Christmas Contradictions

Remembering my oldest brother who died on December 23, 2019

 To say or write something new about Christmas is impossible. We have heard it all already: the sentimental, the devout, the reverent, the irreverent, the beautiful, the profound, the cynical, the gloriously happy, and the bitter. Words and songs, candles and cookies, gifts and slights, mutters of “humbug” and shouts of “Merry Christmas!” This year, with every tradition upended and every once-joyous occasion attenuated with “distancing,” all of the above now have an undertone of loss. What is there to say? Not much, I suppose. But there is much to remember.

Our Christmas tree this year, decorated with all our favorite ornaments gathered over the years, but with no gifts underneath. Gifts have all been already mailed.

 Like most families, we have known many kinds of Christmases: some suffused with grief over recent loss (funeral flowers were part of the decorations in 1990 and again in 2019); some marred by minor illnesses (extra supplies of Kleenex and toilet paper required); some made awkward with tension (either individual or collective or both); some filled with joy (a long absent family member home again, a new baby whose presence makes everything new and wonderful, food traditions carried on in blissfully busy kitchens). Actually, separating all my Christmases into categories like that is foolish—Christmas embodies hope above all else, and hope keeps company with all manner of disappointments and losses, as well as with deep happiness when hope is proved true.

Both of the primary narratives of Christmas in our culture have space aplenty for the full range of human experience. Both raise expectations to mythical levels; both also point to reality in its greatest rawness. The Christian narrative is of new birth, a miraculous birth that will save an entire people from violent occupation and brutal economic conditions. Some tellings of the story look forward to the redemption of all humankind. However, as a prophet informs the baby’s mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”

.. . . . I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different: this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

(T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”)

The Christian narrative requires us to think about our role in the miseries of now and in the future of the world that is ever unfolding.

The narrative of St. Nicholas, with its delightful magic of one man giving gifts to the whole world in a single night, seems less demanding, warmer. It invites us to generosity, not only to our families but also to those who would gladly be generous to their families yet have not the wherewithal to do so. The deep human pain in this story of expectations is implied, not often spoken. The contradictions are there, nevertheless. Underneath the story of filled stockings and too many cookies are economic realities that demand attention.

Christmas display in the conservatory next to the former Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. A combination of natural plants, natural stones, and the beauty created by human design of those elements, this place has been a refuge for me in many difficult times.

 Nevertheless—and I insist on this “nevertheless”—there is beauty to be found in all levels of both Christmas narratives. The beauty that is given, for which we need only eyes to see and hearts to attend; and the beauty that we create through imagination and ingenuity. In all those forms of beauty, remembered from previous years, I take refuge in this year of the pandemic.  

 The photos contain no people, no food (which seems appropriate for this year). What I have included is the memory of the last time that all my siblings and I were together, evoked only through what we saw together, and other memories of quiet moments that were simply given and gratefully received.

Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, AB. Photo taken in 2011

Poinsettias are everywhere at Christmas, never mind that they are a tropical plant that couldn’t survive outdoors in the Canadian prairies. Usually they are red, brilliant deep red, framed with dark green leaves. Red and green, the colors of Christmas. This display, though, was definitely white and blue, human skills turning natural beauty into magical beauty in an ice palace.

Three photos taken of blue-tinged poinsettias in the Christmas display in the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton.
A serendipitous photo.

I remember that at the time I thought this icy display of artificially blue poinsettias verged on kitsch. I was charmed, though, despite myself, by various shades of blue and fascinated with the play of sunlight through the high glass ceilings of the conservatory. Still all that added paint (who knows what the designers used) and glitter, of all things, seemed a sin against natural beauty. I am less critical now. When I see the three reflected figures in the dark blue globe in the center, I am grateful that we were together.

And after all, the entire Christmas experience, in our culture, is artificial. It is a cessation of the usual rhythm of work and school; we bring trees indoors, for goodness’ sake; we import tropical plants; we spend lavishly on gifts and food; we welcome dreams of a better world. So let our homes and our celebrations be nostalgic and extravagant. Let their beauty enrich our souls and then make us aware of how we might change our world to make it beautiful for all, not just the privileged.

Stone and flowers – how could I resist this photo? Also from the Muttart Conservatory.
Once again, a photo makes us see that shadows are an intrinsic element in beauty.

I want to conclude this reflection on Christmas themed beauty with a return to the outdoors, the unadorned beauty that is given to us so generously everywhere we look.

A small park near our home in Saskatoon, taken shortly after a heavy snowfall. No people, no tracks. Just the warmth of stark black and white, life in dormancy, waiting.
A sweet little chickadee that eventually sat on my hand and helped itself to the peanuts I offered. Taken on the grounds of St. Peter’s Abbey, Muenster, SK.

When I run after what I think I want,

my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety;

if I sit in my own place of patience,

what I need flows to me,

       and without pain.

                                                (Rumi)

Write the Letter

The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.

Lewis Carroll

We have had to rely much more on words in these times of no hugs, no touch, no expressive body language—no, I haven’t forgotten video chats and Zoom meetings. It’s just that those ways of “seeing” can feel more like performance than actual in-person gatherings. Compared to sharing dinner with extended family in our home or having coffee with friends in places like my favorite Broadway Roastery hangout, Zoom doesn’t measure up. So words it has to be, whether in phone calls or in letters.

Does that sound rather old school? So be it. As I write ever more emails, determined to maintain some people contact, I do consider my longer emails replacement letters. They’re quicker than snail mail, of course, by far. They’re often more informal, too, defying all those rules I learned in school back in the 1960s: where to put the return address (which was part of the actual letter), how to punctuate it, how to address the recipient, what phrase to use to close the letter and introduce your signature. Conventions were stronger then, more precise. 

We wrote our letters on special paper called “stationery,” which we then folded and put into matching envelopes that had to be taken to a mail box. Letters were then, perforce, less frequent and therefore more important. Checking one’s mailbox after the mail carrier had come by was an event. The tension generated by opening a letter—with a special letter-opener—lasted longer than the two seconds required to open an email.

I remember the year my love and I nurtured our relationship almost entirely by letter. Each letter mattered. Surprisingly vivid still, over 50 years later, is my memory of sitting alone in a little carrel on the second floor of the Murray Library on the U of S campus, textbooks shoved to one side. With great deliberation, I guided my fountain pen across the lines of the paper, trying to shape the disparate details of my boring student life into something that would convey my presence to the young man who would receive those written words, one province away, in a small dorm room.

