28 December 2011

Year-End Reflections

Dear readers, I have not vanished from the face of the earth.  Christmas is a busy time in my home.  Every other year, I host the family gathering at my house, and it is a joyful mess.  This year, for the first time since approximately 1992, there were no small children present.  (My brother's children are still small, but this was their year to spend Christmas with their maternal relatives.  I missed them all - the kids, but also my brother and his wife, whom I regard as my third sister.)  My husband made a crown roast, and I made meringues with chocolate kisses hidden inside.  My older sister got a pair of homemade socks from me, and my younger sister got a small pair of pearl earrings.  (I have always thought she looked great in pearls.  I'm happy to do my part to encourage her.)

And now I find myself in exactly the same spot I was in when I started this blog a year ago:  my friends' little ski home in New London, New Hampshire.  There is very little snow on the ground, so I don't think we are going to get much skiing done.  Nevertheless, it is restful here.  It's after 9 in the morning, and my children are still asleep.  Sam has made me a cup of tea, and we are trying to decide what to do with the empty days that lie ahead.  The Ben & Jerry's factory tour?  The Montshire Museum?  A short drive to Dartmouth College?  (Always a favorite.  My husband and I are both alums.)  Sam thinks we should drive down to Boston for some clam chowder - it's only an hour and a half from here.  There are few things I wouldn't do for a mug of clam chowder.

But in the meantime, I am happy to sit on the couch in front of the fire and knit and reflect.  I have been blogging for a year now, and I have learned much about the process of writing and publishing.  I have baffled and annoyed certain family members with my candor, and I have entertained myself and some of my friends with my funnier pieces.  I am disappointed only that I don't have a big following.  After a full year, I only have sixty or so regular readers.  There are blogs out there with thousands of followers.  How do I get myself into their ranks?

The most important thing I have learned is that, with a little discipline, it is possible for me to write on a regular basis.  One of my goals for 2012 is going to be to produce a publishable manuscript.  I'll keep blogging, of course, because it's fun, and I enjoy its interactive nature and the near-instant gratification.  But I am going to try to focus on bringing a big project to the table this year.  It's been a lifetime goal, and here, halfway through my life, it's about time that I did something to make it happen.  I will keep you posted as to my progress.

I attended a blogger networking holiday party a couple of weeks ago, and everyone I met there asked me what my blog was "about."  I had come prepared with business cards and little Still Life refrigerator magnets to hand out, but I didn't have a good answer to their question.  Some people blog about environmental issues, or food, or travel, or current events.  I've covered a little of everything this past year.  The only answer I could give the other bloggers was that my blog was about "everything."  That's not a good marketing strategy, I know.  But it's my voice and my writing, and what I know how to do.

Thank you for staying with me this year.  I look forward to another year of everything.

Jennie

P.S.  I have lots of refrigerator magnets left over.  If you want one, e-mail me a mailing address.  I'll send them out for as long as my supplies last!

19 December 2011

My Son the Elf

When you outgrow the Santa myth, you graduate from being a receiver to being a giver.  You become eligible to participate in the magic.  You have the opportunity to enthrall younger children, to help your parents with the holiday preparations, and to become Santa-like yourself.

16 December 2011

In Defense of Santa

Parenting seems to be subject to all sorts of trends that come and go.  People can get pretty worked up about the things they do and don't do in the course of raising their children.  I know plenty of people whose lists of "don'ts" run pages and pages long.  Without passing judgment on any of them, here are a few examples of things I hear frequently:

We don't do refined sugar.

We don't do vaccinations.

We don't do toy guns.

We don't do baby formula.

We don't do traditional medicine.

We don't do religion.

In my experience, all of these attitudes are pretty common, but there's a big one I hadn't heard in a long time, until I heard it again today: "We don't do Santa."

I feel a need to defend the guy - and the practice of believing in him.

The arguments in favor of eschewing the big fat mythological gift-giver are many.  Parents say they don't want to lie to their children, or to teach them that lying is okay.  They don't want to give their children the impression that Christmas is all about gifts.  They don't want to build them up just to disappoint them. They don't want to use a fictional character to manipulate their children into behaving better.  And - this is one of my favorites - they don't want their children to think that God is like Santa: a mythological character who doles out rewards to them based on their behavior.  Allow me to address these arguments in turn.

