迎春接福 Yíngchúnjiēfú – “Greet the New Year and encounter happiness” — a traditional Lunar New Year greeting
Today marks an auspicious day that comes only once every sixty years: it is the beginning of the Year of the Fire Monkey. The last time we had a Fire Monkey year was 1956, the year I was born, as were many of you. So to all you Fire Monkeys out there, let’s celebrate our special year!
First, a disclaimer: I don’t believe there is any magic or power in horoscopes, whether American or Asian. I do, however, find their archetypes and symbols interesting and often amusingly apt. The Asian zodiac has five elements, compared to our four, and the elements in the Asian zodiac rotate by year, not limited to one particular sign. In both zodiacs, I’m a fire sign. I must admit that certainly fits.
It’s a sort of zany coincidence that, of all the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, I have always identified most with the monkey. I see this mostly as a positive thing, though not wholly. The monkey’s playful curiosity can be intrusive and sometimes annoying, as any tourist who’s ever lost a pair of sunglasses to one of them can attest. And they can have fierce tempers that flare quickly, resulting in threatening displays of surprisingly sharp teeth.
But monkeys display many traits to which I aspire. Clever, agile and observant, they are great fun to watch. It’s almost impossible for me to study the antics of a monkey and not feel a lightness of spirit that corresponds to their nimble grace. They move easily from one height to another, pausing only slightly to grab, usually successfully, at anything that catches their eye. On the whole, I think I flatter myself to say I’m a good example of the monkey personality.
What is your Lunar zodiac sign? Do you see any similarities between yourself and the animal for whom your birth year was named? No matter your sign, I’m sending you a virtual Red Envelope with an imaginary thousand dollar bill, symbolizing my best wishes for good fortune and a wonderful year!
“I’ve always felt lucky to live someplace where snow is rare, you know? It’s rareness that makes it so special.” ― Stephanie Perkins
Unlike Perkins, I didn’t always feel lucky that snow was rare for me. As a kid I read books about other kids from all different eras, who lived where the snow piled up in huge drifts and the winds and wolves howled outside and hot chocolate and cookies waited by the hearth. It sounded heavenly, being able to curl up with a book indoors, knowing nobody would make me go outside to play (in my childhood, it was very common for mothers to order kids to go play outside while they chatted over coffee with neighbors). I thought living where there was lots and lots of snow must be almost magical.
In adulthood, after four years in Dayton, Ohio, I was pretty well cured of my romantic notions of snow. I had never realized how much I’d miss seeing the ground if it was covered up with white for weeks on end. Not to mention driving in it, walking in it, bundling up two babies plus myself every time I ventured out…I too ended up feeling lucky to have lived where snow was rare, but in my case, it was for mostly practical reasons.
During the decades that followed, during which we lived where snow was not only rare, but pretty much nonexistent, I never missed it. But I must admit now, when I see it starting to fall, I feel a bit of the old excitement I used to feel as a kid. Maybe not enough to actually wish for a big snowstorm. Just enough to appreciate how pretty it can be. The other day I said to Jeff “I guess it might be a bit disappointing to get through an entire winter with no snowfalls.” He had a ready answer. “I don’t think I’d regret it.”
I first wrote this post just a couple of days before the predictions of the Great Blizzards of 2016 were announced. The rest, as they say, is history. Up until then, we had a few flurries blowing through the sky, but no snow to speak of. How quickly things change.
If you live where snow is rare, enjoy it! And if you live where it’s everywhere, all around, all the time, like election coverage, enjoy it! (The snow, not the election coverage.) Either way, have a bit of February fun. Find a comfy chair, put your feet up, and read, or doze, or listen to music, or indulge in a video or some other election-free television. Have a hot cup of tea or coffee, and let us know how the weather is in your neck of the woods.
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” ― G.K. Chesterton
I must admit, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to consider most of what we call inconveniences as adventures. Being stuck in traffic? Waiting two hours for a doctors appointment? Having a flight cancelled or delayed? Being awakened early by someone calling the wrong number, or loud noise outside my window? How on earth can any of these things be thought of as adventures?
Perhaps Chesterton wrote in the days before “inconvenience” became a ubiquitous euphemism for mistake or poor customer service — as in “we apologize for the inconvenience.” Maybe in Chesterton’s day, an inconvenience was something riskier or more life-altering.
However, most inconveniences do contain at least the seeds of some sort of adventure. In bad traffic, we might choose to take a detour and explore new roads. While waiting around, we can lose ourselves in another world via a novel or other reading material. If we are awake earlier than needed, we can take it as a gift of time and start our day with something we enjoy that we don’t usually make time for in the morning, such as a leisurely cup of tea or coffee as we gaze outside at the morning light. No telling what we might see– interesting or delightful things that we’re normally too busy to notice.
There’s a sense in which anything out of the ordinary really is an adventure, if we train our minds to see it as such. “Rightly considered,” it’s an adventure just to be alive, no matter how inconvenient it can become. It can become a kind of game to take Chesterton’s words as a challenge, and transform irritation by imagination.
What annoyances are we most likely to “wrongly consider” today? Let’s exercise the alchemy of attitude, and have an adventure instead.
