In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

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Pie

It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE?

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Real mothers

November is National Adoption Month.

A few weeks ago, during a conversation with a dear, well-meaning friend, the idea that I did not have children “of my own” came up, as it does from time to time.

And so, I have been thinking of two other mothers a lot.

One mother has a son.  He was a busy baby and a crazed toddler. When he was 16 months old, he cut his head open and had to have stitches. He was a boy who made it his mission , daily, to remove all of the plastic containers from my cupboards. He was scared of things that went bump in the night. He has never fully trusted that there weren’t space aliens poised to remove him from his bed as soon as he closed his eyes. He hates peas. His friends are his world.  He is smart, honest, and loyal. A wonderful son and brother.

The other mother has a daughter.  She was a baby who sucked her thumb and followed her big brother all over the yard when she was little. She is a singer and dancer. A lover of books who gets angry when people turn the corners of pages down instead of using bookmarks. She has really small feet, which is only problematic when she can’t find anything age appropriate in the kids’ shoe section. She is a natural leader. She is smart, honest, and loyal. A wonderful daughter and sister.

Adoption is a miracle and a gift, it’s true. But adoption is also about loss.

Most women never think twice about being able to conceive a child. They decide to start a family and it happens. Women who are infertile do not have this luxury. Adopting a child makes women like this mothers, but it doesn’t take away the loss of the phantom children they thought they’d have. I think that’s important to understand.

Most women raise the children they’ve brought into the world.  Women who place a baby for adoption do not have this luxury. And so, while adoption may well be the least terrible option for a woman with no good choices, it doesn’t erase the heartbreak of losing a future with a child who is very, very, real. I think this is also important to understand.

I raised two, very real, children. I was not a perfect mother, but I did my best. And even when I was tired and crabby and overwhelmed, I loved them desperately and still do. There are only two people in my life that I would gladly stand in front of a speeding train to protect. My son is one. My daughter is the other.

Her son.  Her daughter.

And so, adoption is filled with both joy and pain. Gains and losses. This is true for everyone involved. Adoption is, in a word, complicated.

Love, on the other hand?

Not so much.

 

For goodness sake

He sees you when you’re sleepin’
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

It is December. The month when small children try their hardest to be the kind of people elves don’t have to fudge the truth about. December is the month to stop spitting and hitting. The month to speak more, and whine less. The month to eat your peas and mind your P’s and Q’s.

Every child knows that on the first day of December, the clock starts ticking toward Christmas morning. For generations, parents used the threat that Santa’s elves were watching to get kids to shape up. A few years ago, some very clever marketing gurus capitalized on this legend and convinced a new generation of parents that a creepy, long-legged elf in a green, felt, jumpsuit was just the ticket to keep their sweet Beasties in line.

How does the elf accomplish this, you ask? Well, The elf never sleeps. Like, ever.

There were no elves on any shelves when I was a kid. Thanks to my Scandinavian grandmother, the kids in our family had something far creepier than that. The Julbocken, or Yule goat. From what I’ve learned through the magic of the Google machine, the origins of the Julbocken go back to ancient pagan festivals and the Norse god Thor, who rode a chariot through the sky drawn by two goats. Later, in Scandinavian lore, the Julbock was depicted as a human-like goat figure with horns and hooves, said to represent the devil, ensuring that people deserved their presents. This version of the Julbock was altered into a scary prankster who caused trouble and demanded gifts. Eventually, thanks to Christianity, this legend was replaced by a kinder, gentler, more Church-y version. Ultimately, the malevolent devil goats were replaced with small white-bearded Gnomes and smiling Tomtes that kept tabs during the holiday season.

When we were growing up, my siblings, cousins, and I did not know precisely what a Julbocken was. What our grandmother lacked in specificity, she more than made up for in enthusiasm as she described in lurid detail the chaos the creature was capable of creating. This is because, she would say, the Julbocken was very clever and mean. It could trick children into getting in trouble. If we fought, she’d glare and tell us the Julbocken was watching us. When the cookies burned, she’d blame the Julbocken. If someone slipped on the ice, the Julbocken had pushed them. Stomach flu the week before Christmas? All the Julbocken’s fault. During the rest of the year, it was our grandfather who was the storyteller of the family. In December, it was our grandmother who wove fantastic tales that kept her seven grandchildren on their toes.

And so, as far as I’m concerned, even if parents today have to keep moving that dumb little elf around when their kids are asleep to keep the story alive, at least the children of today don’t have to worry about things like weird Scandinavian devil goats messing up Christmas for them.

And if you are a toy marketer, I’d suggest steering clear of a Julbocken on a Shelf. I don’t think it will be a big seller.