Lying.  Somewhere along the way, someone started a story that all lying is bad.  I'd like to make an argument that that is simply not the case.  There are lies that are hurtful and wrong, because they cover up bad behavior or hurt other people in some way ("I didn't steal the car" / "I didn't kill him" / "Susie made that mess, not me").  But some lies are kind and caring, because they spare the listener from a more painful truth ("Yes, your new haircut looks beautiful" / "I'm so sorry - I'd love to come but I have other plans that day" / "No, your house isn't messy - you should see mine").  Don't try to convince me that it's morally better to tell your friend that her haircut is hideous or that her house is a disaster zone.

And so it is with Santa.  Santa, like many religious and quasi-religious stories we tell our children, is a good lie.  He lends an air of magic and gratuitous generosity to a season that, according to popular culture, is all about buying and spending.  He is a saint - a person who, according to Christian teaching, is to be emulated for his good behavior.  The more preposterous parts of the story, like the flying reindeer and the toy-making elves, are simply fun details.  Do you let your kids watch Barney or Veggie Tales?  Do you feel bad for lying to them about the existence of giant purple dinosaurs and talking artichokes?  Of course not.  Neither do I feel bad for encouraging my children to believe that a loving soul has bestowed gifts on them for no apparent reason.

I believed in Santa, and so did my sisters and brother, and we did not grow up to become pathological liars.  Nor do we distrust our parents or think of them as dishonest people.  (On the contrary, actually.)  The only lie the Santa myth encouraged me to indulge in:  I pretended to believe in Santa for a long time after I knew the truth, because I was afraid of hurting my parents' feelings.  Lying to preserve someone else's feelings. That's a virtue my parents taught me through the Santa myth.  My children were also Santa believers, and they've grown into perfectly normal human beings, no more prone to lying than their non-believing friends.

It's All About the Gifts.  In a way, Christmas really is all about gifts.  It's about the gift of redemption, of new life, of hope, and of peace.  Our exchange of gifts is symbolic of sharing what we have been given.  If you are not teaching your children that Christmas is a time to give and receive, freely, without worry or grudges, and from your heart, then what exactly are you teaching them?  And why are you celebrating this holiday in the first place?  Santa is a symbolic way to teach children about generosity and kindness - lessons not taught often enough in our modern world.

Disappointment.  God willing, your children will live long lives, and doing so will, by definition, acquaint them with the feeling of disappointment.  Life doesn't always give you what you want, or what you fantasize about.  It doles out disappointment in generous portions.  However, life does give you repeated opportunities to be kind and generous to others.  When you outgrow the Santa myth, you graduate from being a receiver to being a giver.  You become eligible to participate in the magic.  You have the opportunity to enthrall younger children, to help your parents with the holiday preparations, and to become Santa-like yourself.

Using Fiction to Manipulate Behavior.  We use fiction all the time to manipulate our children's behavior, but it is apparently objectionable only when it comes in the form of a guy in a red winter suit.  Our mythology, religious and secular, is loaded with tales of good people who are rewarded and bad people who are punished.  The virtuous Cinderella marries the handsome prince and lives happily ever after, while her mean stepsisters get their toes cut off.  Saint Peter gets the keys to heaven, but Judas meets a nasty end.  It's a common device, and it's so pervasive that it seems ridiculous to single out Santa (or the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy), among the more harmless good-behavior motivators, for elimination from the pantheon.

God is Like Santa.  Well, of course God is like Santa.  That's the point.  He gives us mountains of gifts that we don't deserve.  He has unlimited stores of love, which are multiplied and spread by the hard work of His faithful helpers.  When we reach the age of reason, we are expected to pitch in and do our part, and perpetuate generosity and kindness in His name.  We do His work for Him.  I'm not going to get all religious on you here, because I never intended this to be a religious blog, but please remember that Santa is a saint.  The whole point of saints is that they are like God.  Their stories are to be told, and retold, from generation to generation, to teach young people about the nature of love and good behavior.  Santa is a great example of a saint whose story is tailored to a specific holiday and whose attributes are both attractive to children and easy for them to understand.

