My new year wishes for all of us: health, staying upright, good work accomplished, and a new president!
Wishing you a wonderful day tomorrow – calm and bright!
Last Christmas our young friend and her parents gave us a tall prayer candle refitted with a photo of Robert Mueller looking thoughtful, surrounded by tiny, glittery stones. We’ve burned it most evenings all winter. Now the wick is hard to reach to light, the sides smudged with smoke, and that beacon extinguished.
Today I’ll just post a spring image from a more hopeful year – this spring doesn’t care, never held out hope for answers anyway. Flowers still bloom in our gloom – for now.
My Washington experience doesn’t include what is happening these days. Historically, snow falls, accumulates a little – maybe on Christmas Eve – and is gone by the middle of the next day. People tell me they don’t own snow shovels because it always melts. (And maybe some people own them and leave on the bluff along with the car window scrapers.)
But this snow event – variously called snowpocalypse and snowmageddon – started with a good size storm on Friday, clotting roads to complicate commutes and cause a run on grocery shelves. And that was just the beginning – two more storm systems (this time uncommon convergences of moist Pacific air and cold air from British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley), have since moved through – bringing hours of accumulating flakes. Easily a foot of snow has piled atop the patio table and covers the eight-inch daffodil spears that dared to emerge in January. Mounds of snow muffle the twinkle lights on shrubs.
Yesterday, Sunday, with main roads cleared, islanders emptied the grocery stores again and battened down for more snow (six inches fell on the car overnight). It began again by 11 a.m. My email pings with winter advisory notices from the Municipality – power lines down and roads closed. Power outages, especially in heavily wooded parts of the island, are a constant threat.
Rain (the weather prediction calls for “cold, miserable rain”) threatens to join the mix this evening. So maybe by the time this posts, things will be different – or maybe by Valentine’s Day we’ll welcome our familiar 42° with rain falling on bare pavement!
And the new year begins – pointed daffodil tips appeared in the pumpkin patch a few days ago, the construction commenced behind us (which feels like it’s in my room – three excavators, a huge Mack truck, and piles of gravel loom over our little fence and shudder the house), but I’ll add one last piece of holiday glitter below.
“Her spirits rose…” will take a little winter break – and then be back for the 10th year! I’ve been thinking about marking that with 10 series of 10 – images to celebrate all these years and reflect what the blog’s been about. (I have to say it here to make it happen.)
Thank you for being such terrific readers, and I wish each of you a peaceful, creative, and healthy new year!
In the early morning this fall, I often read Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy,” and knew I wanted to write about it at the winter solstice.
McCarthy’s book acknowledges the dire environmental straits we find ourselves in – and issues a plea to our emotions – feelings we have had toward nature for all of our history. For McCarthy “We may have left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” It seems a slim hope in this political climate, but he hopes by reconnecting with this part of ourselves, we might be more invested in repairing the damage.
In the first part of the book, McCarthy blends his personal story of loss with the earth’s man-made damage, and it’s painful. But then, in rich chapters, he points out the love and joy we can feel for the natural world, describing human interactions with creatures from butterflies and moths to megafauna.
He tells how he’s found “Joy in the Beauty of the Earth” and “Joy in the Calendar,” the latter through experiencing seasons, migrations, and blossomings – including importantly – the miracle of winter solstice. “The moment when the days stop shortening and start getting longer again, celebrated for millennia.” The words he uses – joy, wonder, love, beauty – are the words we associate with all this season’s celebrations.
In a short, early December trip to Downtown Abbey in climate-changed Anchorage (48° with rain-slicked ice underfoot), Baby Brother charmed me anew. He moves lickety-split on all fours around the house, stops to burst out his big smile, or to pull himself upright to explore more. He has many words, and learned to say “Kay-tee” in the most endearing way.
We got a full-size tree for the living room, and a tiny one for Lady Baby’s bedroom. We cut out and decorated cookies shaped like stars, gingerbread people, and hearts, and read “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Lady Baby demonstrated her new skating skills, flying with speed and strength across the ice at the school’s hockey rink. She was making a menorah with her class, and told me about celebrating all the holidays: “the Jesus one, the Santa one, and Winter Solstice.”
Winter solstice is a calculable moment. It occurs this year on Thursday the 21st of December at 2:23 p.m. – a perfect time to pay attention and rejoice, as we turn toward the light!
Planting snowdrops requires catching the bulbs “in the green,” and dividing the parent clump. Now patches of them appear in many garden beds here, and maybe someday they will form drifts like you see in old English and Northwest gardens. Undaunted by winter’s freezing rain and temperatures, when I brought them inside to paint I realized they have a small, sweet fragrance.
It’s January and cold – in Washington these days the thermometer rarely tops 32° and sinks to 22° – making me long for our usual winter 42° and appreciate house and heat.
