Things that change, things that stay the same

IMG_3653It wouldn’t be Christmas, without candles and bells and twirling angels.

So, here we are, in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and at yet another calm before another winter storm.   Time to reflect on the things that have changed, and the things that stay the same.

IMG_3631That’s my best friend from college, with my almost 23-year-old son. But wasn’t this just a few years ago?

The changes in our life used to come in little baby-steps, as we parented our youngsters through two naps to one per day,  shifting from sippy cups to big-kid glassware and from cribs to twin beds. Lately, though, the changes are more striking.  Or maybe they’re just more visible during the holidays, when we’re all taking measure of the year past.  Many of the cards we’ve received have brought the usual tidings of joy, plus news of our friends’ kids’ graduations, engagements, weddings.   That next generation appears to have hopped, skipped and jumped over the last fifteen years or so, and is busy hitting major milestones, while we, the moms and dads, are collectively standing on the sidelines, cheering and taking photos, and wondering where our children’s childhoods disappeared to.

IMG_3650Look what pulled up! Who are the grownups, again?

True fact: our sons have been ambling towards adulthood for, oh, two decades plus.  But it took seeing them pull into the driveway with a tree on top of the car to make me realize how fully we now occupy a new Christmas realm.  Alas, this new zone is short on fervent believers in the possibility of flying reindeer, but is also blessedly lacking gifts that require too much assembly after too many spiked eggnogs on Xmas eve.  Our Christmas mornings no longer require Calvin and Hobbes compendiums propped up by the stairs, with the message, “Take this back to bed and don’t wake up Mom and Dad til after 6AM! No peeking!  Love Santa.” Now we’re the ones nudging our kids to wake up, so we can commence the egg strata-eating and Christmas stocking-emptying-fest.

IMG_3752Hurry up you guys!

But  amidst the turning of the seasons and the endless circle game, there are things that don’t change, for which I am so very grateful.  These include:

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The party up the hill, hosted by our favorite 93-year-old skier in his sartorial splendor. His stories of ski trips taken and ligaments damaged and drives from ski area parking lots to hobble-in clinics are epic. My guys like to go to this annual Xmas Eve party, just to see what our host will be wearing. That, and for the eggnog, spiked and otherwise.

IMG_3625Our long-standing reading of The Polar Express.  Every year, before bedtime, we gather around, and John reads it aloud.  Every year, he thinks he’ll make it to the end without his voice breaking.  Every year, he fails.  Every year, he says, “I thought I was going to make it to the end this time.”  Every year, his inability to not get choked up makes me love him more than I already do.

IMG_3779The Christmas picture book.  We’ve been putting together an album for my in-laws, every Christmas for almost three decades.  They used to require lots of reprints and tape.  Now it comes via UPS, all bound and beautiful, with legible captions and lots of photos from lots of photographers.  What a world! And this is the best part, when we gather round and get a first viewing.

IMG_3783My niece Elena graces this year’s album.  Oh, yeah, she graduated. Lot of that going around.

All in all, I am grateful for the many things in my life that have evolved in ways I would never have dreamed.  And I also feel so very lucky to be part of a family that honors the traditions that make us, and keep us, who we are, year after year.

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my favorite December things

It’s another one of those  weeks–short on subjects and predicates, long on logistics and to-do lists.  But at every turn, in the midst of the craziness that is December, I keep encountering the things I love.  Here is a long-on-visuals/short-on-words collection that describes just one category of  beloved things I’d have worked into the lyrics of a song, were I Rogers and Hammerstein.

Like, for instance…

IMG_3483The lights, this time of year.  All versions of light, from so many different sources.

I love how the lights on this neighborhood tree rained down onto the windshield and hood of a nearby car.

IMG_3500I love how the lights on our back porch glow through the first snow .

IMG_3519I love how the lights I string up high atop my kitchen cabinets reflect onto this favorite painting.

