Doorway to a New Year

Here we are again on the threshold of a new year.  When the door opens we’ll enter a new, clean room, uncluttered by the past and holding nothing but hope.

This sculpture represents women from different cultures, coming together in unity for peace.  (Photo Feb. 2013, Chautauqua Institution)

This sculpture represents women from different cultures, coming together in unity for peace. (Photo Feb. 2013, Chautauqua Institution)

One of the bags I want to unpack first is the one carrying lessons learned from this past year:

1)  Creativity can be dormant for years and still resurface.
This is a biggie for me.  I tested some waters this year in writing and in photography.  In both cases, I have found those waters to be warm and welcoming.  The swims will still be long, but the motions of each stroke feel good and they are stretching some long forgotten muscles.  I look forward to navigating these previously uncharted waters each step of the way.

2)  I need to count my blessings more often.
It’s so easy to get bogged down in what we don’t have and what we want.  But I have my health, mostly.  I have a wonderful family and friends.  I have a job.  I have a pleasant home, food on the table, and decent clothes.  I have my mind and lots of ways to use it.  While some friends and family members have faced some pretty serious issues this past year including major illnesses and loss of jobs, I have been fortunate.

3)  Savor each moment of your child’s growth, even when they are young adults.
Our children don’t walk through developmental stages.  They actually run.  This year we celebrated the college graduation of our eldest.  It’s a huge rite of passage for her, and has been for us in some ways as well.  Savor each moment and take time to appropriately observe the milestones.  That graduation weekend is one of my fondest memories of 2013.

4)  When you raise your children to be strong and independent that is what they become.
This is what parents really want for their children, but then it happens and we need to step back for a moment and allow ourselves to look on in wonder.  We always felt that our job as parents was to lay some firm groundwork and set expectations, and then get out of their way.  We showed them how we conduct our lives, and now it’s up to them to conduct their own in places we don’t know with people we don’t know.  Make no mistake – ours haven’t QUITE made a full leap to independence yet – but they are well on their way.

5)  Keep your memories alive, but don’t live in the past.
This year forced us to say goodbye to some wonderful and influential people in our lives.  The loss of friends and family always stings, but we carry very good memories.  We are made stronger by our pain.  Each loss challenges us to move forward and to do good things.

So here we are about to step through the doorway.  I have tried very hard to pack away the “I can’ts” and will work hard to leave them where they are in the past.  I am carrying brand new “I cans” into the new year.  There is no illusion of perfection and I will make mistakes.  But even as we bring along the baggage of the past and some of the problems we just can’t shake, we can still make this new room what we want it to be.  We can rearrange the furniture to make it either comfortable or challenging – or a mixture of both.  We have choices about how we spend our fleeting time and we can work to make the best of what a fresh new year has to offer.

For me, I am longing to see where my creative pursuits will lead, and will redouble my efforts to focus on family, friends, and community.  Those are my main goals.

I wish you hope, joy, health, peace and happiness as you step into 2014.  Happy New Year!

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Visions of Sugar Plums

We all have images of the idyllic Christmas.  The perfect candlelight church service on Christmas Eve.  The perfect symmetrical fir tree, decorated with a perfect mix of shiny glass baubles and sparkling with hundreds of lights.  Perfectly wrapped color-coordinated gifts rest beneath the tree.  On Christmas morning perfectly behaved children wearing matching pajamas unwrap their presents, thrilled and brimming with gratitude for each item.  Singing carols by the piano while the fire crackles.  Sipping mulled cider.  We catch a glimpse of a gentle dusting of new snow through windows that house a single candle, while we take an orderly march to the dining room where an extraordinary dinner awaits.  A perfect Christmas.

If only.

Thanks to Clement Moore for the “visions of sugarplums” dancing in our heads.  Thanks to Charles Dickens for “God bless us, everyone.”  Thanks to Currier and Ives for sleighs through the snow.  Thanks to Mel Torme for “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”  Thanks to Frank Capra for “it really is a wonderful life.”  Thanks to them and others we all have an image of what Christmas should be.

treeBut, seriously.  Do these things happen in your home?

