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.

Year of the Rat


Every sixty years the entire calendar of Chinese zodiac signs and their elements begins again. 2020’s Chinese New Year marks the beginning of one of those cycles. The last one occurred in 1960, the year of my birth. In a reassuring sign of synchronicity I discovered this fact after announcing in the previous post that REBIRTH is my chosen word for 2020.

In Chinese astrology, the Rat was the first of the twelve zodiac animals to reach the Buddha’s door for a great feast after secretly riding on the back of Ox across a river only to scamper down across the finish line before anyone else. Even though Rat cheated, the Buddha admired the animal’s craftiness and placed it first on the calendar in front of Ox. In addition to twelve astrology signs, the five classical elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal also contribute to the cycles, and once again, the Metal Rat is the first of all Rats in the zodiac calendar, which was the case in 1960 and now in 2020.

While this particular rodent gets a bad rap in Western culture, they are respected in the East for their resourcefulness and skills in adapting to difficult times. They are always on the go but seek stability in their lives. The Metal element adds strength, courage, generosity and forgiveness to the Rat, who has a tendency to be frugal (stingy) and ambitious (greedy). No matter which element of Rat, it is always the first zodiac sign of the twelve-year cycles that have been documented for well over 4,000 years.

In Eastern creation myths, the universe existed as an inert egg-shaped space until Rat gnawed a hole into it, allowing life-giving air to enter. Whatever year you were born, a Rat year signals renewal and regeneration with opportunities to lay foundations for the future and determine goals for the next twelve years, or in this case, the next sixty. Think about the new era that began in 1960 with all the social and cultural changes that revolutionized the world for better, and for worse.

Personally, I am on the other side of eye surgeries in February that removed cataracts and allowed me to see distance without contacts or glasses for the first time in my life with the help of toric lens implants, an advanced technology that was non-existent until recently. As typical of Rats, I had managed to adapt to my extreme myopia for decades with the help of contacts and glasses until they were no longer effective. I endured many months of blurry vision no matter what the distance and relied on others to help me navigate the world, which is not easy for an independent Rat whose fight-or-flight response is overly developed. I spent much of my time last year managing the fear of not seeing what was happening in the world around me, and what was worse–not being able to recognize what was up ahead.

Now I can not only see ahead, but what’s going on a block or two away, whether I want to or not. I’m finding this new super power a mixed blessing in many ways. There’s much to like about being blissfully ignorant, but that does not sit well with the nature of the Rat, who is ever vigilant to scarcity and danger, ready to pick up and move to safety at a moment’s notice. My ability to always have an escape hatch, whether I use it or not, has been a comfort to me all my life. When I have no better options, I will stand my ground and fight armed with a sword committed to fairness and equality. It’s no accident that I was born into tumultuous times where many were fighting for civil rights and social justice.

But the better options for me and perhaps all of us at the start of this new era, is to work together toward building solid foundations and setting progressive goals that improve our lives using the abundant energies of the Rat with the help of tools like creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity, open-mindedness and restoration. In the long run, these are the only weapons besides love that can conquer the enemies of fear and want that loom on our horizons in the next sixty years.

2020 Vision


As the dust from moving house settles after the holidays amid whiffs of freshly painted walls and new furniture, I’ve been contemplating my word for 2020 while looking back at the significance of my choice for 2019. According to my rough calculations in scrolling back on this blog, I’ve been picking a special word since 2013 or so that began with One Little Word. That’s seven years of farsighted intention that has always been prophetic by New Year’s Eve.

Which brings me to my 2019 word, “Light.” It was a heavy year, judging from my few posts, highlighted by plenty of dark times. Ironically (or not), my physical sight began to noticeably dim last year, especially when I travelled to London and struggled to view Turner’s murky paintings in archival lighting. When I finally made an appointment with my eye doctor in August, I was stunned to find out that I had advanced cataracts and my vision had deteriorated dramatically over a year’s time. Because I have been extremely myopic all my life with a very high-powered prescription, the cataracts were causing blurriness that could no longer be corrected with glasses. Eye dryness has also prevented me from wearing contacts for decades so the only solution is to have cataract surgery at the ripe old age of 59 and corrective lenses implanted.

Obviously too young for Medicare, I still qualify for insurance coverage because my vision is so blurry that I haven’t been able to drive for the last six months. When I finally got in to see one of the best ophthalmologists in the state, my eyesight had deteriorated to the point that I was quickly fast-tracked to the “3-month” waiting list. Meanwhile, as a plein-air artist who was finishing a 4-year grant project by creating distant landscapes and holding a final art show, I struggled to see what I was painting and more than once had flashbacks to Monet’s foggy work in his later years due to cataracts. After touching up four years’ worth of art for the final show, I stared at the 25 paintings on display while wondering how shockingly bright these will look after my surgery.

