Across the Dark Lake

Little by little, Christmas disappears.

The day after New Year’s, I clean off the mantel-piece, pack away little holiday figures—Ralphie from A Christmas Story in his pink flannel bunny-jamas, the ornamental Luci squishing grapes, the roly poly little BB1 orna-bot. I wrap glass bells in newspaper and slide little holiday houses into the box.

The mantel looks bare.

The next day I pack up all the nutcrackers from the mail table in the dining room, and all the Santas from the shelves in the family room.

I dust and polish the newly empty surfaces. They are sleek and clean and stark.

That night, snow falls for the first time since mid-December. The outside world looks festive and Christmassy.

I feel a little blue.

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

I spend some time each day planning classes. Suddenly, I see a new angle: the analysis assignment could be based on a painting or a song. Since the course theme is ‘An American Experience,’ I pull up an image of “American Gothic.”  And for the song, we’ll deconstruct “This Land is Your Land.”

I find authoritative on-line bios of Grant Wood and Woody Guthrie. I make a worksheet with the painting’s image and a link to a history of the work. I find a site that talks about different types of music, and some articles about the historical context of Woody Guthrie’s song.

My class will be a diverse one—it includes high school students and retirees, military veterans, a mom of six. There are people who grew up and spent their lives within ten miles of the college and people who relocated to the United States as young adults. There is, in other words, room for many interpretations of what an American experience means, and I look forward to what these students will derive from these two pieces of United States art.

In spite of myself, almost, I’m getting excited about a new semester.

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There are just a few cookies left in the tins; they are rock hard and unappealing. I tumble them into the waste basket, and wash the tins, put them away in the basement. I can’t believe there is fudge left over: Mark takes a plate to work, and I squirrel the rest away, tupperwared, in the freezer.

Then I take the leftover Christmas chicken from the freezer and chop it up to make chicken salad, which Mark and I eat for lunch.

We celebrated our anniversary at a pretty inn the day after Christmas. I brought a box with a meaty shank of lamb and some parmesan risotto home. I ate the risotto for lunch the next day but put away the lamb bone.

Now I pull the meat from it and put the bone in a pan with an onion and some fading celery, two chopped up carrots, and a garlic bulb. I sprinkle in dried rosemary and crumble up some Greek oregano from the garden. I toss it all in olive oil, shake in some salt and pepper, and roast those bones and veggies in the oven. That afternoon, I simmer broth that is rich and aromatic, and the whole house feels warm and comforting.

The next day, I take the ‘twice-baked mashed potatoes,’ also leftover from Christmas dinner, from the freezer, and I pull out Joy of Cooking. I follow directions, chopping and sautéing, sprinkling flour, mixing in the rich broth. I spread the potatoes over the top of the thick concoction in the cast iron pan, and I put it into a hot oven.

We have shepherd’s pie for dinner that night. It is good, good, good.

So holiday food is pretty much gone, and Jim says, “Could we make some regular cookies one of these days? Like Snickerdoodles or something?”

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

After I mix up the cookie dough, I lace up my sneakers, pull on my tomato-soup colored jacket and my new fuzzy white gloves, and I head out for a walk. The snow is gone from all but the deepest, shadiest places. The sidewalks are dry, and the traffic is light.

At the big, half-timbered house, Santa, riding in his wagon, and the life-sized sleek brown horse that pulls him, have disappeared from the front yard. They’re headed back, no doubt, to the North Pole.

It is 4:30 in the afternoon, but still full light, and I realize that the days are truly getting longer.

When I get home, we put bacon in the cast iron griddle, gather ingredients for BLT’s or bacon salads for dinner, and, after we eat, I make the Snickerdoodles.

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

It rains on Saturday, so we wait until Sunday to take down the outdoor decorations. Then James and I carefully pull the ornaments from the tree, and Mark brings up the big box. We unspool lights, wrap them around cardboard, and then dismember the tree. We turn it upside down to flatten it, and we wrestle the pieces into the box.

Mark ties up the box with heavy cord while James and I lean on either end, and then the boyos drag the tree down to its most-of-the-year resting spot.

I pull out the vacuum and suck up any evidence of fake needles.

The spot in front of the living room window is weirdly bare, and even with the fire crackling, I miss the soft twinkle of the tree lights. I feel one-sided when I read.