IMG_3450I also love the weird shadows that glow along the ceiling, from the lights within a fluted bowl. These are the same lights that are reflected in the windows of the painting above.

IMG_3539I love the light at the end of these December days, particularly when I remember to get outside and see it as it passes  from brilliant to beyond. Noticing when the sun sets somehow makes the darkness at 4PM more tolerable.

IMG_3537That same setting sun, just moments before.  I’m a complete sucker for how the late afternoon light hits the buildings I love.  This little chalet with the gothic door belongs to the Cambridge Skating Club.

IMG_3490I love this group effort. Kudos to the students who coordinated to get this Ho Ho Ho up and shining!

IMG_3547I love how, after the sun has disappeared, the moon, the moon, the moon, glistens in the night sky.

IMG_3507This time of year, leave a few twinkly lights on.  I like having them greet me in the dark of the morning.

IMG_3506Goodnight sun. Goodnight moon. Goodnight, twinkly lights.

acts of kindness

IMG_3126Blessed be the gift of the light of this hour.  Don’t forget to notice!

Tis the season for acts of kindness.  Therein lies the problem—that there should be such a thing as a season for remembering to be kind.  Would that the good cheer of December could be spread out across the calendar, what more could humankind ask for?  Alas, January arrives, and we return to our regularly scheduled programming.  There we all are, with bills to pay and pounds to lose. We drift into the Seasonally Affected Disordered realm of Narnia, where it’s always winter and never Christmas. Plus it’s dark and we’re cold and the snowbanks are gray and the traffic is snarled and the impetus to give over to the kind act is lost, or forgotten. Somehow…poof, gone.

IMG_3425The world gone gray.  Where did the light go?

Then you have a life experience.  Something happens to make you see the world a new way.  A brush with destiny, a medical alert that makes you long for normal, a loved one lost, stolen or strayed.  There’s a million things that can happen to a human being to make the everyday world seem more precious, more worthy of our heartfelt appreciation.  You go through a rough patch, you come out the other side, and you find yourself wanting to be a force for good.  Or at least for noticing the things that deserve to be extolled and replicated.

Well, okay, maybe not everyone.  Me more than many, I guess.  But I think there are crossroads in every life, when what was known has changed, where you find yourself dealing with a new reality.  Meanwhile, you go out the door, and there’s the world, continuing apace, acting like nothing out of the ordinary has happened.  I remember that feeling most profoundly when my sister died; how could the sun keep coming up, how could the sky possibly be so blue?  How could people be bustling around, oblivious to the pain, to my pain?

Here’s the thing we all need to realize: everyone’s dealing with something.  I read a quote not long ago, from Plato: “Be Kind, for Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Great Battle.”  Were truer words ever spoken?  “We are not alone, but surrounded by a world of people with challenges, small and large, each deserving of compassion.”  I have a friend who has the loveliest blog, all glorious art and thoughtful words, like those.  And, though you would never know from what she posts, she also has a ton on her plate, healthcare wise.  And yet, despite all she’s facing, she is my gold standard for appreciating the good, and remembering that we are all wounded out there.  Now that I think of it, it was she who directed me to the Plato quote.

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Those are her amazing clementines, on my favorite kitchen shelf.

So, back to kindness.  Why are we so oblivious to the good cheer that comes back around to us when we extend a kindness?  Why do we forget the clichéd truth, that giving is its own reward? Why are people not stopping and letting the car coming the other way make that left turn?  What’s the point of blocking the intersection, except to ramp up the angst, the frustration, and while we’re at it, our collective blood pressure?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I can only hold on to the truth I know, which is that I know I feel better when I offer up kindnesses.  Big or small, on the fly or with intention, aforethought.  And the sooner I can get to that giving place, the better.

IMG_3346Making cookies is just something I do.  I know I have a cookie following. But I forget, year to year, how happy it makes me, to make my friends happy with gingerbread.

