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Christmas, COVID-19, Family

Christmas trees, pandemic, 2020

As the winter solstice approaches, with its short cold days and long nights, I feel a familiar swirl of feelings—sadness mixes with pleasure, contentment quickly turns into restlessness. These feelings are intensified by the approach of Christmas, a holiday that for most of my adult life I’ve greeted with nostalgia and a vague sense of loss. I wrote about this feeling of being homesick for Christmas in a blog post a few years ago. My sister’s death in December 2018 sharpened the edges of the sadness and pandemic-induced isolation has given the season a new twist of poignancy—it’s been tempting to simply ignore Christmas this year. 

In the end I decided to put up a tree, wanting to bring the green and light of warmer times into my home. The first step was twining the string of lights carefully around the tree, aiming for an evenness in spacing that I never quite achieved. “Beauty is in the imperfections,” I kept telling myself as I tugged a strand up here and down there but never closing the light gap on the left side of the tree. 

I sorted through the box of ornaments, taking the time to remember the stories that accompany them—these are a gift from a friend, these were on my dad’s tree when he was a child, here’s one my mom gave me when I first had my own decorated tree in an apartment far from home, a Norfolk Island pine whose slippery branches I loaded down with ornaments and small white lights. 

I lifted out brightly colored discs and balls; several cat figures; a delicate glass hummingbird; a crystal snowflake; a slightly tattered stuffed elephant that my sister had brought back from India; a small trombone, one of the vintage ornaments from my dad’s childhood tree. I hung the ornaments carefully, pausing often to step back and assess bare spots. 

Decorating a tree was a good thing to do in this strange year and yet I felt slightly let down. I wanted to feel more joy in the doing, to bask in the beauty of the lights glowing in a dark room, to feel the grace of light in a dark time, of continuity, of ties back through time. 

I wanted to feel the delight I’d felt as a teen when my sister and I would decorate the tree on Christmas eve, place the brightly wrapped presents, stuff the stockings. I remember how I’d sit in the darkened room with only the tree for light, everyone else asleep, and feel a wordless wonder. But of course that remembered joy and grace came as much from the shared experience of decorating the tree as it did from the tree itself–the laughter and teasing and loving connection, the anticipation of others’ delight. 

And so my pleasure in the solo tree decorating is muted, tinged with an awareness of loss, accompanied by ghosts of my young self, my sister, our family. I’ll keep the tree up until New Year’s day and I’ll sit for a few minutes late at night, with only the light of the tree, and maybe instead of waiting for—and missing—the remembered reverence, I’ll let the light wash over me, let it be what it is today. 

COVID-19, Home, Writing

Making space

I wrote an eloquent blog post in my head while I was clearing accumulated stuff off the dining table a few days ago. The blog post is gone along with all the detritus piled on the table. But maybe, by opening the computer, pulling up a blank document, and putting fingers to keys some of those thoughts will re-emerge. 

The piles had been there since spring. I’d periodically sift through looking for bills or other items that needed immediate attention; occasionally I’d make half-hearted attempts to organize and clear away. But I’d get distracted and abandon the task and the somewhat diminished piles would grow once again until my next brief attempt at pile purging. 

I’ve never been a neat and tidy person; my dining table has often sported teetering piles of paper, half unpacked grocery bags, a few stray articles of clothing. But at some point I’d invite friends in for a meal and the mess would disappear leaving an expanse of oak ready for placemats and cutlery, napkins, plates, bowls of steaming, fragrant stews or soups, cutting boards piled with bread, wine glasses glimmering, candles lit, maybe flowers in a vase, friendly faces, mingled voices. I don’t remember the last time I shared a meal at this table. Last February perhaps?

A major contributor to the mess was a big pile of fabric I’d used to make masks back in the early days of the pandemic. I’d spent hours researching patterns on the Internet, bookmarking YouTube videos of perky mask makers demonstrating their particular approach to cutting, stitching, pleating, fastening. I’d sacrificed an old bra and two unused half slips to the cause, snipping out their elastic to make ear loops. After several failed masks I produced two that I continue to wear. But with many vendors selling well-designed masks online I no longer need immediate access to all that fabric. 

My iron, a tote bag with sewing supplies, and the pile of fabric scraps are now cleared away—the iron is hanging next to the folded up ironing board, the fabric scraps are folded up in a bin under my bed, the sewing supplies stowed near the sewing machine in another room. All that’s left on the table is a small pile of papers to be filed or shredded.  

