the room, Ben or Sam shut the door and turned off the lights, and everyone started firing pillows and animals while running around the room, leaping onto the beds (if the player was lucky enough to know the room layout) and crashing into furniture (if one was not so lucky). The game was played at breakneck speed, with lots of screaming and shouting. It went on until either (a) someone got hurt enough to call for a parent or (b) everyone agreed to a mutual truce and turned the lights back on.

[Note: For those of you who are wondering what I was thinking allowing them to play this game, realize I grew up with only brothers and had only sons. So this game made perfect sense to me. When they got much older, Ben and Sam played a variation of it, using air pellet guns instead of stuffed animals, in the empty second floor space in the downtown building in which we lived.]

So the notion of seeking robins with lit torches holds a peculiar charm and fascination for me. It is a tradition (my version, that is) that Ben and Sam would have wholeheartedly embraced when they were little. They probably still would, for that matter. It lends a whole new meaning to the French carol, "Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle - Un flambeau!" 

I can see my boys now, torches in hand, running through the house, looking for the robin in the dark, calling out for Christmas. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's the Christmas You Remember Best?

'The Drum Goes Dead" is a Depression-era Christmas story by Nebraskan author Bess Streeter Aldrich. Set in a small rural town in the late 1930s, the story follows bank cashier Richard Lanning throughout his (and his town's) Christmas Eve.

Aldrich sketches the era well. As Lanning walk to work, he notices the "houses and garages that needed painting," the neglected yard work. He is disturbed in his heart this Christmas Eve. The depression, "the one with a capital D," has hung on in the town. The community is in the midst of a three-year drought, and farmers and businesses alike are hurting. In the wider world, "nations were at other nations' throats." The "general rundown appearance of the little town" weighs on him, as does the plight of his friends and neighbors.

Aldrich paints a quiet portrait of Lanning and the "ruts into which a small-town man" slips, including playing Santa Claus at the annual Christmas pageant. He decides that it would be hypocritical to celebrate Christmas, with its promise of "good cheer and tranquility," when so much is wrong in the world. Lanning has lost his Christmas spirit, and "the death of the spirit is a grievous thing."

Aldrich carefully steers Richard Lanning through his day. She was a master at capturing the small moments, and she does not waste her mood or her story on a Big Revelation. Lanning does not suddenly "find" his Christmas spirit. Instead, it comes to him in small drops of daily life.

Following a curbside conversation with the town's remaining Civil War veteran about his Christmas memories, Lanning begins asking his bank customers "what's the best Christmas you ever had?" All day long, "these common, ordinary small-town folk" tell him stories of family, stories of grandchildren, stories of hard times softened by the holiday.

It is a retired professor who provides the title of the story, quoting from his study of medieval English celebrations: The maskers and the mummers make the merry spirit/ But if they lost their money, their drum goes dead. The professor reflects that in modern times, where friends and neighbors had lost their money and the world was uneasy, it "it takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened."

It is not until Lanning is walking home that evening that he starts to turn over the day's conversations in his head. He realizes that the common thread to all of the stories he heard that day was home. It is a small realization, a small drop, but one that nudges Lanning towards seeing the hope and the promise of the season.

Many of my friends speak of a muted Christmas spirit this year. Some have been dealing with prolonged financial problems, others struggle to find employment. Others, because of family difficulties or other issues, have said they are not feeling much Christmas spirit this year. I often struggle with it myself. Christmas for me often has a fine deft edge of melancholy which can widen into a band of sadness if I am not careful.

It takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened.

In rereading Aldrich's story before writing this post, I reflected on Richard Lanning, her "everyman" who started Christmas Eve feeling disconsolate and burdened, and ended it feeling "mentally strengthened, emotionally comforted." He found his way back by stepping outside of  himself and his emotional stew, asking others about their best Christmas memories.

What I would say if Richard Lanning asked me?

I have a handful of favorite memories, most of which involve my two boys, some of which involve Warren, and the rest of which reach back into my childhood. Maybe my "best" memory was the year Ben and Sam received a Playstation 2, hidden away upstairs as they unwrapped other presents downstairs. Sam unwrapped a PS2 game and immediately said, almost in tears, "this is the wrong game. We don't have a PS2." Ben then unwrapped a PS2 game, started to repeat Sam's comment, then stopped mid-sentence to stare first at his parents, then at his little brother. The boys both screamed at the same moment as they realized a PS2 was somewhere in the house. One of them, and I don't remember which, shook from his excitement. Seconds later, they were pelting up the stairs to find their gift. Their shrieks when they discovered it soon bounced back down the steps. It was a grand and glorious day for two little boys.

What Christmas do you remember best?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Further Note on Writers and Writing

My blog post yesterday prompted a bedtime discussion with Warren. As we settled in for the night, my dear husband asked "what do you want to write?" My response was immediate: I reeled off a blog post I want to do about a specific Bess Streeter Aldrich story.

