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.

 

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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.

 

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.