Traditions Take Two


What goes around, comes around. Isn’t that the saying? While my country is receiving a healthy dose of past bad decisions come back to haunt it, I’ve concluded that the ghosts of Christmas past also employ this karmic trickery during the holiday season. For many years, they didn’t find me at home, but this year was a different story, of course.

In my childhood family, Christmas traditions were enforced with a rigid (very Germanic) iron fist. There was always a real tree no matter how prickly, crooked and infested, draped with tangled strings of burnt-out lights carelessly thrown into a box the previous January, the ponderous Christmas stollen made with pounds of butter festooned by labor-intensive slivered almonds boiled from their skins, the unlightable plum pudding that everyone hated unless you buried it in hard sauce, my mother’s exhausted bad mood Christmas morning from staying up all night wrapping gifts, and the tense, awkwardly polite visits to estranged relatives on Christmas day.

After we were married, my husband and I had to agonize over whose family to visit for Christmas, keeping New Year’s celebrations to ourselves, thankfully. When our daughter came along, however, the pressure to travel increased considerably. Following a disastrous holiday trip where all three of us spent most of Christmas holed up in a guest bedroom with the flu, I made the decision to stay put and start new traditions, for all of our sakes and sanity. Out went the obligatory stollen and rock-hard pudding, the dragging of the child (and adults) away from their new toys to uncomfortable visits with relatives, the long road trips under threat of bad weather. In came the fake white tree with non-traditional ornaments, alcohol-infused morning coffees, a Christmas Day outing to the movie theater, and our own list of alternative holiday music.

As empty-nesters we even abandoned our rented apartment for inns at state parks, where we adorned the hotel rooms with our own decorations, watched Christmas DVDs and indulged in homemade snacks while leaving the real cooking to the professionals. Our holiday activities consisted of walks along park trails and daytrips to little towns and local shops. Recently, we’ve spent Christmases with my daughter, since she loves the Christmas traditions that are special to her, including a Christmas Eve brunch at her favorite cafe and watching the grand-cat rip through his presents on Christmas morning.

This year, it was time, yet again, to start new traditions. I suspect that a lot of families came to the same conclusion. We are lucky to be together as a family, while many are grieving the absence of loved ones and homes right now.  Since the future is more uncertain than ever, we were determined to make the most of it without needing Scrooge’s nocturnal wake-up call. We’re back to being homeowners, with a tabletop artificial tree in a traditional green color, hung with ornaments from our childhoods as well as purchases over the years. There’s a Christmas puzzle continuously in the works, a diverse holiday music list playing on bluetooth, the streaming of old holiday shows or cheesy Christmas romances, and an occasional neighborhood stroll to see the lights and decorations. We’ve even expanded our holiday season with a special dinner at home now for Winter Solstice with lots of candlelight. My husband purchased an advent calendar that is a chest of drawers which he fills with tiny treats and gifts, plus a slip of paper with a holiday activity that the receiver can do. We look forward to continuing this new tradition with new and old gifts for the drawers.

With so many gluten-free flours and dairy-free options available, I even brought back the almond sugar cookies I loved to decorate and eat as a kid. On Christmas Eve my daughter and I cut out new shapes while listening to holiday tunes. Once again I can sip on a delicious (spiked) dairy-free eggnog, indulge in dairy-free caramels and take a big bite into turkey sandwiches plump with gluten-free stuffing. Maybe the taste and appearance aren’t quite the same as what I remember, but I’ll gladly trade the old unhealthy holiday ghosts dripping with guilt and obligation for newer spirits full of wholesome pleasures more in line with who I am and want to be.

My hope for you, dear reader, at the end of such a cataclysmic year, is that you find new traditions in the rubble of our old lives that bring you joy in the dark days to come.

Mellow Yellow


June was better. The house and garage are painted, our gardens flourish and we finally enjoyed a visit from our adult offspring after months of separation. Slowly, we’re getting to know the new neighbors, and they are becoming more familiar with us. Apparently painting a house yellow inspires reactions and conversations. Perhaps yellow is friendly and welcoming, I don’t know.

