Category Archives: holidays

On Sending (and Receiving) Holiday Cards and Letters

In the small Maryland town where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, sending and receiving postal holiday cards was an important part of holiday tradition. Dad and Mom participated by taking an annual posed picture of us kids and then making numerous copies in Dad’s basic home photo lab, stinking up our house for days. They’d either include a holiday greeting in the photo itself or add a brief caption to each copy.

Then they’d stuff envelopes, write out addresses, and affix stamps by hand to send to family, neighbors, friends, and business contacts. Our parents’ lives back then were too busy for lengthy missives. However, we sometimes received cards with long enclosed letters from friends and family far away. In our house, one entire hallway was devoted to an arrangement of the most colorful cards, dozens and dozens of them, usually patterned into the shape of a stylized tree. After I started a family of my own, I continued the holiday card tradition. 

By now, the postal holiday card and letter are fast becoming outmoded. Email can be a lot quicker and just as informative. All the same, I’m loathe to give up the older tradition. Stationery and gift shops still stock boxes of holiday cards. The U.S. Postal Service still collects and distributes mail. 

Those of us who write holiday letters in whatever medium tend to brag a bit. We also tend to play down any difficult parts of the year just ended. I find pleasure in sitting down to compose a physical page (never more, rarely less) of highlights of the year just ending. It’s heavy on the celebrations and on the achievements of the younger generations.

This year I got a late start sending out holiday cards and letters because of holiday travel, visiting family members on the other coast whose pictures I hoped to include. Now I’m back home. Relevant trip pictures have been transferred from cell phone to computer. I’ve started my annual ritual of card and letter composition and distribution. 

Tools for preparing and mailing holiday cards and letters have gotten somewhat more convenient since my parents’ days. My desktop printer will crank out appropriate adhesive mailing labels in sheets of thirty labels each. The printer can also produce multiple copies of letter text and interspersed images in either black and while or color. My word processing software, with some wrangling, will position pictures where I want them in the overall design. Most envelopes have peel off adhesive strips so they no longer require licking. Most stamps are also self-adhesive.   

The process of writing out each card and sticking labels on an appropriate envelope helps me bring to mind each recipient in turn. I remember how they are special to me. I briefly reweave some of the tapestry of our friendships. It’s disappointing when a card gets returned with “no forwarding address”—I’ve lost track of yet another tie to my past. Even worse are the cards returned with regretful notes letting me know the intended recipient has died. Each year, the prior year’s card mailing list gets winnowed by at least a few names. As best I can, I focus on the good of the lives that have ended. In this era when age segregation has increased, I try to include younger friends and to broaden the age range of new friends beyond just my own cohort. Otherwise, my holiday card list would gradually dwindle to nothingness. 

Our current house has little hall space. The number of postal cards we receive has diminished. The ones we still get will fit easily on our mantelpiece and along the top shelf of the smallest bookcase. I cherish them, fewer though they may be. In these shortest days of the year, they remind me both of the longer span of lives well lived and of the beauty of lives newly started. They reconnect us, something most of us can use after much pandemic-related isolation. 

Happy holidays to you and yours! A belated Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy (Solar) New Year! Happy Upcoming (Lunar) Year of the Rabbit! Whatever your media of choice, may you continue to send and receive holiday greetings!   

Hallelujah Choruses

Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah,” and, in particular, its “Hallelujah Chorus,” figures largely in our family’s lore. Over the years, I’ve participated in several Handel Choirs, mostly as an alto. A vocal score of Messiah’s choruses has somehow made it through our various moves and sits, slightly musty, on a shelf in my office. Once covid concerns wane sufficiently, I hope to participate in future Messiah singalongs. 

I’m not sure when I first heard this uplifting music. Because both my mother and her mother were practicing musicians, it was probably early in my life. The first time I remember being fully aware of the majesty of the piece was the Christmas season I was ten years old. 