Warren said, "I didn't ask that question. I asked what do you want to write?"

I made another attempt at an answer, listing several blog topics I have scrawled on a piece of paper on my desk.

Nope, same question. Another try by me to answer it and yet another repetition of the question.

If Warren had been cross-examining me in court, my counsel would have been on his or her feet at that point, claiming "asked and answered," and the objection would have been sustained. I didn't raise the objection there in the dark, but I did point out that if we were in court, I would be asking him to rephrase the question because I didn't understand what he was asking.

Warren thought a moment, then asked whether I had some project out there - "something else" besides blogs. He sees my blogging as musical etudes, short studies. Not that there is anything wrong with etudes, he hastily added, unless I was writing only etudes when I wanted to be writing a concerto or symphony.

Oh! Now I got the question. And my answer was: I. Don't. Know.

I like writing etudes. I love writing etudes. I don't know if I have a concerto or a symphony or a sonata inside me. (I do have a box full of letters written by my late mother-in-law from Europe in 1944 when she was there as a Red Cross volunteer and there may be a book in there, but I don't know that and I haven't even read my way through them yet. And that would be Ellen's book perhaps more than my book.)

But regardless of whether I have something "bigger" inside me, I'm not even writing my etudes right now. And that is what I was writing about yesterday.

I'm not even writing my etudes.

A comment on yesterday's post from my good friend Jackie at Embracing My Blessings reinforced my feeling that I need to learn to respect my writing and the time it takes. She said "it always seems like you write about things I've been thinking about. This very topic of making time to write has been in the forefront of my mind lately. I say I want to write (other than my blog) yet I find myself writing about how I decorate my house on my blog instead of putting pen to paper and writing about what I really want to focus on…Thanks for the food for thought." I emailed her this morning my observations above, ending by saying "I think I have just written have a blog post here!"

And apparently I did.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Writers and Writing

Bess Streeter Aldrich was a Nebraska writer in the first half of the twentieth century. I have mentioned her before in connection with Christmas: her Depression-era Christmas works remain among my favorite for both holiday and Depression-era short stories.

Bess supposedly sold every short story she ever wrote, as well as numerous articles and several novels. That's an impressive record. All the same, she was far better known in her community as a wife, mother, and active volunteer, rather than as a writer. Her husband died in 1925, only 18 years into their marriage, leaving her with four children and her pen as her primary means of support. College educated herself, Bess put all four children through school on the strength of her writing.

Recently I read two collections of her short stories, the first from 1907 to 1919, the second from 1920 to 1954. I soon learned that she had several stock formulas that she rotated through for many of her stories. Others, however, were one of a kind gems that still sparkle all these years later.

Included in the collection was an interview with Bess, in which she spoke humorously of writing out sentences with one hand while ironing with the other. Whatever privations her widowhood may have thrust upon her, she focused on the positive qualities of life not only in the interview but also in her works.

In the same interview, Bess spoke about people who claimed they wanted to be writers but somehow "just couldn't find the time" in which to write. She felt strongly that no matter how busy  a person was, that person always managed to make time for what was important to him or her. If you said you wanted to be a writer and weren't writing because you were "too busy," then in her opinion you didn't really want to be a writer.

So what does it say about me that I go far too long without writing? (Or at least writing for this blog, because in many ways I indeed make my living through writing.) Do I not want it enough? Or, to rely on a later Nebraskan I also admire, therapist/author Mary Pipher, do I not write because our modern world has changed our daily rhythms and lifestyle so much that I often struggle merely to cut through the mental noise and clutter of the world, let alone write?

Bess would laugh at that, I am sure, and remind me that she wrote while rocking a cradle or darning a sock. True, but she didn't write while juggling emails or cell phones along with darning the sock or rocking the cradle. Pipher speaks of Aldrich's era as a time when lives "were busy, but not hurried." Too many times my life is busy and hurried, which is a fundamental step in the wrong way.

I often write about my schedule and busyness and my frustration when I let the bustle and rush of the world take over my personal space. It is so hard sometimes to let the email rest until the morning, to set aside the pressing but not urgent folder from the court. I need to respect my time and learn to set aside the time in which to write. I need to learn and relearn that respect until it is engrained in my fingers and my heart.

As a way of teaching myself, I have lately taken to writing from prompts. My favorite source (and I dearly wish Elizabeth would post a new one!) has been those at quotesnack. Like drumming, writing prompts jumpstart my heart and my soul. They are writing snacks: quick, light, easy.

I think Bess, who once wrote of a character that "earth held no sorrow that food could not heal," would approve.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Change

We all think about change and improvement: changing ourselves, improving our communities, changing our attitudes, improving our spouses. We change our hairstyles, we change our beliefs, we change what we do or what we eat or what we read or what we listen to, trying to better our lives or the lives of those around us. 

Some of us even think about changing the world. Few of us ever try, though, because it is so daunting a task. How can someone just plain Jane ordinary little old me really help change the world?

