Wednesday’s Word on Thursday/Nonfiction: Our Lives Put on Pause

Today during my daily walk through vivid green trees and other burgeoning plant life, under overarching sky that beamed with radiant blueness, my eyes brimmed suddenly. Such beauty and joy juxtaposed with a flash of longing and sadness. I was thinking of the almost one year old twins; I wasn’t able to write yesterday as I was with those glorious grandchildren. And it just hit me as I power walked: it was a good thing I was there enjoying their effervescence, their happy curiosity, the small new accomplishments, as now I will likely not see them– or our local daughters and son and their families– for some time. Of course, I suspected this might happen sooner than later-didn’t we all, in the back of our minds? The coronavirus has now been confirmed in 24 people in Oregon; half are in the county where A., my daughter and mother of those babies, works in city offices. Not even a couple of weeks ago it was “just” 11.

Portland is starting to shut things down and mandate restrictions on large group events, as is more and more of our country. The NBA? The NHL? Sports have likely never looked like this. More primary and secondary schools are closing for a period or going online. Our neighbor, Washington State and the city of Seattle, is hardest hit now and they are taking emergency measures. Many universities are going online (one daughter’s place of work, University of South Carolina, is for a time) and scores of other employees are starting to work from home if at all possible. As so many say that this all feels unreal but there it is, a conglomeration of facts adding up to more challenges than we have seen in a very long while and more to come.

What will our lives look like shortly? How do we cope with the risks and hurdles and not become fatalistic? It is a tall order these days.

A. and I chatted about things at length yesterday when she got home from work: should we now cease meeting up? She worries that she might become a carrier eventually, and even if never that ill, she then could pass it to me. She truly fears for my health and her father’s, of course. It is hardest on older adults, after all, even kills them it appears…not babies or kids or younger adults. She has been talking about this since the first cases here– while I’ve become increasingly hesitant as i decide where to shop or visit. And I conclude today, best to stay out of stores, finally shop online if needed. This is not my way of doing things. But caution and prudence and wash those hands, I have mainly thought and reminded my family: common sense practices help contain any viral spread. We are everywhere and always now inundated with this advice. Hopefully more and more adhere to it. How else to effectively fight against something so miniscule but powerful?

We are up against invisibility, when you think of it. And what a thought that is.

My husband, meanwhile, was travelling from the East Coast to Mexico to home and back the last three months. He finally asked Human Resources and his boss about curtailing work trips. And they have now, despite concerns economically, as with all businesses lately. I have even encouraged him to take off a couple weeks and relax, rest up–he certainly has that time coming and yet he has forever been and is a dedicated nonstop worker.

Meanwhile, I think of my older and only brother who has been on a photography trip to Cuba with a small group. He is used to all sorts of things happening internationally. But the fact that he has a cold now concerns me. Havana is now barring planes from the US to land. He is due back soon.

I can’t think of a time this kind of scenario has happened in my lifetime. No one my age and younger can, I imagine. Sure there have been influenza outbreaks with complications of terrible pneumonia for too many over the years–and bird flu, swine flu, anyone?–and we had SARS to worry about. I long have had to work with clients who had MRSA infections on (bandaged or not) skin and sitting not a foot away from me,and those with serious health issues of all sorts due to addiction, homelessness and poor if any health care. But this particular virus replicates so fast that avoidance and containment has to be much more immediate everywhere.

Well, I am over 65 and have heart disease. I don’t normally feel like a person at high risk; I am healthy, overall, and the cardiologists last looked in my arteries a year ago stated there was no current issue seen–as partners we’ve managed coronary artery disease very well. But I am on that watchful list, anyway, and it is sobering.

I have been terribly ill from a number of causes several times. I have been near death and did not expect to “come back” four times and lived to recall the tales. And I don’t have an insurmountable fear of dying, nor even of becoming very ill. Of course I can worry at 3 a.m., imagine what it would be like to get coronavirus, then play it out in my head…then I do fall asleep. What else to do but go on? Every one of us has worries about health, at times; this one is big. But I believe that whatever is ahead will do what it will and come and I will be able to meet that physical challenge– or I will not. It is that simple. I can do as much as I can to prepare to stay well, but the spectrum of possibility in human life creates and destroys as it does. And if I must leave this world, it will happen, I presume. Yet–I do not feel fatalistic. Only realistic.