Which gets me to this morning.  My beloved’s alarm went off, which set off the organic alarm (meow!) outside our door.  Bless his heart, John headed out of our warm bed and down the stairs, leaving me to a few minutes of cozy peace beneath the covers.  I turned up the radio on my side of the bed (also permanently set for 6AM, but with the volume set to zero unless required) and figured I’d get a few minutes of NPR before the year-end appeals kicked in.  What I got, was this:

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http://www.wbur.org/kindworld/2013/12/11/remembering-karim-a-lifetime-of-kindness   (If you click here (and I hope you do), know that you can skim through the transcript or listen to the story, as I heard it.  I recommend listening.  It’s about 6 minutes long.)

It’s a story about a gas station attendant, in my fair city.   As the story unfolded, I realized I knew this man. Not from having him pump my gas, but as the guy who always cheerfully waved to me, whenever I walked my little diagonal zig-zag from Mt. Auburn Cemetery entrance, across the street and past his pumps, on my way up the street to my beloved reservoir loop.  I remember thinking, after just a few of these encounters, that he saw me as some sort of regular, even though the early Sunday perambulations that linked my two sanctuaries together were few and far between.  It turns out that the little hello waves I got were just the tip of the iceberg, or more accurately, just one sprinkle on a very big sundae, in terms of how much kindness this amazing man bestowed at every turn, and how much his neighbors felt beloved.

What I didn’t know, what many of the beneficiaries of his kindnesses didn’t know, is that he, too, faced his great battles. His family, whom he supported, was far away, in Lebanon.  He was sick.  He needed help, far more than we needed his freely given kindnesses.  And in the end, a community rallied, and did what it could.  It’s an amazing story.

Which leaves me wondering.  What do I do in my life that comes close to what this man did for his neighbors, his clients, his random passers-by?  I do some good, for family, for friends, for the causes I care about.  I point out owls and hawks to folks who would never have noticed them.  I hand my binoculars to strangers who I’m betting will be enchanted, to see those amazing feathers that cascade down the breast of a great blue heron.  I make cookies, and applesauce, and spiced pecans, I send friends home with care packages.  I let that car make that turn, whenever I can do so without fear of being rear-ended.  And when someone stops for me in the crosswalk, I smile, I wave, I mouth the words “thank you,” and I pick up the pace.  On those occasions when I find myself seated beside someone I don’t know, and the inevitable “So, what do you do?” query comes around, I allow that I am a sometimes writer, an occasional fundraiser, and a full-time good-deed-doer.

IMG_3419Yeah, sometimes I even get shout-out Instagram kudos for my cooking efforts.

Then I listen to the Karim story, and I know what I need to do: I need to do more.  And I need start sooner, and let myself start without circling around the inconvenience, like a dog getting ready to take a nap.  I’m not perfect, not by a long shot.  There’s work to be done.  But as Professor Bhaer told Jo March in Little Women , upon hearing of her strife amidst her family’s transcendentalist goals of perfection, “We are all hopelessly flawed.”  Flawed, and aiming for a higher good.

That’s my goal for today.

* * * * *

What a difference a year makes

IMG_3210Confession: I’m not above inventing excuses to sneak some ECM art into this space.

I found myself bumping into a slew of significant anniversaries lately.  Both my parents had late November birthdays, and one or the other always seemed to coincide with Thanksgiving.  My dad would have been 92 last week, and my mom would have turned 86.  My younger sister, were she alive, would have celebrated her 50th birthday  just a few weeks earlier.  Her birth (or, rather, the news of it) is one of the earliest  memories I have, and is the one that I’m sure is mine alone, and not the product of someone’s retelling.  What I remember most about her arrival, before I got to go to the hospital and see her on that happy morning in 1963, was that my news was an excellent bit of fodder for Show and Tell.

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It was hard to live where I live and not be aware of this anniversary, in November.