“There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.” — William Sharp
This isn’t the post I had scheduled for today, but I couldn’t let the gorgeous snow disappear without mentioning the record-setting blizzards that covered so much of the country last week. I was in Atlanta when the storms hit the DC area, and found myself stranded there as I rescheduled my flights twice before being able to get home.
Luckily, the frustration of being stuck was tempered by having more time with Mama, Grady, and others I love. I had thought I was going to miss the flight disruptions because I flew in and out of Richmond, Virginia, instead of Washington DC. I was wrong. The Richmond airport was closed for a shorter time than the DC area airports, but long enough to change my plans.
Even Atlanta got a little bit of snow. A VERY little bit, as it turned out, but still enough to close the schools early, in the time-honored deep south tradition of
freaking out at enthusiastic celebration of the very mention of snow. About which, more to come in a scheduled post that, oddly enough, was written just before the forecasts of blizzards to come.
Despite the inconvenience of schedule changes, I must admit I found last week exciting in some respects. I can’t remember when more of the country was getting huge amounts of snow at the same time. When we arrived back in the DC area Monday night, we were delighted to find that our thoughtful next door neighbors had shoveled the snow from our parking spaces, walkways and front porch — a good thing, since the snow now is piled literally six feet high in some places. My appreciation of kind friends and efficient road crews is at record highs to match the beautiful white drifts.
The past two days have been sunny and relatively warm, so the snows are melting fast. I shoveled part of our deck today, and the creek behind our house is singing a lovely song as the water runs freely through the banks of white. I have felt anxious and sad for those who were drastically affected by the weather, and mindful of how fortunate we were to have nothing more than schedule changes to endure. But even knowing the havoc the weather can bring, the beauty of it still takes my breath away.
Did you avoid Snowmageddon 2016, or were you among those of us snuggled up indoors, sipping hot tea and sleeping in and generally making the best of being trapped inside? Feel free to send us updates, photos and stories– and stay warm and cozy as we remind ourselves that spring REALLY WILL be here before we know it.
“Life is like a flower. You don’t realize how beautiful it really is until you take a closer look.” — Ash Sweeney
I wasn’t able to find out anything much about Ash Sweeney other than endless web pages citing quotes from him (or her) such as this one. Perhaps Sweeney is a robot, or a pen name, or an urban legend. But truth can be found in the most unlikely places, and this quote appeals to me as one who loves both flowers and life more than some people seem to understand.
The analogy is simple, but it holds up in many respects. How often do we rush past a single flower, impressed only by a display of them in masses? How many tiny wildflowers do we disregard every day, simply because they are generally not considered valuable? Are we suitably amazed at the variety of shapes, colors and sizes to be found and enjoyed? Do we realize how much it might elevate our moods if we paused to appreciate at least one or two live flowers each day? Are flowers more beautiful individually, or when combined into a gorgeous bouquet? Or is each presentation equally beautiful in its own way?
Life really is stunningly beautiful. That’s not to say it’s always easy, pretty, appealing, refreshing or even profound, though it is all of those things at various times, to varying degrees. Very few among us willingly part with the enormous gift of time on this planet that we are allowed to spend, to at least some degree, as we choose. No matter how hard it gets (and for far too many, it’s harder than we can imagine) the human spirit still yearns to survive here as long as possible.
Some believe this life is all there is, and some of us– count me in this group– believe it’s only a passage to another, more eternal destination. But I’ve noticed that folks in both groups want to extend our time here on planet Earth as much as we can. I think that’s an indication that the loveliness is always there, even when it is distorted by ugliness or hidden by apathy.
Look closely today, at a flower, and at life, and be blessed by an understanding of the beauty of both.
“I absolutely love cities that reward walking. In London, you can’t go three blocks without coming upon something grand and historic, a charming little square, or an interesting piece of street life. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when you’re tired of walking around London, you’re tired of life.” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
For those who haven’t yet figured it out, I’m often writing things I need to read or hear myself. So today, I’m reminding myself of how much I love to walk.
The insanely busy holiday season, coupled with the rainy and/or cold weather and my generally low moods lately have meant that I’ve not been walking nearly as much as usual. Like maybe 3-4 days of every week, at most, and only two miles or so when I do walk. For someone who used to walk five miles EVERY day (no matter the weather), this is a considerable slump. My bathroom scales know it, but more importantly, my mind and body feel it. I really, really need to get going again. Hence the pep talk.
It’s not a hard argument to make, though. I agree with Pang; I’m crazy about cities that reward walking. In this category I would immediately think of London, as he mentions, but also of Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC and pretty much any charming little town on either coast. Come to think of it, once you figure out where the sidewalks, bike lanes or other pedestrian-friendly roads are, almost anyplace can reward walking.
Cities offer an energy and vitality not found anywhere else, but suburban and rural settings have unique charms, too. No matter where we are walking, our minds are on a scavenger hunt for images that inspire, amuse, educate or palliate. Whether we snap photos with a man-made camera or gather visual memories with only our neurological equipment, we are building a scrapbook of comfort and joy that will stay with us on an unconscious level, even as our minds must return to focus on other tasks.