I'm not a fan of baby formula or of toy guns, but I'm a huge fan of Santa.  I believe in him and what he stands for.  When I shop and wrap and hide gifts, and make them magically appear on Christmas morning, I truly believe that I am teaching my children well.  Childhood is brief; the responsibilities and stresses of adulthood follow quickly on its heels.  Let's slow down a little, take ourselves a little less seriously, and encourage our children to believe in a little magic.  The ability to believe might come in handy for them someday.

15 December 2011

Running

I have been running.

I know those of you who know me well are probably in shock at hearing this.  But I have wanted to become a runner for a long time.  I first got the bug when we swapped houses some years back with a wonderful English family, and they participated in a New York City half-marathon while they were here.  I was impressed, and I corresponded with them about it.  They recommended to me the book that had gotten them started:  Running Made Easy by Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson.  I read the book and was hooked.  I did the book's little ten-week get-started plan . . . several times.

Then one of my daughters dabbled in track at school, so I tried to run with her, to see if I could keep up.  I couldn't.

Now, she's sixteen and I'm forty-five, and I have all kinds of other excuses that I could detail here, but I won't.  I had some legitimate physical issues this past year that seemed like really good reasons not to exercise, so I let it lapse.

But the bug never left me, and lately, I have been getting back into it.

I said to myself, "It doesn't matter how far I go or how fast I go.  No one knows about this but me."  Indeed, it was one of the few things about my life that was truly all about me.  It doesn't cost a cent, other than a decent pair of sneakers and a little stolen time from a busy day.  And I don't know any runners who have weight problems.  It seems to me like an ideal way to exercise.

So, after the kids were off to school in the morning and before I settled in to work, I took myself for a walk.  I started in the park down the street, which has a nice running track and is frequented at that hour only by two or three dog-walkers and a little old lady who does tai chi by herself near the monkey bars.  I gave myself a half hour and just said, "Let's see what I can do."

It turns out that I can walk a pretty nice distance in half an hour, if I keep up a good pace.

Encouraged, I went home and downloaded the Nike+ GPS app onto my iPhone.  This is an app that tracks your speed and distance, gives you challenges and encouragement, and plays the music of your choosing while you go.  I love it.  I told myself, "The app is for runners, but it doesn't need to know you're just walking.  Let it think you're the slowest runner in the world.  Who cares?"

I walked and walked.  I bumped up my time gradually until I had reached an hour every other day.  And then something weird happened - I just started jogging.  At first, I jogged just once around the track, and then walked the rest of the way.  It broke up the monotony, and I wanted to see if I could do it.  I could!  I was thrilled!  Then I challenged myself to jog once around for every eight loops.  Then, four loops for every mile.  My outdoor track is eight loops to a mile - that meant I was jogging half the time!

The weather got colder, so I took it inside, to the smaller indoor track at my gym.  The indoor track is sort of boring, so I spent a few minutes one evening making my music more interesting.  Also, there are more people there, and passing people on the track - or not passing them - makes me inexplicably nervous.  I also hate the thought of people seeing me run - I am not the most physically fit person on earth.  But I have been persistent.  I set a personal best for a 5K yesterday afternoon, right before I went to pick up the kids from school.  I felt a strange combination of euphoria and exhaustion.

I know you're thinking this must be a guest post, someone other than Jennie writing.  I'm the queen of knitting, baking, blogging, criticizing other people's grammar and driving habits, and other sedentary pursuits.  But there's another side to me.  I secretly long to be athletic, and though I will never be a real athlete, it has made me very happy to know that I am not totally out of the game yet.

Today's a rest day, and my shins are thanking me.  But I am very much looking forward to tomorrow - and that's always a good thing, right?

11 December 2011

Gaudete

Advent lasts for four Sundays, and the third Sunday is called "Gaudete Sunday."  Gaudete, pronounced GOW-deh-tay, means "rejoice" in Latin.  Gaudete Sunday is a day for rejoicing, anticipating, and, if you're a little behind the 8-ball, for decking the halls.