Flower beds are filling up and so far the vegetable garden has managed to escape the attentions from two fairly large bucks, several groundhogs and innumerable rabbits, not to mention a family of skunks and a digging outdoor cat or two. We have not received much rain, which worries me although the nearby reservoir is still full. My spouse and I continue to order grocery and farmer’s market pickups, and wear masks to stores first thing in the morning to avoid germs and crowds. There is no end in sight.

The bright spot is that our daughter is moving to our city in July and renting a house up the street. We will be a family again and for that I am rejoicing. Sure, there will be adjustments and boundaries, but we have all missed each other terribly this spring. Her new freelance business enables her to work from home, which is a luxury these days. Not all are so lucky but for her and her parents, this is the best solution in the short term.

While I still get overwhelmed at times, the tasks are not as frustrating and futile as they were the last two years. I answer to no one as I tend my small garden that will still feed two and maybe three people nicely in the coming months. We are on a waiting list for a small chest freezer, but hopefully we can stock up on frozen vegetables and local meats before winter. There are a few perks that I miss from the country, but not enough to give up my independence.

Even in the city, nature makes its home with us. Every night, my husband and I sit and watch the fireflies flicker in the backyard, while mama skunk ushers her youngsters under the neighbor’s shed in single file. She makes sure all are accounted for. Soon, I hope to feel the same about my little family.

Washing Away

Another form of water that reflects my mood on this last day of August.

This month I’ve been obsessed with water. Starting with my art grant for next year, which focuses on how water always seems to show up in my paintings, to the horrific events still unfolding in Texas. I’ve gone from lazy afternoons spent watching barges glide down the Ohio River on painting trips to recoiling from the unforgettable photos and videos of the broiling brown brew currently washing away lives and lands.

Like Katrina before it, I felt the same sinking feeling with Harvey as I tracked the swirling cloud mass on weather maps and phone apps. Growing up on the east coast I remember well the endless deluge of Agnes in 1972, when constant rain soaked through everything in my family’s spanking new saltbox colonial home, the wooden shingles, the old-fashioned plaster walls that only a very few craftsmen still knew how to apply, and the extensive fireplaces built with unglazed brick. My mother set out so many pots and pans to catch the drips, that the sparsely furnished rooms echoed like a tin symphony.

But that was nothing compared to the flooding of my beloved meadow, where the innocent creek that meandered through my youthful playdates became a wrathful river that destroyed the little driveway bridge carrying us to the outside world of groceries and grandma’s house. We waited days before my father was able to reconstruct a passage to freedom. By that time, the angry torrents had reduced to a slimy whimper, and when I managed to slip and slide my way to the meadow’s edge, I couldn’t recognize my former friend amid the scattered rocks and stinking muck from a thousand fields upstream.

The gentle bends and soft shoulders of the grassy banks I knew by heart were never the same, making it easier to say goodbye. The next year we moved away to another land with a completely different kind of water, where my brother and I played in a man-made ditch that ran straight as an arrow through soil the color of coal, reflecting a greenish hue that I would later realize was filled with something more ominous than the little leeches clinging painlessly to my legs in the old meadow.

And while Agnes’ unrelenting rain and stifling air fell heavy on my bony shoulders that June of 1972, this was nothing compared to what the population of Texas is enduring. My family didn’t watch our beautiful new house fill up with sewage, or have to leave our pets behind, we didn’t inhale the choking fumes of chemical plants and refineries relieving themselves of toxic byproducts as they shut down, and we didn’t know anyone who perished beneath a dark current.

This water, no matter how swift, will never wash away the fear and countless tragedies. As I grieve for those living beings who have been affected by this national disaster and donate what I can, I find myself wondering whether the suffering evacuees will return and the bridges be rebuilt, or if it is easier to say goodbye and start over somewhere else? Only time will tell and there is one thing I do know:

It will never be the same.