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

I wash the new sheet set, and that night, I make the bed with crisp new sheets and a puffy comforter—Mark’s cozy present for Christmas Eve. A new year, a fresh new bed, I think.

I realize there are balances on some of the gift cards I used to shop for Christmas. I order mundane necessities—ice melt and potholders and measuring cups.

The measuring cups, while infinitely practical, are not completely work-a-day, though; they are shaped like Russian nesting dolls that break apart into six measures. The doll’s tops hold 1/3, 2/3, and 1 full cups; their sturdy bottoms offer up ¼, ½, and ¾ of a cup.

A little bit of whimsy—why not???—to lighten the late winter months.

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I am a grown-up; of course, I am. But on January 5th, I nudge the wise men and their camels toward ceramic Baby Jesus.

The next morning, Epiphany day, the accommodating shepherds move around to the other side of the manger, nestle in with the ox and the lambs, so the Magi can get close. Mary stares adoringly at the Baby.

Joseph hovers, arms folded, wary and protective.

The kings lean in, offering their gifts, and the stable animals ignore the flamboyant camels.

That night, after everyone has gone upstairs, I pack up the ceramic figures and put the box into the closet.

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

On Wednesday, James and I take a road trip. We drive to a campus where I won’t be teaching this term and drop off an office key. Then we swing over roads we haven’t traveled in years, taking the back way in to a favorite butcher shop.

Boneless chicken breasts are on sale. I buy two ten-pound bags, and the butcher wraps up cubed steaks and English roasts, pork chops and ground chuck. We find a package of ham salad for Mark; we throw in some cheese curds, too.

As we head over the hills for home, Jim talks about marinated chicken breasts; he’ll resume his Wednesday cooking duties now that we’re back in ordinary time. I think about stir-fries and stews, sizzling fajitas, and cheese melting on sandwiches: everyday food that is hearty and comforting.

At home, I make tea and eat Snickerdoodles, and sit down to plan my classes.

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

It’s like this, I think: the year’s end draws close, and we find ourselves trudging more and more slowly,—walking, because we have no choice, into the darkness. It’s an inky darkness, cold and still, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if our companions are nearby, or if we are alone.

And then: a weak flicker of light, a glint, and we realize we are at the edge of a vast lake. Coming towards us, there is some sort of boat.

The light it brings brightens, for the sturdy wooden boat, round and high-riding, has holders on its rails for thick, glowing candles.

The boat glides silently to the sand where we wait. It lowers a landing plank, and we all—I see now my companions are truly close by—we all climb on.

The landing plank pulls up, silent and sleek, and the boat steers away from the beach and heads out into the inky unknown.

But here is the thing: I am gathered here with people I care about, and, for each one of us, there is a glowing candle in its niche. We ride through the darkest of the nights together, huddled close, knowing we’ll be safe, believing there’s another shore.

In the darkest of the dark, we hold the candles aloft and we sing our faith. The boat moves smoothly on.

We sleep, we eat, we talk; we enjoy the fellowship of this midnight time, the vibrant light our candles, shared together, makes in the depths of the year’s night.

And then one day, there’s an almost imperceptible lightening, and a gentle voomph as the boat slides up, again, onto a shore.

There is a pause; there is pondering, and then the boldest of us takes her candle and gently kicks the landing plank.

We watch her candle flicker as she heads off to explore.

And suddenly, the thought of leaving the closeness of this little ship is irresistible; I wrestle my candle from its wooden holder, and get in line, for all my companions are suddenly eager to put their feet on dry land.

I step out onto the dark sand, and, above a line of dense trees far ahead, I see a glow that promises daylight is coming. I head toward the glow.

The sand turns into hard dirt; in the new, dusky light, I see a pathway forward and a low stone wall. Lined up, flaring, on that wall are the candles of the people who started before me.

I follow that glow until I see where the wall ends, and I see that the road curves into unknown space…but there is light now, enough to see my way.

I put my candle on the stone wall, leaving a light for those who still come forward, and I find my people, and, together, we head off into this new place.

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The holidays, I think, are just like that: the warmly lit vessel that carries us through the darkness and into the new year. And despite the darkness, despite the losses, the pain, the heartbreak and disillusionment we carry like bruises on our hides and in our hearts, that moment of debarking swells with promise.

A new year, an unknown adventure—time to engage, to hone my kindness tools…time to link arms with fellow travelers and walk out to explore.

