Monthly Archives: December 2012

A KIND OF HUSH


December 28 2012       
We’ve entered that moment, pre-departure, when the bags are packed, the many lists have been completed, doctors’ appointments done, a tooth replaced, presents wrapped and unwrapped, our Christmas celebrated with a gathering of family and friends, farewells taken, tears spent and, this afternoon, a massage for each of us. Now what?

There’s a kind of hush that seems to fall in the hours before going away, almost like flat-lining, and one feels neither here nor there. When this happens I’m ready to be there already, but this time I also feel the pull of leaving the familiarity of life lived in a place called home.

The hush is interrupted once in a while by little blips of panic. Well, flying, who loves it these days? And of course, there is snow forecast for the morrow. We’re a little bit like 2 kids right now, both wondering what on earth we are doing and wondering if we’ll get into trouble doing it. A whole year in Europe. It sounds so exciting doesn’t it? Every one we tell opens their eyes wide and tells us how great, how inspiring it is, but let’s tell the truth…who can plan a year? I keep telling everyone, well, you know, real life happens wherever you go. I don’t know if I’m trying to ease their envy or whether I’m reminding myself that really I have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.

We do seem to have a lot of ideas about what we want to do. First on the list being sleep, for days if necessary. And then we’ll discover the secrets of the house that will be our home for the first four months. We have ideas about taking walks and riding bicycles, of going to markets and cooking meals from local produce. We hope to play scrabble by the fire and visit and be visited by friends. I have the bright idea of taking the flight of stone steps two at a time, up to the top of the village, a sort of lunge-while-you-look routine to keep my recently toned thighs, toned. And reading. Lots of reading.

We talk of village we will revisit, of beginning new creative projects, separately and together, learning a bit more French that the bit we have. We’ll take the train to Paris for a few days and hopefully enjoy some lunches at our favorite restaurant in St. Remy…and while we’re there, pick-up some of those delicious chocolates.

We’re looking forward to leaving the cityscape behind and waking up to the peace and beauty of the countryside; of letting go of certain types of obligations, letting go of the calendar, letting go of ambition, just letting go and accepting that whatever happens was always out of our control.

Happy New Year to you all…we’ll keep you posted!

CHRISTMAS PRESENT

December 24 2012          
Thirty-seven years ago on Christmas Eve, I took my tiny toddler of a daughter to a frosty field in upstate New York. There, under the night sky, with a borrowed hacksaw, I felled a tiny Christmas tree while the 2 of us wept.

Those were our welfare days, a food stamp Christmas, the tree, free, because we were the last customers of the season. While my daughter slept I stayed up to decorate the tree. I may have been poor but I was creative; as the saying goes: “necessity is the mother of invention.” And so it was that for weeks, every time I had made us scrambled eggs for our dinner I had pierced each egg at both ends and blown out the eggs, leaving the shells intact. With a bit of glue and glitter I decorated some 20 eggshells with the names of those we loved and hung them on our humble tree.

It’s that time of year, isn’t it, when nostalgia weaves around us like a ribbon of mist, wrapping us in memories, some dear, and some not so much…the hopes and fears of all the years….

This year I have been preparing for Christmas with great pleasure. Have wrapped each present as soon as it was bought or made, have hung the wreath, invented this year’s tree… 
   Maggie’s Photo
…made the butternut squash soup and thimble cookies and, as I write, Joel is in the kitchen preparing the Provençal fish stew for tomorrow’s dinner. There will be 12 of us, each of us well blessed. And mingled with the gratitude I feel, is the sadness and the tears that visit everyday as thoughts arise of those slaughtered children and poor parents and all those still homeless from the hurricane. It must be a burden to be named Sandy right now.

I don’t know how to reconcile all these feelings, nor, I think, is it necessary to. Time is not as linear as we insist it be. Every moment is in every moment.

This morning, as I came into the kitchen I smelled my father’s cigar. He allowed himself one a year, always on Christmas Day, his gift to himself. Although he’s been gone 42 years and it was 5 years before that that I last saw him, I can see him right now, sitting in his armchair by the fire, puffing on that cigar while the chestnuts roast.

I don’t know how they did it, but my parents managed every Christmas Day to be the people they were incapable of being the rest of the year. They seemed able, for that one day, to muster the kind of love and generosity and humor that was nowhere to be seen the other 364. Mother baking fruitcake and mince pies, Dad in charge of the goose and ham. The house and tree magically decorated on Christmas Eve while my brother and I slept. The presents at the end of our beds, Santa’s sooty fingerprints on the envelope that had held our wish lists. My brother and I devouring chocolates, the Queen’s speech, the paper crowns and the radio rich with festive music and then, my favorite moment, when the card table was erected in front of the fire and the 4 of use would play a game called Happy Families. For one day every year, that’s what we were, a happy family.

There have been many families since then …that’s what you get for having married 5 times! Not many of those families were happy. The demand for perfection that Christmas brings is such a set-up for disappointment and yet we try, millions of us, year after year, to be a happy family for just one day. But happiness can’t be bought or baked on demand. We would be better off spreading our effort at it throughout the year. A little more kindness to those we tend to ignore, to those we hold resentment against, to those whom we have failed.