No, what bothers me right now is that with more restrictions placed on our movements–for the good of all, yes–I may well not get to see my friends or family for…who knows how long? For their sakes or for mine and Marc’s, we have to determine choices clearly, pragmatically.

One of my dearest friends has been ill for decades with lupus, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and a patchy liver and many other things as a a result. Brenda has been recovering from pneumonia the past 8 weeks. She is still weakened. She works as a counselor in a prison. I fear for her well being; she is not cavalier about it. When we last checked in she talked about her will, and her desire to make sure her friends know how much she cares. I listened, swallowed hard. I know this virus could kill her but, like me, she has had brushes with death before and so takes it as it comes. There really isn’t any other choice. But I have loved her a long time and I am hoping against hope she will stay safe.

Another friend of decades, Eileen, has been meeting with me for lunch or dinner plus a a movie for years. Or a tool around books stores or garden walks. I so enjoy her ready laughter and sunny spirit, her intelligence and her wit. We have a particular sort of great time together; the lack of it will be sorely missed as we wait this out. But she is to retire and move to Arizona in August. Perhaps sooner now.

It felt good when Marc and I held a family dinner three weeks ago. Even then I was thinking–when will we easily manage this again between time scheduled for other things, work, and this virus concern? Their youngest sister and her family didn’t come, though; now it will be more time apart. But it was good see them convened at the table, to update on work, activities and experiences, future plans as we shared a hearty meal–as ever it is. But I also thought of ones not here–the daughters in Virginia and South Carolina. I wished for a fuller table, a raucous house, but was deeply grateful our grown children enjoy our company, as we do theirs. I looked at them and thought: this is my clan and how lucky.

And now, the pause on meeting, sharing, hugging at will. No longer can I comfortably and spontaneously call my son, say–“Hey, I’m in the neighborhood, what’re you doing for dinner?” A pause… on visiting my only sister (in early stages of dementia) as I have done every 10-14 days, as her retirement community is barring visitors for at least a month. A pause… on getting together with my old work friend, Jim, with whom I enjoyed lunch and laughs only awhile ago.

And another kind of companion: I for the first time am loathe to keep visiting the library, and find that more sad than most changes. All those beautiful, mind-expanding books…and all those germs. Let’s face it: Whatever we touch can seem too much these days. Thank goodness I have many books waiting to be cracked open in my very home. And I am already reading them more.

It will be difficult to not see folks…to not be with grand-babies (who live ten minutes away) I am used to being with three times a week for almost a year –and what of their one year birthday in April now? This separation from family can make me ache from soul to brain and it is just beginning. It is as if we are being asked to put not only activities on hold but the chances of deep loving and living. We humans need to give and accept actual hugs, to study the face of a loved one, to be near enough to hear a soft sputter of delight or exasperation under the breath. Not send heart and flower emojis, those odd, cutesy emblems of emotion that say so little even when they do mean to say so much. Even virtual/video meet-ups don’t come close to meeting face-to-face, not really. Awkward and limiting, I always wonder what all to say. But I guess I can learn how to do it better, with more heart.

So we get ready for “the long pause” as we–individuals that are whole communities, countries–rally to respond to this serious health crisis that reaches its tentacles farther every day. To preserve more and more lives, it is a no-brainer, and social distancing as they call it, begins in earnest. We need to stay friendly, supportive in any small ways we can. So we remember we are in this together; we can pool resources and maintain a problem solving viewpoint with positive attitude to get through it, somehow.

Love, like water, must find its way, its outlet, its home; it wants to find those beloved. Humans are unavoidably interconnected at heart, that is clear. I hope the best for us all, and do pray we reach out to one another in the manner in which we each can. We can’t let fear run us over and hold us down, make us less willing to care. Better to appreciate singular moments, anticipate and plan for healthier, less strained days and nights. To do what we can with our time, talents and our will for good. Call each other on the phone for a change. Send cards and letters. Video chat and send pictures. Let neighbors know we are around, even at an arm’s length if necessary.

