Katy Gilmore is an artist (watercolors and artists' books ) and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author/illustrator of "The Year in Flowers: A Daybook." Katy has had more than 25 solo exhibitions, and her work is included in public and private collections. Her blog "Her spirits rose..." explores art and inspiration in the everyday things of home and garden, and her work is found at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
In the Sunday morning darkness, I drove to the grocery for the weekly shop, before an 8-a.m. dawn. Bright lights and stars stretched across main street and the colored lights on the Green’s Christmas tree still shone.
Lights reflected in the wet parking lot around the store, and fresh green garlands and wreaths stretched out alongside pieces of tape that mark the pandemic-required six-foot intervals. Inside, nestled amongst the pots of poinsettia, I spotted bunches of red tulips. Instantly I was transported back many years, when in the snowy dark of an Alaska Christmas Eve, the florist delivered a totally unexpected bouquet of red tulips, sent by my father-in-law in Kansas. Red tulips are Christmas for me ever since, one of the small things calling forth thoughts of missing people and times.
So, we have memories and increasing light this week, as we pass the winter solstice, and prepare our distanced festivities in this bleak winter of a hard year.
But no matter the year – maybe because of the year and the daily reminder of the fragility of life – I wish you good cheer, warmth, and light!
That would be a rare December event in Washington, but snow comes in other forms. Last week I moved a large painting to hang years of our cards pinned to ribbons – homemade and very imperfect. They trace decades with images of houses, children, pets, hikes, travels, and Christmas joys.
And now two more rows – cards from our sons’ families fill out the wall, and those reduced me to tears, never far away these days. Not just for missing my family but for all the pain in the nation. (I’m with Bernie Sanders in his support for both direct payments to people, unemployment relief, and help to state and local governments. Now.)
Something slow motion haunts this month for me – time unstructured by longstanding traditions – years of going to Alaska in the early part of the month for real snow, and then later, the Californians coming. But not this COVID year.
The Christmas cards arrive though, maybe earlier than usual – the first one in October. I welcome hearing from faraway friends and love to see the holiday images on their cards – often including snow. One year I managed that on our card.
My drawing was made up, but this year Mrs. Hughes sent a real photo deserving “best of snow scenes,” showing the house she festooned with many white lights along the eves, glowing against bluish snow on rooftops and trees. With a lighted garland draping the snowy fence, the old red house has never looked better!
Talking to Lady B about snow a couple of weeks ago, I reminded her (I can still do this with Lady B, her father cringes when I start in on a memory of his childhood) of the time we sat in her dining nook staring out the window and calling out for snow – and then watched amazed as solitary flakes begin to fall. The conversation moved on, but she began to draw and made the most wonderful image:
My old friend reads to her grandsons on FaceTime and inspired me to try. It’s not the same – awkward to hold the phone to show the image and still read the page – not like a real cuddle by the Christmas tree with books. But needs must, and as Sweet B said: “I love to read these books – again and again.” A benefit to reading electronically is the chance for a one-on-one conversation on the side.
Like the cards, many of the best holiday books feature snow scenes, specially falling snow. We’ve already read “Santa’s Snow Cat” several times, a beautifully illustrated tale of Santa’s white cat who falls from the sleigh through swirling snow. (It ends happily.)
Sweet B suggested some ways to do it, when we talked about the difficulty of painting snow scenes, promised she would try when we hung up. Then I remembered that she already painted a snow scene with her dad when they made the beloved mural on our garage wall this summer:
And we opened a card from young friends with a terrific photo of their so cute, ruddy-cheeked toddler in a snow suit and a message inside:
One evening last week, as they began to decorate their tree, the Californians called us on FaceTime. It’s strange to watch without being part – like viewing a familiar movie – but also jolly. An excited Sweet B unpacked the boxes we sent one ornament at a time – an ordinary family assortment, many homemade – some have stories, and some are good for making up new stories.
A small slab of painted dough, tentatively identified as an owl, is a figure of awe – a creation surviving some 30 or 40 years! To see the son who probably made that owl, lifting his five-year-old to place the star, is weirdly like watching life go on without you.