Sometimes the first step in changing the world is as simple as refusing to give up your seat.

Thank you, Rosa Parks, who 55 years ago today chose to stay seated.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Franz Klammer in Me

Let me make one thing clear from the get-go: I don't ski. The last time I skied, some thirty years ago, I fell and tore enough ligaments in my knee to have to be rescued by the Ski Patrol. They put me in a small sledge and skied me over to a Sno-Cat operator, who took me on down the mountain to the ski lodge, where I gratefully embraced the warmth and accepted the painkillers proffered to me.

So, I don't ski. But I like the idea of skiing. I like the idea of all that speed as you fly downhill.

(Note: cross-country skiing is not skiing, in my book. Cross-country skiing is just going for a long, awkward hike with boards strapped to your feet.)

My all-time favorite Olympic memory, more so even than the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," is that of Austrian Franz Klammer winning the gold medal in downhill in 1976 in Innsbruck. I still remember sitting on the edge of the couch watching and screaming at the television as he flashed across the finish line. At times he was skiing on the edge of one ski, almost certain to go over on his side. At times he was airborne as he hurtled towards the finish. Ski commentators still call Klammer's gold medal run one of the greatest (and most daring) ever.

It was Franz Klammer whose spirit I invoked today when I posted "standing at the top of the ski run to the end of 2010" as my Facebook status. 

Discussions of the holidays and what to do, or not to do, for Christmas are starting to fill the airwaves. My friend Tonya emailed me about it last night. In answering Tonya this morning, I replied: My Christmas spirit I think this year is quiet - not gone, but very soft-spoken. I am trying to avoid the "one big 'to do' list" feeling and really, really trying hard not to get caught up in expectations (mine or others) of what Christmas "should" be to be "perfect." My friend Sharon blogged about it this morning, asking what readers were doing to simplify Christmas. In answering her, I borrowed from my note to Tonya, then added: And that is where I am trying to stay this year. I am trying to conscientiously weigh what I am doing and why, and making my choices from there.

No matter what I vow to do about Christmas, I know that at some point the collective piles of holly and mistletoe, along with the decked halls and visions of sugarplums, will hit staggering heights.  That's even before I add all of the "wrap up the old year and start the new one" tasks. Before too much longer, I will be poised at top of a dauntingly long run whose end is way, way, way off there. This weekend was just a warm-up run.

It's a slippery slope indeed, this end of the year trickiness, and one on which I don't want to lose my balance. I will check and double-check my bindings and adjust my goggles one more time before I push off from the starting gate. I want to slice down that icy hill at breakneck pace and feel the skis cut through the snow. I want to flash across the finish line, upright and victorious.

I want it to be Innsbruck all over again. I want to be Franz Klammer.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Reflections on Colored Lights

It is Friday evening after Thanksgiving. The day was sunny but chill; I have stayed inside for most of it. Tonight is chillier yet. The furnace has just kicked on.

As I write these words out in longhand, I am sitting in the living room, reading some, writing some, sorting out my thoughts.

Warren is upstairs, putting his study to rights. I hear him rolling back and forth across the floor in his desk chair.

Elizabeth is upstairs, probably sleeping after a sprint to the mall at four a.m. for a day out shopping with girlfriends.

I am alone and this room is quiet.

Although I have pulled most of the curtains shut against the chill night air, I have left open the one directly across from me. The neighbors across the street have hung colored lights - "icicles" - on their house this year.

I like the colors, the little bits of glowing confetti in the dark.

Last year I nattered away about my lack of Christmas spirit. This year, the nattering is quiet. I sense instead the year slowly wheeling towards its close, bringing Christmas and a new year closer in quiet and measured increments.

I miss my children acutely. I want to wrap them and their needs in blankets of care. I feel about them as the poet: "would that I could gather them / This Yuletide, and shower them with coins." But it is a cold night and they are 2500 miles away, all gathered in Portland for the holidays.

I lift up my eyes from these pages and look out again at the bright flecks of color in the dark night.

The days from now until year's end unroll in my thoughts. I know they will be full of cookies and concerts and Christmas cards. There will be packages to ship west. Warren will make his father's peanut brittle and I will make my grandmother's popcorn balls. I hope the days will be full, but not hurried. That is my wish as I gaze out into the dark.

I hope they will be full of small moments strung together like the lights across the street - little jeweled votives lighting the night.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankful

Last night I was feeling poor. Dirt poor. Meanly poor. But not because of anything so mundane as money. While rarely flush with funds, I usually have money pay the bills and keep the wolf from the door, and that is enough for me.

No, I was feeling poor because of time. Or, to be more precise, the lack of time.

I recently realized that I feel poorest when my schedule gets blocked up and the demands on my time rise to threatening levels. I can be so broke that I am shaving slivers off of pennies, but still feel wealthy beyond all measure because there is food on the table, a roof overhead, a cadre of wonderful friends, and a warm and loving marriage to sustain me. But squeeze my time - layer too many demands on top of my too few hours - and I am suddenly keeping company with Ma Joad.