Which brings me to 2020 wondering if I will be able to see 20/20 on the eye chart when I finish the surgeries in February. For my entire life I’ve never been able to see distance without glasses, and my blurred view of the world has both protected and isolated me from the harsh truths and prejudices buffered by my thick glasses and gullibility. And while my long distance vision may be restored, the near-sight that I have relied on for so long will be gone. The tiny veins that glisten on a dragonfly’s wings and the intricate maze of threads while detangling a knot will disappear into the lost lands of foreground without reading glasses or magnifying glass, so close yet so far.

No matter what the outcome, my focus and perspective have begun to turn inward in these grey days of perpetual twilight. The harsh artificial lamps glow with angelic halos and the sun has become gentler in what he reveals. The moon is welcome but ghostly now, and often tripled in a sky out of a science fiction movie. The senses of touch, smell and sound have become more amplified, and when night comes, the womblike absence of light surrounds me in a waiting period of gestation before the post-surgery grand re-entry and big reveal.

So it will come as no surprise (especially if you read the last post) that my word for 2020 is REBIRTH. I am prepared for a whole new world of light and color, sharp insight and fresh point of view. The little crossed-eyed infant from the past will get a second chance to take wondrous halting baby steps into my third life stage. And perhaps in life’s theatre I will prefer the balcony this time rather than a front-row seat to the world’s troubles. A little distance at my age may not be a bad thing while I cheer the young on in their noble causes and fortuitous frays without craving the spotlight myself.

After all, the bright lights would only blind me from the inner path I now need to follow.

Starting Over


The photo above depicts our new beginning and a fresh portal. We start again in a new city, a different community, another context. Here we pause at the threshold of the next decade as I step into my sixties. I have shed plenty to get here, some by choice, so much by force.

Perhaps there was no other way. Maybe the reward is sweeter because the path was perilous. Regardless, second guessing only leads me down into dark depths and serves no purpose in the tricky twilight of hindsight.

Life has led me here, in this moment. This is all I know. For now.

Happy holidays my friends. The times, they are a-changing.

Letting Go Revisited


There’s snow in the forecast as I write on this dark final day of October when the thinnest of veils has already curtained our surrounding hazy fields before the hidden sun goes down. If I look out to the horizon I swear I can see souls from the past and future flying by in the wind today atop frantic leaves searching for ground. After a very hot and dry autumn, the weather has already played a trick on all who had hoped for a fun night of treats this Halloween with its howling high winds and stabbing hard freeze.

Like the leaves that will be gone by morning, I’ve spent the day letting go of things in this time of endings. The outgrown and expired have been sorted into charity bags or given to compost. I complete my necessary end-of-the-month tasks and check them off a list. I finish chores that have been languishing for months and gather the perishable before nightfall. And I continue to pack my hopes and dreams in moving boxes.

Maybe transitioning in the spring or summer is overrated. Perhaps the best time to silently slip away is when the fields lie empty and the villagers huddle inside by their fires loudly boasting about summer conquests while feasting on their triumphs. I don’t have much to say after two years at a retreat center in the country, and what was gained will be left behind. I take only experience, a little wisdom and some bittersweet memories. They are heavy enough.

Hopefully by the holidays, my spouse and I will be sitting at a new hearth heated with love and quiet resolve to be true to ourselves. There will be lots of beginnings in 2020 but I am not afraid. There is nothing left to regret on this day between the worlds and wonder, when I am more than ready to shed the old and welcome the new.

Holding the Light


This dark ending of the year is full of paradox. The mind naturally summons up a highlight reel of the last 365 days, and I don’t know about you, but the angry, humiliating, sad and frustrating episodes always run on a constant loop in my head. The lovely, serene and successful moments are apparently kept prisoner in aging 2018’s memory closet, waiting for rescue and release into the light of hope and future plans. A fresh start is always appealing, but why is the human spirit so drawn back into cinematic replays of the past year’s smoking wreckage in flops and failures?

I choose a new word every year. Whether self-fulfilling prophesy or wishful thinking, the theme is usually noticeable throughout the months. 2018’s word was “magic” and I think that was pretty accurate on the whole. What came out of a garden beset with heavy clay soil, limitless weeds, ravenous insects and extreme weather conditions certainly seemed like magic. I learned that despite all obstacles, life loves to grow given any kind of encouragement.

Perhaps that same support needs to be applied to myself and other fellow humans in 2019 including the nation and the world, even if and when we don’t deserve it. Choosing to focus on the light while acknowledging the shadow is not without merit in these chaotic times. I would love to switch my brain’s channel to the happy highlights reel or at least last year’s funniest home memories. Since when does watching those bad reruns over and over until you can act them out in your sleep ever teach you anything?