Recently, I’ve been reading the earliest volumes of my father’s diary (all that still remain). They had been written in the early 1930s, begun shortly after his arrival in Canada as a refugee from the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The covers of the simple scribblers are a worn-out black, the pages yellowed and often hard to read. Mostly consisting of brief lists of farm and church activities which were almost the whole of his life then, some entries do include personal notes. A few phrases suggest that he anticipated his diary would eventually be read by others, and he wanted to leave the story of his immigrant experiences.

Chief among those was the writing and receiving of letters. Those written words were his only link with his widowed mother who had remained behind in Ukraine in 1929 when he traveled alone to Canada to find a new future. How carefully he must have chosen his words to convey hope to his family, to share of himself without letting his loneliness overwhelm him, or them. Whole afternoons were spent writing letters, hours in which homesickness must have ached throughout his entire body.

It would be at least another decade and a half before he would be able to welcome his mother, one sister, one brother, and a nephew to Canada. It would be several decades more before he would see his beloved older brother again. A fifty-year separation. I have often wondered how they held onto hope, especially since that fifty years included twelve years of imprisonment in Siberia for my uncle, years in which not a single word was exchanged between the brothers. When letters became possible again, my calm and stoic father wept with emotion. How very, very precious was each letter, written by hand on thin paper to save on postage.

All those years – all those letters. I have no way of knowing what he wrote, or what was written in the letters he received. None have survived that I know of. I wish that even one or two letters had remained, so that I might glimpse the narrative shape that my father gave his life as he progressed from foreign farm labourer to citizen owner of his own dairy farm, or that I might have some sense of who my grandmother was. Did she dare to write about losing a daughter to starvation, about the way that men from her village were simply disappeared? How would she have told her story?

I have saved some letters myself. A few of those I have written—I discovered them among my parents’ keepsakes after their deaths. It was like meeting a younger version of myself, whom I scarcely recognized. Memory, Eduardo Galeano observed, “is always changing with you while you are changing.” Yes, that is true. That is why I wish had more letters that I had written, back when letters were written on paper and kept as treasures.

Some of the letters I saved came to me from Africa, from my big brother, as I thought of him then. I was enchanted by the exotic stamps on the envelopes, fascinated with the delicate blue “airmail” paper that minimized weight. The handwriting was terrible but legible, the writer a story-teller, aware of words. Come to think of it, we both measured our words with care. Despite our very different circumstances—he in a foreign culture speaking his newly acquired French and I in the tumultuous years of learning to be a mother—we both shared and withheld. The limiting of words to four or five pages per month is a wonderful distiller of thoughts.

Now, because I write on a keyboard almost as fast as the words come to mind, my diary entries have become copious, prolix, too easy. The letters I now write to myself in order to find out what it is I think are nothing like the diary entries my father wrote, sometimes six or seven days to a page, a line or two for each. (I see them now as a kind of performative art, the very brevity and repetitiveness of the entries enacting the loneliness and stasis of the immigrant laborer’s world.) It might be well for me to pick up the fountain pen once again, fill it with dramatic turquoise (if that’s what’s required) or staid black, and consider my words before my pen touches the paper and as I shape the cursive letters.

A few days ago, on CBC’s Writers and Company, I heard a reprise of an interview with Eduardo Galeano, a Columbian writer. He had discovered, near the end of a very long and boring book about a priest’s missionary activities, a simple yet profound story: the priest had explained to the Indigenous people what paper was – it was something useful to send messages to friends far away. This seemed so important to his amazed listeners that the name they created for paper was “the skin of God.” For Galeano, that phrase, “the skin of God,” seemed like the true definition of the responsibility of a writer. Writers send messages to friends they have met and many more friends they have not yet met.

“The skin of God”: if that is what I’m writing on, then I had best choose my words with care. And love.

A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.

Emily Dickinson

Before and After – “and the rest is history”

  “And the rest is history”: the clichéd phrase is a typical ending for a touching romance story, often written when the couple is in a seniors home celebrating their 60th or 70th wedding anniversary. Always the phrase takes for granted that the rest of the story is well-known to the audience and therefore doesn’t need to be told.

My husband and I on our wedding day – August 28, 1970 – now almost fifty years ago.

 The crucial moment, after which everything changes, is always applauded by the assumed audience. She spots him across the room just as he drops his plate, and is charmed by his rueful grin; he speaks on impulse, inviting her to some quixotic adventure and they never look back from the trajectory that takes them to the altar. She chose to go visit a small town she’d always despised . . . . He dared to think that friendship could be something more . . . .

But why should I multiply scenarios here? We know how this kind of narrative unfolds. It’s reassuring, it’s inspiring – take the risk, do the “right” thing and “the rest is history”—a very happy, successful history, to be sure.

 The happy smiles of the young couple in the wedding photographs are heart-warming and hopeful. Their future is before them, they’re so in love, they’ve got joint goals and values that will carry them through whatever happens. Surely only a curmudgeon whose life has turned bitter would begrudge them their dreams or remind them that they’ve still got to get up each morning and make breakfast, not to mention carry out the garbage (of both sorts – real and metaphorical).  

 The problem with that feel-good story line is that it ignores the immense gap between the bland “before” and the happy “after.” “And the rest is history” turns out to be accurate, very accurate. A long history indeed plays out in that gap, a history that contains in it multiple before-and-afters, each of which may or may not be recognized at the time as a crucial moment with its own consequences.

 There wasn’t only one decision, whether impulsive or fated or thoughtfully weighed, but many, many small decisions. Each wrought a change, subtle or more definitive; each was a tiny reinforcement of movement in some direction, toward greater commitment or less, toward more kindness or less. Each mattered, probably more than could have been guessed at the time. C.S. Lewis put it more starkly: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before” (Mere Christianity).

 Evaluating all the various decisions that eventually become part of that happily successful and-the-rest-is-history conclusion would require recognition of the contexts in which we choose, for our freedom to choose isn’t as absolute as we sometimes fondly imagine. Remember that afore-mentioned “garbage”? We all bring some of that into whatever relationships we establish in life, including the influence of childhood events, the trauma within the genealogical line, the surrounding culture, the political climate, particular social status, each of which narrows the range of options.

 Nevertheless, choices are made, choices that change us inevitably, that eventually leave us looking back in surprise at who we were then, and who we are now.

Though I lack the art / to decipher it, / no doubt the next chapter / in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz

One of my favourite novels, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lovely scene in which Anne Edwards, a 60+-year-old with a lively sense of humor and an earthy wisdom, is counselling a heart-broken young man and reflecting on her 40 years of marriage:

“We all make vows, Jimmy, [to love, honor and cherish someone]. And there is something very beautiful and touching and noble about wanting good impulses to be permanent and true forever . . . .  And we really truly mean it, at the time. . . . Lemme tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men. . . . They’ve all been named George Edwards. . . . People change. Cultures change. . . . Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people” (The Sparrow, 156-57).