Sarah Crewe at her lowest point in the attic garret has nothing on me.

Last night was one of those nights. The holidays are upon us and there are rooms to clean, food to prep. There are plates to wash. There was a press release to write. I'd spent most of my day at the courthouse, each meeting taking far longer than I had budgeted in my head, resulting in my arriving home after 5:00 instead of after 3:00. No one had planned supper. We had to run to the store for fresh vinegar to finish the coleslaw as the old bottle had gone flat.

After the vinegar expedition, I announced loudly (to no one in particular as Warren was upstairs) that I was not washing the plates, and then slammed a package extra hard on the kitchen counter for added emphasis.

It was a perfectly childish gesture that felt wickedly good.

I quickly wrote the press release. Then, in an absolute fit of self-indulgence, I watched "Frontline" on PBS, thus causing my annual rate of television consumption to shoot through the roof for 2010.

I am writing this on Wednesday evening. Today dawned bright and clear in my heart, if not outside the window. Patricia and I went walking; Judy and I had coffee. Then I came home and turned my hand to the household and to Thanksgiving preparations. I have baked pumpkin and apple pies today. The plates, some of which will appear on tomorrow's table, got washed throughout the afternoon as I tended to the pies. Loaves of bread are rising as I finish this post.

There is no less work to do today than there was last night, but today I have set my pace and I have spent my hours as I saw fit.

And for that I am truly thankful.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Boomwhacker to the Side of My Head

Back in 1990, a guy named Roger van Oech wrote a book called A Whack to the Side of the Head, about unleashing one's creativity.

My whack came at PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Convention) last weekend, when I sat in on a whole series of drumming workshops to prepare for an upcoming  Symphony project with the Court.

Warren and I both attend PASIC whenever possible, and this year it was possible. That meant I spent three days in the heart of the Percussion Universe amid the shiny cymbals, amid the tapping and the tinging and the playing of almost every percussion instrument known to mankind.

And there, in the midst of all those shiny cymbals and all the tapping and the tinging and the playing of almost every percussion instrument known to mankind, I got a Boomwhacker to the side of the head. (Figuratively, not literally.)

At the first drumming workshop, I was the only person in the room who raised a hand when the facilitator asked if there was anyone who didn't know what a Boomwhacker was. In response to the shocked gasps when my hand went up, I blurted out that I wasn't a percussionist. They didn't throw me out of the room, but very nicely allowed me to stay and join them in playing. Afterwards, a real live percussionist came up to and said I could never claim not to be a percussionist again in my life. "You've been initiated."

The next day, I went to another drumming workshop. The room had been rearranged so that the chairs were in concentric circles, each chair with a percussion instrument of some sort - drums, shakers, tambourines, cowbells - on or beside each seat. I slipped into a chair with a large floor drum in front of it, looked and listened around the rapidly filling circle, and soon found a rhythm to add to the group.

The guy from the day before was five seats away. He looked over and nodded at me. "I knew you'd be back," his satisfied smile said.

We drummed for a long time. The first circle of chairs (15 of us? 20?) filled and the second started filling (another 30?). Each player wove his or her beat into the other ones filling the room. Sometimes a player would listen and start a new pattern to fit in a different way with the others.

There is a concept in physics known as entrainment. Entrainment is the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony. It was first noted back in the 1660s by a Dutch scientist, Christian Huygens, who noticed that when he placed two pendulum clocks on a wall near each other and swung the pendulums at different rates, they would eventually end up swinging at the same rate due to their mutual influence on one another.

In Percussion Universe, entrainment means that 60 people all playing their own free-form rhythms in a drumming circle, without a conductor or "leader," will naturally fall into a "locked" pattern where each player's patterns harmonize rhythmically with everyone else in the circle.

In that room, our rhythms continued, swelling and receding, while the facilitator smiled and invited more people to join the circle.  We were locked. We were entrained. We drummed on for a long time, lost in the rhythms of our own making. We drummed on long enough that my hands became bruised. Long enough that many of us in the circle bonded without saying a word.

Coming out of the drumming workshops at PASIC, but especially out of that particular workshop, I felt energized. Ideas - about drumming, about instrument making, about projects back home, about writing - flew through my head. I all but skipped and cavorted down the hall each time I left a workshop.

The drumming workshops were a Boomwhacker to the side of my head. They dislodged preconceptions and misconceptions I had about drumming, starting with "I can't do this." They turned on lots of lights in my head: Whooaaaa - I can do this! Whooaaaa - we can do this! Whooaaaa - we can launch that project without a lot of $$! Whooaaaa  - this is WAY COOL!

Sometimes you have to step outside of yourself to see where you are and where you are going. Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone and stick your hand up (even if you are the only one doing so) to jumpstart your brain and your energy.