In the middle of the decorating, I told Sweet B I wished we could be together to decorate our tree. She paused a moment, then said: “I know what we’ll do – you close your eyes and wish with your heart!” FaceTime might be more reliable, but we’ll make it work. I want to embrace this holiday, be grateful for the odd and the familiar.
And last week it began to sink in that a possible end to this pandemic exists – reading the New York Times’s timeline for vaccine dispersal, and hearing Dr. Fauci explain why the vaccines are both speedy and safe – I could feel spirits lift! Hope! Sacrificing togetherness, trading closeness this year for more years to come seems a worthy endeavor.
But, before the vaccine, a bleakness confronts us this winter – hospitals nearing capacity necessitates a new round of closures – the outlook on all fronts is awful. We could close our eyes and wish with our hearts, and I’d wish for those who disregard science to open their eyes – and open their hearts to the suffering of patients and medical people. What a muck we’ve made of this. What a triumph we’ve handed the virus.
To end on a positive note – back to the children and their holidays, both those in our lives and others, it seems a great year to up the support in all forms. I enjoyed getting things for Toys for Tots, in operation since 1947 and accepting donations until 18 December at drop off spots around our towns, or you can do it virtually. Books, art supplies, games, there is no specific list.
In the days before Thanksgiving, I watched a crew of volunteers erect a donated, 30-foot Christmas tree on the Winslow Green – a perfect fir, slim structural triangle, branches reaching up at balanced intervals, festooned with round red glass balls, and topped with a star. My heart soared at the sight.
At first, I thought, well that will do, that can be our Christmas tree, but on my walk the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I passed a woman stringing little white lights on three wire deer, awash in glitter, browsing under a patch of white-barked birch trees. When I said her display made me happy, she replied, “Well, I’ve been into this since the day after Halloween – there is more to come!”
She got her indoor tree from a local farm, and by the time I got home I knew we’d follow suit. Saturday being Small Business Saturday, supporting a local farm seemed appropriate, and at the farm – a rainy, but cheery place – big wreaths filled the arms of little children and big trees topped the cars of their parents.
The Los Angeles family is having a first Christmas in their own house, and last week I made a skirt for their tree and a stocking for Sweet Brother. I divided our stash of cookie cutters, stockings, tree decorations, and Christmas books in half, and packed their portion into three boxes to mail south. The boxes arrived on Saturday, and, by a chance video call, I watched the unpacking of one to fetch out a tiny string of lights for Sweet B’s doll house. Then, some hours later, a photo arrived of Sweet B in mask standing by her chosen tree on a Los Angeles tree lot.
By midday a photo pinged from Alaska – Lady B and Lord B standing (masked, and together holding a wreath), transfixed by some sight – maybe the fresh cutting and wrapping of their tree for the ride home? And later came a photo of their tree – gloriously lit and decorated. A snowy owl nestled at the top.
(The photos are treasured – thank you smart phones, thank you parents – they do help fill the void.)
That Saturday I also walked in town with my old friend – it’s fun to walk in town with her, because she knows many people and greetings are so friendly. But this day, I suppose because Governor Inslee lives on the island, a loud and obnoxious cabal of anti-mask protesters, walked off the ferry and onto Winslow Way with bullhorn and police siren, shouting that Bainbridge Islanders were brainwashed and masks were unconstitutional.
But never mind. (I did think of Lady B – one of her gratefuls at Thanksgiving dinner was for “those little pieces of cloth that keep the virus from spreading” – sensible child). It’s better to think about family trees blinking alight along the coast from Southern California to Alaska.
Do you think it might be questionable for two grownups to have a tree since neither family from afar, nor local friends can visit? But to do without that welcome presence seems sad when there is already so much sad. Trees stir happy memories for sure – and memories are not locked down this year – so I’m eager for the tree’s festive light and color!
Traditionally we split holidays with the Alaska grandparents. We do Thanksgiving, so this week would ordinarily bring feverish grocery shopping, planning and cooking for meals beyond turkey day, bed making, toy arranging, and ferry schedule coordinating. I love arrivals – that blissful moment of sighting one family or the other in the festive crowd disembarking the ferry – I’ll miss that.