Our immediate family’s trajectory had been fairly typical of post-World War II small town America. My father came home from the Navy in early 1946, after serving the final years of that war on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He and my mom, who’d married during one of his home leaves in 1944, set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom cottage built by Mom’s parents next door to their own house. Mom’s parents wanted to keep their youngest close by, especially after their only other daughter and their one grandchild so far had moved cross-country to Seattle. 

About a year later, I put in my appearance, followed in 1951 by a sister, then in 1953 by surprise twins—my youngest siblings, brothers to carry on the family name. Although Dad and some carpenter friends had added a second bedroom when my sister was born, it was tucked into an increasingly steep hillside. The slope precluded further expansion. Our small cottage was bursting at the seams. Dad and Mom paid a minimal monthly rent to my grandparents, more as a sop to Dad’s pride than anything approaching market rate. 

Partly buoyed by this informal subsidy, by 1957 Dad and Mom had scrimped and saved enough to purchase a five acre piece of property in a wealthier part of town. Dad by then had become a small-scale residential construction contractor. He had the contacts and skills to be able to build his and Mom’s dream house on the newly purchased land at minimal cost. They would start construction in March, 1958, once the ground thawed. 

For our final Christmas at the cottage, we’d shoehorned into one corner of the living room a small fir tree with presents underneath. While we went next door for breakfast at Granny and Pop-Pop’s, Santa (so the younger children believed) would leave an even bigger pile of gifts to be opened after our return. 

On prior Christmas mornings, we’d been awakened by Dad’s best stentorian bellow: “Rise and shine, morning’s a’wasting!” he’d yell.  

This year was different. From somewhere near the stairwell leading from the living room to our basement-level kitchen, there was music. Every bit as loud as Dad, it had a decidedly different pitch and rhythm: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”  As we stumbled out of our bunk beds and wiped the sleepy sand from our eyes, we wondered what was producing the music. It didn’t take us very long to locate the new walnut stereo cabinet with the record jacket to “The Messiah” placed carefully on top. Dad grinned at us, triumphant. 

My father and my maternal grandmother had a respectful but sometimes strained relationship. Granny could be fussy about protocol and social niceties. Early in Dad’s and Mom’s married lives, before the arrival of children, Dad had gone out of his way one Christmas season to impress Granny. At considerable expense, he’d purchased three tickets to an evening performance of all three parts of Handel’s Messiah in downtown Baltimore. He’d arranged transportation to and from the concert hall and had put on his one good suit to escort the ladies to this holiday tradition. 

As retold at subsequent holiday gatherings, Dad was so tired after a busy day of physical work that he nodded off early in part one.  When the “Hallelujah Chorus” began (at the end of part two), Dad startled awake. Most in the audience were getting up, a tradition started supposedly when, at the premier London performance in 1743, King George II  had stood for the “king of kings.” Other audience members had followed suit. Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus became customary whenever and wherever the oratorio was performed. Dad wrongly assumed it was the end of the performance. He went to get Granny’s and Mom’s coats, much to Granny’s chagrin. 

Perhaps the 1957 hallelujahs were his way of celebrating the prospect of having a little more distance from his fussy mother-in-law. Perhaps he was just overjoyed at the prospect of a big-enough house. 

After my dad’s multiple careers were over, he developed dementia. For much of his decline, he was lovingly tended by my mom, assisted by a fairly robust social safety net that included veterans’ benefits and a drop-in adult day care center. During his final few months, once the burden of his care threatened to debilitate my mother as well, he was confined to a nursing home. When my sister phoned to let me know that his body had finally died, she had the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing in the background. Somehow, it was a fitting testimony to Dad’s release from suffering.

The past couple of years have not been especially easy. Many of us have lost loved ones. The covid pandemic, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has brought into starker relief our disparities of wealth and of access to needed services. Rather than Handel, some of us may be more attuned to the darker lyrics of a recent “Hallelujah” version by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Cohen continued revising the lyrics almost up until his death in 2016. After several despondent verses, he nonetheless asserts:

I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…

I like to think that both “Hallelujahs” are relevant. We have suffered. We will suffer again. We have known joy. We will know joy again. Hallelujah!