It may be true that when we’re tired of walking, we’re tired of life. If so, addressing the symptoms could affect the cure. I invite you to join me in getting outside, even in the cold or rain (bundle up! take an umbrella!) to gather images for our personal collections of things to be happy about. If you’re in the country, keep an eye out for wildlife, and an ear open to birdsong. If you’re in a suburb or city, stop in an interesting shop, or treat yourself to a cup of coffee or tea at a charming bistro. Or just use your imagination to transform a mundane scene into something unique, by looking more closely, or from a different angle.
Let’s go claim some of the rewards of walking. Feel free to share with us some details what you find (or what finds you).
“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. The Trumpet of Conscience, 1968
Today we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honor the values for which he lived and died. Some will think first of his pivotal role in the American civil rights movement. Some will remember his ministry and his devotion to the Christian faith. Courage in the face of persecution, determined adherence to the principles of nonviolent resistance, and dedication to promoting worldwide brotherhood and justice are foundations of his enduring legacy.
Perhaps the single aspect of his character that inspires me most is the underlying hope that sparked his tireless efforts. His life, as well as the era in which he lived, provided ample reasons for cynicism, despair and resignation, but he refused to be defeated by the darkness.
In a recent post, I mentioned my choice of the word “redemption” as my word for this year. The following words, taken from Dr. King’s famous speech in Washington DC in 1963, link his luminous hope with the promise of redemption:
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
King was speaking here to those who had been jailed, persecuted and brutalized for their work in the civil rights movement, but his words reach beyond his immediate audience and touch the hearts of many “veterans of creative suffering” facing other difficulties and challenges. In reminding us that suffering brings redemption, he strengthens our spirits and renews our determination to persevere.
Today, whatever problems you may be facing, I hope you will find inspiration in King’s dedication to keeping the dream alive.
“Color in a picture is like enthusiasm in life.” – Vincent Van Gogh
January paints nature with a muted palette, but that doesn’t mean our days have to be dull during the winter months. Add some color to your life, literally or figuratively, and get a jump on springtime by animating your mood with some sparkle.
When was the last time you awakened with excitement about the day ahead? Can’t remember? Me either. Time to fix that. Let’s put on some lilting music, or read some uproariously funny writing, or treat ourselves to something out of the ordinary, even if it’s only glittery nail polish or a single fresh flower in a bud vase. Choose a bright jacket or sweater or scarf and dress with a bit of flair, even if you don’t expect to see anyone.
Grab your camera or smart phone, and take a picture of something whimsical or flashy or adorable, and send it our way. If you have a completed piece of coloring book art, I’d love to see it! The world is chock-full of surprises we can unpack for each other without spending a dime, or a lot of time.
Why not trade up from the 8-pack of crayons and use all 64 brilliant colors to design a delightful day? I’m pouring us some bright red hibiscus tea, and spiking it with black for the energizing caffeine. On second thought, maybe we won’t need it. I’m feeling more lively already.
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.” — Muriel Barbery
Okay, so it’s now definitely winter– if you’re very far north of the tropics, that is. Despite the deceptively warm days of this past December, cold weather will be our frequent companion for weeks to come. Time for bundling up– or perhaps I should say settling down? for some cozy comforts to chase away the chill. Whether your day will take you indoors or out, be sure to make time for tea.
Note that I said “make time for tea,” not “have some tea” or “drink tea.” One of the great transforming qualities of becoming a tea lover is the inevitability that it will become a centering ritual, calming our nerves even before we take that first taste. Coffee drinkers also understand this, though that beverage is more often associated with busy days and drinking “on the run” — a shame, really, given the salutary benefits of serene sipping.
This winter morning, I invite you to sit down with me for a few minutes of reflective enjoyment. The kettle is on, and there has never been a better time to appreciate the greatness of small things. What are some of the everyday joys you look forward to this week?
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow…” — Kurt Vonnegut
“What is the purpose of your blog?” That’s a question others have asked occasionally in the years since I started this blog. As far as I can remember, my answer is always the same.
“The purpose of my blog is to keep me from losing my mind.”
That’s not to say that I consider it art, except in the sense that Vonnegut describes above. But I agree with him heartily when he asserts that creativity can make our souls grow, and our efforts to create will bear fruit in ways we do not imagine at the time we are working.
I started this blog because our family had been blindsided by devastating news that threatened to overwhelm us. Even in our numb sorrow, we understood that we were far from alone in our suffering. I hoped what I put online here would somehow help someone else in addition to helping me. I had no idea blogging was a magic carpet that would take me to places where I had never been, and introduce me to wonderful people I could not otherwise have known.
In the beginning, I only knew that the act of producing each post — poring over photographs, reading quotations, piecing thoughts together — was a therapeutic process, one that healed my mind and gave it a respite from turmoil. Stringing beads does the same thing, as does working with paper, scissors and glue. Singing (badly) and painting (on a kindergarten level) also give my soul freedom from the unhealthy worries and fixations that are not conducive to surviving and thriving.