And the little moments, when easy companionship happens amid holiday bustle, will be absent this year – making pies or reading books with children, a chance for an extra walk at evening with a willing son, laughing with Sweet B’s parents while wrestling the bird and trimmings, Mr. Carson arriving with a platter of colorful roasted vegetables, and last year, a poolside chat with Mrs. Hughes while kids squealed in the water. This distanced holiday provides no opportunity to plop down and annoy a visiting grownup child sitting quietly by the fire with his book. And the isolation of 2020 presents a real void when the video call ends, and the rest of the weekend looms.
But I think we can make that call and meal together celebratory – if not like the old days. As my old friend, who lives here and is a psychologist, would say I’ve been “somewhat directive” (seems a polite and professional term for bossy) – asking that the Zoom meeting be set up, suggesting maybe we could do vegan meals, sending boxes north and south to the grandchildren that contained possible table decorations (shopping in my linen drawers and realizing the chances were slim of 16 people at a big table again), candles (can you have a candlelit meal on Zoom?), and paperwhite bulbs for December.
I loved the N.Y. Times’s Style Editor, Vanessa Friedman’s, recent Open Thread Newsletter. She intends to dress up for the electronic event, and writes: “When the news around us gets worse and worse, dressing is a way to use the external to find a note of grace for the internal. That’s worth a bit of celebration.”
The “thankfuls” of the children around the table are always the best, and I’m curious to see what they make of this year. Sweet Brother won’t speak out, but his birth at top of mind. The young parents always warm my heart with their love for each other and their children. I’m hoping for a better performance than in the past, when I have mostly grown tearful and inarticulate. When the video goes dark, I’ll be glad the families are cozy together in their foursomes. And from this reimagined Thanksgiving, we get safety and the hope that next year we will be together again. Not small things.
And there is still much to be grateful for – health, those connection-saving video platforms(!), vaccines coming, state officials standing up to the president’s despicable attack on democracy, and a new administration!
And I add a heartfelt thank you dear readers. I have much gratitude for all of you – your comments and caring keep me going. I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving in this temporary incarnation!
And growing stranger and more worrisome and locked down yet again.
Recently the wordsmith used an expression she likes – “coming apart at the seams,” and maybe the country is. The absurd, dismaying sight of this defeated president refusing to face reality (supported inexplicably by his party), assaults democracy. Our nurses, doctors, and hospitals are overwhelmed by citizens’ failure to contain the coronavirus. The dreaded fall surge turned into the predicted winter disaster. How anyone can think the virus is a hoax or that masks impinge on freedom is so far beyond me as to melt my brain.
As the holidays approach, all seems disjointed – also speeded up. The natural world alone seems as it should be. Recent rain and wind tossed colored leaves into red, yellow, and orange circles on streets and sidewalks. The geese paused for a rest on Eagle Harbor, and continued south. Nasturtiums, blooming so cheerfully once the pumpkin vines shriveled, collapsed. But indoors, my aged wild amaryllis bulb (a gift in the 90s) is blooming now – a usual New Year’s event.
We had tentative plans to travel (each day the possibility grows slimmer), so in the meantime I’ve been shopping locally to gather the contents of Christmas boxes, readying them for the mail. It’s privilege of course – being able to shop.
I wish the legendary Christmas ghosts could appear to Mitch McConnell, and while pointing out his Scrooge-like refusal to help people, terrify him just a little, miraculously transforming him into a caring human! A generous federal stimulus package would be an appropriate response right now.
I keep trying to express here what haunts me, I suppose it’s the uncertainty. But many things are known to fortunate families like ours – we only need to “rethink these holidays” as Governor Inslee said in his plea to forgo in-person Thanksgiving celebrations.
My impulse is always to make plans, and realistic COVID influenced plans can be certain. We can adapt and do things to let our families know we care and guarantee some joyful, seasonal normality for the children. Assuming the Internet stays strong, we can promise festive Zoom exchanges, making them somehow different from the “regular” (and cherished) Zoom or FaceTime moments.
Alerted on my morning walk in a quiet neighborhood by a wildly honking car, my phone revealed that CNN had called Pennsylvania for Biden. By the time I was exchanging tearful exaltations with a stranger, AP and all the other outlets had declared as well.
For an interminable four years we’ve known daily despair and anxiety, suffered reckless incompetence and cruelty, and watched norms of decency and international accord shattered.