Blogging, of course, is a terrific way to be present despite worries, a safe place we can share our creations and ruminations. I will be right here among you all–that is still my plan!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Finding and Being Heroines and Heroes

Photo by julie aagaard from Pexels

I am almost unable to put down a nonfiction book that I had read about a few weeks ago. It’s a memoir of a woman who at the lissome age of 21 was recruited by the CIA. It is not ordinarily a book I’d be that eager to read–the CIA isn’t such a compelling topic to me (I wonder about its efficacy, actually), though I appreciate good stories (factual and otherwise) of high adventure or tales related to dangerous circumstances and, of course, accounts of bravery. But I was intrigued enough that I went in search of it.

Women (and men) who leap way past usual comfort zones to accomplish their goals are of interest to me–aren’t they to anyone? I wanted to know who she was and why she did what she did, i.e., what makes her tick. I asked the librarian since I hadn’t found it on the shelves or in “New Arrivals.” He looked it up in the system, murmuring, “Is the the real name of the author? Never heard of her–or this.” I had to admit her name was unusual. And if it was such a good book, how come the well-versed librarian in a savvy city didn’t know of it? Maybe it appealed to an obscure readership. I do like to discover off-the-beaten-path writers.

I plunged right in, as her writing grabs me as she gets right to it, her stark content underlain with deeper emotional nuance. Life Under Cover, Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox reveals some of her career in that agency. Quickly I’ve gotten halfway into the thick of it. I use “thick” specifically because it plumbs the depths of her astute thinking and hard choices, how it outlines rigors of her training then steps into fine surprises overlapping with the horrors of her work. She finds the training and assignments fulfilling as well as toughening. Ms. Fox is impassioned about saving human lives and helping make the world we must yet inhabit a safer place to coexist. She urgently wants to understand others, find a common humanity whenever possible even as her sole mission was to gather information to thwart terrorist plans of attack. She seems relentless about goals and mandates from the onset, and engages her considerable intellect at an early age. And I love how she is driven to find and fit together as many pieces as she can to make the picture whole, her mind a wide ranging sieve that keeps only the necessary bits. And then she embarks on more search and find. The number of data she analyzes, then utilizes, is mammoth. And she is tireless.

Did this labor shape her into an altruistic heroine? Or was it work that fulfilled a need of more selfish or ordinary dimensions? When did she know she wanted to do such work? I read on. It is a powerful narrative. Ms. Fox is brilliant but caring, someone who met grave obstacles with fortitude and persistence. That in itself impresses me. The governmental agency named CIA I’m not as clear about but am open to information and insight. I am anxious to see what transpires and how it all winds down to an end–as she is no longer in the CIA. As far as I know…this is what her bio notes.

It has gotten me thinking beyond the book. About why I am engaged by her story, what it means to general humanity that there are people who undertake these risky and difficult challenges. What does it mean that Ms. Fox offers herself to such a powerful agency when she might have helped refugees in Thailand? She changed her mind when she was interviewed by the CIA a second time.

We each might come up with our list of heroines and for different reasons, from the familiar to the famous, and who they are might inform others what matters to us. They inspire us first of all. They lead the way more often than not.

For myself only a few women, alone, would include Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Theresa, Elizabeth Blackwell. There are many men and just altogether too many others to note here and now. And I would also have to name those in the arts who are movers and shakers or were once. (Twyla Tharp and Isadora Duncan, anyone? Leontyne Price, Pete Seeger; Barry Lopez, Joy Harjo; Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier.) The list goes on and on…and that is not mentioning the more obscure of the creators and doers.

But beyond famous people, who can we say deserves to be designated as hero or heroine–someone willing to sacrifice much, to go to extraordinary lengths for the betterment of life, of others– whether it is family or community or the masses around the world? What is the call to serve about? How can we answer it, if and when it comes? Some felt–and many presently do feel– they were or are simply doing their duty–to family, to country, to any greater cause they devote themselves to daily. They’re not even interested in being honored or pegged as “exceptional.” That sort of humility comes from trying and doing despite failing that eventually brings wisdom, I’d think.