On Being Granted Three Witches…

It’s a little past Hallowe’en. Images of “wicked witches” are fading from our consciousness for another year. Our recent understanding of witches has undergone something of a change, abetted by a modern Wiccan movement. Performances such as “Wicked,” a musical retelling of the Wizard of Oz story from the point of view of two witches, have also reminded us of the “good witch.” It’s been my good fortune to have become acquainted with three very good witches, three benign elders, since I moved to southern California in 2021. 

The first good witch I encountered was Anne, a spritely octogenarian with a halo of blue-white curls. When I first met her, Anne was presiding over a large table of other elders at a summer neighborhood gathering of a “village,” a mutual help group for over-50’s who want to continue to live in their own homes for as long as possible, rather than moving to assisted living facilities. Anne was one of the original members of our local group a dozen years ago. Listening to some of Anne’s stories, I learned that she had spent time in China, a favorite travel destination earlier in my own life. I asked if I might meet with her one-on-one to trade stories and to learn more about her China experiences. She graciously acceded. As it turned out, Anne’s China stay had occurred mostly before I was born. She was a school girl in Shanghai and then in Chongqing from 1946 to 1948 while her naval officer father was an advisor to the Chinese military. Anne’s life experiences are quite different from mine—a Navy daughter, then a Navy wife to a commander who served during Vietnam, a conflict I had protested as a young woman. Anne raised a large family while moving from military post to post and adhering to her Roman Catholic faith. My guess is that her opinions on reproductive freedom are different from mine. However, she has never tried to proselytize or to foist her views on me. She has expressed that aspect of her faith mostly through work with charities and social service agencies in support of adoptive parents, support often badly needed.   

My next good witch encounter was with Carolyn. As I oriented myself to our new environment by walking around, I was pleased that our “planned community” of about 700 houses had pleasant walkways and little traffic. A couple of small shopping strips bracketed the complex. A nearby public recreation area had both indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. Near the top of the closest hill was a cluster of churches. One morning as I explored the grounds of the local Lutheran church, I noticed a fenced garden behind the main building, with numbered raised plots and a small sign identifying it as a “nature friendly garden.” No one was around. I opened the garden gate and walked through the area. At one end were a small red shed and a small greenhouse. A couple of wrought iron lawn chairs were pulled up in front of the shed. The place looked well tended. I gradually made it a regular part of my walking routine. Several walks later, I came across Carolyn, who was tending some of the many plots she cares for. She’d opened the padlocked shed and was ferrying garden tools and containers back and forth as needed. She finished what she was doing, then took a break to chat. 

“This garden has been my sanity refuge during covid,” she told me. “Outdoors, so less virus-prone, and still able to provide a service to the community.” She explained that most of “her” beds contained vegetables planted for use at T.A.C.O. (Third Avenue Charitable Organization), a downtown San Diego drop-in center for the area’s homeless and lower income residents. On Thursdays, Carolyn ferried fresh produce from the T.A.C.O. beds to the center to be included in the following day’s lunch. She’d been doing this since well before the pandemic. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those already struggling, she felt it was more needed during covid than ever. 

“It’s amazing what the cooks can do with whatever I bring,” she said. “Sometimes we have mostly zucchini, other times it’s tomatoes, or carrots, or broccoli, or cabbage. Some of the other gardeners contribute their extra veggies as well.” Carolyn isn’t shy about her age—mid-80’s. She complains that she’s slowing down, but she can still heft a flat of squash or spade a garden plot with more energy than most of us, whatever our ages.

Ellen introduced herself to me by phone before I met her in person. She’s the doyenne of volunteers at our local public branch library. One of the restrictions of pandemic lockdowns that hit me hardest was the closure of area libraries. As soon as infection numbers waned enough so that libraries reopened, I visited our nearest branch, checked out as many books as I could carry, made a small donation, and signed up as a “Friend of the Tierrasanta Library.”  Several months later, Ellen phoned to ask if I might be available to help cashier for a two-hour shift at the used book sale she and others arranged in the library’s conference room during the first weekend of every month. 