Different Darkness, Different Lights

Early morning: I let Greta out into a pitch black world, and I stand shivering on the cement stoop while she traverses the backyard. Her white patches glow; they signal where she’s headed. She doesn’t dilly-dally; it is cold, and there are secrets hidden in the dark.

Later that day, I clip the leash on the little dog just before supper, and we go out for our last real walk of the day. Not even six o’clock yet, but the sky is deeply navy blue, heavy with clouds, and dusk is turning quickly into a very early night.

It is the season of darkness, when the dark steals more of our hours than are owned by the light. If I were not retired, my working day would be bracketed by the dark, by a stealthy office arrival in velvet pitch, by departure into a world already settling in to night. Daylight is squeezed harshly and flattened in-between. I’m glad Mark gets out for lunch, feels the cold wind on his face, soaks in the wan rays of the furthering sun.

It is the season of darkness, and this year, I am making a constant and mindful search for the light.

**********

This year I am drawn, just about every day, to use the fireplace. Dinner dishes done, Mark lights the gas insert; its flames blaze up, blue-tinged and charring white. I take my book; I settle into the chair closest to the fire, putting my stocking feet on the ottoman, looping a light blanket over them. I settle into the contemplation of someone else’s words and thoughts. Often Mark and Jim turn the TV on in the next room; their laughter is warming, too.

And the dog slips in, climbs onto the couch, sighing, and circles around and settles, her snout pointed toward the fire. Her eyes slip slowly closed, setting like the sun: a last glint and then they’re gone. Her soft snores underscore my reading.

The firelight dances; I look for light in the words I am reading, and in the little family gathered beneath this roof. An oasis in the darkness, I think, and I know that one of the values of winter is the gravitational pull of a gathering light.

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

 

Lanterns 1

We search for light-filled ways to mark the season. I read on a local blog about the Chinese Lantern Festival at the state fairgrounds in Columbus. That sounds intriguing to all of us.

On the very night it opens, we head off: first to a theme dinner at a Panda Express, where we fuel up on orange chicken and fried rice, then on another twenty miles to the site. It is cold and inky black; I think of another night similar to this,  not so many years ago, when we dragged Jim to see the Zoolights. Everyone likes the Zoolights, right?

Jim hated them. He was too cold. It was too crowded. Raucous Christmas music shouted from the whirling, twirling exhibits, and everywhere he turned an aggressive baby stroller threatened his shins. We insisted on seeing at least the greater part of the light show, but no one was happy, and three grumpy people (“I can’t believe we spent all that money for that little glimpse,” Mark muttered more than once) stalked the long way back to the car and huddled in their uniquely miserable complaints for the long ride home.

I was crazy, I think now, to plan to see the lanterns on opening night, and there’s a little dreadful foreboding dancing around my gut. But Mark drives us into the parking lot, where a car pulls out of a space right in front of the ticket gate. Score number one: a great place to park.

I have purchased and printed our tickets on line, to avoid waiting in line; there isn’t much of a crowd anyway, but we skirt the few people gathered and hand our tickets to a smiling young man who waves us into a lofty, barn-like cement building. There are food concessions and (yay!) indoor restrooms; a big set of double doors are open into the outdoor path to the Chinese Lantern festival.

It is a cold clear night. We walk through a kind of tunnel, arched by giant, glowing, silken candy canes. Bobbing silken red ornaments sway over our heads. Jim looks a little uncertain, but, “I like the music,” he says. (I am too ignorant to be able to pinpoint what kind of music this is–“Asian” is my best attempt at categorizing it–but later that night I read an interesting note in To Siri With Love, by Judith Newman. She is writing about her autistic son Gus, who loves music and is pitch-perfect, and she mentions that many autistic people are drawn to Asian music. “Pentatonic scales for example, ” she writes, “used in Chinese and folkloric music–are open-ended, and don’t call for resolution the way dissonant chords do. They are seductive and meet you on your own terms [Gus’s music therapist] says.”)

The candy cane exhibit is the last aggressively Christmas-y display, and it is clear immediately that this show is something Jim enjoys. We pass through a long covered walkway where traditional red silken lanterns sway overhead. Then there is a splendid dragon, maybe half a city block long. Eastern princesses dance, suspended in swaying silken lanterns, watched over by sharp-eyed egrets.  There is a life-sized tea set, blue and white porcelain rendered in silk and lights.