The empty table seems to be issuing an invitation but for what? An as yet to be discovered art project? A display of family photos and papers to stimulate my writing? A different sewing project? (I could use a new duvet cover.) Who knows when I’ll once again invite friends to gather around this table. 

This isn’t the post I drafted in my mind—I think I was playing around with a theme of “delights that ground me.” And I might write about that some day. For now, I’ll fold up the grocery bag that I plopped on the table yesterday and unfurl a brightly colored cloth. 

Crafts, Family, Home

The black ceramic dog

The window ledge above my kitchen sink is home to a collection of artifacts—a glass replica of a Hershey’s kiss given me by a roommate years ago, a miniature watercolor of an iris that I bought in an antique store near my sister’s house in England, a tiny blue vase I made in my wheel thrown pottery phase, and a black ceramic dog that I made in eighth grade art class. 

I have never been much of an artist ; I’ve abandoned attempts at learning to draw or use watercolors. I don’t remember much about that art class—I suspect it wasn’t one of my more successful academic experiences.

But there’s this dog with ears and a nose and legs curled up and a tail tucked in. Never mind the fact it looks like a black lab and I was trying to make a statue of our family’s tiny brown terrier. I made this thing that is pleasing to the eye and fits easily in my hand. The surface is smooth although I can feel lumps in the clay when I glide my finger along its body.

I don’t remember what I did with it after I brought it home from school. Did I keep it in my bedroom? Give it to my mom? Many years later I saw it on her writing desk where it sat between the blotter and the lamp. After she died I packed it into my suitcase and brought it back to Massachusetts with me. 

This doggie has lived on the ledge above the sink for all the years I’ve been in this house–a small lumpy thread back to childhood. I often don’t notice it—it’s just part of the array of small items that have migrated to that spot. But sometimes my eyes linger on it and I stroke its back. It reminds me to create what needs to be created, even if it ends up being a black lab rather than a terrier. 

COVID-19, Music

Singing together alone

I recently reconnected with a choral group I sang with years ago. We’re three weeks into a five week Zoom choral experience. I signed up for this out of curiosity and as a way to make connections during this viral time. But I was dubious. Much of the joy of choral singing, for me, is the interaction with the other singers, listening carefully to each other as we weave harmonies around the melody, our many voices becoming one. How could I be part of a chorus singing by myself in my little pixeled box?

And we do each sing alone in our houses, muted to avoid the cacophony of variable connection speeds, learning our parts and then singing along with a recording of the song. As with many pandemic adaptations, it’s strange and a bit sad this singing together alone. 

But there is pleasure in the singing, in opening my throat, hitting the pitch, holding strong to my part. And as I look at the other singers in their little boxes, mouths moving, bodies swaying, and sometimes their eyes look up from the music, into their cameras and then into others’ eyes, I can imagine our gathered individual voices blending, swelling, diverging, and merging, our virtual chorus, and it is good enough, for now. 

Here’s one of the songs we’re singing: We Shall Be Known

COVID-19, Home, Writing

Writing feels distant these days

I open the computer with the intention to write but my restless mind interferes and soon I’m out the door where I pace up and down the street or do laps around my yard. My body appreciates the exercise but writing stagnates. I wish I had the cat’s ability to focus. He can sit for long stretches of time staring intently into the shrubbery, not even a whisker twitching as he waits for a chipmunk or vole to emerge. 

Eventually, renewing my resolve to sit with the blank page until words emerge, I go back inside, settle into my comfortable chair, and open the computer. I poke at a piece of writing for a while but then slide over to look at email or social media.

This past week has been especially difficult as the election nears and threats, fear, and anger escalate. Writing about my daily life seems frivolous, and yet it’s what I know. I’m angry and weary–as are most people I know–but I don’t have anything to add to the conversation about current events except to note how overwhelming it can all be. 

I talked about this with some writing friends and felt reassured that writing about my day to day is just fine. It might even be an antidote to the gathering angst. So, throughout the week I’m going to post quick word snapshots, glimpses of moments from my day to day. 

For example, yesterday I was in the front yard looking for the cat who I’d just seen disappearing into the depths of one of my gardens when I noticed the next door neighbors were out in the street taking pictures of their two boys.

I wandered over to see what was up. The three-year-old was just learning to ride a two-wheeled bike. He had such glee on his face as he wobbled along finding his balance point for seconds at a time before needing to plop his feet on the ground. Not to be outdone, the five-year-old demonstrated his ability to ride with just one hand on the handlebars.

He was just about to try riding with no hands when my phone rang. I needed to take the call and the family wandered off down the street. But I was left with the younger child’s broad smile and his joy in the trying and then trying again.