After almost 50 years of marriage to the same man—or versions of the same man?—I’m grateful that somehow, almost without knowing how, we have made enough of those small decisions in favour of continued commitment to have made it through the events and experiences of 50 years, several of which could have become grounds for divorce. Fifty years cannot pass without some portions of grief, aching losses, deep regrets, misunderstandings both serious and silly, and plenty of foolish and unkind behaviors that require forgiveness.

“And the rest is history”? Yes, indeed. It need not be told here or perhaps anywhere. It is enough to acknowledge that romance is both gift and a long labor of love.

My husband and I, near Stanley Glacier in Kootenay National Park. Photo taken in 2014. Those hiking/camping trips that we both loved played a huge role in our life together.

 And so I wish to offer public gratitude to the man who has lived through and accepted the changes and choices that have made me who I am today. I am grateful for shared values and similar passions, and equally grateful for different passions and separate activities that allowed us space in which to be our independent selves as well. Our marriage owes much to that negotiation of we and I. That, and the quiet everyday-ness of shared routines, balanced with the deep surprises of love, however and whenever they come.

 

Before and After: on changing one’s mind

( Text and pictures are not correlated, not unless you wish to connect them. In my mind, beauty and color are always relevant. And if you follow this blog, you already know that flowers comfort me.)

Photo of bright yellow day lilies. Includes two that are already wilted.

            ONCE upon a time, I wondered what it might be like to live through a tumultuous world-wide event, on the scale of WW2 or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. When I listened to the daily 6 o’clock news on CBC (a long-standing ritual), I was horrified by stories of war (elsewhere) and stories of natural disasters that left thousands dead and the local economy in tatters (again, elsewhere). I tried to imagine what such an experience might be like. Wouldn’t everything in life be divided into “before this” and “after that”?

That was indeed once upon a time. Now, enough has already happened in 2020 to make me face what was formerly unimaginable, let alone what I can add in from the previous year or two, as the effects of climate change have become more immediate, as democratic values have come under threats that likewise seem far too close. While I have been privileged enough to remain COVID free so far and relatively unscathed by the tanking economy, the pandemic-fueled crisis of racism has shaken me deeply. Surely if this is not a time that will hereafter divide life into “before this” and “after that,” then thousands upon thousands of demonstrators will have risked their lives for nothing. We dare not return to “normal.”

Close-up photo of very dark purple iris.

            Who can bear to watch the videos?

            How can the stories, now surfacing one after the other, leave us unmoved?

The dark purple iris again, this time with withered irises included and a bit of dried tree trunk.

  The coronavirus itself has already changed the entire world, not just North America. Among the privileged, it’s been inconvenient to learn new ways of engaging socially, new ways of getting work done, new forms of technology. For the less privileged and the marginalized—well, the narrative shifts from inconvenient to catastrophic. The glaring gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the strong correlation between that gap and vulnerability to the coronavirus have been starkly highlighted.  

 Sparked by yet one more killing of an unarmed black person by an officer in uniform, fuelled by economic hardships made even worse by the pandemic, and in defiance of health risks, demonstrations across the world have drawn in people of all classes and races in a rare show of human unity. Signs and shouts and social media messages are calling out long-standing systemic racism throughout government organizations, corporations, religious and educational institutions, and most especially the militarized police forces (could we possibly begin by talking about police services instead of police forces??). The passionate marchers are asking us all, individually and collectively, to change our minds and then act – or vice versa, however it works out.

The dark purple iris again, this time with minimal background. The vivid shades are obvious against the washed out shades of the house and dirt.

The before-and-after that is struggling to be born here, I think, goes far deeper than institutional changes. I’m not arguing against the desperate need for substantial legislative changes, for greater accountability in the police services and legal systems, for widespread societal conversations about racism.

None of that, however, is going to accomplish what Black and Indigenous Lives Matter is about without many individual changes of heart, changes of belief systems, changes of primary narratives—the kind of before-and-after that strikes at the core of personal identity.

We all have foundational stories that tell us who we are: stories that give us meaning and purpose and that determine the way we see the world. Call it a grand narrative, call it the paradigm through which we make sense of disparate facts and experiences as they come our way, call it the lens through which we see life and interpret what we see. External hardships can be faced as long as we can walk with our community and continue to know, in our hearts, who we are, where we belong, and what we believe.

Thus making substantive changes to our personal connection to those foundational stories is possibly one of the hardest tasks we face as human beings. It means casting aside basic assumptions, rethinking all of our major choices, asking that most terrifying question, “what if I’ve been wrong about how the world works? what if I’ve needlessly, selfishly hurt people who could have been (should have been) my friends?”

Photo of cluster of pinks, flowers that resemble carnations.

It’s not easy, such remaking of the self. In my own journey of spiritual rethinking, I sometimes felt as if I were standing on a high platform without a railing while it was being dismantled, one plank at a time. Would I finally fall through because there wasn’t enough wood left to stand on? What kind of surface would I land on? Or would I keep falling into a moral and spiritual abyss where nothing mattered anymore?

Perhaps that’s why I began reading, almost obsessively, memoirs of people who exchanged the security of their inherited (or absorbed) familiar grand narrative for the unknown.  For example, Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return recounts a painful exit from a Jewish Hasidic community, an exit begun almost inadvertently through gradual learning about how others live and think.  The title of Megan Phelps-Roper’s Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is self-explanatory; Phelps-Roper was not only exiled from her family and community but had to face her participation in acts she now found abhorrent. Such memoirs show us the often high cost of re-evaluating that which had been assumed, given—until it wasn’t any more.  And everything changed.

Such a wholesale re-evaluation is now called for from all of us in situations of privilege, as we listen to the veritable avalanche of stories of discrimination, both deliberate and unthinking.

All those voices, some now speaking out for the first time, others already hoarse from having spoken so long in vain, make me see, now from a different angle, the ramifications of political decisions that I once supported, the benefits I reaped because of the community I happened to be born into, the education I received because I had the freedom to choose what college I wanted to attend, the stable home life that supported my educational desires because my parents had not been systematically abused in ways that destroyed initiative and hope.

What if I have absorbed (and I’m sure I did) all through life, a story of innate superiority based on the color of my skin? Which I did not choose, could not have chosen, just like everyone else could also not choose their parents, their place in society, the color of their skin.