There are fields of glimmering butterflies, and there are characters rendered in an almost chibi-manga style. There are fish and owls and a long, triumphant phoenix. There are dinosaurs. There is an archway of hearts; lovers bundled in winter coats and hats kiss inside while a friend snaps pictures.

“Awww,” says Jim. “That’s sweet.”

A pavilion houses a series of displays that show how the lanterns were constructed. Mark, with his engineer’s soul, plunges enthusiastically, hands deep in pockets, dancing a little, but taking the time to read each installment. Jim stands right beside him, cold be damned. They learn that once the lanterns would have been made of rice paper, susceptible to rain and wind and fire. Now the intricate sculptures are made of wire with a sturdy, silk-like cloth stretched over the frames. They are illuminated from within. They glow but do not glare.

We wander out, finally, to the last exhibit, a huge, colorful pagoda, ornately bedecked with a profusion of symbols–among them, Chinese dragon heads guarding each of the corners. We circle slowly; our hands are freezing and those bathrooms beckon, but we are reluctant to be finished with this evening.

*******

Before he leaves for work the next morning, Mark says, kind of wonderingly, “The boy really liked the Chinese lanterns.” And when Jim gets up he says, again, “Those lanterns: that was really cool.”

********

I let that enjoyment tumble in my mind all day. Why was this so much better than the zoo lights, despite the same, cold, wandering kind of format?

I think about Jim’s particular set of challenges. He has autism, which brings with it some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He also struggles with the bear of major depressive disorder. I have known others who walk with that black bear for a companion, and the bright lights and glorious music of holidays do not seem to scare the beast. If anything, the strident holiday reminders agitate the bear, make it rear up and show its claws.

So maybe piercing lights and in-your-face music are too much on the raw skin of depressive disorder.

The muted lights of the Lantern festival, the simple and elegant Asian chords, and the  symbolism from a different culture entirely spoke more clearly to Jim than Deck the Halls or reindeer sleighs.

There are different kinds of darkness–inky seasonal darkness and the relentless darkness of the mind. There are grief and regret and consuming loneliness. There are physical challenges that restrict sight and sound, the ability to move and to communicate.

There is terminal disease; there is addiction. Mental health challenges. Disability and different ability. So many challenges the human family faces: so many shades of darkness.

And different kinds of light illuminate the different shades of night.

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

It is another early morning, and Greta and I wander down the hill, and I realize that the folks in the white colonial are all decorated for Christmas, still over a month away. Our door is wearing a glittery orange leaf; it catches the gleam of the little sconces we hung on either side of the door after the house was painted. It mirrors the leaves blowing into the front yard, and it beckons the whole yard-full of leaves still stubbornly stuck up in the front-yard tree: C’mon guys! Take the plunge!

The glitter leaf will stay there until Sunday, at least, and then we’ll think about how we’ll decorate for this yuletide season.

We have small, thin fake evergreen trees, pre-lit, that we’ve put on either side of the front door for the past two years. We store them in the old garage; this summer Mark peeled a long, leathery snakeskin off one of them. The bloom is off those little trees, at least for me.

We have stake lights that Jim picked out some years ago; they look like giant, old-fashioned Christmas bulbs. He liked them a lot the year he got them. Each year since, they’ve lost a little luster. We’ll let him decide if he wants to plunge those into the ground this year, lighting the path to the house.

There are tangled bales of colored and white twinkle lights. There are oversized plastic ornaments that have sometimes danced from the boughs of the tree outside the oversized kitchen  window.

I am happy, this year, to go with whatever the boyos decide about outdoor illumination. (Last year’s November was downright balmy, if I remember right. This year, it is cold, and dark, and not great weather to be climbing on ladders and stringing twinkling lights.)

I’m thinking simplicity: green wreaths with red bows on all the windows.

I’m thinking we need to buy candles for the Advent wreath, which is just a green wreath we lay on a side table. We snug in four mis-matched brass candlesticks and begin, four weeks before Christmas day, to light one candle at dinnertime. I like the idea of the candle glowing in the bay window, of another joining the chorus each week. I like the symbolism of the light intensifying as winter grows darker, and as the celebration grows nearer.

Sometimes we buy the traditional colored candles: three purple tapers, and one pink. Sometimes we go with green and white candles, or with red and green. One year, I think, we had blue and silver tapers. We’ll wander out on Friday, Jim and I, buy chocolate for Christmas packages, get the last of the mailing-out gifts, and we’ll pick up the candles that will light our path to Christmas.