Sometimes you need a Boomwhacker to the side of your head.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rainy Day Notes on Hard Times

Monday
As I start writing this post longhand, I am sitting at the window counter of the coffee shop at the corner of William and Sandusky Streets in downtown Delaware. It is a chill day and a cold rain is just starting to fall.

A gray, cold day. Cold and gray enough that headlights are on and the neon lights in the coffee shop's window glow into the gloom.

The Great Recession is weighing heavily on my mind today. I know a family - more than one, in fact - who cannot put a Thanksgiving meal on their table this year without other family members stepping up to help.

The Great Recession continues to chew away at this community. Before coming here to meet up with a friend, I was home baking for tonight's legal clinic. Back home it smells like cinnamon and warm baked goods. We'll exceed 200 clients tonight, with one more month yet to go in 2010. Our previous high was 178 clients in 12 months; with a canceled clinic in February, we will far exceed that number in only 11 months this year.

A story today in The Columbus Dispatch reported that one in seven Ohio families is now without adequate means to feed themselves. Our state just broke into the "top 10" states for hunger.

Now there's something to brag about.

Another story in the same edition reports that the incoming Republican Ohio senate leader has told the public schools to "expect deep cuts" in the upcoming budget. (This is the same party that, when ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court to fix the school funding system after the Court found it to be unconstitutional, refused to comply.)

Great. Now we will have hungry children who won't be able to read.

All over Ohio, demands on social welfare agencies - homeless shelters, food banks, free clinics, community mental health centers - are rising. In Columbus, the shelters were full by early November and winter hasn't even started in earnest here yet.

My good friend Judy and I traded thoughts earlier today about these hard times. In talking about the grassroots programs that are trying to desperately patch the holes in the social fabric of this town, Judy wrote, "I think we are on the right track with IFLS, Grace clinic, U.M.W. blanket fund, P.I.N., etc."

I replied, "I think we're going to need a whole lot more IFLS, Grace Clinic, UMW Blanket fund, PIN, etc. in the months and years to come."

Judy responded, "sign me up," then quoted Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

(Did I mention that Judy is a really good person as well as a really good friend?)

I offered up a quote from Deborah Stone, who wrote a very powerful book, The Samaritan's Dilemma, about the shift in our national culture from "what can we as a people do to conquer social ills" to "I have mine and it's not my responsibility that you don't have yours." Stone wrote:

When government permits such devastating conditions [such as hunger and homelessness] to persist, when it doesn't use every means at its disposal to help, when it models callousness and counsels its citizens not to feel badly about the suffering of others, it destroys the two most important qualities of a democratic citizenry: the desire to make life better for everyone and the will to take action.

The rain has picked up. The wind is chiller. I am sitting with my feet at the window and I can feel the cold radiate through the thick glass.

There are people in this town - my town - who are going without and doing without. There are people in my life - people I know - who are hungry and about to be homeless. There are others in my life - real people, not faceless statistics - who are stretching hard to keep the lights on and food on their tables.

We are about to enter the holiday season. While I dislike the commercial excesses of this time of year, I nonetheless concur with Fred, the nephew in A Christmas Carol:

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  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!

Poverty in nineteenth century England ate at Charles Dickens and he frequently wrote about the debilitating social cost of hunger and homelessness and callousness. A Christmas Carol is particularly appropriate this year as the Great Recession grinds on and more and more analysts, even those of a more conservative bent, are starting to recognize that it is not just a "market correction" and that these hard times may well be the "new normal" for the next decade or more. As our government at state and national levels turns it back on the great need in this country, the words of the ghost of Jacob Marley may come to haunt us. Replying to Scrooge's comment that Marley always was good at business, the ghost wailed:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  "Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

After the recent election, I wrote "and after all the shouting stops, then what? For those of us who serve (paid or unpaid) those without voices - the homeless, the hungry, the ill, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the young, the old, our friends and neighbors - the people of this country whom both parties have abandoned - the results this week just mean we go right on trying to mend the torn social fabric of our communities."

That's what so many of us do, including many who have less than I do and yet feel compelled to do everything they can. Regardless of religious beliefs, so many of us have taken to heart the words of John Wesley:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

(Thank you, Judy, for reminding me.)

It's a cold, gray day out there. It's colder and grayer if your hours have been cut at work. It's colder and grayer if the foreclosure notice is taped to the door. It's colder and grayer if you're hungry and you need to save the only food in the house for when everyone is gathered around the supper table.

Tuesday Postscript

Our free monthly legal clinic was last night. It was a cold, rainy night as the weather from earlier in the afternoon continued on into the evening. Our numbers were down. All the same, we quietly passed the 200 mark for 2010 clients.

Today, the sun is shining, the air is gentler. Walking to a late morning appointment, I realize I have dressed too warmly.

This morning there was an article in The Columbus Dispatch about suburban school districts in the greater Columbus area seeing a sharp increase in students qualifying for reduced or free lunches. One commentator noted "this information is really striking to them. It shows that this is a shared issue."