I know fewer than five million votes (and a sturdy win in the Electoral College) separate two visions of America, and a mountain of work remains to fully restore our government. But the American people did the job – overcoming the president’s disinformation offensive, the voting obstructions erected by Republicans, and the coronavirus plague – to vote. The people did “fire the liar,” and democracy held. Let joy ring!
Saturday night was a time to savor the national and world-wide celebrations of hopes for better times, the end of a malignancy, and a “time to heal.” Our yard sign says what Biden promised in his speech: Decency, Truth, Hope.
Oh – and then there is Kamala, fully prepared to take her place in history with her litany of firsts, inspiring and delighting every little girl and woman – and the men who care about them.
Bring on Thanksgiving please – sequestered and odd it may be – but we have SO much to be thankful for!
Now we cross fingers and hold our breath. Today’s the day – or today and the next while.
But the first COVID Halloween happened successfully – adaptations and resilience all around from kids and parents. Some things were just as they’ve always been – Dorothy posed in her red shoes with Toto in basket, the Cowardly Lion stood bravely (and at just nine months, that’s a feat!), a Yeti stalked the streets (a perfect costume for a frigid Alaska All Hallow’s Eve), and a Skeleton Warrior (not just an ordinary skeleton) armed himself with a plastic pumpkin).
Good luck to us all – specially for these four and their cohort whose future on a functioning planet is at stake!
In a happy accident (born of trying to escape Alexa’s decision to play heavy metal music instead of a requested BBC show), we discovered “Their Finest,” a British movie from 2016. Beginning with jerky World War II footage of factories full of women making armaments, it settles into the story of Catrin, a young Welsh woman come to London with an artist love interest – and her unexpected transformation into screenwriter. From a book titled “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” it’s a movie about making a movie, about imagination, about women’s work – and about romance, of course.
In the story, Britain’s Ministry of Information Film Unit wants to make a movie to inspire the war effort, and decides on a fudged (by Catrin) version of a true story about two daring sisters, who nick their drunken father’s boat, and, heroically join the rescue effort at Dunkirk.
It’s fun to see the primitive sets and lights (movie magic being made in the olden days), watch the script being written on the fly using clunky manual typewriters and much verbal sparring (as many cups of tea are drunk from real mugs). Hired to write “slop” (the term for women’s dialogue), Catrin turns out to be more clever by far than her male writing colleagues.
I enjoy Bill Nighy’s flighty mannerisms, and his role here as a washed-up actor long past fame perfectly suits. He’s charming, old fashioned, and silly, full-of-himself and kind. He takes in hand the non-actor American hired for his good looks, and the hope he might inspire Americans to enter the war.
“Their Finest” seemed a wonderfully long movie, and we spread it out – grateful during our own scary and uncertain days (unleavened as yet by time and creativity) to have this escape each night. There is joy in Nighy’s version of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” sung around a pub piano with the whole film crew – and joy in the theatre audience’s reaction to the movie.
These weeks leave us anxious, holding our breath, too worried to hope, but desperate to hope. A terrific book changes the subject.
When they came to visit in the Before Times, friends of our younger son brought Caroline Van Hemert’s book, “The Sun Is A Compass: a 4,000 Mile Journey into The Alaskan Wild.” Van Hemert was their high school classmate, and her life took a turn – she made her life take a turn – that none of them expected.
Van Hemert’s book is the tale of the trek she and her husband made in 2012, traveling those 4,000 miles under their own power – by foot, by ski, by canoe, raft, and rowboat from Bellingham in the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue on the shore of the Bering Sea.
Trading time in front of a computer studying data for her real love – the outdoors and all it contains – Van Hemert describes the decision to attempt this epic journey. In one of my favorite passages (and there are so many), Van Hemert and her husband, as they leave the coast and head into the mountains, sit on a snack break and together identify birdsongs. She writes: “But today the graphs and calculations fall away as I inhale the scent of dirt and spruce needles. Out here I am half scientist, half disciple. I’ve left the laboratory far behind and, with it, the need to quantify and contain. In its place, I’ve reconnected with the simple act of observation.”