And we’ll look for light-filled ways to get ready. We may do something traditional; there are some drive-through light exhibits, including one at a state park not too far away, that don’t require leaving the warmth of a car. Driving allows us to control the loudness of the music, too. Maybe we’ll explore that this weekend.

This morning a friend sent a notice about a historical yuletide exhibit in a nearby town, in a restored Victorian house–a Christmas tableau lit by candlelight and flickering flames from a broad brick hearth. Maybe we’ll visit there, too.

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And certainly we will explore other ways to pierce the darkness–with floods of words that speak to our hearts, with music that uplifts us, with films that make us laugh and sniffle and think about what could have been, what shouldn’t be, and how we can touch the future. We will gather with friends; we will reach out to family.

We will each confront our own special darkness, the physical and the spiritual, the emotional and the intellectual. Because, I realize in these latter days, we can’t ask others to constantly hold the lantern, to shine our demons away. It is our job–it is MY job–to find the sources of my darkness, and then to light the flames or turn on the spotlight that will illuminate those dreary, darkened corners. And only then, with my own darkness under control, can I, perhaps, help others light their special ways.

*********

We will each this year, in our own way, search for the light that illuminates the season.

A Murmur of Chaos, A Murder of Crows

murderofcrows

[Image from The Farmers’ Almanac, http://www.almanac.com]

The crows, on winter nights just before dusk, fly in to roost in the trees by the old folks’ home.

The home sits on the edge of the city’s highest hill, two houses down from me and across the street. We walk the paths that wind behind it, that skirt the hill’s ledge. Standing there, when weather has bared the trees, the little dog Greta and I can look to the east and watch the un-iced portion of river ripple. To the south, as darkness falls, city lights flicker on, then glow bold against the winter night.

But on these late January days the crows fly in by the hundreds, by the thousands.  They are random and disorganized and relentless. The trees, all of them, are weighted black and heavy, and still the crows come, wheeling in from all directions. They are raucous, and they feel threatening.

I get home from work just as the light is changing; the little dog waits for her pre-supper walk.  When I leash her up and we step into the front yard, she freezes, her ruff rising ragged.

They spook her, those crows, with their swooping, rough-edged cries.  They converge and there are awful moments when their individual caws merge into one swelling unpleasant pulse. Their harshness sands off the ‘kuh.’  Aw-aw-aw, they chorus, full-throated, beaks wide-open. Delighted, magnified, they get louder, bolder: AWawAWawAWawAW!

It is the shrill sound of chaos, the melody of madness.  It lands in the pit and squirms.

Some nights the dog resolutely plunges forward into her regular walking route, wary but determined, heading toward the home, toward the roosting crows.  Then, my neck prickles.  My shoulders grow cold beneath the collar of my plaid-lined cloth coat. I  pull up my hood and I follow her, but cautiously.  We do not dilly dally.

Other nights Greta turns quickly away, her back to the screaming, shiny birds, and  she heads down the hill to the quieter end of the street.

********

Crows, I have read, are for the most part solitary, preferring their individual lives in warmer months or climes.   It’s in the cold and chill of winter that they cluster, in murders, for night-time survival.

And animals, I think I know, are not inherently evil–nor good, for that matter; they just survive with the tools they’ve been given.

But I have seen, on a summer’s walk with my tender granddaughter, a pair of crows pluck a baby from a smaller bird’s nest and fly off jeering.  The baby’s frantic parents raced after them; the crows soared nonchalantly on ahead, one dangling the feebly fluttering fledgling from its beak.  The other crow swooped in to peck and torment; both turned their heads toward the parents, black eyes alight, and then flew on. My granddaughter, animal lover and nurturer, one born to help and heal, begged them, running after, please, to stop.

They seemed to us gleeful.

They seemed to us psychopathic.

I have seen crows strutting in the middle of a busy road, pecking around a carcass, unwilling to move before my speeding car.  They shuffle into flight at the last minute; I can almost smell the rotten stench beneath their wings, feel that warm decay pass me by too closely. Their leisure feels a lot like arrogance.

My head knows it’s silly to dislike a bird, but still. I don’t like crows.

And I especially don’t like the pulsing mayhem on these winter nights, their triumphant cawing infestation.  I am glad to turn the little dog back toward the bright windows of home.