This month I try to turn my attention to the house, clearing Christmas, which stops looking jolly and becomes clutter (except the tree, those lights are still so welcome). And January also invites more organizing, seeking comfort and cheer from order.
But in numerous ways I avoid those tasks. Although this year, I happily reboxed Christmas on January 6, energized after reading about the Irish tradition of “Women’s Little Christmas,” the old, but still observed celebration of the women (and surely now men), who worked so hard to make the holidays for their families.
A more typical stalling maneuver is to look at books about houses, including a Christmas present, Ben Pentreath’s “English Houses,” a beautiful book full of photos of loved houses that creak with tilted floors and worn Turkey rugs. Pentreath introduced a room new to me, the “snug,” a tiny room with books and fireplace looking just like the word. (I discovered while writing this that Pentreath writes a blog about his life in Dorset: http://www.pentreath-hall.com/inspiration/).
And this January I miss “Red House West” – may it return soon! I did see a Pin from the blog’s proprietors of an imaginative under-the-stairs bed, cozily curtained off. And I began thinking about how certain house elements, sunny French windows, odd but comfy chairs, deep window sills, long pine tables make me stare at a photo and want to be there.
Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire, said she processes life by employing series and repetition in her work. Maira Kalman does that too. And an artist, Debbie George, I discovered while painting teacups last November, paints antique teacups and flowers one lovely image after another.
January lets such thoughts string together into a project. So, I’m going to look for little moments in rooms that make a difference – quirks, rumples, using houses I know or photos from books or the Internet. Done up doesn’t always do it, but personal often does.
And I can start with this little poem that William Morris had embroidered around the top of his four-poster bed:
The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold
And Thames runs chill
Twixt mead and hill,
But kind and dear
Is the old house here,
And my heart is warm
Midst winter’s harm…
That’s the idea!
Early Christmas morning I managed (with some pride at my efficiency) to get the pumpkin pie for dinner in the oven – and then left it there for hours while we opened presents and ate breakfast. I sent my old friend on Bainbridge a photo of the result, but then she countered with an image from the night before – the charred remains of her Lucia rolls – “425° for four hours.”
Sweet Baby loved it all – from waking up to discover mysterious packages under the tree and a baby girl doll, to having Christmas dinner on Bainbridge with little boys who know how to enjoy the underneath of a festive dining table.
My old friend (who was hygge before hygge was a thing) sent a message at midnight: “The evening was perfect – with all the imperfections.”
Emotions fill the holiday season, I know that. But this one is different. I write while preparing for the arrival of our younger son, Sweet Bride, and Sweet Baby – and I recognize the privilege of time and space to make merry. Writing helps me wrestle my thoughts away from the anxiety that much cherished is threatened in the new year.
I had planned to write about Ann Patchett’s new book “Commonwealth,” to say that I read all six hours back and forth to Alaska, finishing as the plane landed in Seattle. In the beginning I was confused, chapters back and forth in time, characters I couldn’t quite keep straight, but by the end it seemed perfect to finish with Christmas and a family cobbled together by love.
I cried watching Patti Smith sing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony, and I thought of my blue-eyed sons and wanted to write about them, about how astounded I am by them and how grateful for them. They are accomplished and hardworking, and when I watch them care for their own “darling young ones” or hold their wives’ hands, I am undone.
And then today I read “How Does It Feel” in The New Yorker, the wonderful piece Smith wrote about the Nobel event. The link includes the song, and she tells of how she came to sing it, from artful choices and rehearsals through breakfast the next morning. It all fits together to honor art and science, family and friendship. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony.
Most of all, at the year’s darkest point in the season of lights, I write to wish you all kindness, beauty in art and nature, and love.
It’s bleak this early December – Thanksgiving put away and Washington dark of evening and dark of morning. Winter is come.
But it’s the political landscape that chills. A good friend says when she wakes in the night and worries, she reminds herself that President Obama is still president, it’s OK to go back to sleep. And it is more important than ever to look for the cheer and light in this month, for us and for the children for whom we pictured a world with increasing compassion and decency.
On Instagram I’ve comforted myself by posting pictures of #goldreclaimed, because I loathe the recent associations of gold with intolerance, ugliness, and tastelessness. This political year did a number on red as well.
I began the Instagram posts after my eyes fell on a little tourist picture we bought – the reclining figure of Peace – a reproduction from “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government” (here) in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy. Painted in the 14th Century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, this huge three-paneled fresco remains painfully relevant.
On the “Effects of Good Government” panel, depictions are pastoral and bountiful as you might imagine. The panel on bad government is faded, but you can make out the captive figure of Justice, deserted derelict streets, and two armies advancing toward each other in the countryside. The “Effects of Bad Government” depicts “a devious looking figure adorned with horns and fangs…identified as Tyrammides (Tyranny). He sits enthroned, resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury), and in his hand he sinisterly holds a dagger.”