“The greatest man or woman is a humble person,” my father intoned when praised for his own musical and educational work. And to many he was worth lauding not only the work but his genuine kindness, added to a dedication of his life to providing youth with musical opportunities that they took far into their lives thereafter. They have shared their thanks to him, even decades later. I grew up with this knowledge and watched my parents give themselves to the community–from teaching to volunteer work to donations to various causes, to their church, neighbors and family. In a sense–as it is for every child and in this case, because my parents were held in deep respect–they were a hero and heroine to me if in a mild mannered way. They had come from poorer upbringings yet made much of their lives. They had such interest in learning and people. So it was natural to think of helping others, of just being of good use. But how?

What I loved was the performing and fine arts–and nature and figure skating. I felt a passion of wanting to make the world a better place, too. I wrote of it, thought of it, read about it from an early age. I watched people engage in their chosen paths with sharp minds and burning hearts, both at home and in the world via television. I listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and their songs triggered a deeper longing to be part of something that added to positive changes. I did not dream of being anyone’s bona fide heroine. To contribute to the greater good in some meaningful manner was a current that ran through me, even the worst of times.

I grew up in the sixties. We were nothing if not mobilized by a momentous desire for change that benefited human beings more inclusively. “Power to the People” was a common (if not so original) slogan and chant and although it has been criticized by some over time, to me it meant that power should be shared, that everyone was born with a basic right to dignity that included shelter, food, equal opportunity, education, justice. I debated, marched, wrote and sang of it.

I have gotten lazy over time. My fire for social justice began to cool as I became entrenched in my private struggles mentally, physically, spiritually. When I had children, I thought teaching them to be compassionate, fair, open minded–to ask “Why” and to critically think things through rather than be blindly led would help them, so I set about doing that even as I worked on my own issues. And they grew up as thinking, feeling people as hoped.

But I was never again involved in a political movement. I was certainly not even dreaming distance from embarking on an international and dangerous mission. I knew people who knew people who knew others…well, that was back then. Time passed. I was in my thirties. Then I stumbled into a career in human services, but instantly latched on to the work. First, working with home-bound elderly or others who suffered from brain injuries or were otherwise disabled; then addicted, usually homeless, mostly already having been incarcerated and/or gang-affiliated male and female youths; then mentally and socially high-risk adults. It suited me, despite not ever considering doing counseling for work (did handwriting analysis count…?).My mission was to create art of some sort, reaching out that way. Writing by then had overtaken all other modalities. So now this different direction pulled me. And it turned out that it required creative brainstorming and action of many sorts.

To be truthful, I can’t say there wasn’t danger involved working with those for whom violence was second nature and the primary defense for survival; who had known little in life but mistreatment; and who had spotty guidance if at all in better ways to be. Every day held a possibility that I might be attacked–it wasn’t a secure jail but a dual diagnosis rehab. Eventually I was a couple of times and police arrived to haul a kid off, to my unhappiness– and there came, still, threats.

Even the quite elderly who suffered from many problems…one never knew what I’d be in for when a door opened during my home visits– a naked ninety year old man standing and grinning in the doorway or a demented woman with hammers in her hands. Completely at odds with what clients called a “Miss Junior League” persona, I had developed a reputation for being unshaken by most anything but not, either, too hard. I sure didn’t know how I did it; I just went by my gut and I wanted to be there, do the work, give an ear to their complaints, be a voice for their needs.

But I sure was not anywhere near becoming a Ms. Fox, a woman who risked life and limb to protect a nation’s security every day–and millions more people beyond. I wasn’t interacting with arms dealers in a dark cafe or weaving in and out of narrowest alleyways to elude someone or protect myself. It was all pretty tame and after about 30 years, it seemed like far too little was accomplished. How many clients–people I had come to know quite well–had relapsed or even died despite how I had tried to help them, to insure they might stay alive? And I don’t mean the frail elderly who were closer each day to their timely end. Far too many over the decades. One feels like too many. One alone sears the heart.