**********
Inside the house disorder rankles.  With an energy stoked by some sort of anger, I pull bags and packages from the pantry and stack them on the counter.  I climb on a chair and denude the highest shelf, discovering things plunked there and untouched since we moved in.

I sort–some to donate, some to discard, some to store and use.

I fill the sink with hot soapy water, plunge a soft cloth into the suds. I scrub each shelf mightily, and then rub each shelf, hard, with a towel.  I reorder and replace the saved items on shelves, neatly, pleasingly.  Balsamic and apple vinegars, western New York barbecue marinade, soy sauce and hot sauce, perch on the very top, a bottle-wall in front of cookie cutters and cake decorating things used only occasionally.  I put basmati rice and fettuccine noodles more easily to hand.  Crackers share space with cans of tomatoes, and prettily-bottled olive oil with its clunky, contained-in-plastic, canola oil kin.

I box things to go in the trash, to take to the food kitchen downtown.  I load boxes in my car.  I sweep and wash the kitchen floor, and I stand, in my sock-feet on the still damp tiles, in front of the open pantry door. I breathe in the new-made order.

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

The crows are gone, the trees empty, just after dawn when I take the dog out for her morning rites.  But the wind has picked up; it skirls dead leaves into the ivy that hugs the ground in front of the house.  Across the street, a long, thick, electrical extension cord snakes from New Neighbors’ house to the place they park their truck; on the end, some sort of element glows red and wobbles gently. The truck is long gone. The element seems like a story left dangerously without an ending.

A coil of blue packing twine skitters in the street, and still, these many weeks later, a shard of Christmas wrapping flips up into the leaves huddling by the retaining wall.

The sky is a lowering gray, full and ominous.  It will snow today, although the experts told us it would not.  The snow will be thin, light, whipping stuff that only sticks in hidden crevices and corners; it will taunt ankles and sting cheeks and have none of the beauty of a Christmas card. This wind will blow it anywhere it likes.

I am reading a book set in Provence, in the time of the mistral. The author talks about the wind-induced madness, a kind of craziness that lifts and tears and finally, cleanses.  This weather–and last night’s crows–make me think of that powerful, externally-imposed chaos. I hurry the dog along; we shiver our way back inside.

***********
This day, the dog suddenly hurls herself at the door, snarling, when a frail old man shuffles past the house. Cars careen out in front of traffic, stealing right-of-way for themselves. At work, people plod grimly and bad news is completely expected and checks have come unloosened on ordinarily civil tongues.  I am glad when it is time to go home, to rub the dog’s silky head, to talk with Jim, warm and settled with his writing.

The fine and taunting snow swirls outside; I put potatoes on to boil.  I roll a pork roast in a skim of oil.  I pat it with a crust of herbs, and I put it in the warming oven.  It will perfume the house. I will shake the boiled potatoes with their own light film of oil and herbs, and put them, too, in to roast. Mark will arrive, shedding his long coat, rubbing his cold hands, ready to eat. I will dress a spinach salad and we will light a candle tonight as we dine, a shot at warmth and comfort.

********

After dinner I clear the desk, carrying a basket of unsorted papers to the dining room table.  I sift them; some I can act on right away, filling out the form, writing the check, sealing the message into its envelope.  Others must be filed, labelled and alphabetized and easy to find; many can go into the recycling basket.  Some few head to the shredder.  I work diligently, surprised when my knees begin to jelly on me. I look at my phone and realize I have been standing in this one spot for two uninterrupted hours.  I clear off the table, move everything to its appointed place, and celebrate finding the missing paper that had been eluding me.

Another surface cleared; a little more order imposed. I will sleep well tonight.

**********

So we plunge into the infant year, with its unformed, uncommitted potential.  We try to steer it  away from the random, toward the light, out of discordance, into order—into warmth and meaning. The raucous noise, the threatening wind, the mindless creatures flapping: we’ll tame them with our light and with our bravery. We will hold them at bay, we promise ourselves, with the strength and ferocity of our belief.

Gateway Days: Put a Candle in the Window

Candle and pie

The dark is gathered tight outside the bay window–the only light there, staring at me, is the reflection of the dining room lamp.  It is cold, wet, early.  When I let the dog out, she stops and she shakes, and then she looks back.  She has urgent business, but seems unwilling to run too far into the depths of the yard. It is a secret-hugging, opaque day’s dawning.