“Sure,” I said. “Do I need to bring anything?” 

“Just yourself. You’ll be working with an experienced volunteer who can show you what to do.” Ellen, too, complains that she is slowing down. Well into her 80’s, she’s had one hip replaced and is due to get the second one done next year. At the end of a day’s work, she has a noticeable limp. She doesn’t let it deter her much. 

For over thirty years, it turns out, Ellen has been raising money for the library and spreading the love of books throughout the community. Over the years, she has refined a system that supplies extra children’s books at no charge to a nearby military housing complex.

Not long after arriving in California, I passed the midway point between 70 and 80. I’m slowing down a bit. Aging has brought different challenges than earlier life stages. One of the hardest for me is balancing self care with care for the wider community. Initially constrained by covid and by my general lack of knowledge of how this part of the country works, I’ve been inspired by the lives of my three good witches. Anne, Carolyn, and Ellen are not native Californians, either. They’ve all passed the 80 year milestone. Their adaptability and continuing active participation shine forth. Somewhere near here there are adoptive families with better coping skills thanks to Anne; someday a needy person is getting a more nutritious lunch thanks to Carolyn; in some child’s room someone is reading thanks to Ellen. 

My skills are not exactly the same as theirs. Still, I can write about them, mimic them as much as I can, encourage others to follow their examples.

. Who are the good witches in your life?  

A 2022 Mother’s Day Strike

Until about a week ago, I had been looking forward to a fairly traditional Mother’s Day: I’d receive a card or two, perhaps a phone call from the grown child who lives out of town, maybe a home-cooked breakfast from a spouse who typically does little of the family cooking. I wondered what other mothers and expectant mothers would be doing to acknowledge the day. I thought that this Mother’s Day would be a low-key chance to reaffirm the importance of mothers in all our variations.  

I believe that mothers are indispensable to a functioning society. A day’s worth of recognition can sometimes seem a small recompense for a generation or more of parenting labors. When our children are small, we may nurse them from our bodies. As they grow, we attempt to guide them into making life-affirming choices. We do our best to provide for them both financially and emotionally. Even if we’re exceptional parents, we sometimes need to rely on other adults, whether or not they have children of their own, to help us through the rough spots.

Amid all the other uncertainties of American life in 2022, I expected Mother’s Day to be more or less “normal.” Then, early last week, American media exploded with news of a leaked draft opinion by U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito. Alito urged that the landmark U.S. abortion decisions of Roe vs. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992), permitting abortions in most instances prior to the viability of the fetus, should be completely overturned. Although efforts on multiple governmental levels to weaken abortion access had been going on ever since the Roe case was first decided, this was an unexpectedly harsh opinion at the national level. 

I started losing sleep, wondering what more I could do to influence the ongoing abortion debate in an appropriate way. Earlier, I’d written letters and emails, phoned my elected representatives, posted blog entries, sometimes even attended demonstrations. So I blogged some more, sent more letters and emails, even submitted a brief letter to the editor pointing out the irony of expressing outrage over the breach of privacy suffered by Justice Alito while ignoring the subsequent breach of privacy he was advocating for millions of American women. (I figured brevity might count for something, although it’s not my typical style.) 

Before dawn on Mother’s Day, I awoke and did a basic internet search on “Mother’s Day protests,” thinking it would be appropriate for me to attend one to express my support for motherhood that was voluntary rather than coerced. No events in my vicinity popped up, but there were severaI links about a nationwide “Mother’s Day Strike” during the next week or so, patterned after an October, 1975 women’s strike in Iceland to support women’s value and women’s choices.