So my word for 2019 is “light,” the kind you can hold. How do you hold onto light you ask? You can when you hold a purring kitten or a thriving seedling. You embrace it with your eyes on a frosty morning at the edge of a fallen leaf lying in the frozen shadows. You cradle it in the truth of words that ring true to you and light a fire within your soul. It is there when you look for it.

It is my wish that at the end of 2019, we are all seated in the deep womb of the year’s theater, sharing popcorn and watching a victorious highlight reel of shining moments in what will be seen as historically dark times by future light beings.

May the light be with you, always.

Time On My Hands

I see by the date of my last post in July that many moons have passed since I posted. Indeed, the act of writing itself has become foreign to me while my hands were used to weed, water and plant seeds. The cultivated earth mistress that demanded most of my attention this year has finally been put to bed, all 5,000 square feet of her. I look at my hands beat up by countless days of cuts from the soil knife or spines off the squash vines, and can actually see clean fingernails as familiar calluses fade into the paleness of my skin.

For the first time in months, I have time on my hands and I find myself a bit lost. The house cries out for attention–closets full of items tossed in randomly for lack of space or safety from sharp kitten teeth, floors that need a good scrubbing to rid them of ground-in garden soil, receipts piled in a drawer with budgets long neglected, paintings and craft projects waiting to be finished before spring. (I could go on, but it’s too early in the day to start drinking.)

I look around in amazement and wonder what happened to that obsessive-compulsive overachieving minimalist who used to inhabit this body sitting here on another dreary mideast morning, the sun that I used to curse for heatstroke by midmorning in the summer, now nowhere to be seen. Wild birds huddle at the feeders outside my insulated windows and the nearly full-grown cat I rescued is squeezed into her favorite cardboard box that’s now three sizes too small for her.

Like a growing child who puts on last year’s winter clothes, I find that my old ways and concerns no longer fit me in this new life of organic gardening, rural living and community consciousness. I’ve learned so much beyond what not to plant next year, or how to manage when the power goes out. I’ve tested my physical limits and personal boundaries this year, and found out when to say no. I’ve become more of a realist and less of a dreamer, although my imagination is still sparked by the light glinting off of dewy spiderwebs and ice-encased red berries.

I’m back to long walks on the wild trails down by the river with my spouse, a patient man who has put up with my obsessions and depressions for over 30 years. Finally, we have the luxury of staying home on snow days without the guilt or grueling commute on dangerous roads. And because of the little community we live in, we can avoid the isolation that rural life often demands in the winter. Gathering together on cold, dark nights before solstice for food, music and laughter, or organizing a trip to the college town close by, are perfect anecdotes to the winter blues.

Meanwhile, there’s still some kale sleeping under its winter blanket, pale parsnips waiting to be harvested from frozen ground, and plenty of sweet potatoes to last us through the holidays. It’s been a good year and time to celebrate.

Maybe I’ll even paint my fingernails.

Thinning of the Veil


Last year, I was preoccupied with all the fearmongering and polarization going on in my neck of the woods, and my nation. This year, after some of those fears have been realized (or threatened), I feel the presence of the ancestors, and take solace in their company.

As mankind’s old wounds are reopened and exhumed, they are waiting with us while the sins of past human horrors fly screeching from tombs of our denial to join with present atrocities. Just when you think all are accounted for, yet another evil pops out of the Pandora’s box to be addressed in brazen light of day.

Last year, I talked about being afraid of the dark, but this year I welcome it. Limiting my vision within velvety shadow shields me from the glaring justifications and blinding boasts by a narcissistic chorus of cons and culprits, criminal in their actions while they preen themselves with angelic posturing and shameless self-promotion.

Meanwhile, since last Halloween and the apocalyptic national election that followed my ancestors have been nudging me back to life, whispering those long-forgotten lullabies, breathing deserted dreams and destiny back into my heart, resuscitating the inner child pulled from a deep pool of adult despair.

Instead of the anticipated fear, I’ve been surprised by a spooky joy, one that jumps out from the country hayloft or city parking lot. Hope and possibility reveal themselves in the swallow’s swoop and stranger’s smile, the clasp of a trusting child’s hand and the brush of a cat’s whiskers.

I’ve witnessed in wonder the gathering of all ages to make art, and had my breath taken away by the incredible beauty that is birthed every living moment by reawakened creators surprised with what takes flight from their hands.

There is no doubt that this has been a hard year of endings, of death, of an inconsolable loss for what we used to believe and know with absolute certainty. And we have a right to lament what has been lost while grieving the absence of many who have recently left this path for other worlds.

But still, in starlit moments on inky-black nights, I’ve seen that they haven’t deserted us. They are still there, at the end and along the way.

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.