Since all that–I retired several years ago–I know I’ve become more nonchalant. Selfish. I will be in my seventh decade and I could have been volunteering, getting out there to aid a child in reading or writing, or filling food boxes (though I did both years ago). I might be helping via church channels but haven’t found one here with whom I want to share my efforts. I could be engaged in politics–this is the year to do it, of all years–or I could work on a drug hotline or just shelve books, for crying out loud. I look for inspiration, pray for opportunities: what next can I do? I am a long way from being unable to be of good use in this world, even if not anywhere near becoming decent heroine material.

Instead, I do other things, like at last reading a heck of a lot. Learning about CIA undercover agents. Lessons of insects and seasons. My own endurance as life gets harder in some ways when I hoped to experience more ease of joy, peace of mind.

And I write, write, write. That is what I stick with all I’m much good for , it seems. It has been my calling since I was a child, too, and has not quieted within me. But am I yearning to be published more? Not really, not enough to get to it more. Am I coveting a book jacket with my name as the author on it? No, it no longer occurs to me that it is critical. My need is to simply be a writer, and to write what I understand as my truth, then offer it to whoever may read it. That is: persevere against all odds; love despite knowing love can often wound; seek answers even when it appears there are few to none; seek God in the mysteries of nature and humans for God inhabits all. It takes a little courage to share what I do though not all that much, not the sort I admire heartily. But I suppose it has become my kind of activism, nonetheless, just this in my now-quiet way.

It seems to me that we each do what we can do, and that if we find ourselves moved to be helpful in a minor way even that can be enough. It all gathers force and has meaning as intent plus action combines to strengthen–and moves change forward another small step. Our lives can be propelled by energy of life focused on doing good, just as they can be propelled by doing less than what is good. Or becoming inert, opting out of life’s rollicking, vivid stream, becoming aimless.

We have to be our own heroines, at times. We can also remain on the lookout for chances to not walk away, to not avert our eyes, to not say “no, not at the risk of throwing off my well-preserved image” or “no, I don’t have extra time” or “no, that is not for me to do.” Why not? If others are risking their lives for us, why can we not risk our time, alter priorities and do better?

Some people are meant for fancier or bigger or unusual things. I don’t think I could ever have become an Amaryllis Fox “wanna be.” She has had more fire, more boldness of body and mind, and her very special talents have been put to use in such specific ways. According to her book jacket blurb, she now offers analysis for global news outlets and speaks on peacemaking–so she has met changes with more invention. Peacemaking! I would like to hear her speak of this, for how we need peace to be made. I would like to thank her for being a perhaps unsung heroine of a certain unique order, and for writing a book that informs and, beyond this, moves me to care even more for the welfare of others. I, for another, would appreciate if we can agree to be more brave and empathetic in the face of uncertainties and strife. What else will help us find and share answers most needed? That is the sort of everyday heroics I would like to more often count on seeing and doing.

“Monday’s Meander” Note on Tuesday: North Carolina Week

Flying over Newark, New Jersey last night

Well, getting up at 3:30 to catch a 6:00 plane (boarding at 5:25) is for the birds. Since readers and others know I am neither a jolly or well-seasoned air traveler, this was a challenge I was intent on meeting but with a bleary-eyed whine. I kept my moans on low the rest of the day; why annoy my traveling partner (Marc) further? He’s a good guy and he has to go to work all week. It is not an actual vacation for us, and for me it is a little getaway for a few days. I’ll take it!

We got to the hotel around 9 pm. I was awake until 3 am, sadly well into morning. It took that long to sink into a level of semi-drowsiness, then heavy sleep after a long day flying from Oregon to East Coast. This, however, followed my research of free phone apps to find one that promoted nature’s (doctored) soothing sounds so I might settle down to rest. Ended up with rain falling on a lake (I think)–more pleasing than a fan’s loud whirring, a metal wheels-on-track train ride or night’s city shenanigans, or even frogs croaking that was more froggy gossip fest with burps interjected. Well, it takes what it takes for us all. At that time in the dark (although only midnight in Pacific Time…) after a numbing day, nothing quite seemed as it should. I also was battling the usual allergic response to recirculated airplane air. Sneeze, blow nose, sneeze, cough, repeat. Apologized to the stranger on my left, assured him I was not sick in a conventional sense. But today I am less allergically waylaid and rested a bit; all feels much better.