So, to the extent that a retired grandmother can, I’m going “on strike.” I do not plan to do any housework for the next week. I’ve alerted my spouse to be on the hook for household chores. I plan to spend a good bit of my week at the public library, where I recently discovered a non-fiction book by Melinda French Gates, The Moment of Lift, about women’s empowerment, both globally and here in the U.S. Ms. French-Gates is a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a partner in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which widely supports family planning.

I encourage any of you who can to create your own strike on your own terms, letting those around you know what you are doing and why. Happy Mother’s Day, all!

Anniversaries

This year, it may be March that’s the cruelest month—
Snows are melting in Ukraine, but little planting
Gets done, just more craters from more shelling.
It’s a month since Russian troops crossed the border,
Initiating what average Russians are
Forbidden to call a war.

How many more month anniversaries before
The carnage abates? How many more refugees?
How many more lives lost or displaced?

This month contains, too, my annual wedding
Anniversary, typically a happy event. I need
To remember, though, some prior years with strife,
Separation, near despair at mending
Serious breaches. 

Online sources’ lists of global notable
March 24 events show the date
With a mixed record: the Exxon Valdez
Oil spill in 1989, Bhutan’s first democratic
Parliamentary elections in 2008.

Lest we forget, anniversaries can mark
Both triumphs and disasters–
We cannot relive the former.
With luck and skill, we can avoid
Perpetually reliving the latter.

January Musings

In January, 2022, media exposure in the part of the U. S. where I now live has tilted toward retrospectives about last January’s U.S. Capitol Riot. Sometimes, even the ongoing covid pandemic gets relegated to second billing. Human-induced climate change can come in third or even lower. Most of the news is bad and can seem overwhelming. Before I get totally overloaded, I temporarily turn off all media outlets and go for a walk in nature. I am fortunate to have this option.   

In January, 2017, I took part in a very different mass event, the January 21 “women’s march global.” According to the British journal The Independent, between 3.3 and 4.6 million people participated in nearly 600 locations within the U.S., making that day’s events the largest domestic protest in U.S. history up to that point. By some estimates, nearly 6 million people protested globally. Over 200 associated events took place on every continent, including Antarctica. 

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,  half a million attendees, mostly women, converged in 2017 for a day of peaceful protests and speeches supporting women’s rights, environmental responsibility, and a variety of other causes. 

In North Carolina, my home then, I participated in a hastily organized Raleigh event which drew about 17,000 people, twice the number that local organizers and police had planned for. This event was also peaceful, with humor, flexibility, even camaraderie between some police officers and marchers.

The size of the January 6, 2021 Washington, D.C. demonstration prior to the Capitol assault has been variously estimated at from several thousand to as many as 20,000. Not all participants in the rally were involved in the subsequent riot. According to an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Chicago, of those arrested so far for their actions at the U.S. Capitol, 93% are white, and 86% are male. (For a more detailed analysis, check the “Chicago Project on Security and Threats,” https://cpost.uchicago.edu.)  

As someone who is comfortable with a female identity, if not with all the restrictions that female identity has sometimes imposed, I’m both curious and concerned about the gender disparities of the 2017 and 2021 events. A half million mostly female demonstrators in Washington in 2017 managed a peaceful protest with no damage and no arrests. Less than a tenth that number of mostly male attendees in 2021 caused multiple deaths, an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol, and over 700 arrests so far. 

As we try to put January, 2021 into perspective and work toward curbing our current pandemics of virus, violence, and climate-changing economics, it should be evident that inflammatory rhetoric and destructive behavior have only worsened them. We have to continue talking and working with each other across our real and perceived divides. We need to find ways to better live out a national motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782: “E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.” 

Women who helped organize the 2017 events have not stopped working, but have gotten less visible. We have turned to other avenues in our attempts to support meaningful change. The focus is both local and global. There’s an emphasis on women in the “global south,” who’ve contributed little to current global problems but are disproportionately impacted by the policies of “the industrialized north.” Wherever we live on our planet, it is true that disasters and conflicts disproportionately impact women.

