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.

 

Light

It is the middle of February, which means that we’re crossing over to the light, sort of.

Every morning, the sun peeks over the eastern horizon a few minutes earlier, and in the evening, it hovers in the western sky a bit longer. This is good. Light is a precious commodity, as far as I’m concerned. When I work at my desk, I use a “happy light” which I’ve discovered makes me a little less maudlin and moody.  Some days, I stop what I’m doing and hold my face close to it. The dog watches me, concerned that I might be flying too close to the sun. Then she pesters me because she’s tired of being cooped up and needs more exercise. I pat her on her silky head. Me, too, I tell her. Me, too. And we take a walk.

Historically, the people I love always seem to break bones or get really sick in February.  My sister is a musician. She tells me that she plays for more funerals for older folks in February than any other month. She and I have decided that this is because while people buck up through the holidays and hold it together through January, they must see February staring them blankly in the face and think, “Good grief” and decide it’s a good time to walk toward the light. This is why, when the calendar flips, I hold my breath and hope I’m wrong about February. That the sad, crazy, painful things I associate with the month have been flukes. Just coincidences.

But here I am again, in the middle of February, and I’ve seen things. Sacred, mystical things. Hard, beautiful, things. I’ve talked an awful lot about exactly where heaven “is” with a Kindergartener. I have watched a pop-up village of friends and family arrive and embrace that Kindergartener, his sister and his mother as they are fed, and held, and loved through such a hard thing as saying goodbye. And I have been changed by it.

He was a 43-year-old transplant recipient. He received the gift of two new lungs and then, two additional years of life. Two more years of Nerf fights and bike rides, holidays and memories. “There will be miracles” is written on a sign on their living room wall.  I must have read that sign a million times in four days while I prayed for the one I wanted, but here’s the thing. We don’t get to custom design the miracles we receive, but if we are fortunate and brave, the miracles we need are granted. As I said, I’ve seen things.

The miracle might be taking a breath. And another, and another.

It might be a hand to hold. A sweet story told.

Sometimes the miracle is faith. Sometimes it is hope. Sometimes it is light.

Always it is love.

Especially during the times when we need it the most.

https://www.donatelife.net/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Believing in bears

My grandmother was not generally the story-teller in the family. She left that to my grandfather, who wove fantastic, make-believe tales for his seven grandchildren until the day he died.

A no-nonsense type of woman, her stories were usually more fact than fiction. Stories like the one about her brother’s dog who’d dropped her first litter of puppies all over the yard as she wandered, dazed and confused, one summer day. According to my grandmother, some females in every species had maternal instinct, and some clearly didn’t. The puppy-dropping mother dog was proof.

When she wasn’t baking or imparting her particular brand of wisdom, what my grandmother loved best was picking berries. She knew that bears loved blueberry patches, too, and knew that the most dangerous place for a human to find herself was between a mother bear and her cub.

The recent news story about the three-year old boy in North Carolina who went missing in the woods and was found alive in thick underbrush several days later has me thinking not only about maternal instinct, but also miracles. After his rescue, the child is reported to have told his parents that he’d “hung out” with a bear. There is no proof that this happened.  There is no proof that it didn’t happen, either.

An Angel can look like anything if she puts her mind to it. Maybe his was dressed like a bear. Or maybe his rescuers found him just in the nick of time. Maybe another day exposed to the elements would have been too much for the small boy. Maybe it was a miracle.

I believe that there are mysteries we humans aren’t supposed to be able to solve.

I believe in instinct, maternal and otherwise.

But mostly, today, I believe that if there really was a bear keeping that boy safe, that it was definitely a mama one.

Life in layers

A quilt, a down comforter, a fleece blanket, and a flannel sheet.  Four layers. A flannel nightgown and wool socks, too.

When I try to wrestle the covers to roll over, I am pinned down by the weight of January.

Fleece leggings, a pair of thin wool socks with a heavier pair of wool socks over them, and not one, but two sweaters is my daytime ensemble. More layers. More weight.