This is a view from one of the hotel windows.

It was a lark, really, to accompany Marc on a business trip to an area where there isn’t anything for me to do within walking distance. I am not renting my own car, not driving him to and from work 45 minutes each day. We always stay a distance from his place of work as the manufacturing town is very small–he prefers to keep distance when day is done. And I preferred a hotel with an indoor pool and exercise room as it is surprisingly colder here than in Portland– despite North Carolina being the mid-South. Marc said there could even be snow later. Egads, I am not quite prepared for that scenario.

I occasionally travel with him as sometimes I like a little break from usual routines, enjoy refreshment of life here and there. (I might prefer Mexico, another of his business destinations but lately various political and other events have not encouraged risk taking…)

I began my respite after breakfast with a short walk to get a better look at the colorful trees noted from my high window. Nice start to wake up my mind and senses. It was freezing wind and with no hat packed, it was wide-eyed I went into the world. But here is a bit of what I found:

A twenty minutes walk did me good. On return, a lingering spell by the lobby fireplace, a look at the fine pool I will dive into before long and then the quietness of a pleasant if anonymous room… I admit this has restorative potential, wandering, writing at a cleaned off desk, gazing through a window at the November blue sky and last of autumnal trees. And the simple anticipation of strong side strokes for a few laps is a boost as later my energy flags some again. Must rest better tonight!

Tomorrow is my usual fiction post day; I will try to stay on schedule. At end of week we will be visiting daughter Naomi, a sculptor primarily. Her 5 foot tall art installation “Boundings” as well as a photograph entitled “Personal Space Capsule” are exhibited in South Carolina’s Biennial Part II, in Columbia. A pretty two hour drive certainly worth taking!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: To Herald the Coming Holidays–or Not?

I know, I know–it is not even mid-November and I dare to display this wreath! But we are bombarded with seasonal themes and items in stores and ads everywhere; I am made to think on the holidays despite my distaste of the early advancing of the madness. I write in a general protest. I am having second and third thoughts aplenty.

If I was an artist of considerable ability (not just a lazy wanna be who sketches and dabs paint now and again) I would create a spare but lovely watercolor and ink picture of a cozy, snow-laced cabin in the woods. White tapers would burn softly in two front windows, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney; a deer and fox would be peeking out from beneath frosty green boughs. A cardinal would fly by. I’d be standing in the open front door with Marc, arms opened.

Then I’d turn that bit of imagining into a card and send it off to family and friends some weeks ahead, with this message inside:

Skipping the holidays’ material madness at last, but come on by for a good hug–and a mug of something tasty–if desired.

That’s how I’m feeling about Christmas. I have given it my thoughtful attention. This may be the year some variation of that idea comes to be, rather than remain considered.

Thanksgiving is another matter, made for cooking and eating and convivial conversations around the table. Well, Marc cooks these days; I’ll toss a salad and prep veggies, make the drinks and pretty up our old oak table-and am happy to clean up. But even my long-standing love of baking has cooled. It seems to have slipped out the door with our five children, although I baked with and for grandkids here and there; even they have flown the coop. (Must wait for the six month old twins to grow up a bit and we’ll fling flour about and indulge in likely forbidden sugary delights.)

We will likely have Thanksgiving at our place until the adult children indicate they have lost interest or can’t manage it with their hectic lives and own broods. We’d be alright with someone else cooking up a feast, setting the table and cleaning up one of these years, too. Yet we enjoy the family gathering–with an occasional friend–tremendously. And this year my oldest daughter, Naomi (an art prof) is flying in from South Carolina to lecture at Portland State University and will stay on for Thanksgiving. This is a luxury visit; we are quite looking forward to it. (One thing I do love to do is talk with family– and others, the more the merrier.)

Still, then arrives Christmas. What is it that has me with knuckles to teeth as we try to determine the best way to celebrate?