It’s probably the same for you. Some who may read this post are accomplished artists and writers who have turned their talents to financial gain, but that sort of professional achievement is not necessary for the therapeutic benefit (and indeed, I suspect, may work against it in some cases). Creativity is its own reward, watering the seeds in the garden of your mind so that beautiful and unexpected blooms may result.
This year I hope you will give yourself time and space to exercise whatever forms of creativity feed your soul. Don’t worry about whether it’s ready for prime time or not. You need not share it with anyone except yourself, especially in the beginning. It doesn’t require a lot of money, either. Discount craft supplies and “found” collage materials and online musical inspiration and all sorts of writing and drawing implements, and any other items you may need for getting started, are widely available for nothing, or next to nothing. So practice your art! And get ready to grow.
“With all the advantages being online gives us, we’re also offered a set of potential dangers we have to understand. What we know about how humans react to virtual environments is still in its infancy…In the battle between intention and habit, we need to be able to work out who is winning; who is master, and who is slave.”
— Jeremy Dean
In recent years, our holiday gift selection always contains at least one digital or electronic gadget of some kind, and often more than one. I imagine that’s something quite a few of us have in common.
There’s nothing wrong with these handy and amazing little machines, of course. They can make life convenient, interesting and fun in more ways than we can count, and new uses for them materialize every day.
There’s a risk, though, as our world is increasingly made up of our online interactions. It basically means we are always elsewhere, acting and speaking and reading and even thinking in virtual venues that are far removed from our physical presence.
It sometimes seems that the more connected we are in the digital sense, the more disconnected we are with many of the essential qualities that have made people uniquely human for centuries. Is it possible that we are beginning to outsource even our most basic relationships?
I realize that probably sounds like so much psychobabble, but think about it. What percentage of the words you hear or read daily come directly from someone you know, as compared to the words that reach us via the media — television, movies, gadgets, commercials, computers?
When you are out in public, do you make eye contact (not to mention exchange verbal greetings) with the store clerks, grocers and other service staff whose jobs have not yet been handed off to machines? Or are your eyes usually on your smart phone?
Do you transact more and more of your everyday business online, where you never even come face to face with another person?
More tellingly, are you most comfortable in the seeming anonymity of the online environment? I plead guilty to that one. Even in the “real world” I opt for the self-service machines every time, at the grocery, library or bank, whether or not I’m having a bad hair day.
Still creepier is the question of whether we’d rather spend an hour with the characters of Downton Abbey or another TV series, than with some of our actual friends. Television characters can be turned off and on at will, and they never ask for favors or annoy us by calling at inconvenient times. How very easy and contained and undemanding! Not at all like actual people.
The irony of writing this message via a public blog hasn’t escaped me. I’m aware that I’m stepping on my own toes here. However, I do think there is a degree of person-to-person interaction in environments such as this one, which often lead to delightful real-world friendships and actual postal mail that can be opened and read the old-fashioned way.
Meanwhile, I challenge each of us to increase our face-to-face time this year. As a special concession to our busy schedules and geographic separation, I decree that Skype sessions count as face-to-face time– as long as it’s still less than, say, 10% of our interaction.
One of the fun things about being live and in person with Kelly (aka Boomdee aka Petals) last April was the way she made friends with everyone she met, even some non-humans such as squirrels in the park. Plus, it seemed like everywhere she went, she left generous tips. If there wasn’t a tip jar sitting out, she would ask where one was.
It’s hard not to feel happier when you are with someone who is walking around improving the day of every person she comes in contact with. What cheerful fun! What a great example for me! And it’s a perfect illustration of how an online connection can lead to a fabulous week of real-world interaction.
Let’s all channel our inner Boomdee. Take a friend to lunch. Visit an elderly person or someone confined to home or otherwise at risk of isolation. Or if you’re too busy to do these things, start with smiling and speaking to that person at the drive through window who hands you your coffee. Maybe even leave a tip in one of those places where you aren’t expected to leave one. (OK, I know this will be tough for some of us. I won’t ask for a show of hands on this one. ;-) )
I don’t know about you, but generally speaking, my habits are far more powerful than my intentions. So Dean’s warning is not lost on me. I plan to become more intentional about increasing the total amount of time I spend in pleasant face-to-face interactions with people this year– and maybe even make a habit of it.
Any thoughts, ideas, advice, suggestions?
“You have a story. It doesn’t have you.” — Mark Brunetz
At year’s end, we often take stock of the past twelve months, and this can lead us into contemplation about past years. For many of us 2015 has been more remarkable for its difficulties than for its successes or gifts. Come to think of it, the same could be said about our entire lives…but only if we choose to see our stories through a harsh and unforgiving lens.
Each person’s life is important, and we gain nothing by flinching at the unpleasant truths our biographies contain. Discounting or ignoring pain and trauma does not defeat despair. At best, it allows for a temporary escape that may only worsen the blow when reality intrudes again, as it inevitably will.
But there’s a difference between denial and discernment. We can recognize the pitfalls of the terrain and use that insight to be selective about how we build upon it. Just as every story has its sorrows and failures, so each contains unique beauty, or at least the seeds of it. There’s no doubt that some lives are more burdened with tragedy and suffering than others. Yet history teaches us that amazing, world-changing ideas, movements, art, science and progress often come from people who have faced bitter uphill battles.