Paying too much attention to the news can be disheartening. Going for a walk helps me regain perspective. I also find solace in some favorite lines of a favorite poet, Marge Piercy’s “The Seven of Pentacles:”

“..[S]he is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.”

True masculinity does not require rioting and destruction. There is ample room for a masculinity that supports equal access to life’s opportunities, that can be strong without being bullying, that does not rely on vilifying an “other” to be validated. 

Perhaps some who are gifted at dismantling cults can work with the men (and women) who were part of the violence on January 6, 2021. Each of us, whatever our gender,  can continue work on our own unique tasks in the global effort to reinforce the mutual vulnerability and solidarity we share on this planet with its over 7 billion temporary human guests. 

Hymn: How Can I Keep from Singing

How Can I Keep from Singing  (in Singing the Living Tradition #108, words adapted from Robert Lowry, tune traditional American folksong; during the pandemic, I’ve listened lots of times to a Podd brothers’ version on Youtube:

/watch?v=VLPP3XmYxXg) 

“My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real, though far off hymn, that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging–
It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing”…

As in-person singing has gotten severely curtailed during covid-related lockdowns, I’ve turned more and more often to online sources of music. I don’t have the talent or the patience to participate in a virtual choir, so I’m most grateful to those who have stepped up to fill gaps many of us hadn’t realized we had. 

This song exists with a variety of lyrics, some more Christian-oriented, others more earth-centered. One variation was even used as a protest song during the civil rights era of the 1960’s and 70’s.

The introduction to this version carries the caption: “In times of uncertainty, grief, and isolation, we find strength and joy in making music.”  Before the pandemic hit the New York City area in early 2020 like a ton of bricks, twins Adam and Matt Podd were already experienced musicians and choral directors.  For “How Can I Keep…”, they assembled a group of 140 musicians, both vocal and instrumental. They created a visual and sound collage of the hymn.  

Their virtual rendition was first released on Youtube in May, 2020. Since then it has been viewed over three quarters of a million times. It’s one of the sources of solace I turn to whenever the pandemic seems endless—endless song being a potent antidote.

Each time I watch and listen, I notice new singers and instrumentalists I hadn’t paid attention to in prior views: The trumpeter with the themed t-shirt “Keep Calm and Play On,” the mother-daughter duo featured as two of the first singers after the brothers’ piano introduction, the percussionist carefully watching the video screen to know when to play a part. I notice the interplay of single-frame faces with dual-frame or sometimes quadruple frame images: the Podds at the piano, or a couple of horn players, or a cellist or harpist or drummer. I marvel at the post-performance editing and production that must have gone into creating the finished virtual product. When this pandemic is finally over, my guess is that virtual choirs will lose some of their appeal. The magic of in-person group singing can’t quite be matched virtually. 

Today, December 21, 2021, we in the Northern hemisphere experience the winter solstice. Direct sunlight reaches its furthest point south. We’re partway through a series of the shortest days and longest nights of our year. This winter solstice, we’re reeling from yet another pandemic spike engendered by yet another viral variant—omicron. 

I’m very thankful that music like “How Can I Keep from Singing” continues to help many of us through the darkness, both the physical and the psychological. Though sometimes frightening, dark has redeeming qualities: “songs in the night it giveth.” Thank you to virtual choirs everywhere, and please, keep on singing!   

NC Chinese Lantern Festival, 2020

This year, 2020, has been an unsettling year, burdened with more than its share of tragedy, leading up to a strange holiday season. As life got more constricted, large-scale gatherings fell by the wayside. Mid-autumn, our town announced that this year’s Chinese Lantern Festival, typically held during the shortest days of fall/winter in a large outdoor park, was reluctantly being canceled due to health and safety concerns. Bummer!  Another feel-good event fallen victim to the scourge of covid-19. 