Turning up the heat is small comfort. Some of us are built for January, and some of us just aren’t. At -28 degrees, I watch the chickadees at the feeder and wonder how they aren’t frozen into solid little bird lumps. Do they envy all their bird relations who fly south, I wonder, as they peck at my suet?

I work from home. Did I mention that I left the house just three times from Tuesday until Saturday this past week? Once, to get the mail. Once, to clean up beagle you-know-what in the yard. Once to take out the trash. The people who love me tell me that this is not healthy. To that, I think, yup, well, neither is freezing to death.

And so, I stay put. I work, read, and listen to music. I plan dinners and bake. I look at real estate listings and rentals in sunny locations where January is more than just an endurance event. I envy the Snowbirds who have the good sense to leave this frozen place every winter. Someday, that will be me, I tell myself.

I fantasize about walking barefoot along a sand beach, any beach, at dawn. Listening to the crash of waves and smelling the salt air. Watching the sandpipers and gulls run to the places where the waves recede. Feeling the hot sun on my neck and bare shoulders as I stop to pick up a shell that catches my eye. Feeling lighter. Less encumbered. A strolling, retired, sea creature. Home at last where I belong.

Body and mind permanently released from the layers of January.

 

A mouse tale

It was just a matter of time.

This morning, in the downstairs bathroom, I caught a faint whiff of dead mouse. Here’s a tip.  If you think you have a dead mouse in a wall or vent, it’s not a good idea to turn on the exhaust fan. As soon as I did that, the faint whiff transformed into a noxious cloud of rotting mouse corpse.

We live in the woods. Right after we built, we had a biblical plague of toads in the family room one night that I’ve never fully understood, and we get inundated with ants every August, but up until this year, we’d never had a mouse. Not a one. Then, around Thanksgiving, I thought my eyes were going to pot when one evening my peripheral vision caught a gray blur moving near the baseboards. I was obviously in denial. A mouse? In this house? How could that be?

Then, it happened again a couple of nights later. Only this time, it was not a blur my eyes spied, but an actual, furry little rodent making a beeline for the safe zone behind the T.V. stand. Now, anyone with an ounce of sense knows that there is no such thing as a single mouse in a house. I sprung into action and set traps. I discovered where they were getting in and fixed the problem. I caught mice. The beagle, who suffers from mousetrap PTSD due to a bad experience with her nose and a trap at the cabin, was no help whatsoever. In fact, whenever I marched past her with a dead mouse in a trap, she averted her gaze. I said bad words and set more traps. I caught more mice, said more bad words, and emptied traps. The look on the face of the one that got only his tail and one foot caught in a trap right before I apologized out loud and put him out of his misery still haunts me. Waging war against a mouse army is ugly stuff.

I will spare you the actual mouse death toll figure that occurred between Thanksgiving and Christmas. By New Year’s, I was confident that the mission was accomplished and I put all the traps away.  I patted myself on the back. Problem solved, I thought.

Well, ONE problem was solved.

As I said, it was only a matter of time.

The frost fairies

“Kindness is like snow. It beautifies everything it touches.”

-Khalil Gibran

In January in northern Minnesota, it is a rare treat to have an entire week of weather that is above freezing. During a “January thaw” we turn the heaters off in our cars and pump gas without gloves on. We might even go a little nuts and wash the car if we have enough quarters squirreled away in the cup holder. If the thermometer says it is in the forties in January, anything is possible.

Yesterday, when I stopped for gas, a guy in the next spot over was filling his snowmobile. He started up the sled and a dark plume of snowmobile exhaust hung in the air as he sped off. I haven’t ridden on a snowmobile in decades, but I still love that smell. It reminds me of winter weekend afternoons as a teenager riding from town all the way to Blueberry Hills on the trails. Now, just the thought of snowmobiling makes my fingers cold. I wonder why people get colder as they get older.

I took a drive up to the cabin. Fog and fairies had turned every branch and twig white during the night. Is there anything more breathtaking than a stand of enormous white pines covered in frost on a January day? By the time I headed home, the temperature had risen enough to melt all the frost. I drove along thinking how even a winter hater like myself can find beauty in January if she quits grousing long enough to see it.