Observation, yes, and treasuring every day. Toward the end Van Hemert writes: “In life we’re always closer to the edge than we like to admit, never guaranteed our next breath, never sure of what will follow this moment. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. With love comes the risk of loss. There are a million accidents waiting to happen, future illnesses too terrible to imagine, the potential for the ordinary to turn tragic. This is true in cities and towns as much as it is in the wilderness. But out here we face these facts more clearly, aware of the divide between today and tomorrow. And, for this reason, every day counts.”
Picturing her exhausted in the tent at day’s end, scribbling in her journal, I marveled at how she kept the saga’s rich detail in mind. She is the finest of writers, scientist and poet, with an ability to capture the landscape, the animal life, and the action. And her knowledge of and love of birds is thrilling.
But you can’t help reading it as a page-turner as they traverse this unthinkable distance, by sea and river, over glacier and mountain, and hummocks of tundra. Crossing shockingly cold Alaska rivers, frigid with glacier melt in tiny packable rafts, encountering bears and a caribou migration, and surviving hunger, a terrifying dunk in the Arctic Ocean, and discovering the kindness of strangers.
I often identified with Van Hemert’s parents, supportive with love and logistics, but uneasy as the left behinds. It tickles me that now Van Hemert has children, she will learn what it’s like to be the one at home. Our younger son wrote to me, “I can’t imagine what her boys will do to one-up her, but I’m sure they’ll figure out something.”
As children do. And same for Lord B – Professor Snape now – adventurer-to-be!
Local squirrels worry not about the pandemic or the election, they scurry about, gathering and stockpiling their winter supplies. Following suit, I’ve given away and stored away all 27 pumpkins from our little patch. Pumpkins gone north to Alaska and south to LA, they decorate the porches of friends who may or may not make pies.
Pumpkins to my neighbor who recently gave me some of the big bag of onions she brought back from Eastern Washington, where the summers are hot and tasty onions grow. She recommended freezing them after chopping – something I’d never known to do. Handy!
Pumpkins for our friend of the fine blueberry patch who said come to get apples and pears, and when I arrived, also offered tomatoes for sauce and a pepper, “off the scale hot!” I sent it on to the Sweet Bride, who says no pepper is too hot for Thai taste.
So far, I’ve baked a first pie, and made pear butter with most of the pears (and painted one), and a plan for applesauce. And also new to me, tomato sauce – if you briefly boil the tomatoes six or so at a time, the skins slide off, then cook down. Now to make pasta sauce with these cooked tomatoes.
And for a winter scheme, this week Sweet Baby began our new alphabet postcard project. A friend accuses me of too many words, my return postcard proves her point.
This weekend those two phrases kept floating through my mind.
Our old friends came to dinner on Friday night. That used to be such an ordinary event, but not since March. We ate in our friends’ beautiful garden in the summer – one night in spring the fireplace provided warmth, but it never seemed welcoming here – our patio too hot on a summer evening, our back deck so small.
But on Friday it felt exciting to be welcoming friends after so long, and, though we’d be outdoors, I cleaned house. I made a pear dessert, totally simple and really good. (Halve and core pears, place in a baking dish cut side up, sprinkle with crushed walnuts and cinnamon, drizzle a teaspoon of honey over each, and bake 30 minutes at 350°.)
To figure out “outdoor dining,” I’d been inspired by Lady B’s mother’s tale of a little farmers’ market-like canopy and a gas firepit in their Alaska back yard – and my old friend’s plan to expand her covered porch or set up a table and chairs on the existing narrow one – and figure a way to add heat as the winter descends. It is going to be a long winter – needs must.
On Friday, I separated the tiny patio tables, placed starters on each, and laid another little table with a cloth, a water jug, and glasses. The purple footstool from the front porch became a landing spot for pizza boxes (our dinner).
The sky cleared of fog and smoke by late afternoon and the sun warmed the little patio, but the sun soon disappeared behind neighboring trees. I always forget how suddenly real darkness descends in October. The solar fairy lights came on, the moon rose (a lovely pale yellow instead of smoke-filtered orange), and by the end, most all our house candles, in various holders and unused all summer, glowed at our tables.
We ate and talked of our families, the difficulties of any plans for the upcoming holidays, and the week’s mind-boggling events. That other phrase “just deserts” comes to mind, along with hopes for survival, and the (probably useless) wish that this development might grow some empathy for those who have suffered and change minds toward universal mask wearing.