 

 

Summer Reflections


Kids are heading back to school, moving trucks are out in force, and I have just returned from our first successful attempt at a vacation this summer of 2017. Old friends took pity on us in our stuffy apartment during these final sweltering July days by inviting us up to their family’s cabin on the Menominee Indian Reservation near Keshena, Wisconsin.

This was only my third time in the Badger State, and we couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful weekend to indulge in a few days of swimming, boating, lounging around a campfire and gazing up at the stars. Located on the shores of a string of lakes that have been connected together, I was enchanted by the serenity of this land and its people during boat rides to remote parts of the reservation.

A large portion of undeveloped property has been returned to the Menominee tribe, and they gather on the shoreline for reunions and birthdays, to fish and swim, play games, eat and socialize. As we slowly passed numerous campsites and RV gatherings, I marveled at how peaceful and happy they seemed without the fancy cottages and noisy watercraft on the commercial areas of the lakes, sandy banks and perhaps a simple inner tube all that was needed for hours of swimming fun. We were warmly greeted for our quiet passage, careful not to create a wake strong enough to erode edges where the beautiful beech and pine trees perched.

During our visit, we saw and heard loons, gulls, sandhill cranes and even a majestic bald eagle. At night on the dock, as the Milky Way appeared overhead to remind us of other worlds, I found myself thinking back to those gatherings along the shoreline with longing and an urge to join in community with one of the few tribes that still lives on its original lands. That kind of belonging is as alien to me as those distant lights in a faraway galaxy, and as elusive as the shooting star I saw falling from an endless sky.

Anniversaries


I spent yesterday celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary with my amazing husband, almost 33 years since we first met. If you’d told me all those years ago that I would be married this long, I wouldn’t have believed you. My track record up to that point had been nothing short of disastrous. Nevertheless, we usually recognize the date simply, a day free of work and the usual chores, a quiet dinner out.

We always manage to note our nuptials in the nick of time, right before the looming national holiday, a boisterous and bombastic event that steamrolls over our quaint little memories of a small country wedding with only 25 guests. (And that count included my husband and me.) For Throwback Thursday on Facebook yesterday, I joked that the above photo could easily have been taken in 1925 instead of 1985 if it weren’t for the Instamatic camera with 110 film that my husband holds in his left hand.

This year another anniversary follows fast on the heels of firecracker festivals and sizzling backyard feasts. It’s a new one that I dread, and one that I will always remember because of its proximity to the Fourth. Funny, how I don’t often recall the death dates of dear, departed pets, but this one seems to be different. He was the last, at least for a while until we become settled again; and in my travels of late, he returns to me in the form of farm cats at the retreat center where I work, who snooze on the porch steps all afternoon, or find a warm lap in the cool dawn dew when one becomes available from a lawn chair.

Once a country cat, my old buddy would have loved this place, where his kind roam freely all day to catch mice and tease the birds, though still called in to safety every night away from coyotes and other creatures of the night who would do them harm.  When I first came, they ran from me and stared back at a respectful distance, but now we are on a first-name basis. They tell me all about their nine lives, and I tell them about my old friend, how he could hunt even without his front claws, how he loved to stay out all night and sack out all day in a corner on the floor, no soft bed needed.

But I keep to myself how he ended his days up in a third-floor apartment, with a cupful of grass instead of a whole backyard lush with the stuff, while birds taunted him through the glass door of a balcony the size of his litter box. We did what we could to make the transition easier for him, since another home in the country or even a new suburban yard were out of the question for us in this stage of our journey. A cowardly trip to the shelter was unimaginable. In the end, he was stuck in his geriatric ways enough to be dependent on the people who took him in all those years ago, for better or for worse.

At least on this Fourth of July, I take solace in knowing that he doesn’t have to endure the battle sounds of our country’s anniversary, unless he wants to.