Ugh. So here’s to holding on to hope ‘til time to act, and in the meantime to red and gold in art and life. This little bit of research lifted my spirits not at all, but the red and gold in Lorenzetti’s Peace does.
Arriving the day before Christmas Eve and departing the weekend after New Years, Sweet Baby and her parents came north for the whole holiday. That gift of time made for the most luxurious of holidays.
Having nine-month old lively Sweet Baby changed everything. We celebrated around her wake time (early) and naps (one in the front pack on a walk and one in the crib). Sitting in a little chair that hooked onto our wooden spool coffee table, she ate meals with us by the fire.
Sweet Baby gets up and down from the floor with enviable ease and can stand alone, although a little shakily. For Christmas she revealed one bottom tooth and then another in the days after. Sometimes she wore a t-shirt with a glittery heart on front saying, “My heart is made of gold.”
If she’s on the floor, she extends her little arms for a pick-up or grabs hold of our jeans to pull herself up. Once up, she’s a cuddly, wiggling bundle delivering smiles, squeezes, and squeals. She pats us, then extends her arm as though to point, but turns her hand palm up in the most graceful, slightly questioning way. I’m not sure what it means, but it is pure Sweet Baby.
Santa and stockings? Secondary to the package she received from our niece on arrival day, wrapped with a huge curly-ribboned bow. Each time Sweet Baby encountered the bow, she would carefully pull one strand out, turn it this way and that, and eventually insert it in her mouth (the final exploration). An adult would remove it, and she’d pick another.
Sweet Baby looked with intensity at everything – pictures on walls and fridge, the sky and trees. When I carried her over my hip in one arm while I opened or closed the shades, put the kettle on, made the oatmeal – I explained my actions. She’d watch the shade go up and then turn her head toward my face and study me – looking for reaction, for more words.
Oh, and words – her mom speaks mostly Thai to her, so her tiny head is full of two languages. The sort of things you say to babies became familiar in Thai, even to us.
For Christmas dinner we went out to our favorite Thai restaurant – cheerful and colorful. The Sweet Bride and the restaurant’s owner chatted to one another while each held a baby girl. The Sweet Bride said it felt like being home – and to us the evening felt like a delicious new tradition.
On the day of departure I picked up the remains of the ribbon when we got back from the airport run. Good times never last quite long enough – and oh, Sweet Baby’s first Christmas was a very good time!
“Such a short time you were here,” said Lady Baby, the night before we flew home from our December visit. But we made merry!
On the first day we selected a tree – the tallest ever at Downtown Abbey – and Lady Baby, studying each ornament and determining careful placement, hung hearts, stars, and fluffy owls. We cut out cats, angels, and gingerbread folk to bake and frost and eat. At a lively high school production of a hip-hop “Nutcracker,” Lady Baby might have liked more plot and fewer dance numbers, but she eyed the Mouse King’s every move.
For two days I took her to preschool, and we’d arrive at the little schoolroom in morning darkness to find candle glow, fragrant greenery, and quiet children in a circle around their teacher. In a snow globe moment at pickup time, bundled-up children sledded, squealed, and chased snowflakes to catch on their tongues.
But I treasure most the glimpsed bits of Lady Baby’s thinking: I wouldn’t have known, or ever guessed, that Prudhoe Bay is the best place to get a vegan sandwich (you will remember that Nick, the father of Baby Boy, spends a lot of time in Prudhoe Bay – though he prefers a sausage sandwich).
At the nearby elementary school, Lady Baby climbed the frosty equipment, watched the school’s hardy chickens standing about on one leg (the other tucked into their feathers), and observed “they’d be warmer in their little hut, because they have a light to warm it up.”
Walking home she spotted a dog and its master starting out for a walk. She stopped and stared a minute, then told me “Somebody must really love that sweet puppy.”
We read an animal character version of “A Christmas Carol,” identifying all the animals placed in the familiar Dickens tale, and revisited old favorites like “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Beginning “The Dog Who Found Christmas, a book new to us and discovering Buster abandoned by heartless owners, I said, “Uh oh, this might be sad.” Lady Baby quickly reassured me, “Don’t worry Granna Katy, he’ll find a home by the end.” And so he did.
While Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson had a night away, we spent an overnight with Lady Baby – and it seemed a privilege that everything was so normal. Dinner, bath, books, bed – sleeping tight all night – waking up to “Pretend you are the baby tiger and I am the mama, or no I am the baby and you are the mama.”
Her parents, on the other hand, did that thing I remember so well – looking forward to a break and a chance to ski and eat with grown ups – then spending the whole time talking about the almost four-year old at home.
This visit was short – and winter solstice dark – but rich with Christmas magic (“I think Santa might really be a mouse, so he can fit in all the chimneys”), candle light, tree lights, and music – days to savor.
Is everything ready at your house? I wish you such a happy Christmas, abrim with peace, joy, and love!