We have probably seen our last 70° windless, rainless day, but even wearing down jackets, and sitting next to the car, it was a candlelit, bistro-someplace-else evening. With no hope of a repeat, the memory glows – a quartet of old friends, food and wine, in the midst of a pandemic.
I’ve been writing postcards this week – the last summer flowers to Sweet B – and postcards (with a whale image and “One vote can make a whale of a difference!” on the front) to likely voters identified by groups who have worked since the last election to flip the U.S. Senate and influence state politics.
A while back I expressed skepticism about the value of such cards – but I was wrong, and it seems a great idea to be doing something. My old friend, who lives here, has been penning postcards for the local Indivisible group for some time, and she told me how to participate.
The writing reminds me of being disciplined in school in the old school days, made to write 25 times on the blackboard: “I will not talk to my neighbor during class.” (That particular means of discipline is probably long gone, along with the blackboard – not a Zoom problem.)
During a first winter storm the last few days, I walked to pick up more postcards with rain dripping off my hood, stepping on fallen chestnuts, giant maple leaves, and around puddles. October always transitions us toward winter, but this year worries about a predicted COVID-19 surge and Election Day chaos amplify the seasonal dread of darkness and cold.
Fall is here. Winter is coming. The first debate is tonight. It’s all upon us. But it could turn out OK – let’s keep that thought!
Some time ago (during my considering-only-myself attempt to visit Alaska, which didn’t pan out), our Alaska daughter-in-law remarked that she kept thinking about how much the coronavirus has taken from all of us. She put me in mind of the Hamilton lyric, “it takes and it takes and it takes.” The lyric refers to death, but in my mind it’s the year 2020. All of it. An ungenerous, vicious year.
And now one of our own has a big loss. A faithful reader, Susan, who lives in the Oregon woods near the McKenzie River, had evacuated from fire danger, and now learns from a search and rescue team that her house is spared, “undamaged,” but their lovely studio-guesthouse is gone.
Both grief and relief – thankfully they are safe, the house remains, but in an altered landscape a beloved structure is gone, leaving an awareness of how very close the destructive flames came. To her message, Susan attached a link in memoriam – a post her daughter wrote about the little house in the heady days of Red House West.
Proving the rest of Miranda’s lyric painfully true, “…death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints” – the death toll from COVID-19 reached 200,000 this weekend, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died Friday night. The tiny giant of a jurist is gone. I love this tribute, an essay by Nina Totenberg, because they were fast friends for five decades.
Thank you, Justice Ginsberg, for all you did for the equal rights of all people. We owe you a debt of gratitude beyond measure, and oh, oh we will miss you.
This past week I finally learned what the numbers attached to the AQI (Air Quality Index) mean: 1-50 Good, 50-100 Moderate, 101-150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, 151-200 Unhealthy, 201-300 Very Unhealthy, 301-500 Hazardous. This morning as I write (and please let these numbers be better by Tuesday when this posts), friends in Portland have 294, further south in Oregon the numbers are all above 300 and hazardous, our Los Angeles family 157. We hover around 200.
The West Coast, except blessedly Anchorage 17, burns with unprecedented wildfires. Human stupidity (both in the big picture by failing to act on climate change and in small, careless ways, “wreckreation” and gender reveal parties!?) leaves forests and houses and towns destroyed, yellow twilit skies and acrid smoke, the number of deaths not yet known. Lies and rumors complicate already impossible firefighting. Heartbreaking stories tell of mass evacuations and homes lost, including those of firefighters. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting in a shelter or car or motel after evacuation, wondering about the fate of one’s home.
And that’s, of course, just part of what faces us. The Woodward revelations last week that Trump knew how virulent the virus was and how it spread. He lied about it and people died. Every day reveals the administration’s corruption and manipulation of the agencies charged with keeping us safe. And then there’s the danger that this mendacious man might win reelection.
In her quiet, unadorned way, Smith is so very articulate, just says what is. That we go on, feed the birds, drink coffee, make masks and jam, are thankful for safety (if we have it), but anxious and unsettled, made miserable by so much suffering.