If you are reading this, you have survived another year. That’s an accomplishment in itself, and for some of us, it’s a rather remarkable one. I invite you to join me in celebrating the past year and all that it brought us, whether pleasant or painful, ecstatic or agonizing. Our enduring task is to take whatever life brought us and turn it toward good.
Perhaps our difficulties made us more patient, or compassionate, or wise. Or maybe we’re simply happy to be on the other side of whatever it was that was so unbearable…or, if we aren’t yet there, we are looking forward to a time when we DO reach that other side. Meanwhile, let’s celebrate our own grit and determination and tenacity.
If you read the comments here, you know that Alys recently mentioned choosing a word for the coming year. I love the concept of having a one-word theme in lieu of a list of resolutions. I was casting around for precisely the word I wanted to have as my theme for 2016, and while writing this post, it came to me. My word for 2016 is a word I’ve always thought profoundly beautiful: redemption. There are many nuances to this word, but for me, it encapsulates the concept of taking what seems damaged, useless or compromised, and transforming it to something richer and more complete.
Whether your own story this year has been full of woe or wonder, delight or disappointment, or (most likely) a mixture of all these, I hope you will remember that your life is always a work in progress, and the tale is not yet finished. What word will be your bellwether for 2016?
Thanks for being with us on this journey. I wish for all of us a year of growth, discovery and contentment. Happy New Year!
“I bloom indoors in winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.” – Annie Dillard
One of the best things about being an adult at Christmas is how it seems such a short time between one Christmas and the next. When I was a child, there was a mild but unmistakable melancholy that began with the anti-climactic feeling on Christmas evening; the magic was over for another year, and it seemed forever before another one would be back.
Now, I actually enjoy the period after Christmas as much as the time beforehand. Maybe even more. Beyond the fun of
drinking all the new teas people gave me using whatever new items I may have received as Christmas gifts, there’s a delicious feeling of settling down for a winter that still seems full of promise. The days will grow gradually longer, and spring is coming, but for now the weather is the perfect excuse to give myself the liberty to stay inside and putter around doing my favorite things.
What do you look forward to doing this winter? I love to browse my books and sip my tea (or cocoa spiked with coffee) and write notes and letters. I like to dream of gardening, and sometimes go so far as to plant seeds, though they rarely if ever get large enough to transplant. I make more time for the crafts I love all year long. I clean out closets and weed through possessions and imagine being completely organized. If the weather is unusually cold or nasty, I’ll fire up the gas logs and read or nap by the closest thing I have to a roaring fire in a masonry fireplace.
What ways will you bloom this winter? Send me some suggestions to add to my own list. As in the summer, I’m well aware that I can never do all the things I dream of doing in one season. But winter is a great time for daydreaming; for reaping the harvest of contentment and peace that eludes us in the frenetic pace we tend to adopt in milder weather. Enjoy the parts of your personality that only come out indoors!
“Christmas is the keeping-place for memories of our innocence.” — Joan Mills
I couldn’t find anything about who Joan Mills was, but she must have had memories of Christmas that were similar to my own. For me, no other time of year brings as deep a connection to childhood. Perhaps it’s the combination of scents, sights and sounds unique to the season that can so quickly and directly tap into the subconscious. Or maybe we see ourselves reflected in the young ones who so enjoy the excitement, free from all the cares and obligations and exhaustion that inevitably accompany our adult experiences of holidays.
As Charles Dickens said, it’s good to be children sometimes. I hope that you can grab a few minutes tonight to sit quietly and think back on your earliest memories of this season. It’s likely to be a bittersweet recollection. Not everything in the past was happy, and even when joy predominates, many of us are looking back at that joy through the lens of later sorrows we could not have imagined at such a tender age.
Regardless of whether our mind’s eyes see our six-year-old selves living in innocent bliss, harsh reality or somewhere in between, we can remember and celebrate the child who is, after all, still very much alive somewhere inside us. I’m thankful to be an adult now, but also grateful to the child inside me who taught me so much, and continues to teach me. I invite you to join me in allowing that inner child to play a large role in the season, however you choose to observe it, and maybe a little bit of the lost enchantment will awaken.
Just to give you a jump start (and with the help of Jacquie Lawson, whose cards I have sent out via this blog each Christmas) I invite you to choose any or all of these greetings that may bring out the kid in you.
For a fanciful look at Santa’s workshop and the elves getting ready for the big night tonight, you can view this card— and maybe even work the puzzle at the end.
Did you love kaleidoscopes as much as I did when I was a child? If so, you may want to enjoy this digital version of a childhood favorite.
Or how about a ride through the English countryside? Hop aboard the fabled “one horse open sleigh” for a quick virtual adventure.
Thanks for being here with us! I wish you a very happy Christmas, and a year full of blessings in 2016.