A shared issue? I'll say.

I worry about being a one-note band in this blog, that note being the horrific impact of the Great Recession on our communities. On the other hand, I cannot pretend there aren't those in my town, in my circle of friends, who are increasingly in need of help. Oh, I have other post topics lined up, some even half written, but this one moved to the front of the line by virtue of yesterday's and today's newspaper.

The only reason I have not experienced hunger or homelessness is because of the network of family and friends who have helped me. I have gone through many low spots in my life, but those are not two of them, and for that I am grateful.

As long as elected officials on both sides of the aisle refuse to support the least of us, the burden falls all the more heavily on the rest of us to make sure there are blankets and food and warmth and shelter for all.

Marley had it right: the common welfare is the business of us all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Stars Overhead

 
 *Milky Way image courtesy of NOVA (PBS). 


Six years ago today, at about 2:45 in the afternoon, I learned I had myeloma, which is an incurable bone marrow cancer. My amazing friend and doctor, Pat Hubbell, had been honing in on what was "wrong" with me, and she called to say that, from everything she saw, the diagnosis had just changed from "might be" cancer to "it looks definitely like" myeloma.

I was sitting in my law office when we talked. I remember watching with a sort of shocked detachment my hands shake as I hung up the phone.

My life changed irrevocably in one phone call. It has never been the same.

I've blogged some about how cancer changed my life and what it's like to live with one that will never go away. Just look at the labels on the right: "cancer" pops up 20 times (and that's just all the times I remembered to tag it).
 
Ham and eggs, salt and pepper, April and myeloma.

I continue to be grateful and amazed for the support and care my friends and the community immediately, unhesitatingly, and freely gave me from that moment on, starting with Pat. Family, friends, and even strangers stepped forward, wrapped their arms around me, and never let go.

Six years ago today, I wasn't sure I would even make it to the first anniversary, let alone any more beyond that. It has been an amazing journey.

I just today started corresponding electronically with a young woman who just a few weeks ago received a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage 2. We were connected through a mutual friend. In my reply to her initial email to me, I told her: You are at the start of a long journey, Loise. I'm here on the path too. We can travel it together.

Thank you to all of you who have kept me company on my own travels in Cancerland. Whether you dropped off a meal, sent me a note, gave me a hug, made me laugh, slipped me some money, commented in support on my blog, or even went so far as to marry me (thank you, dear Warren), you are the stars in the heavens overhead, lighting the path over which I still journey.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Early November Note

While I type these words, it is Sunday morning after the time change. The day seems to be ridiculously early - what do you mean, it is not yet 11 o'clock?

Warren is packing up retuned and refinished xylophone bars for a customer. He is taking a few minutes to play scales and patterns on the Deagan Imperial he just restored and the rich tones roll through the house.

We are spending the weekend tending to the homefront: mowing the lawn one last time, winding up the hoses and toting them to the shed until spring. I volunteered to put down the kitchen garden for the winter and spent an hour or so yesterday pulling up the frost-dead peppers and tomato vines. The brown basil stalks gave off their last pungent whiffs as I yanked them up and threw them onto the growing pile.

Bunches of sage and rosemary hang drying in the basement. I pulled the onions - stunted from the tomatoes and peppers shading them all summer - and they are heaped to dry on top of the freezer. When we walk down the basement stairs, rich earthy smells rise up to greet us.

The day ahead holds the promise of more outdoor work. In the evening, all the earlier now because of the time change, we will join Margo and Gerald at their place for supper and what promises to be the last outdoor fire of the year.

Outside fires are particularly compelling this time of year, with the chill air and the early dark. There is something primal about gathering around a fire with friends, about keeping the inky, chill night at bay with the crackling light and heat.

My friend Linda recently sent me an e-card celebrating Samhain, the Gaelic New Year that falls at the end of October. The card's lines evoked images of bonfires and dancing around the fire until the new year broke, of friends coming to the gathering with their candles and lanterns bobbing in the darkness. I wrote her back: "where along the way did we lose our connection to nature and our reverence for the earth's life cycle?"

I live in the modern world and I neither regret nor apologize for it. But I do regret my disconnect from the ancient rhythms and patterns of the earth. During our trip home from Montana this August, Warren and I pulled over on an empty Iowa road and stepped outside the car to stare upwards at the Milky Way. It was sprawled across the sky in all its brilliance - brilliance that we who live in urbanized areas cannot see because of light pollution. We aped Walt Whitman for several long moments, standing in the mystical moist night-air, looking up in silence at the stars.

It had been so long since I had seen the Milky Way.

When I look at my own life and ponder the need to reset my priorities and schedule, it occurs to me a little more awareness of the earth's ancient tunes and a little less static from modern America would serve me well.