For several previous years, winter evenings in our part of North Carolina had been brightened by the display of an abundance of LED-lit silk lanterns. The many lifelike or fanciful figures were variations on the traditional Chinese lanterns fabricated in a small Chinese city where the craft of lantern-making is centuries old. A Chicago-based affiliate helped organize and provide logistical support for American exhibits, which focussed more and more strongly on depictions of animals.

In late November, I finally got a welcome glimmer toward a pandemic-adapted “new normal.” After eight months of closures or “take-out-only books,” our regional library reopened. The spacious structure, open only a year or so when the pandemic upended life as we’d known it, had incorporated health screenings and stricter limits on the number of patrons at any given time in order to operate safely. The second or third day after the reopening, I ventured downtown to the library, passed the screening questions and the temperature check, and got my first “fix” of in-person perusal of both fiction and non-fiction titles. As I walked outdoors nearby, I noticed that a small open space (where the old library had been) had a collection of inflatable figures, being blown nearly off their moorings on this windy day—a very scaled down holiday display. It was a week or so before I had a reason to venture downtown again—to return some books.

Lo and behold, the flimsy figures in the open space had been replaced by a display of well-anchored, life-sized silk elephants, with a sign saying they were part of a diminished Chinese Lantern exhibit. I vowed to come back after dark to see them in their LED-infused glory. The display (one of seven, it turned out) had been positioned in a way that minimized the dangers of close contact. It was adorned with cautionary signs about social distancing, maximum numbers of people, and mask wearing. One weekday evening in December, my husband and I met a couple of local friends for a socially distanced ramble to see all of the animals—elephants, tigers, a rhino, red pandas, a bear and a jaguar, snakes, and eagles. 

My husband, who keeps up with local news more closely than I do but doesn’t always remember details, thought he’d seen that the figures were “on loan” from a zoo in the Midwest. Once we tracked down an appropriate reference, we found that earlier in the year they’d been part of an exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo, so hadn’t needed to make the lengthy trip from Zigong in order to enthrall North Carolina audiences.    

My hope is that the holiday season of 2021 will find the pandemic finally in our rear view mirror. Our town then may again be able to host a full (and pricier) version of the lantern festival. However, I think it’s heartening that even this year, though the lights may have been diminished temporarily, they haven’t been extinguished. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy (upcoming) Year of the Ox!

Senior Crafting

some senior crafts old and new

 

more senior crafts

One Christmas when I was in elementary school, I was among many girls my age to get a potholder loom kit as a gift, probably from a non-resident aunt.  I spent part of that winter crafting multi-colored potholders from the loops provided with the square-shaped miniature loom. My mother graciously consented to use the somewhat lumpy things in her kitchen. (Mom was not especially fussy about equipment and accessories.) As I recall, the potholders were washable. They shrank only marginally once run through our wringer washing machine. Though the one I had in childhood has long since made it to the dump, such looms are still available for purchase. The next generations of potholder-makers may be getting some as holiday gifts.  

As I grew older, I learned to sew.  As a teen, I made some of my own outfits, stretching my limited clothing allowance. My grandmother taught me to knit, though I don’t remember knitting much except for an impatiently completed sweater for my then-boyfriend-now-husband that came only partway down his midriff. 

This holiday season, hubby and I are retired, locked down, with too much time on our hands and little social life. We’ve each discovered a craft outlet that fulfills some of our need to feel connected and useful: Jim decorates sets of garden pebbles, distributing them in area tree wells and along park paths; I make small “quilt-lets” and decorative fabric face masks. 

Previous generations of our families had different craft outlets. While doing this year’s minimal straightening and decorating for Christmas, I uncovered a few “potholders” from our elders—a crocheted afghan, some wooden candlesticks that my post-retirement dad turned on a lathe in his backyard wood shop, decorative tissue holders and toilet paper holders that my mother-in-law produced as part of a yarn crafts class. Perhaps “craftiness” is a skill set that lies dormant during the busiest parts of our lives, resurfacing once we have more leisure (certainly abundant in 2020!)