I will vouch for the perfect candlelight Christmas Eve service.  We have been to many over the years where the music is divine, the sermon is lovingly spoken, and the warmth in the church is genuine.  A final chorus of Silent Night by candlelight may move you to tears.  That actually happens.

Meanwhile, back at home….

Our tree is decorated with a mish-mash of stuff that reflects our thirty years of married life:  collected ornaments from here and there, some antique pieces from his family and mine, crafts our children made in their youth, and items that each of our girls has received in their stocking since their first Christmas.  It’s more eclectic than elegant, but it’s us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When our kids were little we made a habit of reading The Night Before Christmas as we coaxed them to bed.  We made sure they were sleeping before that requisite visit from St. Nick.  In the morning, we always tried to keep it civilized, with each person giving each gift the respect it (and the gift-giver) was due.  We tried.  For the most part, I think we succeeded.  But perfection is not attainable.

Many years ago one of our children received a gift that she didn’t really want.  It’s not that she hated it.  It’s just that it wasn’t what she wanted for Christmas.  She still won’t let us forget that, and I think it was about 15 years ago.

If we found ourselves in front of a crackling Yule log that would be a sure sign of disaster, since we don’t have a fireplace.

Carols around the piano?  That’s all well and good for those who can carry a tune, which I can’t.  One daughter is an exceptional piano player.  She can open the book and play any music in front of her.  For me, it’s lucky that Pandora has some really nice Christmas mixes.

Yet we keep trying.  We shop for just the right gifts, wrap them in pretty paper, bake just the right goodies, put on our Christmas finery and hope for the best.

Perfection?  Nope.  But in the end it doesn’t really matter.  When the church is dark, the family room floor is a mess, and the kids are bouncing off the walls from all the cookies consumed, what really matters is that we remind ourselves we’re celebrating Jesus birthday, and that we’re doing it together.

Wishing you all a joyous Christmas!

Christmas in the Kitchen

Most years I never get around to Christmas baking until Christmas Eve and by then it’s too late to do much.  It has always been the last thing on my list.  When you work full time in a demanding job you either really have no time to bake or are so exhausted by the time you get around to it that you have no energy.  But because Christmas falls on a Wednesday this year, I have a whole weekend to prepare some things.

I am not a traditionalist in the kitchen and cookies are not really my thing.  Some of them are just too fussy – too many ingredients, or too much time rolling out dough.  Perhaps it’s a lack of patience.

Just a FEW of the treats we enjoyed last Christmas.

Just a FEW of the treats we enjoyed last Christmas.

My grandmother was a baker.  She could whip up cookies, cakes and pies like nobody’s business.  She loved being in the kitchen.  In fact, it’s hard to remember her anywhere but the kitchen or the garden.  She made some fabulous almond crescent cookies every Christmas, and as I think of them now I realize they should go back on my baking list.  They were a melt-in-your-mouth shortbread confection with a hint of almond – delicious!  She also made a very traditional pignolata (pronounced peen-you-lah-tah) – little balls of Italian fried dough shaped into a ring and held together with honey.  Very tasty, but way too much effort for me.  Sorry, Grandma.

But I do like to try some different things once in a while, and have come across a few recipes online in the last couple of years that are really Christmas-worthy.  This year I made eggnog bread with a rum glaze.  Doesn’t the sound of that just make you think of Christmas?  Baking with rum is old school and the traditional Bacardi Rum Cake is a perennial favorite.

Gingerbread cookies will be on our Christmas table this year.  They do require rolling and cutting, but the smell of gingerbread baking in the oven is blissful.  One cannot bake gingerbread and feel anything but euphoric.  It is physically impossible.