My little sister came into this world just a few weeks before JFK’s departure, providing a little bundle of joy, at our house anyway, to offset the gaping hole in the national psyche. I’ll always remember that fateful day, with its unfathomable news from Dallas, as the first time I ever saw a grown-ups, teachers, in tears.  I also remember the TV at our house being on for that whole odd week, while no one in my house seeming to notice that there was a five-year-old watching intently, checking for Caroline and John-John sightings.  The past month’s 50th anniversary media obsession brought those recollections to the fore, along with everything else that coincides with Thanksgiving in my memory bank.

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The color of everything seemed to wash away in the past few weeks.

Add to my memories the fact that it’s dark in November.  Way too dark, way too soon, if you ask me.  Dark and dreary, and tending to colorlessness in the landscape, natural and otherwise.  We had a dark and gloomy week leading up to Thanksgiving, and have had a slew of cold, wet, gray days since.  Those blue sky days of August seemed like a fiction I’d invented.

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Thanksgiving itself was a colorful affair at our house.

So yes, November has always been an emotional minefield for me, but this year most intently.  Because on top of everything else, it was twelve months ago when I went in for that annual mammogram, and fielded the follow-up phone call the next day, and all that came after that.

You, my dear readers, all know where this journey has taken me.  I’ve faced that diagnosis and come out the other side, treatment in the rear view mirror,  hair growing back nicely, thank you. All’s well that feels like it’s already ended well.

But unless you’ve been in my house and checked the calendar on the back of the kitchen door, you probably had no way of knowing that I’ve been anticipating this very day.  I’ve had a circle around Wednesday December 4th, for months. Today is the date when my annual mammogram has been looming as first check point that might tell me if I had anything to be worried about, going forward. And as such, it’s made me a little nutty, thinking that I might need to be worried.

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Here’s the view from my dentist’s office.  Last November my downward spiral on the health front began, it seemed, when I broke a crown. That unfortunate event led to three fairly unpleasant dental visits.  Fast forward to this past week, when I cracked a tooth and found myself back in my dentist’s chair, begging for more Novocain.  It didn’t seem like a good omen.

* * * * *

I hope I’ve made clear to you all that, in my mind, this thing got whipped ages ago.   My ace team and I beat the crap out of my little lap dog of malignant lumps, long before winter had turned to summer. I mean, seriously, what sort of rogue tumor cells could possibly make any headway against the barrage of heavy artillery treatments that my body has been subjected to this past  year?  How could anything even vaguely resembling a cancer cell do anything but play taps and retreat, its tail between its legs, after what I’d been through?  My encounter with the pink peril had the shit kicked out of it, of that I was quite sure.  There would be nothing of note to report from whatever the films showed today.

And yet…is there anything that makes a person feel more vulnerable than sitting in a waiting area, in a hospital johnny, pretending to read back issues of People and Bon Apetit while waiting for a doctor to provide an All Clear signal?  Something about the shiver that comes with exposed skin in unlikely places is just plain…unsettling.

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I needn’t have worried.  I left with an even better bit of paper than that certificate of completion from back in June.  I left with the correct box checked: the one that says Normal.  Nothing to worry about.

Normal.  What a lovely word.

IMG_3334Just when I needed it most: Blue Sky.  And a great big helping of pure relief.

And yeah, I got my cinematic moment.  I emerged from my mammogram appointment to find bluer sky than I’d seen in over a week.  I headed for my cathedral, my reservoir walk, where I passed Mr. 9/11 twice, and huzzah! I was blessed with two entirely pleasant encounters.  Okay, I think someone’s read him the riot act about not berating fellow walkers with his causes du jour, but who cares?  Today I almost could have stopped and listened, if he’d been inclined to make a report to me on the state of the world.  Hell, even the trade that has swiped Jacoby Ellsbury, he of my beloved World Champion Red Sox, off to the Bronx to play for the detested Yankees–not even that bit of news daunted me today.  I’m good to go.  Which is a huge relief, even when my brain was telling me there was nothing to worry about.

IMG_3320Oh happy day.