All those tales about shiftlessness, inferior intellect, and innate tendencies to crime amongst “those other people”? Can I contemplate the awful possibility that those stories have all along been self-serving, even religiously justified, designed to hang onto privilege and wealth at the cost of the humanity of entire peoples?

Facing all of that squarely means changing an entire way of looking at the world. It will mean giving up a previous narrative and admitting that some actions were utterly shameful, even if they had been done without recognition of what they were. It takes a brave soul to begin that journey, let alone see it through to wherever it will lead.

Photo of a different shade of pinks, this time just two flowers against a background of dark green foliage.

My point in raising this particular perspective on the changes that face our world, this most shattering and poignant of all before-and-afters, is to invite us to think beyond the fierce arguments, the shoutings and counter-protests, the political posturing. Rather than judging, try to see the terrible fear in the hearts of people who cannot yet face the consequences of changing their entire self-narrative, their lens for seeing and interpreting the world.

For at some point, after such a major revision to the shaping stories of the self, the initial insistent question “who am I now?” will be followed by an even more troubling question: “whatever shall I do with my former self?”

“. . . it’s not only the things that we’ve inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs, and things of that sort. They’re not actually alive in us, but they’re rooted there all the same, and we can’t rid ourselves of them. . . . . And we are, all of us, so pitifully afraid of the light.”

Henrik Ibsen in Ghosts

The Language of Stones

Had I been told, when I was a child, that I would someday talk about stones as if they were alive enough to “call to me,” I would have giggled in embarrassment. “That’s just stupid. Rocks are dead.” 

Although my father and older brothers did mutter resentfully that every spring, the land seemed to have “grown” more stones. Exempt from the hard labor of picking stones, by virtue of my age and my sex, I only knew the stones, piled in heaps alongside barbed-wire fences, as wonderfully climbable. Sometimes, at their base, I found wild strawberries, unmatched in taste by anything ever purchased since.

My indifference to stones disappeared when I had my first road trip that I can remember through the Rocky Mountains. True enough, at that time I made no connection between that majesty and the stones we cursed on the farm. From then on, when I heard the biblical phrase “God is our rock and our salvation,” I imagined the heights and austere beauty of the Rockies along the highways that we traveled on the way to Vancouver.

Stanley Glacier, near the highway to Radium, BC

 In the summer of 1968, I moved to Jasper, Alberta, in search of tuition money for the next year of university and maybe some adventure.  And I fell in love.

white fabric background, and the goldstone pendant necklace

With previously unknown gemstones. Such a gift that was, my first gemstone necklace, given to me by my best friend and roommate who worked in a gemstone shop. That delicate goldstone star charmed me, all the more when I learned that goldstone is relatively soft, difficult to work with. Now, more than 50 years later, that goldstone star has lost none of its inner golden glints. Its shape is still perfect. I am still in awe.

 My fervent love of hiking in the Rockies was born that summer as well. Every possible day off, every spare hour or three, was spent on the trails near the townsite. If I had access to a bicycle or a car, the hiking was more extensive. The mountains claimed my heart and soul; in them, I could breathe and feel the presence of the Divine without any strings attached—no guilt, no struggle to achieve perfection, no intense shaping of words into prayers. I just was. Small and insignificant, yes, but caught up in beauty without a name or creed.

 Just when and how that beingness attached itself to actual rocks that I could hold in my hand, I don’t know. The love of mountain hiking was soon shared with the man whom I would wed and raise children with. He and I sat together by the side of the Athabasca River, picking up rocks out of the water, drawn wordlessly to the mysterious inwardness of that which was supposed to be inanimate.

The bank of the swift Athabasca River, framed by spruce trees - focus on the rocks, polished by the water.

We began collecting, one by one, special rocks from beloved trails and favorite campsites. I began speaking of rocks as if they had individuality, as if there was a spiritual connection between me and them.

On our first visit to Wanuskewin, a First Nations park just outside of Saskatoon, we heard the indigenous narrator of the introductory video speak reverently of the ancient rocks, seemingly rooted in the prairie, as “grandfathers.” She gave words to a vague feeling I had never been able to name and could scarcely acknowledge. Stones are part of the created world, a necessary part of the ecology, descendants of great glacial movements. They matter. They embody ancientness. They speak.

 Stones also need a habitat; they need plants, and plants want the company of stones. The breakdown of rocks into smaller and smaller bits eventually makes sand, and the energy of plants growing and decaying widens cracks among the rocks and makes humus. Together they make more beauty, a beauty that breathes and multiplies, cell by cell.

We began a rock garden in our front yard, and indoors, I placed small, favorite stones next to my houseplants to keep them company. Stones and flowers: the hard and the delicate, the impermeable and the fragile.

For decades, we have gathered rocks, never many from any place. On the shores of Lake Superior, we found green and pink-speckled stones, yielding a multi-colored sand. Their belongingness near the vast waters that curved out beyond the horizon was not immediately clear to me, not until I attempted to place a few into the dry creek bed we’d created in our front yard. Lovely as they were, they didn’t belong. I had not known that stones know their place, whether they are large or small.

 Two years ago, on the Labor Day weekend, we visited Grasslands National Park, and in the everlasting wind, we walked the trails through virgin prairie, inhabited by herds of bison, veritable congregations of prairie dogs, noisy insects.

A prairie hillside with many rocks of all sizes and gorgeous yellow-flowered shrubs.

This was a harsh landscape, which, despite my initial resistance, called to my prairie-born soul. There were stones everywhere, often covered with lichen, adding color to a minimalist landscape. As usual, my eyes noted particular stones, yet something stayed my hand. These ancient stones belonged; they did not “call” to me as I had thought other stones did. They invited me, instead, to be there, with them.

Four small stones, all very different, placed on a white cloth background.

When I did finally select four small stones, I did so on my knees, grateful to the grandfather stones who were willing to let me carry their little ones in my hands, so that I could sense their eternity. They lack a place now, except in my heart and in a photo, as a work of art.

Creativity, a knowledge of place, a listening to the inner heart of things–all these are gifts to us from the Creator. A necklace and some photos, Lord – I am grateful.

Unravelled

Just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, I had finally learned how to knit. That had been a long-standing goal. Friends were knitters; my daughter-in-law was a knitter. I admired, I wanted to do likewise. Yet my first effort, about 10 years ago, ended in failure. My teacher, expert and patient, lived in another province, which meant that any mistake was instantly fatal for the project. I did not know how to “unknit.” I had crocheted for years; in crocheting, you just unravel the yarn until you have undone the mistake, then keep going again.   