Unless, of course, you are marketing specifically to Scandinavian grandmothers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Glitter and glue…

Our Christmas tree is up. It is not as tall as it looked in the lot. And one side of it is a little sparse in the branch department. That side is shoved in the corner. It is a balsam with a really bad haircut.  We live in the Land of Trees, for heaven’s sake. There are lovely, naturally shaped balsams growing like weeds all over the Chippewa National Forest. All one needs to do is buy a permit, drive to the forest, and cut down a tree. Bam. At least, that is how it should go if one does not want a tree that has been sheared to within an inch of its life. If one prefers a tree with, say, actual branches.

It is the end of the semester, and if I didn’t have to do All The Other Things, that is the kind of tree that would be in our family room right now.  Instead, we are making do with the one we have. I will say that it looks better now that it is decorated. Lights help. So does lowering one’s Christmas tree expectations. I’m working on this.

Anyway, the construction paper ornaments my kids made years ago are still my favorites. I hang them first every year.  And when I do,  I remember the brave warriors who taught both of my children.  This is mainly due to glitter. As far as I’m concerned, elementary school teachers don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for things like welcoming glitter into their classrooms. And then (here’s the most amazing part) they also allow glue.  Elementary school teachers are some of the bravest people I know.  I can’t begin to calculate the staggering amount of glitter the average elementary school teacher sweeps up every December. Not having to sweep up glitter is one of the main reasons I teach college. I do not have the nerves required for such things as glitter and glue and the children of other people. I just don’t. So God Bless elementary school teachers.  Can I get an Amen?

But back to our tree. This year, a little girl’s traced hand print reindeer hangs near her college graduation tassle and a small boy’s glitter-bombed something hangs on the branch next to his. Sweet, cherished mementos of who they were then, and who they grew up to be.

All hung with love, on my perfectly imperfect tree.

The odds

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

-Thornton Wilder

First, I heard the shriek, and then I saw the woman drop to her knees in the parking lot. Worried that the stranger next to me was having a heart attack, I stopped loading my groceries into the back of my car and began to move toward her.

“Oh, Lord! My potatoes!” she yelled as she tried to close up the ripped end of a 25 pound bag of russets that had unceremoniously gone splat! behind her car. When she saw me, she sighed and said, “Wouldn’t it have been something to see an old lady chasing her potatoes all over the parking lot?” We agreed that shopping for Thanksgiving dinner isn’t for sissies. It’s a lot of work.

I had just spent the morning looking for coconuts.  Not “coconut” as in the dry, flaky, stuff that comes in a plastic bag. Nope. We’re talking brown, hairy, actual coconuts. The dear one coming from Chicago for Thanksgiving requested a pie that requires four cups of fresh coconut meat. He could not have known that finding a coconut in northern Minnesota in November is about as likely as seeing a parrot at the bird feeder or a cheetah under a deer stand. However, as luck would have it, I did bag what I can only assume are the only four coconuts in all of Itasca county. So, there you go. Anything’s possible.

Life is a numbers game. For another year, we’ve beaten the odds and are adding, rather than subtracting, family members. That is a blessing never to be taken for granted in any family. They will gather around our table. There will be pies.

One will be full of fresh coconut.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Our stories

There is nothing like a dream to create the future.

-Victor Hugo

They came on ships, across rough seas from Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden. They left cities and villages with names like Koblenz, Armdahl, and Karlanda. They would be buried in places like Mankato and St. Cloud, having spent entire lives without returning to the places where they were born.

They stood in lines at ports of entry to the United States of America. Then, with very little but what the steamer trunks from the old country held, they traveled to cities and villages with names like Alton, St. Paul, Kingston, and Max. They still prayed in Swedish, or counted in German, but they learned English. In a single generation, their native languages would not be spoken in their homes.

They worked as farmers, butchers, merchants, and housekeepers for wealthy families. They staked claims, homesteaded, and opened small businesses. They became U.S. citizens and leaders in their communities. In the years and generations to come, all of their children would attend school. Their grandchildren would graduate from high school. Their great-grandchildren would complete college degrees. Every generation would have an easier, more prosperous, life than the one that preceded it. This has always been the story of immigrant families in the U.S.

I think that we don’t tell these stories often enough. It is easy to forget that the desire to escape famine, war, religious persecution, or poverty is the warp thread that connects  blue-eyed families on ships in one century to brown-eyed families on foot in another. That the desire for a better life in a better place is what drives each immigrant.