“The Christmas tree is a symbol of love, not money. There’s a kind of glory to them when they’re all lit up that exceeds anything all the money in the world could buy.” ― Andy Rooney
OK, for those of you who don’t already know it, I confess that our Christmas tree is WAY, way overdone. I always insisted on a live one until the ever-increasing quantity of my ornament collection got to the point where it would kill even the biggest, thickest “real” tree. In 2000, we got our first and only artificial tree, and it’s a dandy. Though it loses a ton of needles every time we put it up and take it down (and I thought it was only live trees that did that!), it’s still thicker than anything I’ve seen in any store recently.
Our tree is my personal scrapbook, so lots of things that aren’t really meant to be ornaments end up getting transformed into something I can hang on the tree. Since I put about 4000 colored lights on it, and some more conventional baubles as well, the oddball artifacts somehow blend into the scene without creating too much disturbance, at least not to us. The real drawback to our tree is how much time it takes me to finish decorating it each year.
Or maybe it’s not a drawback at all. Maybe that’s actually a strong point. Once I finish wrestling with those branches that get bent out of shape sitting in the box all year long, and put 40 strings of lights and a star on it, the fun part starts. Hanging the ornaments can be very relaxing, even with a tall ladder, as long as I don’t rush myself. While decorating I listen to Jeff and Matt reading, or have an audiobook on, or play Christmas music. I take it a little at a time and usually don’t totally finish up until just before Christmas (or Thanksgiving, if we are hosting company for a big party that weekend).
My love of Christmas trees goes as far back as I can remember. In fact, here’s one of the first photographs I ever made, using my cheap K-Mart plastic camera and some b&w 127 film, which I used to buy for 25 cents a roll. I’m guessing this was around 1964 or 1965:
Taking the tree down is almost — but not quite — as time-consuming as putting it up, and is a lot less fun. So each year, I tell myself that perhaps this will be the last year I undertake this rather ambitious task. Not to worry, though…the torch is passed to a new generation!
Do you have a Christmas tree or any other special traditions? What decorations, games and treats do you love best? Tell us about them and we might get some ideas for our own celebrations. And while you’re at it, if you need any ornaments, let me know what kind you like best, and I’ll send you one from our personal collection. Whether you deck your own halls or celebrate Christmas mostly in your heart (or not at all), I wish you a December full of memories to treasure for a lifetime.
“Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.” — Peg Bracken
I love Christmas! But it can be exhausting and stressful, particularly when invitations, intentions and demands are far greater than the time (and maybe also the money) to fulfill them. In recent years I have reminded myself to focus on the basic ingredients, and delight in what I’m able to do rather than longing for the extras I’d want to enjoy in an ideal holiday season.
One rule I follow at Christmas is to do nothing out of a sense of obligation, but simply for the sheer joy of it. I prefer sending small gifts and cards so that nobody feels a need to reciprocate. What I don’t have time to finish doesn’t get done, and I don’t pressure myself to bake, decorate or entertain unless time and opportunity allow it. Jeff’s illness has meant that many of our traditional festivities have been impossible in the past few years, but our holidays still have been filled with celebration and joy amid all the uncertainties and losses.
As I have savored various Christmas activities this year, from decorating the tree to wrapping presents to listening to Christmas music, I realize that most of what I know about these things, I learned from my Daddy. I am filled with thankfulness to him for showing us how to celebrate the yuletide abundantly without spending a lot of money or going into debt. He is so much a part of my memories of Christmas that it has been easier than it might have been to endure his physical absence this holiday. His spirit permeates everything about the season, so it’s almost as if he is still here with us.
I’m also grateful to so many of you whose presence I feel just as surely during this time. The gifts of time and love you have sent me over the past three years have lightened my burdens and brightened my life. My hope for each of you is that your December is filled with showers of blessings, shining brightly, warming your heart and home.
“…if [cats] are content, their contentment is absolute; and our jaded and wearied spirits find a natural relief in the sight…” — Agnes Repplier
What animal comes to mind when you hear these words: relaxed, languid, graceful, calm, serene? For me, it’s always a cat.
I’m a dog person through and through. I identify with their boundless eagerness to explore, and I delight in the friendly regard that characterizes most breeds. But during childhood, all but one of our cherished pets were cats, and I love them almost as well.
There are a lot of jokes about how indifferent cats can be, but those of us who have been close to kitties know better. Though they have an innate dignity that may prevent them from showing the uninhibited enthusiasm so common to canines, they can and do form deeply affectionate bonds with humans, and their company can be every bit as therapeutic.
Next time you feel frazzled and frustrated, spend some time with a friendly feline. If you don’t live in proximity to one, just imagine a quietly purring cat curled up at your feet, and channel their sleepy but sharp gaze that sees their world through half-closed eyes. Perhaps you will feel a nice nap coming on. Awake or asleep, I wish you pleasant dreams.
“Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship– qualities often ascribed to great physicians– are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.” ― Siddhartha Mukherjee
Reading Mukherjee’s impressive history of cancer treatment has made me even more aware of how much we owe to earlier generations of patients. These pioneers endured extreme discomfort, agony and even death from experimental treatments. Their determination and courage enabled the medical advances that save so many of our lives today. As in every other area of life, we benefit from the sacrifices of thousands of people whose names we will never know.