Today is the day we light the pink candle on the wreath.

To everything there is a season.  This is not the season for dieting or self-denial.  It's the season for cookies and candy canes and wrapping paper and cards from old friends I haven't seen in years, and hanging the stockings by the chimney with care.


Bobby and Sarah helped Dad set up the tree.  They decided to name it "Douglas."  (It's not ready for trimming yet; it will take a day or two to open its branches fully.)




Becky set up the crĂȘche.

  

If you've been reading this blog for a year, you know I'm missing a wise man.  Don't let me forget:  this is the year I'm going to figure out which one I need, and to finally get it.


Last night was the Madrigal Festival at school.  Today, my little bell choir practiced "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" for next week, and "O Come All Ye Faithful" for Christmas Eve.  Later this afternoon, Bobby practiced his carols on the piano.


Finally, I pulled out the Christmas china today and ran it through the dishwasher; we'll use it for the next several weeks in place of our usual white stuff.

Speaking of white stuff, we are all hoping for snow.  I know a lot of people who hate snow, but we're not among them.  Besides being skiers, we're optimists.  We believe in white Christmases.  Now that we're all decked, and have tons of cookies, a little snow is all we need to be completely ready.  It won't be long now!




09 December 2011

Sam's Favorites

In case you didn't notice, I've been in baking mode lately.  I spent all afternoon today making chocolate-chip cookies.  (I use the recipe on the back of the bag of Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate morsels, just like my grandma used to.  It really is the best recipe.  You can find it here.)



Late this afternoon, my husband called.  "What did you do all day?" he asked.

"Oh, I worked a little, and knitted, and made some cookies."

"Ooh!  Did you make my favorite oatmeal-raisins?"

"Uh...yeah."

Crap.

Fortunately, I had the ingredients in the house, so I scrambled and made some oatmeal-raisins for him.  Here's my recipe.

1 cup unsalted butter, softened.  (Don't use salted butter.  But if you have to, omit the salt from this recipe.)
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup plain-old white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if you are using salted butter)
3 cups oats (use the old-fashioned kind that comes in a drum - not quick-cooking or instant)
1 cup raisins (I used golden ones today, because that's what was in the cabinet, and I liked the results).

Mix the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt together in a bowl with a fork.

Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer (stand or hand-held).  When it's fluffy, add the eggs and vanilla, and mix well.

Slowly add the mixed dry ingredients to the buttery goo, and mix thoroughly.

Add the oats; mix; then add the raisins and mix by hand.



Drop by teaspoonfuls onto a Silpat- or foil-lined cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes, or until just set.

I personally think Silpat is one of the greatest inventions ever.

Cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet, and then transfer to a rack to cool completely.  Do not cool these on the back porch or in any outdoor area, as squirrels like them just as much as husbands do.

Yummy.




I can tell this Weight Watchers thing is just not going to work for me until, like, January.  That's okay.  The cookies are worth it.

Happy munching!

04 December 2011

Butterfly

It's a Sunday afternoon in early December.  It's cold outside, and we can feel winter closing in.  The late-afternoon light throws a rosy cast on everything.  I'm at the piano, and I snap on the little lamp next to my music.  My second daughter and I are practicing her solo for the upcoming Christmas concert at school.  She sings "Dost Thou in a Manger Lie" in a beautiful, warbling soprano, while I squint at the hymnal in front of me, my fingers struggling to keep up on the keyboard.  I will never be more than an adequate accompanist, but it's good enough for our purposes.

"Hey Mom," my son calls from the other end of the room, "look at this!"

I turn and look.  He's standing by the living-room window, where, on the sheer white curtain, there is perched the most exquisite yellow butterfly I have ever seen.  It looks like this:


At first, I'm pretty sure it's a prank.  He's trying to trick me into thinking there's a butterfly on the curtain.  It's some kind of paper toy he's stuck to the window, to see how gullible I am.

Then it flaps its wings.

We all gasp simultaneously.  I get up from the piano bench for a closer look.  It is, in fact, a real butterfly, fully grown, a creature of summer right here in our December living room.  I stare at it in awe for a moment, and then I run for my camera.