Tonight Margo, Gerald, Warren, and I will sit around the fire, talking as it crackles and pops. There should be a clear sky, so from time to time, one of us will comment on the stars. We will gather around the fire like humans have done for thousands of years, sharing the night, sharing ourselves, warming our bodies, warming our souls.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Grace in Motion

Amy wasn't feeling well. She'd been sick off and on for weeks, the glands on one side of her neck were swollen, and she had almost daily severe headaches, not to mention that her inhaler (for asthma) was empty and she couldn't afford the appointment to see the doctor for a new prescription, let alone buy the inhaler afterwards.

Amy is our "almost daughter." Warren and I took her in for ten days three years ago when she fled her dad's house during an altercation, and then I tutored her several times a week for the remainder of the year - her senior year - to help her graduate on time (yes, she did). Amy, who will be 21 this spring, has been a part of our lives ever since and she will call me when life gets too overwhelming. So when she called me Monday night, half crying and worrying aloud about her medical problems, I told her she needed to get to Grace Medical Clinic at Andrews House on Wednesday evening.

A long silence ensued. "Are you going to be there?" Amy knows I work at the Andrews House Legal Clinic, so hoped I worked the medical clinic as well. When I told her no, she hemmed and hawed long enough that I said, gently, "come pick me up and I will go with you."

Grace Medical Clinic, which is held weekly, is in its third year of existence. It is entirely volunteer-driven and free to all. I have known about it since its inception, I have heard glowing descriptions of the work the volunteers do, but accompanying Amy was my first opportunity to see it in action.

What a gift.

Despite arriving some 20 minutes before the official check-in time, Amy and I walked into an already full waiting room. She was #13 on the sign-in list. The woman who held the number one slot had been waiting since 2:00.

Ages ranged from toddlers to seniors. Some were Latino; many were white. There was a family in chairs against one wall: father, mother, and three children, the oldest of whom might have been five. At another chair, a toddler played happily on the floor at his mother's feet, trying to stack nesting cups and making the bright loud sounds of a contented baby.

One patient, an older man, was explaining to another client that he was diabetic and experiencing neuropathy in his feet. "When it gets so far up the leg, they'll take my leg off," he added in a matter of fact tone. There was a couple, perhaps in their sixties, cuddled up on the couch. He had a heavily wrapped arm; she held her stomach.

The set-up crew arrived shortly after Amy and I found seats, and I watched the proceedings with fascination. It was what I always imagined watching a MASH unit set up would be. Within 20 minutes, the dining room was divided into a series of curtained examining rooms. Across the hall, others set up prayer rooms. (Grace Medical Clinic is sponsored by an area church, so offers prayer and counseling to any patients who may want it.) Although I could not see it, further down the hall, yet another team was creating an on-site pharmacy.

Amy was nervous. Amy was tense. Amy was anxious about how long it would take. Amy kept thanking me for being there with her. Amy kept talking.

The evening slowed down. Some volunteers brought in food for the patients, knowing that many of them came straight from work, or otherwise had not eaten. Apples, sloppy Joes, pretzels, bottled water - enough to take the edge off of someone's hunger. There was an announcement that the clinic was short one doctor and one nurse tonight, so they could would not see more than 15 patients that night. Little children - and there were lots of them - grew tired and cranky, then grew contented again. People talked in quiet voices. Children flowed from the waiting room to the makeshift play area (also staffed by volunteers) and then back again to their parents.

Amy got called for a weigh-in and triage. She came back with an indecipherable look on her face. When I asked about it, she replied, slowly, "She was really nice. I didn't know girls my age could treat another girl that nicely."

We waited longer. Patients were called into the examining rooms. Amy ate an apple; I ate some pretzels. We both giggled at the little girl who took a sloppy Joe, then returned it a few minutes later, all the edges nibbled off, and carefully placed it back on top of the pile of sandwiches.

Amy was finally called into the examining room. With the seat beside me empty, Peggy, one of the volunteers, sat down and we started chatting. Peggy has worked with the clinic since its inception. She lived in Columbus, and said she never thought of Delaware as needing a clinic, since the county appears to be so affluent, but how she had quickly changed her perception.

I nodded. "We hide our poverty well," I said, explaining about my involvement with our legal clinic. "And if you're from Columbus, the first thing you see coming this direction is south county, which is where most of the money and big houses are."

We compared notes on clinic operations. I admired the hot food and told Peggy how we did baked goods at our legal clinic. She said this was the first night they had hot sandwiches. Peggy talked about the setup and teardown crews and how they rotate volunteers. I talked about our bank of attorney volunteers.

The evening wore on and more patients left. Members of the teardown crew started trickling in; many of the setup and prayer volunteers, including Peggy and her husband, started leaving.

Close to 9:00, Amy finally appeared. She sat down and said, shyly, that she was going to the prayer counseling area and asked me to go with her. Once there, Amy started crying as she talked about the stress in her life, including the loss of her beloved dog. The prayers were Amy-specific: for strength as her father faces foreclosure and the roof over her head becomes uncertain, for guidance as she looks for work, for direction, for healing her grief. Amy continued to wipe away tears.