Not so in knitting. Undoing errors is as difficult a process as the initial knitting, if not more so. After struggling to learn from a book that optimistically assumed easy success, I gave up. My half-finished toque, begun at least four times, was unravelled for the last time and tossed into the remnant yarn bin.  

Then just over a year ago, I learned of a knitting group that was going to meet weekly in a home nearby to teach beginners. Now that was what I needed – an experienced teacher to sit beside me and fix what I screwed up. After knitting numerous swatches, and pulling them apart to do yet again, I was comfortable with the basic knit and purl.

My first real project was a dish cloth, in an impractical white because I had lots of left-over white yarn and because in white, stitches can be easily seen. I was inordinately proud of it. Never mind that I’d been rescued by my teacher several times along the way.

Photo of dishcloth with skein of yarn and two knitting needles

Then I became ambitious. Having mastered the complicated (for me) pattern of that dishcloth, I expanded it into a small prayer shawl. I had enough white yarn left from this and that so I could easily make a shawl. Well, not easily. Nothing about knitting is easy for me. Probably won’t be even if I live to be 90 years old. Really good knitters begin as children.  

Although I was now bragging to friends that I knew how to knit, I began this second project in solitude. No distracting conversation, no observers to make me nervous. Slowly I gained confidence. By the time I’d knit almost two feet of the shawl, I dared to knit in the presence of family, pausing if I had something to say, because talking and knitting still couldn’t happen at the same time.

 I thought I was doing well. I boldly decided that using slightly different batches of yarn wouldn’t matter. The shawl would be “interesting” for its shades of difference. Okay, here and there I miscounted stitches and had to fudge a bit to keep the border even. Perhaps only I would see those glitches.  

Then came COVID-19 and physical distancing. No more knitting group meetings. I was on my own.

 My striving for perfection (except for those aforesaid glitches that no one else would see) came to a halt the evening that I missed an entire row. I didn’t notice, just kept knitting.  Yet when I woke up in the middle of the night, I realized what I had done. What made me think of knitting at 2 o’clock in the morning remains a mystery.

The next morning, I looked at my half-done shawl, then at the pattern book. Yep, I’d skipped a row. The shawl had now reversed itself; what was the good side had become the reverse side. It was glaringly obvious. Well, then. Time to practice my very unsteady unknitting skills.

A long, tense two hours later, I stared at what was steadily becoming something that could not be rescued. I had now tangled enough stitches, lost my sense of an even row, and become so discouraged that I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be able to get back on track.

I retreated to a private room. There was no way I was going to let even my supportive husband see me laboriously unravelling hours and hours of work, returning the yarn to its original state. (Alright, not the original state – that’s never possible –but rolled into a coherent ball with which one thereafter begins again, if the will is there.)

There is no picture of that half-finished shawl. I had planned to take that photo when it was all done, and I could legitimately brag about it. Which will not happen now.

Photo of knittng book, knitting needles and skein of yarn as well as three small balls of yarn

Yet in the unravelling, I gained a more realistic view of my project than I’d allowed myself to see before. There had been, all along, uneven stitches because my tension was unsteady, and some raggedness here and there where I’d snagged or split the yarn. My miscountings were also more obvious than I’d thought.   

Worst of all, not only were my efforts to shift from one ball of yarn to the next entirely sloppy, but incorporating different kinds of yarn was clearly foolish. The shawl had become narrower because of slightly thinner yarn. The two shades of white didn’t look fashionably creative at all; they signalled clearly that they didn’t want to be together. The whole project hadn’t merited completion in the first place.  

The effort I expended trying to unknit, however, was not in vain. Through that miserable process of guesswork and sheer ignorance of where to put the needle next, I was learning. By the fourth row of undoing stitches, I was beginning to understand how knits and purls worked, just not consistently enough to succeed in the unknitting. I was tying together, metaphorically of course, actions and consequences.

Even the eventual despair that led to plain unravelling—hold onto the yarn and keep pulling—wasn’t so deep that I couldn’t see how I might, possibly, have been able to pick up the stitches at some point and rescue some of my work. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to count rows, wouldn’t have been able to figure out where I was in the pattern, in which each row had a different sequence of knits and purls.

All of which is to say that should I choose to begin the project again (unlikely), I would do better: yarn would be consistent in color and weight; rows would be carefully counted and noted; due attention would be given to the pattern. It would still not be perfect, though. My knitting teacher and her equally skilled knitting friends had assured me that even a lifetime of knitting did not prevent errors. For them, though, errors were just delays, not disasters.   

 

COVID-19 has given me more than enough time to meditate on knitting and other connections. From my busy academic days came a memory of writing a paper on Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World, likely because of its pervasive knitting images. The lonely narrator, finally prepared to accept his Mennonite heritage and desperate to find out who he is, explores his family history all the way back to the 1500s. The image clusters of knitting needles, ropes, knives, and threads bring together the suffering of a persecuted people, the beliefs and longings of key characters, the practice of knitting while praying, and the harmonies of songs while yarn is turned into toques and mittens. It is a tour de force.

That yarn of family betrayals, prison visits, traditional hymns, and loss of faith—telling, is it not, that we call stories yarns?—seemed the right narrative to lend meaning to my otherwise meaningless efforts and unravellings. On the one hand, my knitting failures are of little consequence. As I once explained to someone I was visiting in a nursing home, it didn’t matter if I had to unravel six inches of crocheting because I was only keeping my hands occupied while actually focusing on the conversation. The world did not need another baby afghan, but it did need my presence beside her.

On the other hand, my knitting failures can become a way of re-seeing failures of communication. If conversations don’t seem to be going anywhere, if hurt seems to multiply into hurts, might there be value in tugging gently at threads until we get back to some point of beginning?

The work of psychoanalysts indicates that sometimes moving forward requires going back to find out what metaphorical knitting needle stabbings, what ignored knots, what parallel yarns lie behind the current impasse. What’s more, current research shows that trauma is often intergenerational, that behaviour patterns have long histories. The threads of those narratives have been woven into our very cells. 

Not to say that such a cat’s-cradle of stories needs to be entirely understood and somehow redone. ‘Tisn’t always possible. What is possible is some recognition of complexity, some acknowledgement of causes, some willingness to hear differing voices. Then, with greater skill and greater humility, the story can begin again.

 

Songs, stories are beyond value: they are the memory and wisdom of a people, the particular individual rivers of the sea of life which constitutes us all.

Rudy Wiebe

In These Times

Stones and Flowers was never intended to respond to current issues or political events. It was to be a thoughtful reflection on personal experiences—a space to find beauty and commonality, maybe even joy.