"How did it get there?" Becky asks.

My only guess is that it must have come into the house in a chrysalis attached to one of my house-plants.  I have several plants that live on the porch all summer and then come inside in early November, to spend the winter in the living room.  There must have been a secret life clinging to one of my plants all this time, developing in the darkness, and I didn't know it until it burst forth and flew over to my curtain.

I examine the Christmas cactus and the spider plants, but I see no evidence of a chrysalis.

The children want to keep the butterfly as a pet.  It's cold out, they reason.  If you turn it loose, it will freeze overnight.  Here, we could keep it in an aquarium and admire it all winter.  Please, mom.

But our butterfly is a wild creature, entitled to live out its life span, however short, in its natural habitat.  I capture it carefully under a Tupperware bowl, careful not to clip its wings or its exquisite antennae, and then I release it in the backyard.  We watch it fly away before the sun sets.

It's just a moment, just ten minutes out of an ordinary day, but the gift the butterfly has given us lingers.  Nothing we can make or do can even approach that level of beauty.  We are surprised by summer in the midst of winter, and reminded of all the ways in which life can touch and affect us.  I take the lesson for what it's worth, and then we return to the piano.

01 December 2011

Calendar

Well, it's the first of December, and you know what that means.  The Advent calendar.

The Advent calendar is a big wooden box with twenty-four little cabinet doors in it.  Each door is numbered, and you open a door each day in December leading up to Christmas.  Behind the door is a tiny little gift - a pen, a holiday-flavored lip balm, a small piece of candy, a bookmark - one for each child.

My family long ago outgrew the little one-inch-by-one-inch compartments in the Advent calendar, so now I usually stow a little note in each compartment, indicating where the treat of the day is hidden.  "Look behind the clock on the mantel."  Or "In the crystal vase in the dining room."  In the hiding place, the delighted kids find candy-cane shaped pens, Santa-shaped markers, or little tubes of M&M candy.  The possibilities are limitless; the only rule is that the treat has to be small and relatively inexpensive.

I'm not sure where the Advent calendar tradition came from.  When I was a kid, we didn't get gifts every day.  We did often have little paper calendars with doors that opened on a little picture, or a Bible verse, or, sometimes, if we were lucky, a piece of chocolate.  But the calendar is a huge deal in my house now.  For the past several days, the kids have been asking, "Thursday is the first of December, right?  The Advent calendar starts on Thursday, right?"  The tradition builds exactly the sort of anticipation that the season is about.

And, wouldn't you know it?  Today, I woke up empty-handed, without anything to put into the calendar.  Yesterday was just too hectic, and I didn't get out to a store.  As I shooed the kids off to school this morning, I promised them that the Advent calendar would be fully stocked when they returned this afternoon.

I hate to disappoint them.  But such is the dilemma of the working mom.  I can see to it that the house smells like cookies late in the afternoon, and that the Advent calendar is full of goodies, and that the candles are lit and the mood is set.  Or I can finish writing a legal brief that desperately needs to be done right about halfway through the magical season of Advent.  But I usually can't do both.  I've tried, and I've ended up in tears on the twenty-fourth.  People who see me crying in church on Christmas Eve mistake the tears for religious zeal.  Actually, they are tears of exhaustion and frustration.

The pressure to shop and bake and generally make a difficult and expensive season appear magical has weighed heavily on me since I first became a mother.  I try to play it as low-key as I possibly can now.  My children are beyond the Santa stage, so I don't need to create too much magic.  (A little, though.)  I'm not a big believer in putting up a tree and decking the halls as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are in the dishwasher.  I like to wait until the season is in full swing - usually not before the beginning of December.  I won't give you a big speech about what Christmas is really about, because you are probably getting plenty of that from other quarters right now.  That lecture is probably competing with the media message that you need to spend, spend, spend.  Everyone has to find her own happy medium at this time of year.

Whatever you do to build up to your holiday, I wish you just enough magic to get it all done and make it look easy.  And now I am off to the drugstore to find some teeny tiny treats.