Our last stop was at the pharmacy, where she was handed a new inhaler, medication for her infection, and replacement prescriptions. Amy just glowed.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you."

Four hours after we walked in the door, we walked out. On the way to her car, Amy reflected on what she had experienced that night. "I thought they would be rude or make me feel bad for being poor. But they were all so wonderful and caring."

She was quiet for a moment. "I cried in the examining room too," she said. "I never cry. But the nurse who saw me first was so nice and saw me as a person."

For many, a trip to Grace Medical Clinic is a life saving experience. For Amy, it might be a life changing experience. When you grow up in what can at best be called "hard circumstances," and where you are now living life at an even lower level because of the Great Recession, you learn early and quickly that life is hard and people often look right through you because of your poverty. Amy is losing the roof over her head. Her future is so uncertain right now. So she came to Grace Medical Clinic with all her defenses and walls in place, expecting to be treated poorly at worst and brusquely at best. Amy walked out saying "they were so nice, they really cared." She was stunned that the Grace Clinic volunteers treated someone "like her" - someone in need of a helping hand - with dignity and kindness.

The Grace Medical Clinic is a gift in the midst of our community. The volunteers, medical and lay people alike, are passionate about this mission. Their faith shines through in their actions, their smiles, and their gentleness. They are the embodiment of Kahlil Gibran's saying that "work is love made visible."

Our communities are full of patients, clients, customers, and others who gather the courage to step through a door and ask for help. They are the Amys of the world, not sure what reception they will receive when they ask. I am always in awe of the volunteers who open those doors and serve - those who dispense prayers or medications, those who give legal advice, those who cook and serve meals, those who put their beliefs into action - and count myself blessed beyond words to have the chance to work alongside them. They are ordinary people who have stepped forward in extraordinary ways. They are ordinary people who have looked around, said "this (lack of medical care, lack of legal help, hunger, homelessness) is wrong," and then taken action.

Wednesday night I got to witness a miracle firsthand. I saw Grace in motion.

*Photo courtesy of Andrews House, Delaware, Ohio.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reset

There is a small yellow note on my desk. A one word note.

Reset.

I had written that note several weeks ago and stuck it on the face of Warren's alarm clock after it unexpectedly went off at 6:00 one morning instead of the usual 6:45.

Reset.

After Warren reset his alarm clock, the sticky note drifted downstairs to my desk as part of the household flotsam and jetsam.

Reset.

In recent weeks, I have looked back through my year and a half of blogging, rereading posts here and there. It has been enlightening.

I have characterized this year as being a hectic one, grumbling often about the general pace and press of the days. It has become my litany. When friends and colleagues ask how things are going, I automatically say "busy." When Warren and I grab a few minutes together, I say, usually with a note of resignation, "things are so hectic right now." I am a faithful attendee of the Church of the Perpetually Tired.

So the "surprise" revelation in looking back over the last nineteen months of posts is that the pace of my life has been a constant theme. I have been singing a one word aria - hectic - much of the time.

Reset.

Yesterday I had a handful of meetings, then joined a friend for coffee late in the afternoon. Afterwards I met up with Warren at his office and we came home together. Before leaving the Symphony office, he put his hands on my shoulders, looked at me closely, and said "you look tired" (meaning "more tired than usual"). So after we got home (and got the timpani being rented to the college out the door with all the attendant tasks) and finally moved towards sitting down for supper, Warren scoured up two candles, placed them on the table, lit them, and doused the overhead light.

Reset.

Candles immediately introduce a note of quiet even when things are moving fast. They soften the light and the mood and the pace. I found myself chewing less rapidly, talking more thoughtfully, taking the time to listen and reflect rather than just rushing to the next observation. Warren and I both lingered at the table before moving on to the dishes.

From there, we carried the mood into the evening. Warren read and listened to Debussy to prepare for an upcoming performance. I read and felt the mood peel off my layers of tiredness, leaving me ready for sleep. We looked together at the Crate and Barrel holiday catalog that just arrived, with me shaking my head (and shivering slightly) at the frosty themes (gold, silver, white) that dominate this year. (I feel about Crate and Barrel like I do about Ikea - glossy, chic, and who lives like that?)

This morning, Warren left early for an all-morning Symphony meeting. I've spent some of the morning reading, daydreaming, and watching the sun rise in a magnificent spill of liquid gold. The first load of laundry is on the rinse cycle, breakfast dishes are waiting in the sink.

As I move into and through today, I want to hold onto the quiet of the candles, the rhythm of the household, the power of the sunrise. I want to - no, need to - stop every now and then to take the pulse of the day. I need to change my internal message from "busy" to "take a moment." I need to share thoughts with Warren other than "things are so hectic right now." I need to skip the services at the Church of the Perpetually Tired.

The reminder is on my desk. It's just a little note. Just a one word note.

Reset.