I was in a shop with my daughter last week and an item reminded me of her father…husband #2. Suddenly I was right back there 40 odd years ago as we gave each other precious nicknames and pledged each other eternal love. We went on to fail each other miserably and as a consequence caused pain to the daughter we loved so much.

I bought the item and sent it to him; a way of saying that those good moments we shared were not only as real as all the painful ones, but in fact are the ones that remain most treasured after all these years. This morning I received a card from him saying it was good to have warm memories of our past.

And so it goes: Christmas Past, Christmas Present.

To all of you, dear readers, dear friends, dear family, I wish you moments of joy, of remembrance, of kindness. And may we all practice peace and healing in 2013.

TAKE THIS

December 9 2012                        
I’m in sorting mode: going through cupboards and shelves and drawers in the hope of winnowing our material life down to some final quantity of necessity, not only in terms of what to take with us for a year in Europe, but what to leave behind. It feels a bit like going forward and backward at the same time.

I love this type of decision-making: the piles of ‘stay,’ ‘go,’ ‘throw,’ and ‘donate.’ It’s a kind of decision-making that makes making decisions so much simpler i.e.,there’s less to choose from. And yet, even I, known amongst family and friends to be the great ‘tosser-outer,’ even I hold on to some things. My wedding shoes have survived years of footwear purging, even though I only wore them on our Tuscan wedding day. A pair of cream, kid leather, kitten-heeled, sling-backs, these shoes carried me on the mile-long walk to the colonnade of cypress trees between which we pledged our love, to dancing back along that road accompanied by an accordionist and 50 friends and family members. They rested for a while beneath the banquet table while we filled up on 5 courses of fine local food and many speeches of love and remembrance, and then my slippered feet danced me through the night.

Why do I keep them? Well, apart from my tiny drawstring purse, they’re all I have left of my wedding outfit, the dress having long ago been devoured by moths and the cardigan shrunk in the wash. I’ll never wear them again, I don’t need to, although I do still harbor a dream that my daughter might one day wear them to her own wedding.

I’m certainly not getting rid of my teddy bear either. Ted has been with me since birth and like me he’s a bit worse for wear, having a bad burn on his bum and limbs that are hanging on by a thread. And, like me, he’s been sticking out his tongue at the world on a daily basis. So, Ted stays. But does he stay here or go with me to Europe? Is it totally pathetic to be this old and be seriously thinking of traveling with a teddy bear? Don’t answer.

   Photo by Maggie


It is interesting to observe, as the date for departure draws closer, how, along with the excitement of going on this journey, there also arises the attachment to that being left behind. I often boast of not be attached to the material world, but I’m finding that’s not entirely true. I’d like to say I have the courage to pack only clothes, much like when I put on my rucksack at age 17 and hitched around Europe for 3 months with nothing but a sleeping bag, a change of undies, 1 skirt, 2 tops, a pair of pedal-pushers, 1 pair of sandals, a turquoise bikini and a mini-dress which I ironed with a hot light bulb one evening, in a pension in Monaco. Even some of those few things got chucked during the last week of the trip when, penniless, and dying for a ciggy, my girlfriend and I hitched a ride with a cigarette salesman who generously offered us as many cartons as we could make room for.

For years we’ve been going to Tuscany with one checked and one carry-on apiece, sometimes for as long as 4 months. True, I have taken my espresso pot and manual milk-frother, some candles, and this past summer a collection of 5 stones. 

                                                                     Photo by Maggie

But in the last couple of weeks the shelves dedicated to stuff we’re taking seem to be accumulating things like favorite DVD’s, a years worth of my hair gel and toothpaste – well, let’s face it, if your hair and your teeth stay in place you can pretty much survive anything! But also creeping onto the shelves are things like pop-up sponges, a scrabble game, a tiny, much cherished present from my daughter and a small album of wedding photos.


As I look around our home now, I see so many things I think I’ll miss: gifts we’ve made each other, works of art, the teapot collection. And yet the truth is I’ll probably not miss anything. That’s the point isn’t it, to really fly the coop with just the wind beneath our wings?

What I’ll really miss is our family and friends. Today our godson’s baby daughter is being named. She’s one week and one day old. She’ll be more than a year old before we first lay eyes on her. Yes, our nearest and dearest will visit us ‘over there’ and there’s Skype. But I’ll miss linking my daughter’s arm on a regular basis. I’ll miss our Brooklyn Saturday’s with Joel’s daughter, her husband and our 4 year-old, granddaughter. I’ll miss the dinners and laughter and intimate talks with our friends. One friend, who I’ve known for 40 years and who is herself traveling in Europe right now, wrote how sad she is that we won’t see each other before I leave. At her age, she said, one doesn’t know if one will ever see old friends again. In fact, I am moved beyond words by how many people are telling us they are sad we’re leaving and I think, how ironic that I, who have longed to belong all my life, am choosing to leave all the people to whom I belong, as they do to me.

