A walloping snowstorm hit Washington this weekend – eight inches and more of heavy, maybe good for snowmen but lousy for sledding, snow. Gazing out the window, I see the patio table turned into a giant snow cone, St. Francis wearing a pointed shroud, cars, lawns, and streets engulfed. Often impassable sidewalks force pedestrians into the street – trudging through wind driven snow.
Our power stayed on though, and enabled too much impeachment trial – reliving January 6th, and learning even more about the former president’s efforts to bring forth his murderous mob. And then we watched as most Republican senators fulfilled the verdict’s foregone conclusion.
Last week was hard in several ways. Lady Cora, beloved and beautiful dog of Downtown Abbey, died after collapsing suddenly in a snowy meadow with Mr. Carson, her favorite person. The vet thinks she probably suffered an aneurysm – one of those out of the blue life enders – a shock to the whole family and a first brush with death for Lord and Lady B. Painful, so painful. Cora was the sweetest dog, ever present. She is sorely missed in a much quieter house.
Such is my mindset today, I see the snowstorm as just another hardship thrown at people whose paychecks depend on getting to work.
I write on the weekend, but rain is predicted for Monday and a return to 41° and normal winter. February goes on.
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!
The beginning of September brought a return to summer heat, and everything is dry, dry. A handful of flowers remain to draw for Sweet B’s postcard project, crocosmia, tall purple salvia, tiny cyclamen. The lower leaves of sweet peas grow crinkly and pale, but a few stragglers still bloom up top. The old, indomitable rose bushes put forth a second flush of blossom after a mid-summer pruning. So many orange orbs of pumpkins show through huge and tattered leaves – nearing their allotted 110 days. Maple leaves begin to fall.
The solar twinkle lights shine and only a glimmer of light shows in the sky, when I take my seat by the window in the morning. And with the light, neighborhood birds appear – the tiny house wren who’s been near the patio all summer, often startled when we walk through the rosemary into her space, juncos, and lately a blue jay. Hummingbirds check out the last flowers and dip and dart into the little fountain. All summer I’ve heard mourning doves, watched them visit the birdbath, then fly high to the top of a huge fir tree. Their cry sounds like somewhere else or something sad.
The other day I walked through town to drop a package at the Post Office. Every other conversation I passed contained the word COVID, “if it weren’t for COVID,” we could do this or that. Masked tourists and locals queue by the ice cream shop, and masks cradle chins of people eating at outdoor tables, separated under umbrellas in the middle of town.
Winter is coming to this COVID year. Light bulbs reveal they are burned out, like light bulbs always do in the fall, but no gaggles of backpacked kids walk by our street. We’ll be more indoors, with flu and darkness. In my head I try to turn it around, what if we kept our masks on and didn’t get the flu, didn’t make each other sick with colds?
What if we settled in to enjoy all that’s newly on the screen? The brochure for the Seattle Arts and Lectures series came, and all lectures (including Maira Kalman and Tana French) will be available online. We missed Lord B’s birthday, but could watch our older son’s Zoom trial – with participants in different towns, even different states. My husband’s university classes are online – no long trek by ferry, train, and foot to the campus.
But I don’t think I can make it work – not with all the misery the government seems too broken or heartless to address, not with people dying, little businesses folding, civil unrest, and the threat of retaining the unspeakably bad president, with his political vaccine and cruel words and actions.
Oh, no way to end a post. What about bulbs – those hopeful packages – can we plant them now and picture a better time in the spring?
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: