Month of Purity, Month of Mud

Barefoot in the dark night’s waning hours, I open the curtains on the back door, and I see, to my great surprise, a layer of snow.

It is not so deep, that snow, that grass can’t push its prickly shoots up and over the top of the unexpected blanket. But the driveway is covered. Neighborhood cars parked in other driveways, unprotected, have layers of fluff, and for the umpteenth time, I send up fervent thanks for the fact of having a carport, of not having to scrape and brush the morning car.

Just for fun, I look up school closings on my IPad, and I see that every school in the county is closed today. Closed for .6 of an inch of snow! We chuckle about this, Mark and I, children of the Snowbelt, where we walked to school, several miles, through six foot drifts, all winter long. (It was uphill, both ways, too.)

“We don’t need no stinkin’ snow day!” we snort. “This is nuthin’!”

But, of course, we realize our county does not have the arsenal of snow removal equipment that our old home did, equipment that was geared up and roaring to wipe streets clean when the first flake fluttered to earth.

And there are kids here who live way out on country roads, which can be slick and dangerous, especially if there’s ice underneath that sweet white topping.

And today’s snow was completely unexpected. (No way that fat little groundhog is going to like what it sees.)

The truth is, one just never knows. And that’s February for me, in a nutshell.

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January slid quickly away, dragging, as it went, the last clingy scraps of a cozy holiday season. Even the little park’s decorations are down; the gazebo is back to its placid, wooden state: sparkling tree gone from its center, no greens and icicle lights dripping from its eaves. Now it’s just a summer shelter shouldering on through February.

February is the month, I am told, in which the heaviest snow falls. But it’s also the month when spring weather pops up. My phone weather app tells me we will have REALLY cold weather this weekend.

But then, by the following Thursday, the temps will soar up to fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s February: we’ll figure it out, each day as it comes.

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Some months have names that make sense, in a way. Like the fall months, leading into winter, have counting names—sept, octo, novo, dec. Those might not correspond to the way we count months NOW, but still—how the months earned those names? I get it.

And I can see why January is named for Janus, the god of comings and goings.

But where the heck did the name ‘February’ come from? (It’s the toughest one to learn, some tongues wanting to say FebYOUary instead of FebBREWary. My young tongue, in fact, took a while to wrap around the right way to say it; I remember being corrected. I remember trying to remember to enunciate that ‘r’.)

I look February up on etymonline.com, and this is what I learn:

February was the final month in the Roman calendar, and the Roman feast of purification took place then. And that’s where the name comes from: “februarius menses”—-the month of purification. The root verb is februare: to purify.

So February is the month of purification?  

But then, etymonline.com tells me, in Old England, February was called Solmonao.

That meant “mud month.”

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Mud month indeed! The ice melts and the mud softens, clinging to boots and shoes. It creeps into the house. I wield the damp mop five or six times a day, wiping out foot records of comings and goings.

The cars are spattered.

Lawns look tired, disheveled, and worn, their dead leaves anchored in mud.

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John Lawless submitted this poem to Standard Contest 70 in February 2018 (poetrysoup.com):

February Feints

February creeps across the mud

chuckling

knowing it is not her milieu

snickering

as she tats snowflakes

whistling

as she scatters them

icily

on freshly chilled winds.

February veers—from frozen ground dotted with those tatted snowflakes to mud bogs waiting to suck me in. It brings snow days and it brings days when a winter jacket is just too warm, when kids shrill in school playgrounds.

I find, searching online, that there are lots of February poems, and most of them zero in on weather.

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But Valentines Day—that brings emotional warmth, in honor, Britannia.com tells me, of a saint with foggy facts. St. Valentine died in the third century in Rome. He’s not, anymore, a SAINT saint, our Valentine: the Roman Catholic Church decided in 1969 that they just didn’t have enough hard data about the man to sanctify him.

Still, people call Valentine the patron saint of beekeepers, epileptics, and lovers.

Some say Valentine was a Roman doctor and a Catholic priest who became the patron of lovers because he courageously married couples in secret. The government wanted those men single—then they could be sent to war. But married, they were excused; they could stay with their beloved wives.

Or perhaps another story is true—that, imprisoned (maybe for performing those marriages), the saint befriended the jailer’s daughter. She was a blind girl, but Valentine, whether by miracle or medicine, cured her of her blindness. And he would write her missives from his cell, signing them, “…from your Valentine.”

History’s hazy—are either of those stories true? It does seem pretty clear that Valentine was martyred and that his feast day is February 14. That’s a day young students prepare for by crafting fancy boxes in which to carry home all the sweet or funny cards their classmates will give them. They prepare, too, some of them, by being forcibly plunked down at the family table, given a pen, a class list, and a box of Valentines; a stern adult, arms crossed, stands there while the muttering, disgruntled child fills out a Valentine for each  and every classmate.

More carping there than Cupid. Oh, well.

Valentines Day is a day for special cards for moms and grams, for salted chocolate caramels packed in shiny cardboard hearts, for a big bouquet of fragrant roses, a day for feting sweethearts.

Unless…it’s not. Uncoupled women took matters into their own hands one year; Merriam-webster.com notes that Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope coined the term Galantine in 2010. Women who did not have frenzied Galahads to bring them flowers and chocolate co-opted the day; they celebrated with girlfriends, buying their OWN special gifts: Galantines Day. And so there to the idea that couple-ness is the only state to be celebrated, some might say.

Merriam-Webster-webster.com notes that the Galentine holiday has been dunned for its lack of inclusivity, its embrace only of single women (Is there a Palentine?), but, the site says, there are efforts to address that issue.The writer uses the passive voice, though…efforts are afoot…and so we don’t know what efforts, or who might be making them.

But anyway: valentines and galentines: February.

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“Would you help me,” James asks on the afternoon of February 1, “get my monthly finances in order?”

“Sure,” I say, and he makes room for a chair by his laptop. He creates a fancy table onscreen with spaces for Resources, Expenses, and Other.

Under expenses, he lists his regular expenses, the streaming subscriptions he supports, the practical things he needs to pay for this month: haircut, new socks, prescription drugs, supplements.

He puts down his monthly income; he writes what he knows is coming in, and then he slants his eyes at me.

“Do we KNOW,” he asks delicately, “if you and dad will give me CASH for my birthday?”

Hah. No wonder he wanted my help.

To solve that mystery, I say, we will have to  arrive at the great day itself.

Jim sighs and starts a wish list, just in case that birthday cash appears.

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A rare and varied list of February birthdays awaits me at birthdayhub.com. Such notables as Ronald Reagan (and OTHER presidents, of course, who give us a snug day off) and Charles Lindbergh were born in February; so were Rick James and Tommy Smothers. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Laura Ingalls Wilder flaunt their three-name names in the list; Rihanna flounces by with only one. Clark Gable, Cybill Shepherd, Yoko Ono; Sidney Poitier, Erma Bombeck, and Johnny Cash. Babe Ruth. Jules Verne. Roberta Flack (about whom there is, this month, a PBS documentary airing).

Josh Groban.

One of my favorites: George Thorogood.

And closer to home our godson Philip, our grandniece Maddie, our friends Patty, Pam, and Wendy.

And James of course.

And some other wonderful people. You know who you are.

All kinds of interesting personalities were born in February, that shifting, changing, fascinating month.

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James and I take a little trip to the craft store, looking for bouncing bears and wrapping ribbon, and I come upon a sale: all Valentines supplies are marked down 40 per cent. So, unable to resist, I come home with a floppy set of silicone cupcake molds, heart-shaped. At the register, the clerk asks, “Have you ever baked with these before?”

She is, perhaps, a little older, even, than I. She looks disapproving.

I have not used silicone baking pans, I tell her, then ask, “Have you?”

No, she says, a little grim. She likes metal pans.

I get her: it seems impossible to me that this floppy, rubbery substance won’t melt in the oven. But I have in mind small heart-shaped cakes, frosted with white buttercream. Then, I will dig out my fancy frosting tips and bags, and add white flowers and squiggles and dots. Sweet little Valentine’s Day goodies.

Maybe. If the silicone doesn’t melt.  We will see.

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I stop at the library to pick up a book on reserve.

Margaret, the wonderful library associate, checks it out for me. She hands me the receipt with a flourish.

“It’s due,” she says, “March 2. And I hope that comes soon. I can’t wait to see the end of February.”

She waves and turns to the next borrower in line, so I don’t get to ask: what’s wrong with February? The weather? All that emphasis on hearts and flowers? Something to do that’s worthy of dread?

Or maybe it’s just the paradox of the month itself: month of purity, month of mud…of Valentine’s chocolate-y excess and Ash Wednesday’s stringent fasting.

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The month that joggles me along, teasing me, unwilling to let me know just what I can expect: February. Here it is, though; might as well jump in.

Advertisement

Sleep Tight

As we get older, it gets more difficult to get a good night’s sleep. That doesn’t mean we don’t still need seven to nine hours.

—-“How Sleep Changes With Aging,” Mark Stibich, Ph.D. (verywellhealth.com)

The night is deep and quiet. Far, far away, way over on his side of the new king-sized bed, Mark’s C-Pap whooshes pleasantly. Outside, the wind curls, buffeting and pleading, juddering the windows.

The house is not too hot, and it’s not chilly, either—just right for sleeping.  There’s nothing more pleasant than drifting off to sleep, safely protected, when the weather’s wild and woolly.

And I am tired…it was a full, busy, GOOD day, and I was glad to climb upstairs at 8:45, soak in a steaming tub, and then fall asleep at page 231 of Slow Horses.

So why now—at 3:34 a.m.—am I wide awake?

The more I try to relax and fall asleep, the awaker I get.

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“How did you sleep?” Mark will say when he comes down in the morning, freshly showered and ready to start the day.

“Hang on,” I will answer. “I have to consult my Fitbit.”

The Fitbit tells me how long I slept. It tells me how much of that time was spent in REM, deep, and light sleep. It tells me how many waking moments I had across the span of my nightly slumber.

Then it gives me a grade.

Last night, I finally gave up at 3:45, brought my book downstairs, turned the lamp on and read until dawn.  

Four hours and 22 minutes, Fitbit sniffed disdainfully. Fair.

I don’t think it ever gives a grade lower than Fair. I long for the rare morning the Fitbit pats me on the head and says, “You done GOOD, kid.”

That only happens, if I am very lucky, about once a week, though.

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I’ve been comforting myself with the thought that, at my exalted age, I don’t need as much sleep as I used to need. But I’d like to solve the mystery: why are some nights just sleepless? And what can I do about those nights?

I go searching on the internet, and I’m a little dismayed at what I find.

Dr. Mark Stibich, in “How Sleep Changes With Aging,” (verywellhealth.com) disillusions me. I DO need as much sleep as ever—I should average between seven and nine hours nightly. But he acknowledges that there are parts of the aging process that interfere with that goal.

Pain can wake me up, for instance, and keep me from dropping back into a slumbrous state. Consider arthritis, says Dr. Stibich, and he’s right: I know that critter. It lives in my right shoulder, and it’s happy to remind me, deep in the darkness, that it’s hoping to occupy that space for a good long time.

And there are age-associated conditions (diabetes, say, and prostate issues for men, for example) that wake us up after two or three hours.

“Hi, Sunshine!” those conditions say. “Hey, let’s waltz on over to the powder room!”

And I want to ignore that nagging voice, but, oh: it is persistent.

***************************

Mark and I get up in the mornings and compare notes. How many trips?

One morning last week, Mark bounded down the stairs. “I only got up ONCE all night!” he crowed.

We made ourselves a nice omelet; some things are just worth celebrating.

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Dr. Stibich reminds me that heart troubles can also be sleep-swipers. They can wake me from a sound sleep, wake me with weird breathing issues or irregular heart beats.

And, of course, aging provokes conditions that exacerbate anxiousness. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, mental illness…all these things lead to anxiety, and anxiety (even the ordinary, garden variety of anxiety) prods my eyelids open, and sends me, finally, padding downstairs while the rest of the world seems to be resting peacefully.

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So maybe I need to change something…maybe I actually sabotage my own sleep. I check Mark Stibich’s list of things I can do to foment sleep instead.

—Exercise more, he suggests; people tend to grow more sedentary as they age.  It’s true that when the weather is lousy, I don’t get my long walks in. I try to compensate by sneaking short walks before and after work, but Dr. Stibich is right: I could work on this.

—He also writes about the importance of getting enough sunlight. It makes sense this time of year, when days are speckled with sleety rain and, sometimes, snow, that I don’t spend as much time outside. And sunlight triggers melatonin production, and I need that substance coursing through my system to maintain a good night’s sleep. I need to push myself out the door every day.

(And, if need be, I can take a melatonin tablet or two half an hour or so before I head upstairs for the night.)

—What are you ingesting, the good doctor asks, and, oh, this is a bitter question for me. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine—all can interfere with sleeping, notes Stibich. I would own up if that was the case, but I neither use nor abuse any of them. I may have a drink once or twice a year, but really, I gave up all those vices decades ago. (Thank goodness for amazing decaf beans; I would miss my coffee so…) It’s not FAIR, I pout, stamping my size elevens. It’s not fair. I gave up all this stuff and I STILL can’t sleep.

***********************

Check your medicines, too, says Stibich. As we age, he gently reminds me, we tend to take two or more daily medications.

And yes, that is true, but I don’t THINK the Crestor I take just before bed, per directions, is the culprit.

—And finally, Dr. Stibich points to naps. Naps are great, he says; naps are FUN. But if they run more than twenty minutes, they can steal from our nighttime sleep load. This is not a problem, either, though: sometimes, but not nearly often enough, I sneak a twenty minute snooze in, late afternoon, in the reading chair. I WISH I had hour-long nappie times.

***********************

I’m thinking I can take some steps to improve my sleeping habits…make some dietary changes (I don’t need all that sugary stuff, anyway); get serious about morning pages again—-those are such good cobweb cleaners. And most of the thoughts that pop into my head, and seem so hugely significant, at 3:00 a.m. ARE cobwebs.

I’ll remember, in the sleeping house, when I was seven and got a grocery bag stuck in my bicycle tire; I was marooned on the sidewalk, and a mean old lady (Old lady: huh! Probably ten years younger than I am now…) screamed at me from her second story window: Move along, you bad girl! Move along!

I’ll remember a jerk I worked with in another time and place, and I think, in the quiet hours, of twelve perfect comebacks to a cutting remark he made twenty years ago, a remark that left me uncharacteristically silent. But, oh, I could tell him NOW…

At 3:00 a.m., faux pas and discrepancies come back to haunt me. They’re too gauzy to bat away, but they’re sticky enough to keep me awake. Cobweb sweeping is in order.

I’m going to try some yoga. I’m going to try some meditation.

Just because I know I’m in good company—LOTS of woman who’ve chugged around the planet as many times as I have experience sleep issues—doesn’t mean I, or any of us, have to stay there.

************************

The final piece of Mark Stibich’s article says this: get plenty of sunlight and exercise, and look at your meds. The time of day you take something may determine how much it affects your rest. Talk to your doctor, he says; talk to the doc.

And if I do all that and nothing improves, then I may have some kind of sleep condition—apnea or insomnia, for instance.

Talk to your doctor, Stibich says again: follow all the sleep tips, see if anything changes, and then: go talk to the doctor.

*******************************

I started writing this yesterday, long before the sun came up. I am finishing today, at the dining room table, with beautiful soft winter sunlight pouring in the window. I’m going outside and get me some of that sun. While I’m at it,I’ll get me some of that exercise stuff, too.

And half an hour before I head up to bed, I’ll take a melatonin.

I swept the cobwebs this morning, scrabbling out three morning pages. I have located a simple meditation I can do each night before bed. I am being careful of diet, starting right now.

Maybe all these practices will kick in, maybe the ship will slowly turn. Maybe I’ll start getting up each morning, consulting my Fitbit, and reveling in its review of my sleep. Good! it will say, day after day. And well rested, content, I will smile and sigh.

I’ll let you know when if that happens, in a post that, I hope, is not written in the post-midnight quiet of my sleeping house. May your sleep be deep and untroubled.

We Never Talk Any More

I still need you.

I still want you in my life.

But let’s face it, we never talk anymore.

**********************

Yes, Smartphone, I am saying this to YOU.

**********************

I know that YOU know that there were phones before you, even when I was very young. Calling a friend, talking for—whoa, ten minutes?!—was an incredible treat. And then, just when we were developing a rhythm, heading toward the most fun part of that conversation, the Voice would intrude.

“Are ya DONE?” it would snarl. “I have ta call my HUSBAND.”

My mother would slash her hand across her throat: cut it short. And I would hang up, deflated.

My first phone…I loved it so, but I had to share it with all the people who lived in my house AND with some unknown, borderline civil, party line.

***********************

And the black rotary desk phone on the dining room buffet gave way, as I grew, to a lovely beige wall-hung model in the kitchen. The cord on that phone would reach into the living room.

We moved, and the party line partner disappeared.

I would wait for that phone to ring…and it was not, always, for me. But there could be a call from a friend, a friend with whom I’d plot the most wonderful adventures, recount the most interesting stories from school that day.

It could be an invitation to a movie with a very cute boy.

That call could trumpet a prom date, even.

In those days, girls did NOT call boys, so half of the people I might like to have telephone conversations with had to place a call to me, or the talk just didn’t get talked.

When that phone rang, when it was for me, I would slip as far away as the cord would let me, savoring a thin film of privacy.

That film was often breached and torn.

“WHO are you talking to?” they might demand, or, “Why do you always seem to get phone calls just when it’s time to do dishes?”

“I need the phone!” someone else might say. “Make her get OFF!”

I loved that phone. I talked on that phone whenever I could. But there were pot holes that peppered the pathway of our togetherness.

Love’s path is never smooth.

**********************************

Life bore me, sodden and floundering, on its unrelenting waves, and I met many phones along the way. Landlines, they were, shared with partners and roommates and family members, except during a brief stint of the single life. And, settling into relationships, the nature of conversations changed.

Telemarketing became a thing. I remember being almost nine months pregnant and finally—finally!—settling into sleep on a Sunday morning. And the phone—betrayer—rang on the bedside table, next to my ear. And I told the telemarketer how she had interrupted my brief attempt at sleep, and she sounded like she might cry. Which was okay, I thought, since frustrated, exhausted tears were rolling down my cheeks, too.

There were rare but shocking calls that began, “Are you alone? Is someone there with you? Can you sit down?” And then I hated the phone, the instrument that changed life irrevocably, that removed a beloved person from the list of those I would call in the future.

And there were work related calls, and reminder calls, and there were, still, those lovely rich conversations that textured my life. I couldn’t always trust my phone; it brought bad things into the house, but I needed it. I needed the news it provided, even woeful news. I needed its lifeline.

When we moved out of state, when we got landlines with different area codes, the phone helped me stay connected.

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Ah, but technology: it stands still for no one.

Email became, often, an easier way to keep in touch, not demanding an immediate response. I could—or my receiver could—think about the message, respond when we had had a chance to ponder and compose.

Single emails built into chains, into saveable, build-able, conversations.

I used my phone a little less.

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And then: my first mobile.

It was a work phone.

It was a flip phone. And wasn’t I cutting edge?

This is a folding mobile phone.

I tried to use it only for work, although sometimes I would call the family if, say, I was going to be later than expected. Or I’d get a call about dinner plans or about something we needed at the supermarket I’d be passing by on my way home.

My flip phone.

My landline.

My loyalties divided.

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And a work flip phone morphed into a purchased cell phone, a personal phone in addition to the landline. And texting started to be a thing; texting, like email, got the message there, and did not demand immediate spoken responses.

My cell phones got smarter and smarter. The landline became less and less essential.

And finally, we let the landline go, turned our backs, walked way. But our cell phones went with us everywhere.

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Once, long ago, when I was commuting, I said, “I like the long ride home. The car is one place no one can bother you.”

But smart phones connect to cars; they stay, always, focused and alert. Now there is never a disconnected time.

And the smart phones—they crave attention. Once I sat in a restaurant and watched two young female friends come in and be seated. They talked for a moment, until the pretty animated one pulled out her smart phone and looked at it. Her face lit up. Their conversation stopped.

For the whole time we ate our lunch, the perky girl tapped and texted, ignoring her friend, who looked sadder and sadder.

Smart phones demand. ALL the time, they say to us. All the TIME.

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A commercial spokesperson asked me this: “Remember when we used phones to talk on?

I bristled. I still TALK on my phone, I thought. But then I had to admit it was true. I texted. I checked email. I got voice messages and I left them, too.

COVID confined, and I talked with people via ZOOM or FaceTime or Teams on my laptop or iPad.

I used my phone to fact check and shop, to text, to track my Fitbit activities.

I wore my old phone out and got a new one, and finally I had to face the truth. Our relationship has changed. My iPhone and I: we just don’t talk any more.

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I go for a walk, smart phone tucked in my pocket. (We may not talk, Phone, but I don’t go many places without you.) And while I walk, I ponder this new reality, this new dependency.

A week or two ago, the boyos and I did a kind of tag team thing so I could drop the Hyundai off at the shop, about 35 miles away, where they will repair the hail damage wrought in Spring 2022. James and I arrived first, to discover that the collision shop was gated, and we’d have to leave the car at the dealership next door.

I texted Mark to let him know.

He never replied.

I went for a walk to get my hourly steps, to appease my FitBit, another technological relationship that has become essential. And I was heading back to the car when Mark pulled in.

“Did you try to text me?” He asked, a little breathless. “I FORGOT MY PHONE.”

Forgot his phone! We stared at each other, aghast.

Who leaves home without their phone anymore???

Mark was sort of anxious. We filled out the envelope, slid the keys in the drop box, and followed his phone’s siren call: we headed back to the house.

When we got in, before he hung his coat up, Mark went and grabbed his phone.

“THERE you are,” he said, and he checked anxiously to make sure no urgent messages had arrived during the 93 minutes we were gone.

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Listen, Phone: I need you. I need you in different ways from when I started phoning; I have changed, but, oh, you have changed too.

You have gotten faster; you have gotten more expensive and more adaptable. You have gotten sleeker.

You have gotten all those things, and I, so sad to say, have not.

But I have grown to need you, to be anxious when (several times a day), I forget where I’ve left you and have to search, calling. Yes, I am dependent, and yes, it seems I need you more than you need me.

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It is what it is, Phone. You make life doable in so many ways. But there are days when I think back, when I think of the pleasure of twining a grubby cord around my wrist, of searching for some semblance of privacy, of getting to the end of a conversation, and whispering, “No—YOU hang up first!”

And giggling while a person in an adjacent room makes gagging noises.

Life changes. Relationships morph. We take what we need and learn to live with the rest. It is, truly, almost all good.

Just sometimes, I think, as I tap a text into my phone and wail to see the whimsical effects of spell check as my message flies off into the universe, “Wouldn’t it be nice, once in a while, just to TALK?”

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Phone photos from free Internet images

Ruddy Snickerdoodles, Winter Bears

I put the last five Christmas cookies on a saucer late Friday afternoon. The cookies were plain round ones—they were left when the glaze ran out, but that’s okay: we like the shortbread recipe plain or frosted.

Sometimes the boyos forget there are goodies in the cookie jar. I figured I’d put these last survivors on the table and see what happened.

There were still a few sad cookies there Sunday morning. I slid them into the trash can and went to get my Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. Today, I thought, was a day to bake ordinary cookies.

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Mark and I went back to work on Tuesday the 3rd. We weren’t reluctant; it had been a great break, but really, we love our jobs and our colleagues, and we both love the comfort of a regular routine. And there are work projects, for both of us, that we look forward to doing, and small job-related tasks that need to be under control.

So it was back to reality after a quiet but lovely holiday. And each day last week, I put another chunk of Christmas away: the Santas in the kitchen one day, the Santas in the family room the next. I folded the stockings and packed away my Christmas piggies from the mantelpiece. The piggies had shared space with Christmas books, and I put those books back on their proper shelves.

By the time Saturday morning rolled around, only the tree and the crèche signaled that we had recently celebrated Christmas. And, since the Wise Men arrived on January 6th, both of those icons could be packed away the day after.

I dug out tissue paper and and crinkled packing material culled from the many mysterious boxes that had landed on our doorstep during the middle of December. I carefully wrapped shepherds and camels, Wise Men and oxen, Joseph, Mary, and the Babe. We somehow have accumulated a collection of angels—all sizes, all materials—who hang out around the manger every Christmas season. The angels have a box of their own, and into that they flew.

Those boxes made their ways to the holiday shelf in the basement, and then I dragged the big, empty Rubbermaid tote up. I pried off the lid and set out the containers with their ornament-shaped nubbies, and I shut off the Christmas tree lights for the last time this season. And I packed away the Christmas ornaments, thinking about the history soaked into each bauble—some that preceded my life with Mark, and some that celebrated the start of that union. There are handmade treasures and sweet ornaments from each of the boys’ babyhoods. There is Luci smashing grapes, and we have Optimus Prime from Tranformers and Ralphie from The Christmas Story. There are snowmen and penguins and a couple of weathered pretty things that say, “Merry Christmas, Teacher!”

And now they are packed away, all those treasures, for another year. Mark wound the lights onto their spool, and dragged the tree, in its giant waterproof gray bag, down to the nether regions of the basement.

The wreath on the door, the garland on the outdoor lantern’s pole, the red plaid bow, the lights that twisted in the greenery…all down. All away.

The shortbread cookies were the last Christmas vestige to disappear.

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You have probably known snickerdoodles since forever, but in my house, when I was in high school, they were kind of a new discovery. My mother first made them, I think, when I was 16 or so, and they quickly joined the pantheon of ‘everyday cookies’—cookies that don’t need an occasion to be baked and stacked in the cookie jar.

Molasses crinkles and molasses creams—those were everyday cookies. So were peanut butter cookies with their criss-cross tine marks, big sheets of brownies, and the occasional batch of Tollhouse cookies…the single-batch morsels stirred into a double batch of dough. My mother rotated these recipes—and I helped as I grew into baking age. We kept the cookie jar full. And once we discovered snickerdoodles, they joined the rotation.

(“How do you know about snickerdoodles?” I remember a teacher asking me, as if those cookies were an owned part of his heritage, a secret I might have stolen. He acted amused, but also, he was kind of taken aback. Snickerdoodles then were not a part of everyday culture in my everyday corner of the USA back in the ‘70’s, but I believe that now, the cookies are pretty universal.)

Mark and Jim are cinnamon guys, and they are partial to a snickerdoodle or two. I discovered, when I opened the door of the cabinet where I keep my spices, that we had some colored sugar left from the holiday cookie bake. I took out the red sugar and poured it into a bowl. There was maybe a quarter cup of plain sugar in the sugar bowl; I dumped that in, too. Then I liberally sluiced in cinnamon, and I mixed all that together.

I rolled the snickerdoodles in that red-brown mixture, and they came out of the oven looking kind of hearty. After-Christmas cookies they are, everyday cookies, but they blend the leftover sweetness of the holiday into their crunchy, sweet coating.

**********************************

It felt good, mostly, to put Christmas away, to get the house back to whatever ‘normal’ means and to see the new year started, but I felt a little sad taking the Santas and the Christmas plates down from the long shelf in the kitchen. At least twice during Advent, Mark walked in after work and surveyed the display, and said, “That looks really nice. I like those Santas up there.”

That particular Christmas display was a welcoming, centering sight.

When I took everything down and wiped down the shelf, it just looked stark. That’s sort of bereft-looking, I thought.

And then my colleague Pam mentioned that, when she takes down Christmas, she puts up her snowman collection. So her house doesn’t plunge into post-holiday starkness; Pam’s post-holiday home celebrates the very fact of the winter season.

I thought we might consider doing something like that, too, and I talked to the boyos about it, and somehow, the common thread we settled on was bears. We had just hung two bear prints in the family room; they are Fair Isle bears attributed to Vincent Van Gogh. A bird sits on the bear’s head in each print.

So I went rooting through the house for bears. I have a little Scottish bear, one paw appropriately flung, as it is dancing a Highland fling. I have a pugnacious little Boyd’s bear named Edmund, who rocks a blue and white striped boater style sweater. I have A.A. Milne’s collected works with Pooh Bear on the cover. Jim has a plush teddy bear his brother gave him on Jim’s first birthday.

We’ve got some bears.

Bears it is, then, we agreed, and we distributed our little collection around the house. And James and I went to the craft store and bought a polar bear mama and her baby. Online, I discovered bear plates and ceramic figures and a rustic rowboat paddled by bears. Their cargo is a set of coasters with paw prints on the cork.

James asked specifically for pandas, and yes, we know they are not officially ‘bears,’ but we ordered pandas, plates, and paddlers, anyway.

And as they arrive, we evolve a winter display, an ordinary time display, but one that makes us smile. The packages land on the brick front step, and I run to get the knife and discover what that digitally-viewed treasure looks like in real life. And then we rearrange and the winter-bear panoply morphs into something comforting.

The plates should arrive this week, and I am hoping they will give that stark shelf a warmer feel as winter enfolds us in earnest.

Puns beckon: I could say displaying the mixture of old and new ursine treasures makes the holidays’ aftermath bearable. But I won’t do that; I promise I won’t do that.

********************

This morning I unpinned a Christmas rocking horse brooch from my baby blue jacket and nestled it deep into my jewelery box. My Christmas socks—Santa-hatted owls gifted long ago by a granddaughter—are similarly tucked away.

We set our minds to practical, everyday things, like picking up the rental car to drive while the first of our vehicles finally gets its hail damage repaired.

We discover that Tuesday is discount day at our local theater and make plans to see Avatar 2.

We savor simple meals and everyday cookies.

*******************

The end of the Christmas season leaves me feeling a little nostalgia and a lot of excitement to be starting the new year, the regular year.

The holiday season is over. Let ordinary time begin.

…to Leeward, and Points Beyond

It is Wednesday afternoon at 12:57. Outside, rain falls, bleak and relentless. Inside, though, having been shooed out of work because I had some hours coming (I DO have the best boss), I am wrapped in a knitted throw, feet up in the cozy chair.

And I am reading one of my Book Flood books, Dinners With Ruth, by Nina Totenberg.

It may look like I am snuggled up, enjoying some unexpected free time, and that would be partly true, but I am also doing something else.

I am working on my book list.

*****************

The beginning of a new year always entices me thus: here’s a chance, it says, to get organized.

One of my best ways of getting organized is by listing.

 In the past few days, I have created a reading list. This will help me read both my owned books and the library books that I had on reserve and that, as if by magic, became available as soon as the riches of the Christmas Book Flood were stacked on the table next to my reading chair.

I want to read them all, and I want to read them with the attention they deserve. And when I finish one, I vow, I will write a review and try to figure out what, precisely it has to say to me at this particular time in my life.

I do not want to be distracted by book clamor, which uncorralled books emit when they are randomly stacked and hoping to be picked next. I read, then, with one finger in my book-side ear, then, hoping to shut out the chaotic little cries of “Me next!

Pick ME!

Me! Me! Me!

I am your next great read!”

So, I make a book list. I show it to the books, and they settle down, satisfied that their turn in the queue is coming. If one of them starts getting rowdy, the other books quell it.

“She’s got a LIST,” they hiss. “She’s reading. Shut up! Just wait your turn.”

I’ve got a LIST. I have already enjoyed two randomly linked library books from that list, one about ten tomatoes and the other about red sauce, that jumped off the new non-fiction shelf at me. I learned about the surprising history of tomatoes and red sauce by delving into those fortuitous encounters.

And I crossed those two books off the top of the ‘To Read’ list with my handy yellow highlighter.

(And then, of course, I had, to respond, to simmer up a big pot of s’ghetti sauce, using the trusted Zanghi method. Mark did not complain.)

And next I read West With Giraffes, and that spoke to me of hope in the Great Depression, an era that shaped my parents and, so, shaped me. I had requested THAT book from our library a month or two back, and I couldn’t bear to send it back to the reserve list unread, reasoning that I’d read my Christmas books first. Who knew when West With Giraffes would come my way again? No, I read it and enjoyed it.

There was room to do that because I’d made a list, and West With Giraffes was number three.

*******************************

Robert N. Kraft endorses my list-making habit in “10 Benefits of Making Lists,” an article on psychologytoday.com.

Kraft defines a list as “…an ordered sequence of items with a brief description accompanying each item.”  (I don’t always add that brief description. My book list is just titles and numbers. But I guess I carry at least a brief general idea of what each book is about in my head, so maybe I sort of fulfill his criteria.)

Here, summarized, I will list what Kraft sees as the benefits of list-making.

1. The very act of listing things helps us remember them. (Kraft notes that, unlike, say, events in a novel, list items can be unrelated. One doesn’t logically lead to another, which makes remembering those things a little harder. In a story, a bad breakup might lead to a disastrous night out on the town. On a grocery list, by contrast, ‘mustard’ doesn’t necessarily suggest ‘Brussels sprouts.’)

2. A list creates a context for remembering. All these things ARE groceries, after all.

3. We humans, Kraft maintains, like to process things sequentially.

4. We can add to a list without restructuring the whole thing. So what if the original was a list of ten? Just  put the thing that needs to be added at the end; now I have a list of eleven.

5. The act of listing jogs our memories: when we process one item, we may remember another that needs to be added. (Milk reminds me of cheese, which I also need to make the Lee Brothers’ macaroni and cheese delight…)

6. Lists are concise and orderly; their bits are small and digestible.

7. Lists lead to a sense of accomplishment. Tackling a list item, crossing it off, makes me feel like I’ve DONE something.

8. Listing pro’s and con’s helps me make informed decisions.

9. Creating NOT To Do lists can help me break difficult habits. (I may need to explore this concept more deeply.)

10. Easy to write and easy to read, lists save me time in both their creation and their digestion.

************************

“At the New Year,” writes Victoria Chang in her introduction of “Poem 01:05:16” in the New York Times, “the list genre returns with a vengeance when people make their annual resolutions.” And she shares Laynie Brown’s poem, which itself is in the form of a list. (You can read it here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/29/magazine/poem-01-05-16.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare)

But Brown makes a case AGAINST resolutions. I guess that argument has been taking place as long as people have been resolving. Does listing resolutions—making that kind of stated commitment to a big change—just make one feel guilty when the goal is not achieved?

Me, I like making the list, even knowing that many of the to-do’s won’t get to-done.

With a list, I have at least  created the POSSIBILITY that change can happen.

***************************

My son James is the most accomplished list-maker I know. Listing, I think, grounds and centers him, gives him a sense of order when other things seem irrationally random.

He will create a list, maybe, of 50 directors who could direct the film if, say, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books were made into movies (not just into an extended series). He does what Dr. Frank recommends and adds brief descriptions or explanations. He might have a column for the director’s name, and a column that lists reasons for including that person. A third column may add another interior list: the works to the director’s credit.

Often, James will color code the lists he creates, painstakingly, in his precise printing.

“Making a list,” he says, “helps me get organized.”

****************************

 There’s a website called The List Producer: using lists to lead your best life (listproducer.com), which agrees with James and goes further.

“Making a list,” that author iterates, “will make you more organized, productive and efficient. But did you know that there are actually health benefits to list making too?”

The List Producer tells me that making a list can…

…reduce my anxiety. (Say I am pressured by the sheer number of things I must do. Listing them gives me control. I complete one small task and highlight it: done! I’m sort of in control now, and some of my stress dissipates.)

…stimulate my brain. (Unfortunately, there are parts of my brain I am generally more than happy to allow to snooze. Making a list can activate those slumbering brain parts, and that helps me to connect things that, maybe, seemed disparate before.)

…sharpen my focus. (Making a list can keep my “eye on the prize,” and this focus can seep into other areas of my life, as well.)

…boost my self-esteem. (Every time I earn that lovely sense of accomplishment by highlighting a completed task, I am motivated and more inclined to be more productive.)

…organize my thoughts, just as James is saying. (Listing can be seen as a kind of sweeping of the boney chamber, a mental de-cluttering.)

***********************

This summer Mark installed three hanging shelves to I could display and organize my cookbooks. And now they lurch around on those shelves, those cookbooks, jostling each other and taunting me.

“When are you using MY recipes?” one might heckle.

Or—-

“Oh, PLEASE. Joy of Cooking again??? Branch out, baby!”

So I decide to do kind of a double listing exercise.

First I make a list of twelve cookbooks. I will explore one each month during 2023.

The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook is January’s pick. I page through and list dishes to try, and…

–Cheese straws

–Spiced pecans

–Red Rice

–Purloo (with game hen instead of squab)

–Jambalaya

–Tuesday Fried Chicken

–Easy North Carolina-style Half Picnic Shoulder

–Harlem Meatloaf…

…I write.

I add “Blackened Potato Salad” with a couple of question marks. It sounds odd but intriguing.

I’ll try at at least one new recipe a week, and I’ll note our reactions for future cooking adventures.

And then, in February, I’ll visit a little with The Pollan Family Cookbook.

And maybe, by year’s end, we will have some new favorite things to eat.

**************************

I have carried my copy of Put Your Heart on Paper, a book by Henriette Anne Klauser, through at least five moves.  Klauser has a lot to say about how writing can galvanize, actualize, materialize, things in my life. And in Chapter 8, she writes about the magic listing can wring from ordinary days.

“Lists,” says Klauser, “give the writer a healthy sense of abundance, a sense of plenty and power.”

She talks about the kinds of lists that address ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ (lists of resolutions and to-do list fall into these categories), and then she talks about ‘play’ lists—not, here, lists of recorded music to play, but lists of fun things a writer might want to do, or intriguing ideas to explore, or potent possibilities it would be perfection to make come true.

And she talks about the power of long lists. “…in lists of a hundred,” Klauser maintains, “ the first thirty-three are predictable, the next thirty-three are silly; the last thirty-three are off the wall—-and your best.”

Which makes me want to pick a challenge and write down 100 ways of meeting it.

********************************

It is Friday now, and the rain drizzled to a stop overnight; the wind has picked up, and the temps have plummeted. And it is the 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany in our tradition, and the day the wise men arrive at the crib. And it is the day we can take,—-the wise men having seen it, I guess,—-the Christmas tree down.

I will miss the warm white glow of the tree lights, but I am excited, too, about the forced segue into newness. I am stealing an idea from a friend, and creating a post-Christmas winter display that will last until the middle of March, at which time, I hope, we’ll need to be embracing spring.

But to get these things done, I need to get organized. I pull out paper and make myself a to-do list, and I start writing down the things I’ll need to gather, make, or buy.

And when I’m done with that, I may take a little break, light the fire, and go back to Nina Totenberg for a while. Because I won’t be goofing off, will I?

NO. I’ll be working on my list.

Eating Out

I missed the appointment because of snow and below zero temps and a street that hadn’t seen a plow. And the appointment had to take place before the end of the year, because, you know…insurance, and the ruling role it plays in our lives.

So the rescheduled appointment wound up being on Thursday afternoon, and Thursday was a day we’d kind of thought about road-tripping. We had to pivot a bit, but we came up with a pretty good alternative plan: we’d spend the morning at our local art museum and then go to one of our favorite lunch places.

************

We frequent the art museum when special exhibits arrive, and we go for concerts, and I like their book clubs, but we don’t always just go to look at the art. So Thursday we started on the ground floor and meandered, really looking, at the paintings and sculptures and photographs. Some we’d seen before, but enough time had passed that we could look with new eyes.

And some were new to us.

There were two special exhibits—-works donated by local collectors, which was pretty amazing. And there was a display of illustrations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by an English artist named Patrick Procktor. (I had the thrill, later in the day, of seeing Procktor’s name in the memoir I was reading; the author arranged a kind of cultural festival, and she wanted to introduce a hitherto unknown painter. To generate interest, though, her team decided to pair the undiscovered artist’s work with the work of a known and established artist.

And that artist was Patrick Procktor. How about THAT? I thought. If I hadn’t gone to the art museum today…)

And Mark spent time in the ceramics and pottery room,—Mark, whose first and long-lived job was working for a small firm that made machinery for the ceramics industry. He looks at pottery with informed eyes, thinking about how things were cast or poured, how handles attach, how glazes were developed.

Paintings catch James; he looks for the symbols renaissance painters embed in their work, and he marvels at the almost-photographic quality of some 19th century portraits, and he loves that the museum has a Salvador Dali.

Two hours melted away, and, “That was really cool,” said James. “It was FUN.”

We all agreed we need to visit the art museum every couple of months, just to look. And then we got in the car and drove to one of our favorite little family-owned restaurants for lunch.

****************

And, well: damn. The place was closed.

We should have, but never thought to, check on line.

So we decided to try another restaurant not far down the road. We’d had lackluster meals there far in the past, but it had new management, and we’d heard things had changed.

We went in and one very busy wait person pointed us to the fourth booth on the left. He took our drink orders, brought our drinks, and then we never talked to him again.

He whirled around the dining room, bringing plates, bringing checks, taking plates, taking checks. People corralled him—-more butter! (I GAVE you butter he said; in the little white bowl. See? I want MORE butter, the chubby, crabby man said.)

Refill my drink!

Extra salad dressing!

New people came in  and were seated.

We waited, patiently at first.

Time went by and James said, “This is taking a long time.” He looked at us. “Isn’t it?”

I went to the bathroom, and came back, and we waited some more.

Finally, Mark said. “Okay. Let’s go.”

We put money on the table to cover the drinks, and I followed the boyos out. The server looked at their storm cloud faces and decided not to approach them.

But he, arms full of lunch platters, gave me this beseeching, forlorn, helpless look.

“I know,” I said. “I know you’re working alone. But we just can’t wait today.”

****************

In the car, little puffs of steam were foofing out of Mark’s ears, in sync with his breathing. Jim was sitting quietly in the back seat, staring out the window at nondescript scenery.

Mark started the car.

“Let’s just go home and eat,” he said.

“Amen,” agreed James.

And so we did.

I thought how amazing it is that a bad meal out—or worse, I guess: NO meal out, when you have the expectation of one—-can collapse an otherwise happy day.

*********************

 Eating out, when I was growing up, was an almost unheard of luxury. One income, five kids—five HUNGRY kids…my mother bought twenty pound bags of potatoes. My father liked potatoes—meat and potatoes—-and Mom used them to stretch meals. Boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes: rinse and repeat. Those twenty pound sacks could be empty in three days.

My family emptied potato sacks, licked meat platters clean, and decimated the contents of cookies jar. We went through loaves and loaves of cheap white bread and jars and jars of peanut butter.

Imagine feeding THAT hungry horde at a restaurant more than once every couple of years. It was more than the budget could bear.

But there were just a few times…Once my father brought home take out from a local restaurant; I was very young, and I think it was my first taste of restaurant French fries. I remember the greasy napkins, and the excited jabber, but I don’t remember much about the food.

I do remember this: It was a treat.

And then there was a time when my brothers’ little league team—the one my father managed—-went to some sort of World Series event in a small city nearby. Did they win? I can’t remember, but I can tell you that after the game, we went to McDonald’s.

There was no McDonald’s at the time in my small town, and this was amazing.

I did not like the hamburger—small, flattened, soaked in a soup of mustard, ketchup, and pickle. In those days, one couldn’t have it their way. It was all or nothing.

Someone else ate my burger, but I didn’t mind: I was lost in the revelatory flavors of my first Mickie D’s chocolate shake and fries. So good.

SO good.

I probably didn’t eat out again until I started babysitting, and Sandee and I, great sophisticates, would walk down to the Your Host restaurant or the Neisner’s snack bar at the Plaza and get ourselves a burger or a grilled ham and cheese.

Food hot off the flat top: what a treat.

******************

And eating out was like the special high point of going to proms, and it was something we did to commemorate special occasions. Budgeting was still an issue: I could afford, maybe, a Julienne salad,–lovely, crisp lettuce with meats and cheeses,–hot, soft buns on the side, a big glass of ice water.

I could make a salad at home, but not with the panache of that one.

Eating out was FUN.

*******************

And then  fast food got more familiar; Mickie D’s and BK and Wendy’s stores popped up all over. If you had kids, you got them kids’ meals, at least once in a while.

On Friday nights, when Matt was at his mom’s, Mark and I would often eat at an Italian restaurant in the food court at the mall (until the night I had my first gall bladder attack after a doughy, cheesy meal.)

But slowly, insidiously, eating out became not so special; it was a convenience. The food wasn’t always great, but getting it was fast, and there were no dishes to do on busy school nights, or weekends after concerts or games.

When menu plans crashed and burned, when busy days rendered us unwilling to cook and then scrub pots, then, “Oh, let’s just go to Freddy’s,” we might say.

And life plowed along like that for a good bit.

And then, of course: COVID.

************************

For two years, maybe more, we ate in. Mark and James might say things like this: When COVID is over, let’s go to Longhorn and get giant, juicy steaks. Or, I can’t wait to get together with the women for lunch again, I might say.

And slowly, slowly, the disease seemed to calm, things got better, and we could, again, venture out to eat.

*************************

But it is ironic that, as the COVID wave sucked back out to sea (somewhat, at least), what it revealed in its wet, sandy wake was a dearth of workers.

Every restaurant we pass these days has a “Now Hiring” sign out front. And many of them are left in the state the place where we didn’t get served is in: one or two overworked wait staff are running their feet off, trying to keep up. And places are looking for cooks, too… It’s no wonder that, at some establishments, quality has changed. At one of my favorite former places to sit with coffee and, maybe, a muffin, sneaking a little writing time in, the decaf is ALWAYS cold—or at least, it has been the last four times I’ve tried it. And the harried staff is always willing to make a new pot, but that takes a while, and by the time it finally is done, I’m often getting antsy and ready to go, until now I’m reluctant to even give it a try.

And, of course, now that I don’t eat, very much, in the Land of Gluten, I am pickier about the menus at the fooderies I frequent…

****************************

Mark and I went out for a belated anniversary lunch today (hard to believe the number of years we have been celebrating anniversaries, but that’s another story), and it was lovely. We drove to a pub we’d never been to. It’s about thirty miles away, and the service was wonderful, the view was great, and the food came, hot and fresh, in no time at all.

That anniversary lunch was a treat.

******************************

And that’s what eating out should be, I’m thinking: a rare fine treat. So I’m mulling about meals and venues, and whining a little, quietly, in my boney chamber, because, in general, I’m the person who cooks if we eat at home. But there are ways to make that easier. (We bought Bob Evans mashed potatoes when we were planning to deliver a long-distance Thanksgiving dinner. Serious weather quashed those plans, sadly, but we had the mashed taters in the freezer, so we used them. Revelation: they were GOOD.)

Maybe with the money I save by not eating out, I can indulge in a few convenience foods—plan ahead to make meal prep both tasty and resentment-free.

A new regime, a post-COVID regime, maybe: evening meals, for the most part, at home. And then, once in a while, a meal out at a place we know and like and can count on to be special.

It won’t be as stringently occasional as in my childhood days, but if we can spread it out a little, save the chances and savor them, I think eating out can once again be what it should be: something fine and something special.

Solstice

So put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips
As the dish outside the window fills with rain
Tom Waits, “Time”

It is a dark, cold, gray morning, smack in the middle of the week leading up to Christmas. I would like to take a walk, but the sun is reluctant to wake up and shine.

When its pale light finally takes over, James is up, eating breakfast and politely enquiring about what out-and-about-ing this day might bring.

So we head out to the supermarket. There is not much left to buy, but we do need a few little things: Rolos for the gluten-free pretzel reindeer we thought we’d make for treats for Mark’s office; salami and pepperoni for Christmas Eve stromboli. Some provolone cheese. A carton of milk to tide us over.

Just one more grocery store trip, I think, and we’ll be set for the holiday.

We drive through the gray day, and James, maybe thinking of this being the shortest day of the year and the darkest night, begins to talk about Stephen King’s Dark Tower, about the movie compared to the book, about the Horn of Eld, about how the gunslingers’ souls abide in their guns. Dark stuff, that Dark Tower tale, and fitting, maybe, for this gray day, this abbreviated day, this day on which the year pivots.

We park in the farthest reaches of the parking lot—which is not, at almost 10 a.m. on the Wednesday before Christmas, yet jam-packed. We’ll get some steps in.

*************************************

There may be spaces in the lot, but the store seems very crowded, and, at this hallowed time of year, the faces around us are not particularly merry.

In the candy aisle, we discover that every possible package with Rolo candy in it is gone, gone, gone. What else could we use?

We ponder. Chocolate covered caramels are too big for the tiny pretzels. Maybe, we think optimistically, there are some Rolos in the Christmas aisle, where we will, no doubt, find red and green M&M’s, too.

In the baking aisle, a woman talking angrily on her phone brushes hard against the cart James pushes.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, although he’s not at fault, at all; he just wants everyone to feel good. The woman bites words into the phone, and then she glares at James.

But. We find little packets of chocolate covered caramel truffles—these, we think, will work on the pretzels. And we find a red velvet cake mix—and it’s on sale.

We head to the special Christmas section.

In the Christmas aisle, an older man—older, even, than I am—charges through, parks his cart with an abrupt halt just exactly where Jim was looking. James looks up, startled, but the man just elbows his way in. He’s actually growling just a little bit, I think, as he grasps and tosses three bags of Christmas candy into his cart, turns abruptly and favors James with a “There! I got there first!” kind of look and stomps his cart away.

We don’t find Rolos, and there are no plain red and greens M&M’s left.

But. We have regular M&M’s at home; we can sort through them and separate out red and green ones. We have the truffles to use in place of Rolos. And we have a juicy assortment, selected by James, of salamis and cheeses for stromboli.

Best of all, we have no reason to set foot in a retail establishment for the foreseeable future.

****************************

Outside the store, a bell ringer, plump and cheerful, is singing, “STOP! In the name of love…”

I stop to tell her she has a lovely voice, and she says the song popped into her head because there she was, ringing her bell, when an angry-looking woman whirled around and held up a hand, palm flat in that universal ‘Halt!’ gesture.

“All I could think of,” said the woman, who is surely too young to remember them, “was the Supremes.”

We wish her a merry Christmas, and we walk off to the nether regions of the lot, propelled by her singing: …before you brea-aaa-ak my heart. Think it oh-oh-over…

In the car, we imagine why people might be so grumpy. Maybe something awful has happened in their lives: maybe, storm predicted, their kids aren’t coming home after all. Or someone is seriously sick. It could be that money is tight, and they cannot put on the holiday they envision with their dreaming eyes.

Maybe this is the first year that gentleman had to shop for Christmas candy; maybe his wife always did that—LOVED doing it!—and maybe, now, his wife is gone.

“And then, too,” James says, thoughtfully, “I think some people are just crabby.”

****************************

James plays music, a raw, sad song by Tom Waits called “Time.” Waits sings about dark things, but he sings about candles in windows, too; he sings about pain, and he sings about hope. (https://youtu.be/VhWTDvPLGTE)

Waits has acted in some movies as well as composing and performing, James tells me, and I make a note to explore Tom Waits and his music when I have a free moment at the desktop.

I pull into the carport, and when James clicks off the music, the news is on behind it. He quickly silences it.

“It’s never GOOD news,” he says. “You know?”

******************************

And we go inside and unpack the few groceries, and in the clean, quiet house, I sort multi-hued M&M’s, making a little bowl full of just Christmas colors, and I turn the oven on low, put tiny pretzels on parchment paper, and nestle truffles in their grooves. Someone explained to me, back in my Catholic school teaching days, that pretzels were a symbolic treat in early Lenten days. The heart shape stood for the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the twisted innards were a person’s arms, crossed in prayer.

Those little crossed arms are filled with chocolate and caramel now…not exactly a frugal Lenten image.

The truffles soften in the oven and I pull them out; before they set, I push an M&M into each melting chocolatey pillow, and set them aside to cool.

James tries them for me. Mark comes home for lunch and munches.

“These are good,” he says.

(By dinnertime, there is not a pretzel treat left. After we clean away the dishes, I’ll make a bigger batch for Mark to take to work the next day. And I’ll cover them with a cookie sheet to discourage neighborhood fingers from visiting.)

*****************************

In the afternoon, I make a quick trip to pick up a final, special gift, and I find that traffic is clogged. I am stuck far away from the traffic light, hemmed in by other drivers. Someone not too far in front of me lays on their horn, like that will do any good. (“Oh! I thought I’d just sit here annoying people by stopping traffic, but now you’ve beeped, and all of us, all the cars ahead of you, will magically hurry off into newly cleared lanes! Your beeping is so helpful!”)

But the errand’s worth the hassle, and the people I see at that special place ARE cheer-filled, and I come home bearing treasure.

And, in the gray afternoon, I light a fire and as it flickers, I read a book. I may even, for a moment, close my eyes and drift away.

***************************

And the late gray afternoon darkens. I flip through my recipes and find one for stuffed pepper soup. The light wanes; I chop onions and crumble ground beef, and I slit the tops of red, green, and orange peppers, carve out seeds and membranes, chop halves into strips, cut strips into squares.

I cook rice, and I take the broth from the refrigerator.

The soup simmers, and I make a small batch of scrambled eggs; we’ll have a strange dinner on this strange day: homemade egg McMuffins and stuffed pepper soup.

****************************

And it is dark before 5:15. I light four Advent candles in the wreath in the bay window, and I light the squat, vanilla-scented candle behind Mary, Joseph, and the baby in the creche. The glow warms Jesus’s cold ceramic face.

The Advent candles burn bold against the window’s darkness.

**************************

We decide to forego a Christmas film and watch Knives Out, instead. There’s something satisfying about watching the horrible family struggles, the fights and the deceit, the dark and brooding self-interest. And it’s especially satisfying when Daniel Craig’s Benoit figures it all out, and Ransom (played by Chris Evans—not a very Captain America-kind of character at all) gets his just desserts.

Dark movie. Dark night. But there’s hope this all ends well.

********************************

I step out, just for a last breath of fresh air, click the cars locked, and look up and down the street. There are tree lights and festive outdoor lights and plain old regular lights, all shouting bravely in the darkness. I go inside and lock the door.

And shivering, I take a new library book upstairs, but I’m asleep before its words knock on the door to the cluttered boney chamber.

********************************

And then morning comes, and it’s done, that darkest day. And the celebration of light will come very soon, or will continue for those folks already celebrating, and that will remind us we’ve endured the darkest time, and that light and warmth and newness and growth are coming.

And now every day will open its clenched hand to show me, in its palm, an extra minute or so of light.

It’s not that darkness is going away. It’s just the light is coming back to balance things, and maybe, for a while, to dominate our lives.

****************************************

The winter solstice smacks me around a little with its symbolism, its messages, but always, always, there is hope, and there is light, faint at first but growing brighter. It flickers but it is steady, and I turn toward its warmth.

Wrapping

The twins were maybe eleven, Tara guessed. They wore matching sparkly antlers in their curly hair, and it looked like their café au lait cheeks were dusted with glitter. They grinned at her, and they held out a plastic clip with earrings—Christmas penguin earrings—on it. They also had a big jar of hand lotion.

“It’s for our mom,” said one twin, who introduced herself as Merry. (Christmas was their BIRTHDAY, she explained proudly. And their names were Merry and Noelle.) “Her hands always get cracked in the winter.”

“And could you put each earring in its own box?” asked Noelle. “So we each have one to give?”

Tara smiled and rummaged through the smaller boxes. She pulled out two tiny ones, separated the earrings from their backing, nestled them in little fluffs of tissue, and wrapped all three packages in penguin-themed paper. Then she  packed them in a plain brown carry bag and handed it to Merry, who was closest.

“Thank you!” sang the girls, skipping away.

******************

In the next half hour, she wrapped a cordless screwdriver, a smart watch, three pairs of fuzzy slippers, an indoor grill (THAT required the widest paper), several sets of Legos, and two bottles of perfume. The door between Tara’s Wrapperie and Sherboggan’s Department Store (“One Store; Four Floors; We Have Everything!”) jingled continuously.

********************

Tara’s day job at the local library paid her rent, provided her health insurance, and insured she had first crack (sorry, readers!) at new books by authors like Louise Penny, Barbara Kingsolver, and Emily Griffiths. She loved her job at the library, but during the holidays, she opened the Wrapperie in the little nook next to Sherboggan’s (in the warmer months, the space hosted a pop-up smoothie place).

Reading, she often thought, was her life work, but wrapping gifts was her passion. Tara was lucky; her jobs tapped into both.

And the people she got to meet!

*******************

Short brown work jacket, clomping boots (steel toes, Tara guessed), work-hardened hands. He was probably about 50, she thought, and he had a clumsy shopping bag. He looked around to make sure no one else was in the shop and pulled out a garish toilet seat. It was translucent, and, in its cushiony depths, fish swam and sea ferns waved.

He cleared his throat.

“She always wanted one of those,” he said, “ and I kept telling her it was too tacky.” He coughed, and his cheeks reddened through the stubble.

Tara wondered what had changed his mind. She hoped it was just a Christmas Carol kind of realization: a moment of ‘Life is short, and if it makes her happy, what the hell.’

She found a big, flat box, lined it with crumpled tissue, and slid the toilet seat onto that cushion. She layered a few sheets of clean fresh white tissue on top, and she slid the lid over the treasure.

She actually had a paper with little fish in red Santa hats swimming on a turquoise background. She wrapped the box up, laced it with red ribbon, and curled the ends. There was a matching gift card; she pulled one out, with an envelope, and slipped everything into her largest carry bag. She handed it all to the man with a grin.

“I hope she loves it!” Tara said.

The man grunted a shy thank you, and stomped off.

When Tara turned to clear the counter, she found what hadn’t been there before: a crumpled fifty dollar bill.

She grabbed it and darted out the door into the cold December night. Thank goodness; she could see him.

“Sir!” She yelled. “SIR!”

Somehow he knew she meant him; he stopped and turned, and then walked slowly toward her.

“You forgot this,” Tara said. “I think it fell out of your pocket.”

She held out the crumpled bill, and his cheeks reddened again.

“That’s your TIP,” he said.

“But,” Tara stumbled. “Fifty dollars? It’s too much.”

“It’s not,” he said. “You don’t know how important this is.” He clamped his hands into fists and turned away. Then he swung his head back toward her.

“And,” he said, “you didn’t laugh.”

He marched off into the cold night, and Tara thought about where she could donate that generous tip. She wished she knew more about the man and his wife. But clearly she loved the ocean, and there was a local school that took its sixth graders on an aquarium field trip each year. Maybe they’d use this for lunches for kids whose families were a little cash-challenged.

**************************

She wrapped a Roomba, four books, a necklace, and three flannel nightgowns.

The night was winding down: closing time soon.

***************************

The older woman was buttoned-up, tight-lipped, and laden with lumpy packages.

“Am I next?” she asked Tara briskly, and Tara said that yes, yes she was. (I hope you’re last, too, Tara thought. She was tired and ready to clean up and go.)

The woman set down her bags and rummaged. She made three piles: each had a package of men’s tighty whities and a three-pack of white undershirts.

“I’d like each package to be different, but I’d like them to be beautifully, distinctively wrapped.”

Tara looked at the underwear and back at the woman, momentarily startled. It was not her place to comment on the gifts a giver chooses, but this was a new request. She bent down, hunting beneath the counter for right-sized boxes and beautiful papers and bows.

There was a muffled sort of choking noise from the other side of the counter. When she straightened up, Tara could see the other woman was laughing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and her eyes were dancing, and now Tara saw that this was a FUN person, not a stiff-lipped, tightly-laced sniffer. “You should have seen your face! You recovered very quickly, though.”

Tara grinned. “Well,” she said, “It IS an unusual request.”

The woman extended her hand. “Mary Prendergarth,” she said. “It feels like, if you’re wrapping family undergarments, we ought to be on a first name basis. And you,” she said, “are Tara?”

The “Hi, I’m Tara!” pin gave her away, of course, and so did the sign in the door: Tara’s Wrapperie. Free for Sherboggan’s Customers.

“Yes, ma’am,” Tara agreed, and she fist-bumped Mary’s hand.

“It’s a joke we’ve played since the boys were little,” Mary explained. “We always give them underwear, and we always try to disguise it. We’ve made packages of all sizes and shapes. Some years they grab the underwear first and then it’s done and they can concentrate on what else is in their piles. Some years they keep unwrapping, knowing the underwear is in there somewhere, waiting.”

She sighed. “The youngest is 35 now, and they all have their own houses, but still. This is an important part of Christmas.”

“It’s fun,” said Tara. “How did it start?”

Mary leaned on the counter. “One year, when my oldest, Lukas, was six, he was being such a pot! All Christmas season, his behavior was outrageous. We told him if he didn’t watch out, all he’d get for Christmas was underwear. And he snorted at that.

“So we got him all the usual, of course, but his biggest, fanciest package was full of underwear. And we figured, heck, they all need new underwear, so we got the same for the little guys, too.

“Well, of course, Lukas grabbed the big fancy package first, and tore the paper off. You should have heard him howl! And his brothers’ faces: like, Oh, no! Is that what WE got too?

She grinned. “There was true grief until their father gently pointed out the rest of their packages. Equanimity was restored.

“And the next year, they started wondering which box the underwear would be in. It got to be a game…some years we’d do fancy boxes, and they always fell for that. So the next year, we’d do plain ones, and they’d grab those, thinking they’d outwitted us, that they’d unwrap the good stuff first.

“This is a fancy package year,” said Mary. “So will you work your magic?”

Tara went all out. She had a shiny, red, lidded box, and she used her lushest gold ribbon, tying on a candy cane, a sprig of holly, and a plastic polar bear. (Hint: whiteness inside!) She had a special box for things unusually shaped. It folded up into a pyramid; its Christmas tree motifs marched on a sandy background, and she had a shiny, fireworks-y topper. Attached carefully, it looked like sparklers were shooting out from the top of the package. And she had a cloth bag, a Christmassy plaid, that she lined with alternating angles of red and green tissue paper.

“What do you think?” She asked, lining up the three very different packages on the counter for Mary’s review.

“I think,” said Mary, “that you are a genius.”

Tara helped her pack the beautifully disguised undies into hefty tote bags. Mary opened her purse, took out her wallet, and slid a crisp bill across the counter. Then she hesitated.

“I don’t know why,” she said, “but I feel it’s important you know this. This is my last Christmas. I am so glad I feel well enough to celebrate it, but I just wasn’t up to the wrapping.”

“Oh, Mary,” said Tara. And she noted the deep purple shadows under Mary’s eyes and the slight tremor of her hand.

“I hope my husband keeps up the tradition,” said Mary, and she gave Tara a tremulous, twinkling grin before she disappeared out the door.

**************************

Tara drove home through dark, quiet streets. She was tired; it had taken her a while to get the wrapping station cleaned up and tidy, to make it a space she’d be happy to walk into at six the next evening.

There were some nights, after wrapping (especially when people were impatient or rude) that she wondered why she put herself through this every year.

But on nights like this, she knew why. Nights like this reminded her that people believe. In a world full of tragedies, conflict, and hate, people—ordinary people like her, with challenges and problems and quandaries; sometimes, even, with cataclysmic losses—believed. They might not get all soppy about it, but at the holidays, they decorated according to their wont; they bought and prepared special foods, and they searched for just the right gifts.

The belief, Tara thought, went beyond religion, beyond personal articulations of faith, beyond convention.

And the gifts they gave, and the feasts they fashioned, and the light they sent out into the darkest nights—well, people might grumble about the extra work, the necessity, the expectations. But what they were doing was unleashing a little magic into a world that really needs it: generosity. Vivid tradition. Consideration of who one person really is, of what that person needs and wants..

Hope for a better new year.

So Tara would get up after five hours of sleep tomorrow and head to her library job, and then she’d grab a quick dinner before going to Sherboggan’s to wrap other people’s gifts.

Because she believed, too,–believed that the smallest of gestures, rendered with care and compassion, can, in a real and valid way, illuminate the world.

What Blooms in December

“The flower that blooms late is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

– The Emperor, Mulan

If we named this year, we might call it, “The Year of Our Tomato Adventure.” Mark supposes that the tomatoes gently ripening on the upper windowsill above the kitchen sink probably cost around a hundred dollars each.

We started late, for one thing. There were distractions, and so it wasn’t until we were well into May that I realized I hadn’t put in any Cordell tomato seeds. We scrambled—gathering egg cartons and potting soil, creating nursery space for baby ‘maters in sunny windows, remembering to water enough but not too much.

And those little seeds preened and sprouted; they were joyously green, stretching their tiny, tender leaves to that life-giving sunshine.

Soon—well, it was June by then,—they were ready to be transplanted tenderly into little blue pots, pots made of plastic harvested from the ocean and morphed into life-affirming vessels. The tomatoes liked that environment, too, and we cleared off more space—on top of bookshelves, on the daybed-side table in the sunporch (we grandly call that ‘guest space in the Florida room’), on the dresser in the dining room’s bay window.

And I realized I had Roma tomato seeds, too; we broke out more egg cartons and we started those.

So it was July and we were still moving bambino and toddler tomatoes into ever larger pots.

Then the question was this: how do we safely put them outside? How do we protect them from the deer who graciously wait until those fruits begin to blush, and then chomp them off their woody stems? How to avoid the squirrels or raccoons who delight in taking one bite out of seven or eight otherwise perfect plump tomatoes?

“We are not growing tomatoes to feed the freeloading wildlife,” Mark vowed. One day we saw an ad for an enclosed raised bed structure; it had walls about eight feet high with chicken wire stretched tight across them…a barricade against deer and rodents with a taste for tomato.

“It’s a lot of money,” Mark mulled.

“But it’s a long term investment,” I countered.

He was willing to be persuaded; he ordered the kit.

It came in two parts, separately; Mark had to wait for both boxes before he could start, on weekends and evenings, to construct the structure we came to call the Pigpen.

And each phase had its own challenges. Mark built the Pigpen, and he moved the tomatoes into giant vats inside its protective walls. Then he realized climbers and flyers could merrily access the now burgeoning tomato plants through the open ceiling. He bought more chicken wire and enclosed.

This, then, was the end of August, the beginning of September. Cold weather rolled in. Frost warnings descended on the land. The tomatoes were big plants now; even the smallest one, the one we called “Little Guy,” was exuberantly woody and flaunting little golden stars.

“They’re probably fine?” I conjectured in a hopeful tone, because really, what did I know about tomatoes and temps?

Mark, Lowe’s #1 preferred customer, went out and bought heavy duty plastic and enclosed the Pigpen. He started calling it ‘the Green House.’

One day it poured and the plastic roof sagged under the weight of puddled rain. Mark ran out in the morning, poked holes and drained the load. That night he bought more lumber and made ceiling supports.

It grew colder, and Mark was outside with extension cords and a drill, screw drivers, and some squat black little device. When he came in, he was pleased with the project.

“I put a little heater out there,” he said. “And look!” He held up something that looked like a TV remote. “I can control the temperature from inside!”

Those golden stars nestled among fragrant leaves began turning into little hard green tomatoes. The tomatoes basked in their hothouse environment.

The electric company sent me a notice. You’re using significantly more power than you used this time last year, they said.

But we were within striking distance of harvesting. It was November now.

And one day Mark went out, and, through the kitchen window, I saw him careening around inside the Pigpen, and its door opened, and a fat, nicely pink tomato came flying out, landing with a splat in the wet green grass.

“Worms!” yelled Mark. “They get ripe enough to eat, and worms find them!”

There were dozens of hard little tomatoes on the vines, tomatoes the discerning worms were reluctant to eat yet. We picked them all and researched how to ripen tomatoes in the house. The method we went with is this: put them in paper bags with bananas. The bananas release some enzyme or chemical that tomatoes need to ripen.

And by gum, it works. As the tomatoes begin to blush, I take them out and put them on the sill above the sink. There are 16 tomatoes there now, and more softly readying in a bag, waiting to take their places.

On Sunday we made tacos and ceremoniously chopped our first homegrown 2022 Cordell tomato. Tonight we will have BLT’s, and we’ll chop and flash freeze the tomatoes we can’t use right now.

And we’ll dry seeds for next year’s crop, which we WILL plant in a timely way. And we’ll figure out what to do about those dreadful little wormy things, too.

But here is my thought: we’re teetering, as I write this, on the far ledge of November’s rooftop, just about to drop into December’s anteroom—and into deep, dark winter. And our tomatoes are ripening.

It’s the beginning of what we think of as a frozen, fallow time, but some things are blooming, and some things are ripening; some things are just coming in to their own. It feels a little miraculous—hopeful and unexpected.

What else blooms in December?

***************************

Mark’s legal assistant had a Christmas cactus, and she wasn’t happy. The plant seemed healthy enough, but it certainly didn’t bloom at Christmas. It never bloomed, in fact.

She said something about throwing the plant away, and Mark rescued it and brought it home.

That, I think, was at the end of March. We put the Christmas cactus on top of the bookshelf in the living room window, put it there and pretty much forgot about it, except to water it once a week or so.

Then, lo and behold, toward the end of April, it pushed out some blooms. They weren’t huge flowers, but they were definitely blossoms.

Kind of confused, time-wise, that little plant, we thought. Mark took pictures to share with the plant’s former mama.

And the blossoms fell off, and the plant nestled into its home in the living room. Once in a while, I pushed a fertilizer stick into its dirt; I watered it and its companions, viny ivy-type greenery grown from a plant Mark received from co-workers 28 years ago. The cohabitants all seemed to get along just fine.

Two weeks ago, I noticed fat buds on the Christmas cactus.

We had to move the bookshelf to make way for the Christmas tree (put up earlier this year than we have ever put up a tree before). The shelf now nestles into the bay window in the family room, peeking out over the top of the blue loveseat. We moved the plants there, too, so they could bask in the west-facing sunshine. And the Christmas cactus exploded into beautiful, waxy, riotous bloom. These are merely the first flowers; the plant is loaded with buds. There are more to come. The flowers bloomed at the start of Advent; I am hoping there will still be a bloom or two on Christmas Day.

That little plant just needed its own time. The lessons I keep trying to learn after a long and meandering teaching career and something like forty-five years as a stepmom and mama come back: things bloom in their own time. And just because something hasn’t bloomed, that doesn’t doesn’t mean it’s not going to.

I may be teetering on the edge of my own November roof, but it’s not too late to learn.

*******************************

This week we stood on a green hillside outside a tiny brick country church; we stood in front of a blue tarp sheltering a freshly dug grave. Judy’s grave: we were there to say a sudden and shocked goodbye.

Judy was an essential member of our retirees’ lunch group; she was quiet, but her thoughtful questions kept the conversation flowing. Did you finish that project? she would ask. How was your trip?

Judy remembered what others talked about. She was always positive, always enthusiastic. She seldom talked about herself, which never registered because she was always so interested in everyone else’s doings.

Judy was tiny and fit; she drove a red sports car. The day before her heart attack, her husband said, she was up on a ladder, cleaning.

How is it possible that Judy is gone?

The officiant read a poem, a poem my mother copied out in her Palmer method handwriting and tucked into my sister Sharon’s scrapbook seventy-odd years ago. I tried to find the words online, but there are many, many variations. I couldn’t locate the exact one, but the meaning was this: the dead person is saying, “I am not gone; I am just…away.”