Illness takes no holidays, and medical crises have no predictable calendar. We all know people who are dealing with serious illness this season, unable to enjoy the festive cheer with the lightheartedness that is possible for those of us in good health. I hope we will remember these friends in some way. A personal note, a heartfelt prayer, a visit or call or small gift; any gesture that will acknowledge their trials, and let them know they are not forgotten in the rush of December. One of the best ways to defeat despair is to brighten someone else’s day, especially this time of year.
“Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys.” — Rita Schiano
Right now I could sit here and go on for hours about the cares that I am facing– which include deep sorrows, minor annoyances, and the entire spectrum of trials that lie in between. I’m almost certain you could too. I know some people are deemed more fortunate than others, and some in this world are suffering atrocities that go beyond our comprehension. Yet, even among those of us who are blessed to be free of dangerous turmoil, I doubt that anyone is without cares and challenges.
The good news is that no life need be bereft of joys, either. They lie all around us, quickened by awareness and illuminated by our focused attention. For me, there is hardly anything more fun than noticing and sharing the beauty and humor and color and whimsy of life. A flower, a song, a funny joke, a good book, a cup of tea or coffee, a nice hot meal in a cozy kitchen…on and on the list could go.
There’s a place, of course, for sharing our sorrows with those who have earned our trust. We all need to vent at times, and to explore aloud the difficulties that can vex and overwhelm us to the point of paralysis. I thank God for those friends who are willing to walk with us through the uncertainty of pain and suffering.
But it’s just as important– and maybe even more so– to have friends who shine into our somber moods with a lightness of spirit that lifts our hearts. These folks don’t minimize or ignore their own problems, or anyone else’s, but they have a knack for spotting the rainbows lurking within the storms. If you know people with such a gift, stay close to them and learn from them. Prepare yourself to be, as Maya Angelou has said, “the rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”
It seems we are surrounded by talk about our problems. It’s a significant part of almost every television show, and is the underlying message of many commercials. It takes up much of our conversations wherever we go. What a waste of happiness, to live our short lives surrounded by gloom!
I hope you will join me in breaking the habit of allowing our talk to focus on our problems. It’s true that we cannot avoid dealing with our challenges, but talking about them often makes them seem worse than they are, and too often, talk does not bring solutions. I invite you to spend a few minutes focusing on something worth smiling about. Feel free to scatter some of the sunbeams you gather, by sharing about them in the comments today!
“It’s odd but true that there really is consolation from sad poems, and it’s hard to know how that happens. There is the pleasure of the thing itself, the pleasure of the poem, and somehow it works against sadness.” – Carol Shields
When I first read this quote, I thought about the song “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. That’s a song, of course, not a poem, but it reminds me of poetry in its grace and power. Like the pleasure of a sad poem, the haunting sorrow of Chapman’s lyrics somehow work against sadness when I listen to it. Perhaps it gives me perspective, or helps me feel less lonely. Or maybe it’s just the resonant beauty of Chapman’s voice, dissolving my sorrow into her artistry.
I’ve found that reading poetry is sometimes exactly what I need to move into a sense of resolution when I feel troubled. A great many poems — maybe most of them — are not particularly cheerful. Some are downright heartbreaking. Among my favorite sad poems are The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken by Vachel Lindsey, Losers by Carl Sandburg, Incident by Countee Cullen, One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. Are there any sad poems that you love?
I think learning to defeat despair means accepting that sadness is inevitable, part of the fabric of what it means to be alive. For centuries great artists have captured the depths of human emotion in art and literature, proving to generation after generation that however much times may change, all humans carry universal baggage. Happy endings and humor and whimsy are all wonderful and necessary, but we also need those voices that remind us of the somber truths we cannot escape.
Whether you are feeling happy or sad today, I hope you’ll pause for a few minutes and read a poem or two. You can choose one from a favorite, well-worn volume, or you can search the wonderful archive at the Writer’s Almanac. Or you can ask me for an alternate recommendation if you are not in the mood for the sad ones linked above. However you choose to access it, find some time to lose yourself in the pleasure of a poem.
For hearts that are kindly, with virtue and peace,
and not seeking blindly a hoard to increase;
for those who are grieving o’er life’s sordid plan;
for souls still believing in heaven and man;
for homes that are lowly with love at the board;
for things that are holy, I thank thee, O Lord!
For many of us, this Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet time as we observe the holiday without loved ones. This year, our family feels the absence of our Daddy who worked so hard for 87 years to ensure that we would celebrate this and all days with bounty, gratitude and reverence. We honor him today with the thankfulness he instilled in each one of us, bolstered by faith and renewed by deep joy in all that is beautiful and right in our world.
One year ago (2014), our family had experienced another sudden loss shortly before Thanksgiving. Even so, we were able to come together as a family and reflect upon those blessings that remained, and encourage one another with hope for the future.
The year before that (2013), we had a most unconventional Thanksgiving day, exhausted yet filled with thankfulness and hope.