And not all baking is for sugary delights.  I enjoy sweets, but am really much more into savory.  Many years ago a friend gave me a recipe for artichoke squares that has become a staple for Christmas in our house.  Marinated artichokes + cheddar cheese = delectable gooey goodness!  I have found the same recipe online, so you can enjoy them, too.  But a word of caution – they are addictive, and if cholesterol is a worry for you then don’t try these.

Last year I tried out a recipe for white chocolate lemon truffles.  OH.  MY.  GOSH.   This really is candy-making, not baking, and they are a little fussy because you have to bring the cream to just the right point.  But if you like lemon at all, you will LOVE these little beauties.

Peppermint bark has been a favorite at our house for years now.  It’s super easy to do and what’s not to like about chocolate and peppermint?

And let me say a few words about Chex party mix.  If I did not make it my family and friends would be very disappointed.  This does not really count as baking, except for the fact that it goes in the oven.  It is the easiest thing in the world, and I make a triple (yes, triple) batch every year in the most traditional way – Corn, Rice, and Wheat Chex, pretzels, peanuts, butter, Worcestershire sauce, and a little garlic and onion powder.   No frills, but truly a salty obsession.

Honestly, I don’t know why we do a Christmas dinner every year.  By the time my mother, sister, and sister-in-law put out their favorite items, the array of cookies and appetizers on the table all afternoon could rival a state dinner at the White House.  Dinner seems almost redundant.  But if you can’t indulge on Christmas, when can you?

Best wishes to all to enjoy your tasty holiday treats, whatever they may be.  And if you have some great recipes, I hope you’ll share.

Gifts for Sisters

As we Christmas shop we always consider balance.  Because we have two daughters, we consider how much they are different, and how much they are the same.  Sisters

When they were little we always made sure they each had the same number of presents.  We still do that now.  All parents probably do that – making sure that neither child feels slighted.  Presents, after all, are an outward display of affection.  So demonstrating more affection towards one or the other is never a good thing.

When they were young, one loved everything pink and the other loved everything blue.  So they would often get the same thing, only one in pink and one in blue:  sweaters, doll clothes, backpacks.  That is how it was for several years.  Now that they are older, we still try to balance gifts – a scarf for one, gloves for the other.  That’s how it goes when you have two.  Because they will always compare notes.  Always.

Ever since the youngest one learned to talk, and possibly even before that, they have shared their lives with one another.  They used to share bunk beds and toys.  Now they share stories of their separate lives in different places; tales of their college experiences, their friends, and their feelings.  They are each others’ touchstones and confidantes.  They are sisters, and they are friends.

When they are apart they miss one another.  I know for a fact that they Skype, chat and text frequently, because they sometimes mention it to one or the other of their parents.   Oh yes, they keep us in the loop, but they keep each other closer.  We hope they will always be close, long after we are gone.

I can still walk into a store and pick out something that each of them would like.  Gift giving has never been hard with either of them, and I’m actually fairly good at recognizing their tastes.  In fact, it’s too easy.  I really have to reign in my spending, but usually my husband and the budget help with that.

We aren’t giving a lot this year, but they will get a few surprises under the Christmas tree.   The truth is we have already given them their greatest gifts:  each other.

Too Soon Gone

Life is often too short.  It’s too short to maintain all of the friendships you should have nurtured.  It’s too short to tell people how much you care about them.  It’s too short to spend meaningful time with people.  And the real irony is that we only recognize these things after someone is gone.  This past week has brought the issues of life and death to the forefront.

An old friend passed away today.  She was a classmate in school and one of the sweetest, kindest people ever.  We had not been in close touch in recent years, but had seen each other in passing frequently and talked about our families and lives.  Knowing that she was dying has made me think back to our school days many years ago.  We often sat together in the library during study hall, pouring over magazines and dreaming about our futures.  She went on to marry her high school sweetheart and raise a family.  We drifted apart.

A neighbor also passed away this past week.  We were not close friends, but living just a few houses away you get to know a little bit about each other.  He was just a few years older than me, was friendly and family-oriented, and suddenly he is gone.  We won’t wave to him in passing anymore, or pause to chat while taking a walk.