Fave Photo

Day 9: Fave Photo of 2015
Day 9: Fave Photo of 2015

I’ve been very fortunate to capture many spectacular sunsets and scenic nature shots this year but these two trying out the camera on my new phone the other day still capture my heart.

I’ve decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections  photo prompts again this year. During this hectic and stressful season, won’t you join me in mindful reflection from life’s photographic window seats and contemplative comments that provide refuge from the madness.

Mists of Time

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While visiting a state park the other week, my husband and I were caught in an unexpected thunderstorm that almost cancelled our tour of the original grist mill and surrounding buildings reconstructed on old foundations of an industrial pioneer village. We decided to wait out the weather and try again. And I’m so glad we did.

As we rounded a bend on the path, mists from warmer water in the creek lifted into rain-cooled air and surrounded the old mill with a patina of history. In nostalgic twilight I caught the scene on my modern phone, creating a tintype tribute to how I’ve felt this month.

The past has haunted, comforted and compelled me in October, as I traveled from the dirt driveway of forgotten feelings to a slippery sluiceway of future fears. I drove my aging parents forward through historic battlefields the same week that I flew back into my present, trying to regain who I was before the past caught up with me.

Throughout this month I heard old stories retold with names changed, facts filtered and time warped into a different ending. The cracks and faults of long ago deeds have been obscured by misty memories and foggy searches for an easy way out of impossibly hard problems. What has been said before will not help us now, and yet I’m drawn back to a simpler time, that probably wasn’t so simple.

Legacy

 
It’s been quiet here at Suburban Satsangs this month, but I’ve still participated in a daily photo prompt on Instagram. The final prompt is “legacy,” somehow appropriate as I finish out September in my parents’ house helping with my ailing father.

I didn’t grow up in this house and always feel like a guest despite the 25 years my parents have lived here. While primitively beautiful, I’ve never felt like this or any other place I’ve lived was truly home for me. I’m a bit of a wanderer, I guess. 

In the bedroom I sleep in I’m surrounded by artwork I made over 30 years ago. Sometimes I lie in bed and ponder what was created in another time, by another person.

And I often wonder where she went, while searching for what she left me.

The Scent of Love

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Day 14: Favorite Smell

As a child I wanted to smell everything — and that got pretty interesting living on a farm. My memories are defined by the Opium perfume my mother wore and the Jean Nate talcum powder in my grandmother’s bathroom. But now most commercial products make me ill, so I have turned to subtle oils for my scent. And it comes as no surprise that my favorite smell is Love.

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again. I’m looking forward to my third go at participating in Susannah Conway’s August Break by posting prompts here on the blog and on my Instagram account. There are no rules, really. Simply take a photo every day for the month of August, based on the prompts or not. I take a photo a day all year long, but you can’t lose no matter how many days you keep this up. And the more, the merrier!

Peaks and Valleys

There comes a time when you have to go home, when the cries of birth, death and everything in between become too loud and insistent. An empty chair at the family table is waiting for you. They have set a plate in the usual spot, silver lies engraved with your initials, and a polished glass anticipates their bitter wine.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. By plane or bus, rail if you are lucky. No matter how you cross, there are always mountains blocking the way, and security demanding proof of your existence. Countless miles of fractured farmland and failing towns only slow down the connections to blood and genetics.

You were the pioneer. Why is it so hard to understand? Just a generation back they arrived on ships after traveling the world and surviving two World Wars. A whole continent unfurls west of the narrow strip of land where most of your people set claims.

You wanted to see it all for yourself. You headed west.

But you stayed away, and that was the problem.

When they demand your reasons, words drop uselessly to the floor. How can you describe to them what lies beyond the high ridges when they won’t believe in other lives. Perhaps there is safety in numbers, but you refuse to stand in line for an inheritance that never comes.

A life spent waiting for someone else to decide is not for you. You can only promise to return for a visit.

And then you head west again over the generational divide and down into valleys where the flat land spreads like a reaching hand, unfettered by kin or conqueror.