The sealed drive, the sidewalks, the gray-paved street–all are slickened blackness.  Wind flails–a precursor of high winds to come, eager tendrils of Hurricane Patricia’s wildly whipping fronds.  Falling leaves are wet and heavy and wooden; they scud reluctantly and slap down, exhausted.

I think of Mary Poppins–the brooding book, not the light-hearted movie.  I think of Poppins warning that the wind brings change.  That’s what this is–a changeable dawn, a gate-keeper day.  We are moving from the light-filled seasons to the time of drawing-close dark.

I herd the dog back inside where she runs, manic, three times through the downstairs rooms, around the stairway pinioned in the middle of the house, a superstitious kind of circuit, shaking off the ghosts of this gateway day.  I treat her with Beggin’ Strips and frozen coins of hot dog. Satisfied that no more goodies are forthcoming and that the darkness is firmly at bay, she subsides, a warm and snoring furball curled into the pillow on the couch.

It strikes me that we’ll do much the same, this weekend, with our little costumed visitors; we’ll treat them with store-bought goodies, fill their arms-out bags and plastic pumpkins with sugar and cocoa, lecithin and guar gum oil, ooh and ahh at their transformatory garb, and send them home to settle in.  Hoard acquired, they will gather ranks with the mama, the papa, the siblings, and see what they have gleaned to stave off winter’s warning chill.

It’s a gateway day.

This weekend just past, we drove home, home to where we grew up, to spend time with Grandma Pat (Pat, who claims this current raging hurricane. “They named it after me,” she asserts firmly), to gift a nine-year-old granddaughter, to steal a moment to visit with friends who were visiting, too. They are friends who once lived close enough that we could cut through yards  to each others’ houses; now we are flung across the country. The sky, on our traveling days, Friday and Sunday, was perfectly blue, the air had that crystal, champagne quality, and the trees were at their screaming glory.

“This will not be a beautiful fall,” many people had sagely cautioned, harking back to odd summer weather. But the leaves didn’t listen. The golds were thick and almost viscous; my mind kept racing backwards to a paint by number set I’d gotten once when I was eight or so.  The little plastic pot of gold oil paint there–gold for a palomino’s gleaming bridle–was just exactly the gold of those leaves. I lowered the car window and expected to smell the paint.

There were deep, exuberant orange leaves, too, and russet leaves that rustled and shone, and every once in a while, there’d be a blaze of outrageous scarlet.  It was like summer’s sunlight was trapped in those leaves, the tight-fisted trees holding it close for as long as they could.

And then, the winds this week: those laughing, sly, knowing winds, ripping inwards, tearing leaves from branches.  Quenching the concentrated summer sun. Opening the gateway to the time of fire-huddling and flaming window candles. We may be alone in the darkness, but we’re not giving in…

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For a week I walk past apples, green apples, sitting in a bowl in the kitchen in my building at work; finally I email my colleagues and tell them I’m taking the fruit.  I bring the apples home and slice them up.  As I do, my mind ranges over memories, sorting and picking; I think about peeling apples as a child, with the goal being to have the longest continuous peel.  My mother would tell us to throw the peel with our right hands over our left shoulders. Then she’d bid us turn to discern what letter that flung peel most resembled, and we would know the initial of our one true love.

(I discovered this week, in a lovely blog—  http://21timetraveler.com/2015/10/its-the-great-turnip-charlie-brown-and-other-samhain-traditions/ —that the peel-throwing is a custom left over from the ancient celebration of Samhain, that bonfire against the darkness, earthy festival–a custom that surely seeped into my mother’s childhood self via her Scottish roots.)

I pull out my Tupperware rolling mat and sprinkle flour that flies over counter edges and onto the floor and into the toaster. I pull out the heavy marble rolling pin, a gift, once, from my oldest brother to my constantly-baking mother, and I energetically flatten and smooth the pie dough into almost-transparent circles.  I line the pan, glaze the dough with egg white, then layer the apple slices with cinnamon and sugar, nutmeg and  flour. I lay the second pastry circle over the top, folding it to cradle the apples, tucking in the edges tenderly.