The year before that (2012), we were reeling in the shock of Jeff’s stage IV cancer diagnosis, having received bad news followed by worse news followed by even worse news. Yet even that year, there were reasons to be thankful. Among them were the readers of the newly-begun Defeat Despair.
I didn’t know then that a blog I started as a personal effort to stay focused on blessings amid the trials was to introduce me to wonderful people all over the world. Though I could not know it in those early days, I would find myself three years hence with dear friends whose existence was then unknown to me, and my dear husband, my rock and surest support, would still be with us, still working full time, still defying the odds.
Thus we face another Thanksgiving Day with full hearts and a deep sense of gratitude for mercies that truly are new every morning. May each and every one who reads these words experience love, joy, peace and many reasons to be glad. Happy Thanksgiving!
“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”
— Milan Kundera
Memory, we are told, is highly selective and not always accurate. We may remember a time or a place as being so full of wonder that it’s hard to imagine a reality that could live up to our recollection of it. Maybe we are looking back on a mentally enhanced version of what actually happened, as if it was retouched in some sort of cerebral Photoshop.
Or maybe not. Sometimes, as in the photo above, we have clues that our memories are not mistaken; in the words of Dave Barry, we are not making this up. Sometimes the poetry was present from the beginning, not composed over time by nostalgic delusions about a magical moment frozen in our consciousness.
I think Kundera is right about the poetic memory. It’s a sort of neurological scrapbook; the repository of all that has made life wonderful for us, and when the present moment becomes almost unbearable, we can wander into that corner of the mind, and see the colors and hear the lovely cadences that can’t be captured by grammatically correct sentences.
What scenes from your past sprang to mind when you saw the words “poetic memory?” What verses will be added today?
…slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day,
The pause of the wave
That curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power. – Elizabeth Coatsworth
Recently I read a book that discussed the pervasive effects of technology on how we view ourselves. The author explained that the increasing speed of computer processing leaves us feeling less intelligent when we cannot keep up with the machine’s pace. But he pointed out that humans have capabilities that no machine will ever be able to duplicate, and there is more to ability than speed.
Our world seems little inclined to value a slow pace in anything. We expect gadgets, cars, service providers and even schoolchildren to deliver the quick results we want, and waiting for anything taxes our ever-decreasing stores of patience. Pursuits that can be done more rapidly by machine or assembly-line procedures have consigned such arts as sewing, cooking and woodworking to the category of “hobbies” rather than occupations.
Sometimes we sense that life is not meant to move at such breakneck speeds, but we feel vaguely guilty and inefficient when we slow down — but even if we are enjoying our deliberate pace, someone else is likely to come along and pressure us to step it up. Exhausted, we fall into bed each night with tomorrow’s “to-do” list nagging at us from a far corner of our brain, if not the front and center of our last waking thoughts.
We have heard “time is money” so often that we may begin to think we can never have enough of either. That might be true, but only if we allow it to be. Time pressure can create the illusion that frenzied acceleration will serve us, but haste really does make waste in some circumstances. Power need not depend upon speed; often, it is quiet and steadfast, as with the drops of water that gradually wear away solid rock.
Today, I invite you to celebrate with me the beauty of slow things. Turn off the television’s frantic voices of urgency, whether in the news or on commercials, and turn on some Debussy or Brahms or Enya. Fill the kettle to the top and watch the tiny bubbles gradually forming as the water comes to a boil. Breathe deeply, taking in the unique aroma of the fruit or bread or coffee you enjoy. I wish you blissful hours that pass at a relaxing tempo, leaving you serenely smiling at day’s end.
“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet.” – Washington Irving
The most wonderful thing happened in early November. Remember that fabulous photo of New Hampshire that Susan recently shared with us? Well, she decided to zip on down the coast to Florida, and along the way, she was able to visit with Raynard, Mary and Ms. Ella, and the next day, with me. So not only was she able to share the fall foliage of her home with us; I was able to share what remained of Virginia’s autumn colors with her too — live and in person! I’m always excited to meet people I’ve come to know through this blog. Each face-to-face encounter feels like a sparkling little miracle.
Washington Irving might well have been writing about us instead of Ichabod Crane when he penned the lines quoted above. Susan’s visit happened to fall on a day when the weather couldn’t have been finer. We decided to walk to the café for lunch, and I had not been outdoors for five seconds when I decided I didn’t even need the light jacket I had on. It was sunny and clear and gorgeous, and even with a short-sleeved shirt on, I was as warm as if it had been summer.
As I’ve written here before, I love taking pictures of people taking pictures, and Susan was a good sport about it. In fact, she was a good sport about everything. At the time she arrived, I had been having one of those days when I was distracted by large and small worries. Our time together was a wonderful respite from business as usual. We took a few extra minutes to stroll down the lovely wooded walk behind our home; you may recognize it as the one I shared in this post, though it looks different in the fall.
Thank you, Susan, for being willing to interrupt your trip for a brief visit that shone a bright light into my day! Thank you, Washington Irving, for your description of autumn that lives on with as much relevance today as when it was published nearly 200 years ago. And special thanks to our blog community here for being with us through these words and photos. You’re all invited along on our next adventure. Stay tuned!