I have been following the website of Sean T. Hawkey, a photographer who is documenting the exodus of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico on their way to the U.S. border where they will seek asylum. The images of so many tired women and children walking hundreds of miles toward hope is both compelling and heartbreaking.

For more information, please visit http://www.hawkey.co.uk.

 

 

 

 

A piggle tale

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, we have this beagle. Our friend, Chuck, calls her, a”piggle” because she is shaped like a bratwurst and will eat anything. The mere sound of kibble landing in her dog dish or a packet of crackers being opened turns her into a howling lunatic. Some mornings, she gets so excited that she wolfs down what’s in her dog dish much too fast, goes outside, and promptly regurgitates it in the yard.

It gets worse.

Sometimes, upon seeing that her breakfast is now in the grass instead of in her belly, she  decides to, well, consume the same breakfast for a second time, because, heck, why not? Her human standing on the steps in the rain screaming, “No! Stop! Get away from that! Ish!” doesn’t even warrant a glance. Apparently, one person’s ISH! is another piggle’s second breakfast.

I was contemplating the piggle’s worst inclinations when I learned that the perpetrators of both the pipe bomb mailings and the murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday had been heavy consumers and participants on social media sites that serve up a vile smorgasbord of fear, hatred, and wild conspiracy theories.

Consume, spew, consume. Consume, spew, consume.

My soul gets weary when I think of all of that poison. My heart hurts for us all.

And then I remember that love is stronger than hate. It is.

It just has to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mice and rice

“October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!”

-Rainbow Rowell, Attachments

In October, the sunlight is different, more brilliant. Thursday, I watched a pair of ducks gliding on a sea of diamonds under a brilliant, turquoise sky. Summer is wonderful,  but it is those perfect, rare, October afternoons with temps in the 70’s and the heady scent of wet oak leaves that I love best.

The dog is nursing her pride and a sore snout because she didn’t listen when I told her to “leave it” and tripped a mousetrap. Beagles do not hear anything where peanut butter is concerned. For the rest of the day, she glared at the spot in the utility room where the indignity occurred. It’s hard to keep one’s nose where it belongs. For beagles, especially, but people, too.

The mystery of the rice piles in beds has been solved. The mice were not importing it, as I had suspected. They just found the neck warmer filled with rice that fell down between the washing machine and the water softener before I did. Lesson learned. When something goes missing, keep looking.

A red squirrel has also found his way inside the cabin. I am finding acorns in places where no acorns should be. Like the left pocket of my bathrobe and between bath towels in the linen closet. The likely suspect is a mean, sneaky little red devil with a fluffy tail who chews me out as I stand on the front steps to shake all the acorns out of my sheets and towels before packing them away.

In October, I always wish a nice, clean, little weasel would move in to take care of the place until spring.  Weasels are good mousers. Maybe they can beat up red squirrels, too, for all I know.

This morning, the temp is in the 30’s, with a strong north wind and horizontal snow. October in Minnesota. Uffda. Tomorrow, we will turn off the water, blow out the pipes,  and call it good for another season.The furry forest critters will celebrate our leave-taking with a dinner party before we make it to town.

On the menu?  White rice and acorn stew.

Battery life

“And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days…”

-Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems

I am writing this on my lap top. Albioni’s “Adagio for Organ and Strings” is streaming on my tablet. Occasionally, my cell phone emits a sweet “ding” to let me know I have a text message. I am working on learning not to text anyone under the age of forty back in ALL CAPS or place periods at the ends of texted sentences unless I’m ACTUALLY ANGRY. Old habits die hard for old English teachers. We need a lot of reminding.

The battery on my computer is draining before my very eyes. I know this because of the tiny battery-shaped icon on the bottom of the screen. I plug the computer in, and suddenly, I can see electrical power working its magic as the icon begins to fill. I never stop being amazed by electricity. You need it, and it’s there, just waiting on the other side of the wall outlet. You just need to plug in.

In other news, I’m getting over the first virus I’ve had in years, and it was a doozy.  Everybody I know seems to be either be catching, or getting over, this bug. I’m a freak about washing my hands after I’ve been anywhere (ask my children) but even fanatics get sick occasionally. When I was a young mom, the only thing worse than having a sick kid or two was being sick at the same time they were. Now, when one of them is sick, they call me for sympathy, but make their own chicken soup and sneeze into their own tissues. And when I’m sick, my only job is to get better.

Today, I’m doing just that. First, I’m watching the golden symphony of maple leaves in the woods floating to the wet earth below. Later, I will bake a ham and some sweet potatoes to fill the house with good smells. Then, before dinner, I will take a nap in front of the fire. The dog will join me. That’s the plan.

I’m plugged in.

My battery is charging, too.