We may eventually need to downsize further, discarding or recycling yesteryear’s  “potholders.” For now, their quirks provoke curiosity: the uneven dimensions of the candle holders, the “squiggly thing” atop one of the toilet paper holders. I wonder if Dad got tired, after raising twins, of “matched sets” of anything, or if it was just difficult to get his raw materials to lathe into uniform shapes.  I wonder if Mom B., somewhat bored as she completed yet another tubular shape, decided to include on the top of a bird-sided holder, a sinuous brown and orange shape that doesn’t look part of the original pattern of concentric rings—maybe the worm that got away? 

The coldest days of the year lie ahead. We’re in for a few more challenging months while we await widespread vaccinations and the end to this pandemic. Perhaps our elders were wiser and craftier than we realized at the time—when times got tough, they got creative. Whimsy matters!      

Gratitude for Late-Life Friendships

My heart goes out to the many families who will be missing a member at this year’s holiday celebrations because of a covid-induced death. I have yet to lose a family member or very close friend directly from the pandemic, though the final year of our close late-life friend, Phyllis, was impacted. She had to journey through end-stage cancer with limits on visits from loved ones, limits to her travels beyond what her illness proscribed. 

We’d known Phyllis for about a decade before her death. She was among the first non-family members to welcome us to North Carolina when we arrived here. More recently, she and her husband had finalized plans to relocate to their “retirement haven” in rural Virginia just before her diagnosis. We were very lucky that there was a summer lull in the pandemic while Phyllis was still ambulatory. She and her family visited friends in North Carolina one more time, a sort of chance to say good-bye.  

As I grieve Phyllis’s absence, I’m comforted by the example she set of dying well and of leaving a nourishing legacy. She spent as much of her final months as her energy allowed painting nature scenes, a gift she had put on hold for much of an active life. Her son just posted an image of art created by a young artist at a school to which Phyllis had bequeathed her unused paints and drawing supplies.  

At this Thanksgiving, made virtual for so many by the pandemic’s continuing spikes, I need to be especially grateful for late-life friendships like ours with Phyllis and her family. Many of our friends from earlier life stages have been work colleagues, or family members of our children’s friends, or affiliates in non-profit groups. Though genuine, these friendships were somewhat opportunistic and sometimes withered as our locations and life stages changed. By now, we’ve retired, our children are grown and establishing their own friendship networks, and more and more non-profits are conducted virtually even when there’s not a pandemic. 

This year’s limitations on in-person holiday gatherings have highlighted what connections we still can have. Not long after we’d gotten up this morning, we got a surprise phone call from a different late-life friend, a former next-door neighbor, recently retired and living across town. A confirmed “foodie,” Greg wished us a happy holiday and shared a story of a memorable Thanksgiving feast when he was living in Germany and tasked with contributing a pumpkin pie to a community celebration with his graduate student colleagues. Turns out, fresh or canned pumpkin were rarities in the part of Germany where he studied. The only variant he was able to find were jars of pickled pumpkin. Numerous iterations of rinsing the jars’ contents before cooking didn’t entirely restore the taste of a traditional pumpkin pie. 

Another set of late-life friends that I cherish are members of a pre-covid walking group, now on temporary hiatus. All of us are retired. Many of us have lost spouses. Most of us have health conditions that slow our steps and make uphills more challenging than earlier. Still, whenever I go for a walk outdoors, either with my husband or alone, I mentally have the “Tuesday morning walkers” with me. 

Even once the covid pandemic subsides, through vaccination and/or better public health preventative measures, I will remain at the stage of life when more of my contemporaries will die off. It’s important, then, to cherish them while we still can. As my husband explained on a down day for both of us, “We’re likely to spend an increasing proportion of our time mourning deaths of friends and loved ones, until it’s our turn to be mourned.”  

So let us give thanks for life, thanks for the capacity to share our stories, whatever the medium, thanks for friendships, especially those late-life friends who can help make this trying time more bearable. Happy Thanksgiving and a big set of virtual hugs!