But these times are unusual. Unless people have lived in other countries where epidemics have come and gone (remember Ebola?), hardly anyone younger than I will remember what it’s like to be afraid of a seemingly unstoppable new illness with disastrous consequences.

And my memories of the 1950s polio epidemic are vague, just a mental snapshot or two: my small 6-year-old self standing on the upper rungs of a long ladder propped against the house, trying to peer into the upstairs bedroom where my beloved big sister is in isolation. Who put the ladder up or why, I can’t imagine. What remains in my memory is my childish fear that I wouldn’t ever see my sister again.

 But I did. Both my big sister and my big brother contracted polio, yet survived without any long-lasting effects. Not everyone in our small town and surrounding farms was as fortunate.

Perhaps that’s why I felt an uprush of gratitude every time I took our children for their vaccinations. It seemed like such a privilege to know that they would not die or be damaged by whooping cough, polio, measles, etc.

 Now again, we are being tested by a new disease. It’s not only a matter of frantic research to find a cure and a vaccine. Our challenge is also to live with compassion for others and to resist panic. Blind fear will accomplish nothing; kindness to a neighbour will make the day easier for someone.

Meanwhile, I shall claim this blog space in which to share some photos that bring me joy and remind me that the world is a beautiful place. All we need is to open our eyes and our heart that we may see and rejoice.

There is no theme today, no pattern or order to the photos.  Each of them, though, is somehow connected to someone I love.

Kelly’s Bathtub in William Switzer Provincial Park, near Hinton, Alberta

For a few days with family in Hinton at the end of February, just before all travel ceased and the world became a lonely place, I remain very grateful.

Pond on the grounds of Calvin College (now Calvin University), Grand Rapids, Michigan

Not a frequent traveler, I have treasured every occasion to attend academic conferences that has been granted to me. This one is particularly special, since it was shared with a dear friend.

Fresno, California. Taken from a hotel window at sunset

A Starbucks coffee shop, a stunning sky – what’s not to love?

On the U of S grounds.

The University of Saskatchewan is known for its lovely grounds and unified architecture. In my life, those grounds have been the place for getting to know my boyfriend, struggling through those angst-ridden young adult years when who I was was under major construction. As a young family, we cycled along its paths, explored the small zoo in the Biology Building, attended occasional concerts. And then I became an instructor and had the privilege of walking those paths for many years. The U of S is home.

A walk in a park in Calgary
Lake Annette in Jasper, Alberta

While Saskatoon has been my residence for most of my life, Jasper remains a special place, where I first lived and worked away from home as a young adult, where we honeymooned, where we camped and hiked as a young family, where we, now as grandparents, continue to camp and hike with family.

Sunset near Oyen, Alberta

Since all our children live in Alberta, we have learned to know the highways between Saskatoon and Edmonton, and between Saskatoon and Calgary. For a prairie born soul like me, the pageantry of sunset never loses its soothing magic.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean on Wickinnish Beach, near Ucluelet on Vancouver Island.

And after we’d absorbed in almost total silence the ever-shifting light on the waves rolling into shore, until darkness gradually covered it all, we turned to leave and saw a full moon in the sky – a blue moon as it happens. It was August 30, 2012.

Linden tree in winter, Saskatoon

Our front yard has also given us beauty of all kinds. Black and white, actually mostly white, feels soul-cleansing. Snow offers inner quietness, the rest that comes before growth is possible.

Purple fountain grass, Saskatoon

Our backyard offers its own stunning details and colors.

My photo albums and digital folders are full of mountain pictures. I claim the Rocky Mountains as my spiritual home.

However, I am not blind to the loveliness of more exotic places. I offer one last photo, hoping that it may awaken dreams of days when travel is possible once again.

Hotel pool in Fresno, California

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead

The Flingers and the Flung

On the dairy farm where I grew up, chores began early and never took a holiday.

photo of the barn on our farm, including one cow

There was play time for the children—we did not have a deprived, Dickensian existence—yet we did whatever work small hands and feet could manage. Thanks to the routine of morning chores and school, days always began early, with no weekend reprieve. Not until I left home could I relish the decadent pleasure of “sleeping in.”

 Consequently, the difference between those of our family who vaulted out of bed, eager to begin the day, and those who had to be coaxed into consciousness was all too obvious. The boys rose early and willingly (which they have done consistently into their senior years). The girls? Not so much.

 In that time and place where women knew their narrow roles—or were duly informed of them—this sex-correlated difference in body rhythms simply became further proof of feminine inferiority. Virtue belonged to early risers, and not much compassion was offered to my sister and me who, having no choice but to conform, coped by remaining as uncommunicative as possible for as long as possible.  

 Odd that I never registered then the contradictory fact that it was my mother who arose eagerly, talking before she even reached the kitchen, and it was my father who dutifully obeyed the alarm clock at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., but worked in remote silence until the welcome breakfast, not served until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.

Many decades later, after I had begun teaching English at the U of S, having meekly accepted the newcomer’s typical assignment of 8:30 a.m. classes, I discovered a poem by Margaret Avison that delighted my heart – “Meeting Together of Poles and Latitudes: The Prospect.” Although it was clear that the poem as a whole dealt with far greater complexities than the mere fact of getting out of bed in the morning, I was intrigued by her choice of that metaphor to explore profound attitudinal differences in the way that people respond to the demands of life and love.

Her deft summary of those “who fling off, toss head, / Taste the bitter morning, and have at it” and those who are “flung off, sit / Dazed awhile, gather concentration” made me smile in recognition. I wanted to share the poem immediately with a colleague who likewise functioned as the reluctantly flung, and who muttered frequently and bitterly about the “morning Nazis” who insisted on weighty academic meetings at 8 a.m.

By that time, however, I had adjusted to living both with and against my body’s natural rhythms. Years of tending to small children had taught me self-discipline and flexibility. Our three sons, each in turn, had been the sort of infant who woke early, and then, once having achieved the blessed ability to sleep through the night, went to bed early in order to rise even earlier and cheerier than ever. I was willing to trade the pleasure of sleeping later in the morning for the much greater pleasure of evening time for adults only!

One learns, in the process of growing up—and I insist that the growing up continues throughout adulthood—to accept necessary trade-offs and compromises. As the boys grew older, schedules changed, of course, but thanks to school hours, and my husband’s early departure for work, and then my own teaching schedule, I had no choice but to behave like a lark, not like the owl that I truly was.