That nostalgic scene I have the urge to create–cabin in snow, deer and fox, a cheery cardinal; candlelight and inviting fireplace and woods about–all enticing one indoors to see what else awaits–is just that: nostalgia. I don’t own a cabin or cottage and never experienced a Christmas in either but it sure sounds good, evokes the peace and pleasures that deeply appeal. (There are people who live out this fantasy. I have a niece whose family convenes in her Colorado mountain lodge. The photos posted are wonderful.) I did grow up in Michigan. There was often a glittering white blanket silencing the outside noise as we crowded about a festive tree. We sang around the baby grand, familiar hymns and carols; our family made a natural chorus and music was a huge part of Christmas. So maybe all that set precedents which are not now met as once before.

In any case, I have not been a child in my parents’ home for 50 years; they are gone. Christmases have long been my own–with the tradition of many gifts, good food and large gatherings. When you have a bunch of children and then they have children, it gets bigger each year. And I do like to “do” for others, to decorate, to find special gifts for the 14 (more including friends) I shop for, and most of all share this time with them, all in one spot. Or mostly. Not the entire five adult children, generally, as two live out of state and one is a chaplain with an overload of duties that time of year.

I used to host big gatherings for extended family. I loved preparations and the spread on the dressed up table and the congenial intersection of lives, the laughter. The love. But my older sister, brother-in-law; a brother and a nephew have died; my niece is not as available; my other sister and partner live in a retirement community and are not that well. All this changes the way family interacts more than I anticipated. It is a little sad, but it is the way of things and I have adapted year by year, loss by loss.

In any case, I’ve been thinking this over for many years: what would it be like to not have a fluffy freshly cut tree in the living room; to not have underneath it the usual heaping pile of presents, to not have everyone over at once for gift opening and brunch on Christmas Day? This has especially weighed on me since our daughter with the new twins confided that she almost dreads the coming holidays as there are now more family wishes to fulfill. (Her husband’s family lives in WA. state so they must travel back and forth. Though it may take only 45-60 minutes to get to WA., it is a challenge, no doubt.) And since we moved in March things are less easy for everyone to get together. Who would have thought moving from a northeastern part of the city to a southwest area would make a big difference? In part it is congested roads that complicate meet ups. Before, everyone was more or less central to one another, a short drive or even walk away.

There is also the fact that our current apartment is smaller, not so much square footage but in its spacial configuration–the old place accommodated a large family well. But one has to make decisions based on what works best for current needs and this place made sense–Christmas, etc. gatherings notwithstanding. So here we are. I can still put in two table leaves to seat 12 if needed; it just gets crowded here.

There is a spiritual component to my musings. I have long seen this holiday not so much as a genuine celebration of Christ’s Birth than a time of gentle merriment, of family, of meal sharing and gift giving more in the spirit of ole St. Nick. We would go to church, yes, but the fact is, it is really a re-imagining of a long enacted pagan holiday, also known as Yule. Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year is on 12/21 this time– which is lovely no doubt but it is not my religion. Many of the same traditions were entwined with Christmas. Yet Jesus was most likely born in the spring. In 350 AD Pope Julius I decreed that 12/25 would also be designated Jesus’ nativity celebration.

The reigning materialistic aspect has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming into the world with his revolutionary message of love, mercy, faith and forgiveness. The bottom line is, engaging in Christmas is more a secular event than a religious one even if I go to services on Christmas Eve. My faith is deeply rooted and less dependent on a ritualistic, institutional structure. So this holiday has been a broad conundrum at times: faith and tradition versus materialism and those ancient beliefs to which I do not subscribe, despite s tendency to incorporate more spiritual experiences than is typical of a traditional Christian.

I do suspect I’m not the only believer who ponders all this and yet each year follows the usual path–buy gifts, fancy up a tree, hang a fragrant wreath on the door. Even among those not of my faith yet enjoy the celebratory nature of it can discover a community bonding, sharing of conviviality, and an inclusive hopefulness. I enjoy this, too; it is heartening that many can find any common threads with which to connect us even for a short time.

And yet.