Death brings the brevity of life into sharp focus, and forces us to reconsider the things that really matter.  Family.  Loved ones.  Togetherness.

I have had these feelings before while mourning other losses:  my father, my aunt, my grandparents, and other friends.  Our lives are formed by the people who surround us.  When one of those people dies, we have a natural desire to gather with others.  Circle the wagons.  Rally the troops.  Bring people together.

It is true that death is a natural part of life.  It is also true that when it’s someone your own age you always feel as though they were too young, with too much of life left unlived.  But who’s to say how much is enough when it comes to life?  Only God can make that decision, and we are left to decide how to cope.

For me, I choose to live whatever life I have left with the people who matter most.  I choose to make time for loved ones and to spend time in purposeful pursuits – trying to make a difference for my family, friends, and community.  That’s all I can do to honor the memory of those who have gone.  I just pray there’s still enough time.

Peacekeeper?

My family knows the answer is always the same.  When the question is, “What do you want for Christmas?” my answer is, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  Every time.

Then my daughters roll their eyes and my husband smirks and they think it’s just me being difficult.  Who, me?  Because of this, they accuse me of being hard to buy for.  Go figure.  Why don’t they know that I would be thrilled with some small item that comes from their heart – a cozy sweater, a pretty scarf, or a book I might enjoy?

But the answer I give, which my kids think is flippant, is honestly, truly, sincerely, what I would LOVE for Christmas.

And when I say, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” I am not even talking about the whole world and all people.  Oh, that would be great, but it might be too big a bite all at one time.  I think we could simply start with our little corner of it.  How about peace in the home?  Peace in the office?  Peace in the neighborhood?  What about good will toward family?  Good will toward co-workers or customers?  Good will toward people we meet in restaurants or stores or libraries or other theaters?ornaments

Now, if some family members or former co-workers are reading this you might be tempted to say, “Really?!  Who ARE you?!”  And it might be followed closely by, “Aren’t you the one who could launch a verbal nuclear attack that could start World War III?”

Yes, in fact, I am that person.  Or maybe I was that person.  But none of us in our 50’s is really the same person we were in our 20’s or even our 30’s.  Are we?  Sometimes we mellow a bit, and sometimes we learn to think more about the consequences of our behavior before we act – sometimes.

I happened to have been born into a fairly large family where peace and good will were not something we felt towards one another every day.  For a time in my formative years, they were rare commodities.   It is possible that those early years formed my cynical and skeptical nature – qualities that served me well as a journalist and in some difficult board meetings over the years.  But there is more than one side to every person, and I suspect that if we dig a little deeper each of us seeks some comfort and longs for peace.

Siblings that get along?  This is hard stuff.  It’s definitely hard in childhood and occasionally even harder in adulthood.  So now, when discussions turn to politics and religion (where I am very much the black sheep in my family) and start to become acrimonious, I walk away.  Not always, and maybe not often enough.  But it’s a start.  And once in a while after a gathering my husband actually congratulates me for keeping my mouth shut.  Peace on earth.

With difficult people and situations in the workplace, I try very hard to be tactful while still being honest.  This is sometimes challenging, and I will never be a “yes man,” but diplomacy is something I have worked hard to learn over many years.  Good will toward men.

This does not mean that I am giving up on my firmly held opinions.  It simply means that I have reconsidered the necessity of vocalizing them in just that way at just that time.  Maybe there is something more important than making my point to people who are never going to agree with me anyway.

Remember back in the ‘90’s when the in-vogue saying was “what would Jesus do?”  It’s worth reflecting on as we get ready to celebrate his birthday, and I am pretty certain there were many times he bit his tongue.  Maybe not until it turned blue, like mine sometimes does, but I don’t think he always needed to put a fine point on every argument.

This is a huge challenge for my hot-tempered self.  But you see, sometimes with age comes a little bit of wisdom.  And I have realized that peace deserves to be treasured, and we can still care deeply for one another even when we disagree.

That’s a gift worth giving.