 Not that that turned me into a flinger. Emotionally, I remained, and still remain, a card-carrying member of the flung. Rare indeed are the mornings when I wake early with eagerness to begin the day. My family understood that, when necessary, I could transition into conversation, remind children to take their lunches and not forget the project they’d done the night before. At the beginning of vacation travel, I could arise at dawn if need be, finish packing, make a picnic lunch, gather bags and books, and make sure we departed promptly. An early beginning made the rest of the day more manageable, that I will readily admit. 

photo of loaded car and makeshift trailer with bikes on top of the car
Departure for Kananaskis 1987

 Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about posited correlations, still insisted upon by some, between one’s circadian rhythm and one’s ability to be successful in life. Or to put it in less problematic wording—who would dare to define “success”?—one’s ability and willingness to contribute to the community in which one lives. Is progress and general well-being actually dependent solely on the busy flingers who “Thresh, knead, dam, weld, / Wave baton, force / Marches through squirming bogs” (Avison)?

 I would insist that the flung have much to contribute, out of the very well of their “flungness.” Many a late-rising creative person has provided powerful pieces of music, many an artist has changed the way we think about our world, and dancers and actors and other performers have fed our souls.

No doubt, the board rooms of the nations, the wards of hospitals, and the streets of our cities have their share of the flung, who proffer their own tender perspectives. It may well be that the very effort of having to resist, in this world of “morning Nazis,” their natural inclinations to “Follow vapour-trails with shrivelling wonder, / Pilfer, mow, play jongleur / With mathematical signs” develops a kind of unsung endurance and sober second thoughts that are equally necessary for a balanced world.

Given Avison’s frequent preference, in other poems, for risk-takers (cf. “The Swimmer’s Moment”), I cannot decide just how to interpret the final stanza of “Meeting of the Poles,” in which the flingers and flung meet finally “at the Judgment Seat.” The sheer energy of the words she uses to describe the kind of love typical of flingers – in their “amorous thirst” and “thrust,” they “rock . . . like railroad engines” through “wrecked love,” yet remain “unslakeably loving” – implies awed admiration.

Meanwhile, the flung “love / As the stray dog on foreign hills / A bone-myth, atavistically, / Needing more faith, and fewer miles . . . .” The very words, when read aloud, have a languid dreaminess, a mood akin to that in the weary endings of most retellings of the legend of King Arthur. Which is often precisely the mood of the flung.

 For now, I am bemused at the ironies life has offered me, in my journey through many forced morning risings. Strangely enough, now that retirement should presumably allow me to return to my owl ways, staying up late at night and sleeping late in the mornings, it seems that my body has completely adapted to early mornings. I am now content with a regular schedule that I would once have fiercely resisted. With chagrin, I have conceded to the flingers’ insistence that early morning hours are too precious to sleep through. Indeed, I have learned to love equally the deep blue shades of pre-dawn winter mornings, and the impossible blue-pink jubilation of summer mornings.

view from the dock of Watson Lake, with the rising sun coloring the lake and putting the lone fisherman into silhouette.
Watson Lake, Yukon, just after sunrise

 Just don’t ask me for cheerful conversation two minutes after I have arisen. Early mornings are for meditative silence. Let the urgencies and worries of our mostly urban living wait until after breakfast.

Harbor in Prince Rupert, BC at sunrise

But when they [the flingers and the flung] approach each other, / the place is an astonishment.

Margaret Avison

On the Privilege of Bearing Burdens

(First written over two years ago, and now revisited in memory of my brother)

 Such a triumvirate of memento mori that was, in the space of two months or less: first the announcement of the dreaded Diagnosis (two of them, in fact, one in my husband’s family and one in mine); then the request to serve as Power of Attorney and Personal Agent (albeit the requester was still in excellent health); and somewhere in between, a book fell off the shelf into my hands – The Good Funeral by Thomas Long, theologian, and Thomas Lynch, funeral director. Clearly, I needed to pay attention.

Given my age and my status as the youngest in my family, I was not surprised that I should be reminded so directly and repeatedly that none of us is immortal. (The deaths of a good friend and of a brother within the last six months have sharpened that reminder.) That comes with the territory of post-retirement years.

photo of lake with geese and a bare tree on the shore.

What did surprise was an abrupt reversal of one of my assumptions, thanks to The Good Funeral. The book has much wisdom to offer on all kinds of matters, particularly the North American evasion of all reminders of death and the strange banishment of the body from all public displays of grief, limited as those displays now are. That cultural analysis I had encountered before. But I had never seriously questioned the commonly used phrase “I don’t want to be a burden.” Indeed, I had said it myself, if not so bluntly.

  An understandable sentiment, surely, an appropriate recognition of our dignity. Being a burden means becoming dependent on others who, presumably, have better things to do with their time than care for us. The agony of giving up a driver’s license, for example, lies in the coming horror of having to ask others for rides, to the grocery store, to church, to a friend’s home, unless public transit is readily available. And if physical mobility has become a challenge, then even public transit ceases to be an option. Any and all disabilities, including mental deterioration, can turn us into a “burden.”  

rocky edge of Lake Superior.

 How have we come to use such language? “Burden,” as a friend pointed out to me, “is such a negative word. It gathers in weight and awkwardness and struggle, all of it unwanted.”  Human “burdens” claim time and emotional energy—to do errands, help with chores, listen, make appointments, assume legal responsibilities, change bed linen. There’s no assigned contract limit for such a commitment to bear the weight of another’s physical weaknesses and to hold in one’s mind and heart an immeasurable emotional heaviness. Patience is required, abundant patience, which is another way of saying that one’s own interests and choices must be set aside.

 Being afraid of making such claims on others seems understandable, yet shouldn’t we think more carefully about the very nature of our relationships before insisting, instinctively, that we will not be a burden to anyone? What virulent strain of individualism has persuaded us that we can get through life without being a burden or without carrying a burden?

 But then, I hadn’t even questioned the concept of burdensomeness until I read The Good Funeral. Thomas Lynch caught my attention with his musings about how the first human death might have been experienced: suppose the woman wakes up to find her partner unresponsive, cold – what is she to do?

In a warm climate, she will soon know that the unresponsive one must be removed or she will have to find another cave for herself. Whether she elects to leave the body to the animals and birds or to bury it or to push it off a cliff into the sea, she will have to accompany the body to its last resting place.

