The Day After

Snow fell here beginning on Christmas Eve afternoon – to Sweet Baby’s delight – and her snow people still populate the garden. I hope Christmas magic touched you at some point – many points! Here’s to a wonderful, peaceful new year filled with creativity, good books, and better politics.

“Her spirits rose…” will take a little mid-winter break – returning in 2018 would be the beginning of the ninth year!

Joy

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!

Lights For The Darkness

Sweet Baby’s parents recently sent a little video of Sweet Baby sitting on the floor next to her dad, surrounded by toys. She has a plastic flip phone with a realistic (old-fashioned) ring, even a fax tone, and she answers and initiates calls:

“Hello, I’m playing with daddy until Christmas! Bye!” Her dad asks who she’s talking to, “Poppa Jim!” When offered the phone to call back, she says, “No, I call Granny Kaytee.” “Hi. Playing with daddy. Christmas lights in the dark.”

When her parents ask for clarification, she (with a little sigh of exasperation), grabs the phone to “redial,” “Hi, Granny Kaytee. I’m just playing with daddy and Christmas lights in the dark. OK? Bye.” She snaps the phone closed with authority.

Well, OK, she’s right! For those of us who live where darkness comes early in the evening and stays long in the morning, dark defines December. And on a morning dim from clouds and rain, when Sweet Baby was here for Thanksgiving week, we lit candles at breakfast. To my delight, each day thereafter Sweet Baby requested that glow.

All the celebrations and realities of the season call for light – warm lamplight, twinkly outdoor sparkles, firelight – and trees! This year will be magic for a nearly three-year old, reading books, decorating the tree, cutting out cookies – and yes, Christmas lights in the dark!

 

The Purple Swamp Hen

Courtesy of the party in power, this weekend was brutal – from criminal behavior verified to the Senate majority’s appalling approval of the cruelest, most unfair tax bill imaginable (to date, I don’t suppose they are finished yet). The news is bury-your-head worthy.

I’ve done a fair bit of that in the past few months, not talking about it here, trying to not give in to feeling completely defeated, trying to remember the title of the blog.

And now the season I like best is nigh! In spite of snow falling on WordPress and changing the header to one of holiday comforts, the spirit eludes me. But, for the little people who don’t know what a muck some adults are making of it, I want to try, even if by avoidance, to make the magic of the season of lights happen – and to enjoy.

I felt better this morning when I turned to my notes about Penelope Lively’s 2016 book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.” I love Lively – all her books – and her presence in this troubled world, her wisdom, her staying power. Lively is in her 80s, has endured the arrows of age, but what imagination and facility in one little volume!

In these stories, Lively plays with narration and narrators, with what people say and what they think: the story “A Biography” is written in a series of interviews as though for a biography, “Point of View” retells the theme of the split pea soup story, and in “License To Kill,” where a 20-something accompanies an 80-something (who used to be a spy) to shop for groceries, the alternating thoughts of each reveal kindnesses and surprises. Using a purple swamp hen as narrator (in a time leading up to the eruption, the hen lives in the garden of a villa in Pompeii) allows Lively to call out comparisons between that “benighted age” and our own.

Oh treat yourself to Lively’s book in these uneasy times – or wrap a copy of this beautiful volume, with its purple bookcloth and cover picture of a purple swamp hen, for a favorite person!

Perfect

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.”

Yes.

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A Very Happy Time

A pre-Christmas trip north to Alaska is a cherished tradition now. Several mornings we drove to preschool, where candlelight flickers in the classroom, and viewed the “snowcake” Lady Baby created. We decorated the Downtown Abbey Christmas tree, read many Christmas books, and did a lot of “come let us adore him” around Baby Brother. After her mom laid it out for us, Lady Baby helped me (sitting in my lap, and pushing the lever for backstitching) sew a stocking for her brother.

One day we made Christmas cookies – a nearly all-day affair. Lady Baby can now do all the steps – rolling and cutting and decorating. For part of the time, Baby Brother slept on me in the Ergo, but he woke in time for decorating at the kitchen table.

He’s so long, he’s outgrown the nest I can make for a baby by crooking one knee and placing my ankle on the other. So we used a pillow as a head prop, and he smiled and chuckled (he does that now!) as frosting flew nearby, and Poppa Jim pretended to be stealing cookies.

This year Mrs. Hughes suggested a Saturday morning exchange of our gifts to each other, and Lady Baby was so excited to come downstairs and discover presents under the tree. Outdoors, the North wind did blow in cold and snowy dark till after 9 a.m., inside we sat in the cozy living room by the lighted tree. Baby Brother slept on his dad while Lady Baby deciphered gift tags and dispensed packages – a perfect sampler of Christmas morning magic.

When we reminisced about the cookie making, Lady Baby said: “That was a very happy time for me.”

So me too – the whole trip.

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December Red and Gold

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.

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