Each year in the midst of hectic tasks, or as we clean up the detritus from the surrounds, my husband states with wry laugh, “Next year Hawaii!” But we choose to stay, to put Hawaii–or any adventure in December–on the back burner. Because we love our family. We love any caring intentions of this season and even pretty trimmings. The money spent–not so much. That many gifts gets very pricey. Many donation requests get filled. And I often wonder why this needs to be done when we do give gifts on special occasions and share our money all year. Also, by the time kids become preteens these days it gets very hard to shop for them. And the twins are far too young to care one bit about any of it, thankfully. Is it the lifelong habit that keeps us tied to this kind of Christmas?

Since it is getting tougher to corral everyone for a few hours, this can be a frustrating time. There are some who do not have families all in one home so must travel to have their kids part of the holidays; some who have to work up to the last minute or beyond; those who have vacation plans or partners with other ideas; and those who are feeling stressed financially.

So when all is considered, what precisely is the point? Yes, yes: demonstrating more attention and care toward family. Yet that is always available, often in more meaningful ways. Fun celebrations? I get that; it would be missed. But a growing array of gifts? How much stuff do we need? I personally need nothing more. I don’t want to tax my children’s cash limits. Marc and I don’t even care to exchange gifts, anymore.

My brother reportedly gives his grandkids gift cards and skips his children. I see the wisdom in that even if it seems less…jolly and fuzzy. He and his wife sing in a couple of choirs at Christmas church services; otherwise they travel as they do most of the year. It isn’t cash reserves but other priorities that have altered. And that works for them. I find it more refreshing than not.

This year Marc and I will decide, finally, what works even better for us. What seems reasonable yet more fulfilling. The family comes first so much of the time. Christmas is one of these. But we also matter as an older, long-wed couple. It sounds good to have less busy-ness and more relaxation as Marc takes off his holiday time from a pressurized job. I suspect we would rent a huge alpine lodge, then ask family to join us if we could; perhaps another year we will. In the meantime, we want to make sure that Christmas has meaning and magic that stays true to what we both need in our lives, not just the larger family’s. Who knows? Maybe our adult kids will let slip a sigh of relief.

Mostly-grown grandkids would enjoy a good gift card–with a special gift wrapped up pretty under the tree (I still have to have a real tree). But we sure don’t need to deluge them with things. I know for sure those baby twin girls will enjoy the lights and, of course, music. They already are held in thrall to it. Alera, particularly: upon hearing a classical choral piece, she stopped moving, slowly held her hands palms up in the air. She barely stirred the entire time, she was so entranced, her face an expression of wonder, large blue-grey eyes staring into space, head turned toward speakers. I have a photo of her that moment, and would happily share it if not for lack of approval from parents regarding baby photos on social/other media. But I do I study it, mulling over her expression, as if she is hearing angels so struck is she by the music. She loves all classical and much jazz–her sister, Morgan, enjoys it but is currently less entranced.

And music is a true and abiding joy to experience years to come. These are moments that matter, do they not? How can we forget and get caught up in holiday frenzy? Trying to make everyone happy–at least, what we believe makes them happy– we often find that happiness is not even in the places we think it was.

In my home, we will certainly share good meals, share well wishes and blessings, cheery and sacred songs. (My husband has been playing his acoustic guitar for the first time in a long while…) And how else can we demonstrate a steady, active gratitude for life and love for one another, as well as a devotion to a faith? The ways are endless– the coming holidays or any time at all. And American culture and the wide world needs much more of this, far less of the other.

Monday’s Meander/Photos: Saturday Morning Flamenco

At our local farmers market we are treated to weekly entertainment. I was glad to see and hear Espacio Flamenco, a local flamenco group, perform. I love that it celebrates being human and all the varied emotions and experiences that we embrace or endure. Once I was a dancing gal, so I took lessons two years ago. I then promptly injured my foot during a hike and had to quit midway. It took the rest of the summer to heal; since feet take a beating in this type of dance, I left it at that. Perhaps one day I will try again. An admirable aspect of flamenco is that women or all ages, shapes and sizes can learn and perform this spirited, dramatic music and dance. So, there is yet still time for me to get out there and dance! At some audience members joined in the fun.