As Lynch imagines it, “maybe she enlists the assistance of others of her kind in the performance of these duties who do their part sensing that they may need exactly this kind of help in the future” (57, italics mine). From then on, Lynch argues, human beings are human precisely in their ritual responses to death, rituals in which people, in a community, care for the grieving ones and dispose of the body with due respect.

sunset on lake with interesting clouds and a jet streak

 In his questioning of the concept of preplanning funerals—to avoid “being a burden to your family”—Lynch points out a simple fact I hadn’t thought about long enough: just as our children were once a burden to us in the sense of needing to be fed and carried and changed and trained, etc., so too will those children carry the weight of others as they grow older, first their own children and then their parents. That is the normal order of life and death (and I’m well aware that that order is sometimes upset, creating a particularly painful mourning).

Quite apart from this parent-child relationship, human beings thrive only in community and that entails taking on some burdens for others and becoming a burden to others. Of such is humanity. To pretend that we can manage our affairs so precisely that we never need the help of anyone whom we haven’t already paid for professional services is foolish, and deprives others of their turn to practice compassion, that most human of all qualities. 

Isn’t it time that we simply accepted the weight of being a human being? Then perhaps we can carry that weight with all the dignity that becomes those who stand a little lower than the angels, who, we are told, know nothing of the glory of bearing burdens. 

Does graciousness mean you want to help–or that you don’t and do it anyway? The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particularly backstory.”   

Leslie Jamison

Meditation on Peppernuts

    It was time, definitely. There are those who begin their Christmas planning in July, their shopping in early October, and their baking in early November. Not I. Thanks to many years of teaching—and other reasons, of which more later—my family knew that Christmas didn’t begin in our house until exams were graded or urgency demanded it, whichever came first. The habit still lingers. But last week, as of this writing, it was time to begin baking.

Among my people, and in my immediate family, peppernuts are essential. Peppernuts (aka pfeffernüsse {German} or päpanät {Low German} or pebernodden {Danish}, etc.) are tiny, crisp, spicy – and addictive; eating only one is impossible. They’re wonderfully dunk-able in tea or coffee and perfect for keeping small children occupied in church.

photo of teapot, mug, oranges and bowl of peppernuts
Peppernuts and oranges and tea – all you need for Christmas entertaining, according to Doris Longacre, editor of More with Less Cookbook

 Making peppernuts is both labor-intensive and child-friendly. The dough itself is simple enough; its special character derives from added spices, which are variously decreed by traditional family recipes. It’s once the dough is mixed that children can be invited to roll the soft dough into thin snakes—hey, it’s like playing with playdough! After being solidly frozen, the dough-snakes are thinly sliced, and each small round placed on cookie sheets.  More fun for children. Then wait for the smell of warm spices all through the house.

 No longer having any young children around to conscript for help, I began alone, braced for inevitable memories. First, though, the pleasure of the work. Oh, I’ve heard about efforts (probably by men) to adapt a sausage machine into a dough slicer so that the work could be done more quickly. As if work is, by definition, onerous. But if I offer up the tactile pleasures of cookie dough to the god of efficiency, to what shall I give that “redeemed” time? To other work that I might likewise construe as onerous?

photo of recipe book, baking pan, snakes of dough, and the bowl with dough.
I’m still using the recipe I got from my mother-in-law almost 50 years ago, but now I’ve made it gluten- and egg-free. It still works.

 On the contrary, I would rather enter the task and make it beautiful, something of which I had already learned when I happened across Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful distinction between “washing the dishes to get them done” and “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’m not a complete Luddite; arthritic hands make me glad for a hand mixer, although I still miss the satisfaction of creaming butter using a wooden spoon. I’m just grateful that I can still roll out the dough, make even slices, and line them up on the cookie sheet, precisely the right distance apart.

 Then there’s the bits of raw cookie dough from the ends of snakes (I say fie on those who would rob me of that delight with talk of unsafe food practices), a taste of many Christmases past. And, yes, here come the memories, all of them, like a series of snapshots, from “tolerable—even warm and fuzzy” to “unbearable.”  

 Am I really the only one who anticipates Christmas with dread and joy? The season is so hyped, so elongated (it begins already with the snuffing out of Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns and even appears, in places, in July), so stuffed with stories of plentitude and sentimentality that it raises anticipation to ridiculous levels, and provokes in me a curmudgeonly wish that Christmas be outlawed.

Then those who dwell purposefully within the sacred narrative could celebrate in secret, pondering what it means that divinity has been embodied in fallible humanity, while the rest of the population could find some other pretext for an orgy of buying more stuff and putting up more decorations. The advertising-fuelled expectations of Martha Stewart-style fabulous dinners and parties could then be held separate from the spiritual longing for redemption from pointlessness and violence and heartache.

Sure, the carols—or rather the Christmas-themed songs—do sometimes acknowledge that someone might not come home for Christmas, or that money might be too scarce for gift-giving. That’s but a token gesture for those whose families are too dysfunctional to gather over a turkey (if there is one) without some kind of bad ending. Or for those who mourn losses too painful to celebrate anything. And I don’t even want to imagine what this season of jolly commercial goodwill means in the midst of a war zone or in refugee camps or in slums.

 It’s not popular to speak of such stories at Christmastime. Try changing the conversation to world conflicts or poverty when someone in a store asks yet again, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Always I want to retort, “What do you mean by ready? Who is ever ready for the drastic upending that it would take to bring about ‘peace and good will to all’?” Indeed, what would we do if glory did reveal itself to our harried minds?

 Even as I take the first pan of peppernuts out of the oven, browned to perfection, I know that railing about Christmas demands will not solve either the vexing problems of the world or more particular family stresses. Nevertheless, I will make peppernuts—every year—and share them, with the family, with friends. I will make other favorite cookies, and, if it’s my turn to host, will cook the turkey and all the other dishes that surround it on the carefully set table with its lit candles.

a table set with good china, wine glasses, candles and decorations
Not our usual family setting, which is definitely more than four – this was, as I recall, a meeting of friends.

 We will also bring such gifts as the family has agreed upon, whether it be an in-house exchange or a charitable donation on behalf of the family. There will be pleasure in the doing and the making and the buying, if I choose to be mindful and to acknowledge the sources of my anxiety over all of the above. Familiar rituals give birth also to good memories. Neither ritual nor memories of whatever sort should be ignored.

 From the very first Christmas I can remember—during which I watched it all from my sick bed—to other Christmases, including one in which funeral flowers became the living-room decorations and no cookies at all were baked, I can choose to welcome the beautiful even as I learn to accept the reality of messy human experiences. Just as we revel in the diamonds of hoarfrost in the midst of bitter cold, finding warmth where possible, and giving thanks.

It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? Memories and fresh peppernuts.  

photo of teapot, napkin, full coffee mug, and bowl of peppernuts.