choosing joy

I’ve spent the last few weeks rummaging around in the basement, carting boxes of stuff off to Goodwill, decorating for the holidays, making granola and other gifts from the kitchen. When my mind is unsettled, I have a hard time sitting still. Better to put my body to work doing something physical that manifests visible results, whether it’s baking cookies or cleaning the shower drain (I did that this morning).

Still, it feels strange to be entering the holiday season, stringing lights and cutting greens, when there’s so little cause for celebration in the world at large and when so much of what we hold sacred (truth, democracy, and decency for starters) is under full-scale assault. To pay close attention to what’s happening in our country is to wrestle with painful realities most of us couldn’t have begun to imagine even a year ago. It is to open, as Annie Proulx recently observed, “a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.”

And yet, it is December, time in our house to put up a tree, to welcome grown children home, to bake cranberry bread and wrap gifts and gather with friends and family. What I always love most about these weeks before Christmas is the opportunity to connect with loved ones near and far, sending packages off in the mail, exchanging cards and holiday letters, lighting candles and gathering around crowded dinner tables. But this year feels different, as if the darkness of our human affairs has dimmed the lights of hope and faith and joy. [continue…]

spark joy
(and my go-to holiday recipes)

IMG_5882When our sons were young, there was no holding off Christmas. Henry, born December 18, absorbed holiday melodies in the womb, from “Jingle Bells” to the Messiah. His in-utero nickname was Bing, for Crosby, which morphed into Der Bingle after a visiting friend introduced us to the German diminutive. (Of course, we had no way of knowing then that music would turn out to be his “language” of choice but now, looking back, it seems almost pre-ordained; he arrived in a season of shimmer and twinkle, surrounded by love and borne into our arms on a wave of joyful noise.)

That year, in the final weeks of my first pregnancy and with a December due date looming, my husband Steve and I were organized in a way we’ve never been before or since: all our gifts bought and wrapped and shipped weeks in advance, a tree up and decorated the day after Thanksgiving; holiday cards mailed December first and a newly appointed nursery awaiting its tiny occupant. All was in readiness, every diaper and onesie neatly folded and stacked, every holiday ornament shining in its place.

Four days before Christmas we brought our precious newborn home from the hospital, dressed him up in the miniature velveteen Santa suit my brother had given him, and snapped our first family photo in front of the tree. [continue…]

Celebrating Valentine’s Day (stories, music, & two irresistible cookie recipes)

hearts“And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”   ~ Paul McCartney

Hearts:

When my sons were young, we always made Valentines.  It was a joy for me to join my boys at our old Formica table in the playroom and, for a few February afternoons each year, devote ourselves to frilly matters of the heart.

Of course, we went all out. Our supplies were bountiful: stacks of construction paper, doilies, paper hearts, pink ribbons, lace, glue sticks and lots of sparkly stuff.  And the lavish creations borne of our efforts pleased us greatly.  Valentine’s Day was easy to celebrate: cozy, hands-on, messy fun.  Love made visible.

I still have our old box of Valentine paraphernalia in the basement, though it’s been over a decade since the three of us made cards together and the glue sticks have no doubt turned rock-hard.  I considered the box briefly the other day: should I carry it all upstairs?  Sit down by myself and cut up a few red doilies for old times’ sake?  No, I realized, that would just feel weird. [continue…]

A glorious granola recipe (plenty to give & some for you, too)

jarsMy grandmother Kenison crocheted afghans and made the world’s best doughnuts, two skills I still wish I’d learned from her before it was too late.

She was also the first person I ever knew who made her own granola, back in the days when “health food” was considered a fad, “organic” might as well have been a foreign word, and the cereal boxes in our kitchen cupboard at home ran from Raisin Bran to Cap’n Crunch.

At least, on a visit years ago when I was newly married, I did have the foresight to write down Grammie’s recipe.  recipeAnd although I can’t present every member of our family with a hand-made afghan this Christmas as she once did, I am following in her footsteps. With the exception of books (I always give books!), most of the gifts I’m getting ready to wrap this year aren’t coming from stores.  They’re coming from me.

My granola isn’t exactly like my grandmother’s. I’ve taken some license with her original recipe over the years.  It’s fun to play with new combinations of ingredients, and it never turns out quite the same twice anyway.  (She liked carob powder in hers; lately, I’ve been experimenting with cardamom in mine.) The one thing I always do, though, is make a lot.  And it’s always delicious.  I think of my grandmother every time I start gathering the ingredients, and I feel happier creating something simple from scratch than clicking a “buy now” button on my computer or wandering through stores looking for the “perfect” gift.

As I type these words, the smells of maple and cinnamon and cardamom are still lingering.  [continue…]

The Soul of Solstice

dreamstime_s_31289215One December when our sons were little, I hung a piece of paper painted a deep dark blue in our kitchen.  “A sky,” I told them.  I painted another piece of paper gold, cut out about a hundred small stars and put them in a basket, along with a glue stick.

My hope was to distract the boys a bit from the idea of “getting” things for Christmas, and to shift the emphasis instead to the kinds of simple acts of kindness that actually make us feel good inside ourselves.

I knew I wouldn’t have much luck telling them that the shortest route to happiness isn’t paved with possessions.  (Try explaining that to a six- year-old who has been trying to prioritize his Christmas list.) They wouldn’t believe me if I suggested that more stuff doesn’t ever equal a better life.  Or that a sure-fire antidote to restlessness and craving is to do something nice for someone else.

I wanted them to discover for themselves the joy of giving, the deeper meaning of the season.

And so, for every random, unsolicited act of kindness anyone in the family did during the day, we placed a star into the sky.  Each night at dinnertime, we turned off all the kitchen lights, lit candles in an Advent wreath on our table, held hands and said our grace.  And then, as the painted sky filled with stars, we talked about opportunities we’d each found during the day to do good deeds.

The December of Good Deeds was such a long time ago.  For some unknown reason, we only did it once.  And yet it is one of my favorite holiday memories, ever.

Last night, Henry and Steve and I grabbed the afghans and lined up on the couch together to watch a couple of Tivoed episodes of “The Daily Show.”  The clips of shoppers mauling each other in a race to claim discounted printers, dollar DVDs, and Rachel Ray cookware on Black Friday were more horrifying than funny.  Jon Stewart didn’t need to say much about the stabbing in Virginia over a parking space, the shooting at Kohl’s, or the mayhem at Wal-Mart.  There was no need to comment on Sarah Palin’s claim last week that she loves the commercialization of Christmas, because it reminds us all that this is the “most cheerful holiday on the calendar.”  All he had to do was play the footage.

This morning, I woke up early, still haunted and disturbed by those scenes.  We are warm and dry and safe and well-fed here.  There is nothing anyone in my family needs or wants so badly that we would line up outside a store at 6 a.m. to get it. No one went shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

But I also realize what a luxury our comfort is.  I don’t want to take any of what I have for granted – not the food in our refrigerator, not the heat rising from the grates on the floor, not the laptop on which I type these words, nor the fact that, at 6:30 in the morning, I am privileged enough to be sitting on the couch in my pajamas writing a blog post, rather than driving through darkness to get to work on time.  I can’t even begin to know what it’s like to live in a constant state of not-enough.

And yet, I’m certainly not immune to the pressures of the season.  [continue…]