I paint the top with the leftover eggwash; I sprinkle sugar over all; I cut in vents, and I put the pie in the waiting oven,–which exhales its hot breath at me when I open the door, and consumes my little pie.  In minutes the smell of hot cinnamon pervades the house, and Mark comes downstairs and grabs his book and a fuzzy blanket to cozy up in the reading chair.  Jim brings his Mac-book into the kitchen and settles at the little glass-topped table, his back to the long window, his back to the glossy, windy blackness.

It is a time to bake, to scent the house with comfort. I dig out my old cookie cutters and l think about shortbread cookies shaped and sugared like autumn leaves. And I think about stews and pots of simmering sauce.  I think of casseroles and bubbling applesauce and warmth amidst the darkness.  Soon I pull the pie out of the oven, setting it on its rack to cool, to take to work and share with colleagues.

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I request time off, a week to clean and prepare, to ease summer’s careless grit out of corners, to rub oil into wood and to splash vinegar on the windows.  (Let’s capture every bit of sun; let’s not let a tiny ray be obscured.)  It is a ritual, the cleaning, a practice engrained deep in childhood–one can’t approach the holidays without a thorough house-cleaning! I try, though, to embrace this necessary cleansing mindfully and not grimly, to revel in the treasures revealed by a deep down search-and-sort, in the beauty and luster uncovered with the rigorous application of Murphy’s oil soap.  Let the cleaning usher in joy and warmth and safety.

I start to think about gifting, about ornaments and picture frames, about classic games and about popping corn grown in nearby fields, and  about knitted slippers and favorite photographs.  Christmas stockings and tiny treasures. As the days shorten and the frost dulls those glorious mums Mark planted, the prospect of creativity spreads a simmering grow.

During a  Barnes and Noble foray, we find wonderful Christmas cards and we bring them home  and stash them; soon it will be time to send them out, and to receive others–little transmitted slivers of  light and connection.

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We’re prepared, I think; we’ll weather this darkness. Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, Lois comes into my office. She is her usual smiling self as she explains that she’ll have to cancel class because the hospital has called, the one in Cleveland, two and a half hours away. And then the smile abruptly melts away, and she is crying, she is sobbing; something horribly contained has just loosened its bonds, and I am helpless to give comfort.

One month ago, she says, Danny was out painting a house. Five days later he can’t walk.  She talks of cancer and tendrils that can’t be lanced away; like the hydra, more monsters spring up wherever those tendrils toss their infinitesimal teeth.  All that can be done is chemo, and now the chemo has caused clotting.  His lungs are filled with clots, she says, and they say, the doctors, that she’d better get there fast.

She turns at the door and says her stalwart son has taken a leave from school, come home to help his dad.  He can go back, Lois says, her son can go back to school.  But when his dad dies–she grips the molding, and breathes in a ragged breath–when his dad dies, my life will be over, too.

My hands are empty.  She walks away into darkness, and I have no light to offer her.

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This other darkness: it snuffles and explores.  My gentle boss Jim’s face is taut and cautious; this weekend, he buried a brother-in-law who died suddenly, aged 61. There is the pain of sudden loss. And there is this: His kids, said Jim, realized for the first time that he and his wife could also die. Would die, sometime. This death held their faces to the window, forced them to confront that dark truth.

I read a book that’s long been on my shelves: it’s a luminous wracking story of a family’s journey with muscular dystrophy.  The author tells how, generation after generation, beautiful boys grew out of toddlerhood and into illness, weakened, wasted, and died–at age 12, age 16–some few stronger boys made it to their mid-twenties.  The girls survived, scarred and battered; the mothers knew they had carried the gene that sickened and killed their sons.

The author writes so beautifully; she is  wrenching and she is funny, but her words unlatch the door and that snuffling darkness peers in.  There is sickness and pain and death, it reminds me, and it chortles, and it pushes the newspaper at me.  I read about a shooting, about unrepentant cruelty, about the gross and disgusting misuse of power, and my stomach lurches.

I can light a brave flame in the physical dark; how can I combat this other?

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I do not know the answer, but I know you can’t stop the dark by standing still, and so I light the oven and I stir the sauce, and I sit down to write a letter.  I visit a friend undimmed by cancer’s twilight, and I seek the source of her illumination. Rusty, humbled, out of all practice, I pray a prayer with no words, and I feel soft comfort, whispered warmth, sense some sort of unknown promise.

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It is, today, a gateway day; the times are changing. Draw near, the season tells us, draw close and take your comfort.  Your lights shine brighter multiplied within a company that cares.