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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

 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.