We are one week into a shiny new year. On cable news, everyone is complaining about something or someone. Social media isn’t any better. Paying too much attention to Twitter is like sipping sour milk. I’m convinced that there are trolls who do nothing all day but lurk there under bridges to wait for someone they don’t know to say something they don’t like so they can spew their nonsense.

So, here’s my plan. I’m going to pay more attention to the handiwork of the frost fairies than the trolls this month. It’s a lot healthier.

And I hope that wherever you are, you have it in you to spot the fairies, too.

 

So this is Christmas

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young
A very Merry Christmas
And a happy new year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
“Happy Christmas (War is Over)” -John Lennon

 

On Christmas Eve, instead of making dinner, I was riding in a car heading south. The Girl, her dad, and I were bringing Christmas to the Boy, who couldn’t make the trip home.

Twenty or so years ago, when I was a young mom, I made a unilateral decision. Come hell or high snowdrifts, our family of four would always stay home at Christmas. Back then, we lived far enough away from extended family that traveling to visit anyone would have meant packing up the car with bulging suitcases, all the gifts, and two small children who were probably minutes away from catching a cold (or worse) and then staying overnight. To this mom, it sounded like more work than fun. Besides, I’d explain to anyone who asked, it was really important to me that my babies wake up in their own beds on Christmas morning.

I got my way, and we stayed home. For over twenty Christmases, actually. Sadly, once your “kids” are contributing to their own retirement funds, it is a lot harder to make excuses about Santa. People just don’t buy it. At that point, you pretty much just sound like a nut. And so, we made plans for Christmas in the Twin Cities, packed the car with gifts and enough fudge and cookies to give everyone we’re related to a major sugar rush, and took off.

Life is short. Blink, and you’ll miss it. Kids grow up and build their adult lives. Extended families expand and contract. Grandparents become more frail with each year that passes.

So it was time.  And it was good.

And it was Christmas.

 

Words

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.

-Gustave Flaubert

I have fifty research papers to give feedback on and grade. For many students, feedback is more important than the grade they ultimately earn. They would prefer only positive feedback, of course. Who wouldn’t?

When one spends the bulk of her day teaching and assessing the writing of others, there is almost no time to focus on becoming a better writer herself.  At least, that has been true for me. In fact, while I was raising young children and teaching full-time, the most creative thing I wrote in any given year was the family Christmas newsletter.

This is why, during a sabbatical several years ago, I started a blog called The Loonwhisperer where I could practice becoming a better writer. Because I had followers to my blog, I felt a responsibility to post every week. My dear friend, Chris Quaal Vinson, had started publishing her blog, The Minnesota Farm Woman in the Western Itasca Review. She suggested I contact Becky to see if she would be interested in running The Loonwhisperer.When she first suggested it, I will admit that I balked. The relative anonymity of a blog site gave me freedom to write what I wanted, when I wanted. I knew that having my blog published in my home town newspaper would be different. First, childhood friends, old neighbors, and horror of horrors, a lot of my former teachers would be my audience. Would I be graded on my use of punctuation? And second, how honest could I be? Would I need to change names to protect the innocent, I wondered?

I weighed all the pros and cons and I decided I could live with whatever happened. I’m so glad I did. It’s been five years since that first column was published in the newspaper.  There are weeks when this column just seems to write itself, and weeks when I have struggled mightily to put words on the page. Seeing my words published and receiving feedback from readers has been extremely gratifying. I have Becky to thank for this opportunity.

If some of my columns made you giggle or shed a tear, and you took the time to tell me, thank you. If some of the things I wrote about brought back happy memories of growing up, and you took the time to tell me, thank you.  If you caught typos and told me before it went to print, thank you, especially. I have truly appreciated all the feedback I’ve received through the years.

I will be continuing the blog.  If you still want to read whatever it is that flows from my brain down to my fingers and onto the keyboard, because that is just exactly how it happens, you can do so at:  http://www.loonwhisperer.com.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!