Judy hasn’t ended, the officiant said. She just lives, now, in another realm.

Judy’s absence leaves a huge vacuum here, a staggering one for her devoted husband. But it comforts to think that she could be blooming somewhere else, somewhere beyond our understanding.

*****************************

Someone I know, after long, hard years of grieving, has taken steps that might lead to a new relationship. They are both cautious, in the talking stages, making tentative plans for a face-to-face meet. They don’t know what this will lead to…friendship, companionship,…love? Or maybe just a momentary flare that will extinguish quietly.

They don’t know.

But they are open to taking chances, to finding out.

They are open to waiting, to see if something blooms.

**********************************

The tree up, the rest of the house, decked out in oranges, browns, and golds,—autumn finery—looked a little incongruous. So I pulled out bins and separated newspapers and packed away gilded turkeys and ceramic acorns and little plates that read, “Grateful” and “Give thanks.”

In the powder room, a spray of artificial flowers, brassy Crayola orange, sat jauntily in a ceramic moose vase. Next to them was a stack of books with orange covers.   

I bagged up the flowers and shelved the books. I made a small stack of red and green books and slid them onto the powder room shelf.

I thought, “I’ll have to go buy some Christmassy silk flowers.”

And then I went outside, and I realized the holly bushes, the ones we inherited from the wonderful gardeners who inhabited this space before we moved in, are loaded with fat red berries.

I got the clippers out of the black canvas garden tools bag and went out and clipped prickly beautiful sprigs of glossy holly, and I filled the moose vase with those.

****************************

Autumn has left the bathroom. It’s winter in there now, with reds and greens and holly berries.

****************************

But it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, what our losses have been, what we fear, or what we’ve given up: things bloom.

Even in December, things bloom .

After the Feast: The Pots and Pans

We’re all just bubbles in a boiling pot.

                        Jack Johnson, “Never Know”

**********************************

The turkey roasts for four and a half hours.

We put together a green bean casserole and a cast iron skillet full of veggie-studded stuffing.

We flap out the tablecloth, amber and brown and barn-red plaid. We give the glass pumpkin candlestickholders pride of place.

There is the ceremonial setting out of the Christmas plates (let the holiday season begin).

And then, finally, the bustle. The bird is done! The rolls go in! Mark eyes the long gleaming knife, and sharpens it to wield it!

All hands move steaming dishes to the table. All hearts give thanks.

And then, in twenty minutes, the groaning push, the muttered “…shouldn’t…have eaten…all THAT….”

The rush to clear off, to load the dishwasher. The drift to televised football and to video game systems and to comfortable chairs.

And all that are left of the Thanksgiving feast are these: the pots and pans.

*****************

I have been pondering pots and pondering pans all this week, since, in fact, we passed a sign for a company with ‘panhandle’ in its name, and I got a flash of some movie or scene, something from the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s, something in New York City, something with young people, long-haired and needy, panhandling on corners.

“Why,” I said to Mark and Jim, as we whizzed by that sign, “do we call certain kinds of beggars panhandlers?”

The boyos thought about this.

“I don’t know,” said Mark.

“Nor,” agreed Jim, “do I.”

But then I had a mind-worm. And the week progressed, the days leading to the feast, and I kept noticing how often words and phrases having to do with pots or with pans surface in our funny language.

********************

So I looked up panhandlers, and I found out, from my old buddy etymonline.com, that the term was first applied to cocky beggars in 1849. It came about, the site proposes, because the beggars’ outstretched arms were like the handles on a pan. And because some beggars used flat metal pans—pans like tin pie plates—-to collect their cash. Those pans didn’t have any handle except the arm attached to the hand thrusting that cash-collector into well-to-do faces.

(There’s a song, by the way, called “Beggar’s Pan,” by Gwyneth Whistlewood, the Feral Flute, from the album Amaltheia’s Lullaby. You can listen to that online here:  https://youtu.be/icIxL3WoXfM)

So, anyway: there we have panhandlers.

*********************

“Hmm,” said each of the boyos when I shared this information, and I couldn’t help thinking that they remained expressionless, that they didn’t resonate to this amazing little ort of language history, that their faces were…well, deadpan.

And where, I wondered, did that use of pan come from?

Merriam-Webster.com tells me that to be deadpan is to be “…deliberately impassive or expressionless.” (My mind immediately conjures comedian Stephen Wright; deadpan can be a good way to deliver humor.)

It’s an interesting word, though: the website tells me ‘deadpan’ can be used as adjective, adverb, noun, and verb, making it a very versatile little construction.  And it may have started out as a way to describe actors—probably not in a complimentary way, I’d guess (…the actor deadpanned his lines???), but it was then applied to boxers, which was maybe more deliberately scary (…his face deadpan, he delivered the final blow…)

This was all, I believe, happening around the beginning of the twentieth century, and back in those days, ‘pan’ was slang for face. (Wipe that smile off your pan????) And so, adding ‘dead’ as a prefix was pretty descriptive—gives rise, indeed, to the image of a face that is fixed and still.

*********************

And I thought of sharing THIS information, too, with the boyos but I didn’t want to get…well, panned, and so I looked that up, too. The Oxford Dictionary online identified that usage as an informal verb, meaning, it told me, “to criticize (someone or something) severely.”

That hearkens back to 1911, says etymonline.com, when a slang expression, “on the pan,” meant “under reprimand or criticism.” A person in such straits was metaphorically standing on the hot surface of a pan heating up, I suppose, and so it wasn’t a great leap to make that into a verb, to say that, when someone is in real trouble for whatever it is they’ve dared to do, they are being ‘panned.’

It’s something, I think, like being roasted, and probably has the same pots-and-pans connected roots, but roasting seems friendlier, like saying affectionately snarky things about a very successful person at an event in their honor.

If a performance gets PANNED, however, the panner is saying, “This ain’t no good.” And probably not in an affectionate kind of a way.

***********************

And all of those pan references turned me toward how pot is used, too, in slang and in phrases, and http://www.dictionary.com obligingly told me that ‘potted’ is British slang for drunken and inebriated. As in, “Sheldon didn’t realize there was alcohol in Long Island Iced Tea, and he got thoroughly potted.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard ‘pot’ used quite that way this side of the pond, but I have heard it used for another kind of mind-altering substance, of course, and that would be marijuana. Pot.  And why, I wonder quite belatedly, is THAT substance so nicknamed?

The answer, I find, is actually kind of romantic: long ago, in Spain, people might mix the buds of the cannabis plant with brandy, let them steep, and then drink that potent brew. The drink was called ‘potacion de guaya,’ which is missing some of its inflection marks, but which means, ‘the drink of grief.’

And the Spanish themselves shortened that lovely, evocative phrase to ‘potiguaya’ or ‘potaguaya,’ and then, somehow, it leapt across the ocean, and landed in the States as ‘pot.’ Which didn’t mean exclusively cannabis steeped in strong wine; it referred to any old kind of cannabis at all.

And users of such, of course, earned the moniker ‘pothead.’

******************

 And then there’s the potbellied stove, a lovely piece of description, a “…small bulbous-sided wood burning stove,” Oxford Language online tells me. That is named for those of us who, sadly, can be described in a similar way, without the ‘small’ before and ‘wood burning stove’ added after ‘bulbous-sided.’

Reading that led to finding a random discussion of pot-based phrases. For instance, someone who is, their own self, guilty as sin of doing a bad thing, who then accuses another of wickedly doing the same thing, is covered by this saying: “That’s like the pot calling the kettle black.”

Only Oxford Languages Online tells me the original phrase read like THIS: “…the pot calling the kettle black-arse…”

Certainly adds a bit of gritty spice to the utterance.

And here’s a phrase I’d never heard used: to keep the pot boiling. That meant to continue to “…provide the necessities of life.”

And that made me think of literary works called ‘potboilers.’ Again, it isn’t very complimentary, and it shares roots with the keep the pot boiling phrase. Writers sometimes quickly and carelessly slammed together work that might not be weighty, but that they knew would sell. From 1864 on, etymonline.com informs me, these writings were known as potboilers. They were written without literary intentions,—written just to keep food on the table.

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And how about ‘crackpot’? Despite, phrases.uk.org asserts, the fact that there is actually a place in England called Crackpot (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crackpot,_North_Yorkshire)–and despite some folks wanting to insist that people who come from Crackpot are, well, crackpots,–the origins are much simpler.  Crackpot evolved from ‘cracked-heads,’ which simply meant that something was awry with a person’s mental processes.

EB White, by the way, said this: Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.

Maybe there are some benefits to being a crackpot. I certainly look for them.

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I decided to ignore all the references to the art of toileting when discussing the word ‘pot,’ and jumped right to ‘pothole.’ I figured that word’s origins had to be pretty prosaic—-a hole shaped like a pot, right?—but I looked it up anyway.

And what an interesting story I found in a kind of little white paper from the American Public Works Association called “Why Are They Called Potholes?” In the 1400 and 1500’s, APWA tells me, carriages and wagons left deep ruts in mostly mud roads. At the bottom of the deep ruts, clay was revealed. A maker of pots might wait until a muddy road was deserted and go out to dig in the ruts. That artisan, with shovel and buckets, would carry off plenty of free clay to morph into fired pots they’d then sell.

Leaving behind, of course, large holes, dangerous to the wheels of a cart.

Drivers weren’t stupid: they knew what was going on. They called those craters what they knew they were: potholes.

And they drove around ‘em if they could.

Alas, we still have the potholes, but we lack the clay-based reason behind them.

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Anyway, the pots and pans, returned to gleaming, have long since been stashed away, and my mind turns to things like these: when should I take the autumn wreath down? (Tomorrow.) When should I pack away the fake pumpkins and gourds on the mantelpiece and put away the autumn-themed books? (Today.) When does Advent start? (Sunday.)

The holiday season has launched. It’s a time to make lists. It’s a time when actual pots and pans will be pressed into hard service.

I make myself a plate of my favorite Thanksgiving next-day food (turkey and russet potato chips) for breakfast, and I try to reconnect with authentic gratitude. I have a link to work by the Feral Flutist, a yen to explore the work of musician, surfer, and environmental activist, Jack Johnson, and a new appreciation for how the words ‘pots and pans’ inform the way I speak and write.  All of which, tacked on at the end of a long, cherished list of undeserved blessings, adds up to a few more things I can be thankful for.

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