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.

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.