There are some decisions that seem so easy to make at the time you make them, but everything comes with a price. And some decisions are made more difficult because they straddle categories e.g., people and places, two different categories. It’s not like choosing between which pair of shoes to keep. 

As someone who has long lived outside my country of birth and upbringing, I have often been faced with choosing between people and place. In the end I always chose to be with the ones I love. But I’ve had a hankering to return to my side of the Atlantic to live, once more, while I still can. The choice is made easier by the support of our family and by the fact that we have many good friends ‘over there.’

Who knows, at the end of a year, where we’ll end up living? Wherever it is, I’ll be taking my wedding shoes, and Ted.

THINK BEFORE YOU FLING


December 2 2012                          
I am so glad November is over; it’s not just this one, I’ve never liked Novembers.
There’s a gloom I feel in the penultimate month, no matter where I’ve lived on the planet. Is it the shortening of the days, the light leaving us in a sphere of diminishment? I don’t think so, as I rather like the coziness of a winter evening. I think it has more to do with a sense of time running out. Rather like Sundays, late afternoon, back in my schooldays. When the church clock tolled – rather than pealed – 4 o’clock, a sense of dread would envelope me; dread that my homework was improperly done, if done at all, and the longing for the freedom and fun of the weekend to last forever.

So I suppose in terms of the measurement of a year, November is my Sunday 4 p.m.,  the 11th month as opposed to the 11th hour, but with the same emotional atmosphere of sadness for time lost, or wasted, or not used to its fullest capacity. So it’s a relief to be in December; to feel energy arise as it does when one has a last fling at anything. Now there’s a word, ‘fling’ both carefree and careless. When you fling a party or an insult it is without aforethought, design or intention; a devil-may-care action that has an unbalanced mix of impulse and daring inflicted with a total lack of regard for the outcome as in “flinging caution to the wind.”

I’ve had a few flings in my time, most of them in my alcoholic years and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them. The dictionary defines a fling as a brief period of indulging one’s impulses. So yes, there’s been a lot flings flying around in my life. And December seems to me to be the quintessential fling of the year: a month of near-universal indulgence; food, drink, parties, gifts and the Rockettes, flinging their legs heavenward. Then there’s tinsel flinging, the last ornamental hurrah, not to mention the shops flinging Christmas at us for weeks and while you’re at it fling a few more chestnuts on the fire.

Of course, all flings carry consequences; a few extra inches around the waist, hangovers for many, over spending for most. And there are the flings that end in broken hearts. Looking back, one can see that all that good fun wasn’t really that good or that much fun in the long run. 

The urge to fling, it seems to me, comes from having spent to much time feeling hemmed in by outside circumstances; the economy, politics, natural disasters, but what about the personal circumstances (barring the loss of loved ones). What choices and decisions, looking back, could we have made differently? In what ways could we have treated ourselves and others more kindly, thereby fulfilling ourselves to the extent that the impulse to fling would not arise?

As I write this, I caution myself not to go from gloom to fling, but rather enter into the true spirit of the season. To enjoy the perfume of pine trees, to cook for friends, donate more money to the victims of Sandy, play some silly games by the fire and hopefully to bake thimble cookies with my daughter which for the two of us is not only a once-a-year tradition but is a humble reminder of the distance we journeyed separately and together.

Our recipe comes from a little cookbook that we bought at a library fair when my daughter was five. Those were our poverty years, years when I worked 3 waitressing shifts a day in 3 different cafes. Months of borrowing cars to pick up my daughter from her father’s house, some 20 miles away. Months of food stamps and eating grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner.

I bought the cookbook because it was cheap and tattered and homemade. And inside was the simple recipe for the Thimble cookies, the ingredients of which we could just about afford. And oh, the joy, of watching my little girl put her tiny thumb into each small ball of dough, the imprint then filled with jams, an assortment of blackberry, raspberry and apricot, their colors glistening like jewels. Then there was the delight of removing the cookie sheet from the oven and admiring our work while they cooled just enough to eat one each without burning our tongues. When they were thoroughly cool, we would layer them between wax paper and place them in a cookie tin overnight and then on Christmas Day, arrange them on a platter where they lay in the splendor of their simplicity before being devoured by friends and the two of us.

To me, those cookies represent the true meaning of good fun. They are far from a fling. The whole journey from the discovery of the book at the library fair to the shopping for ingredients, the careful measuring and sifting, the blend of butter and sugar and egg, the just right little dollops of jam, the timing of their baking until not quite golden, the cooling on the rack, the airtight overnight sleep in the tin and each moment of melt in the mouth; this to me is an example of both how little and how much it takes to live a good life. We really don’t need a lot, but we do need to make the most of what we have. By that I mean honoring the pleasure inherent in each step on the path toward consciousness.

We’re counting the days now until we leave for our year in Europe. For a while I was telling people we were going to fling ourselves out into the world one more time, but I’ve changed my mind. We’re going the thimble cookie route, beginning with each new discovery along the way, a path that measures our capacity for simplicity, sifting the precious moments of each day and accepting there will be some misshapen, even burnt ones along the way, which will allow us to savor the good ones, even as they melt away.