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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Beginnings and Endings

The student’s email reads, in part, “I am just checking, because I know grades have to be posted by 5:00 p.m. today…”

I laugh, a little smug; it is 2:30 on Thursday, and grades, of course, are not due until TOMORROW afternoon. But something niggles, and, just to be sure, I pull up the announcement from the registrar’s office. And by gum, here’s a shock: the student is right. There WAS a Friday due date, but it was LAST Friday…and that was just for grades for graduating seniors in this winter term.

All the rest of the grades are due TODAY.

It is a good thing all my late papers are in and graded.

I quickly scroll through each class record, through each discrete assignment; I make sure I haven’t missed grading a paper or neglected to record a bit of homework. Then, thanking my lucky stars for helpful tabulating technology,–and for that nudging student email– I post my grades.

Then I bundle up my class paraphernalia, put it all away in my sturdy school bag, and run upstairs to get ready for my meeting.

It doesn’t sink in until I am driving home through dark streets, through weary neighborhoods where, still, tree lights shine through windows and jolly inflatables bob on bare, tiny, front lawn patches. Headlights blare at me as swift cars careen around curves, and I turn the wheel, slow and sure, and I think, sudden realization blooming: This semester is OVER.

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I signed myself up for way too much to do this Fall…for too many classes, too many obligations, too many commitments. They ate up my time, all those ‘yeses’ that I said. They sucked the leisure out of the days like a vacuum sucks up M&M’s dropped heedlessly on a carpet…the opportunity for sweetness and fun tarnished and then vanished.

By the time I realized that, it was too late to renege, to say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t think I’d be THIS busy. Never mind!”

But I gave myself the sternest talking to. Things, I admitted, have got to change. Just let me get through this semester intact, I vowed, and then we’ll make a new plan.

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For my Comp I final, I ask my students to imagine they are writing to a person contemplating enrolling in the class but unsure if they’re ready for the challenge. I ask the students to reflect on each facet of the course, to think about what we did and why we did it, and to think about how—or whether—they have grown as writers.

One of my best and brightest students decided to go a step farther and to wax poetic about the instructor. This is what, in part, that student wrote:

I will use this chance to tell you about my English Composition teacher. Her name is Ms. Pam. She is a very nice teacher. The funny thing is, the first time I saw her, I thought she was an elderly woman so she will get tired easily. But oh my goodness!

I read that and thought, Wait—what? An elderly woman??

And then I realized, damme, she’s right: I qualify for that description…even if I am what some call a “junior senior”…even if I retired early and haven’t quite reached the full, platform-shifting, age of 65.

I remember those bright young faces—not all 18, mind you (some a great deal older, several meaningful years younger)—looking at me warily on day one, and I realize that, behind one of them at least, thoughts like this were running: “Man, she’s OLD. Will she have enough energy to teach me what I need to learn? Will she stay awake long enough to do that???”

I am glad I earned that “…oh, my goodness!” But I have to admit the writer had some insight: I did get tired. I have to admit, too, that my Superwoman days, if indeed they ever existed, are firmly and decidedly over.

It is time to recalibrate. This old barge can’t plow along in the same way it’s been used to doing.

Which doesn’t mean we’re docking; oh, no, far from it. It just means that some time in port is needed to spread out the maps and adjust the journey.

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If someone asked me to create a cutesy plaque for the newly retired, I think I’d write these words on it: Don’t say yes to everything.

By saying yes to too many things, I wound up saying no, partly, to all of them.

No, I don’t have time to give this my full attention.

Yes, I will be there, but no, I won’t be entirely focused.

No, I won’t be able to give my home and my family the energy I want to expend on them if I commit to all these good causes.

There are so many good causes, but I can’t give them all my due diligence. It is hard to accept that I can only be effective by focusing and selecting.

Even junior seniors still have things to learn.

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The Christmas tree is up. We got that done last Sunday, squeezed the traditional festooning in between a hearty ham dinner and grading papers. I did a quick clean-up with the vacuum and duster; the boyos carried the heavy white bookshelf away from the window, and put it, at least temporarily, against the bare wall in the dining room. They lugged the long heavy box up from the basement, and we pulled out tree sections, and we assembled and fluffed.

Then Jim and I decorated while Mark added lights to the outdoors display.

“Aww,” Jim would say. “I forgot about this!” or, “Is this the one Aunt Dot gave me?” He would hold up a handmade pine cone Santa, one google eye missing, or a Hallmark ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ globe from 1990. We would talk about origins and debate just the right place to hang such a treasure.

Jim had Christmas tunes playing in the background.

I was thinking, When this is done, I’ll do five more papers.

I was thinking, Christmas cards will have to wait till next weekend.

We finished the tree, and I moved on to the next thing on the list.

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Last night, turning out the lights, extinguishing the fire, Mark said, “You know, that’s a pretty nice tree.”

And I looked at, really looked at, it for the first time.

It’s a beautiful tree.

This morning, I woke up early, at 5:00 a.m. I crept downstairs and lit the fire, and I turned the tree lights on. I put coffee on to drip and picked up a wonderfully frothy book—about a young English woman in dire straits who loses her London flat and whose only recourse is to travel to the wilds of Scotland with her sweet, mute son. On the shores of Loch Ness, she’ll work in a bookstore, and she’ll struggle to make a difference in the lives of three sullen, unloved children, and, of course, she will fall in love. Dusty drapes will be pulled aside, light will stream in, and miracles will happen in a warm, braw, heathery, British Isles kind of way.

I take a break when Mark comes down, and together, we chop ham and whisk eggs, make toast and pour juice, and, before 6 a.m., we eat a hearty breakfast. Mark is headed to the city, off to a conference lousy with lawyers; he needs fortification. He needs to go out into the cold morning protein-fueled.

I wash up the dishes and wipe down the counters, and, after Mark has sped out into the still-dark, I grab that book and slip back to the reading chair. Sandwiched between glow of tree and fire, I read the story, read until I reach the end; I know what will happen, but there are twists and turns along the way, and getting to that endpoint is a perfectly satisfying accomplishment.

I need these times, I realize: an hour spent inside a cozy, homey book with no pressing must-dos bobbing, like the smiling reminders on a newborn’s mobile, around my head.

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Somehow, in the last weeks, we have cleaned surfaces and set up the nativity scene, with its choir of mismatched angels cheering on the baby. We have hefted boxes of Christmas dishes from their shelves in the basement, made room in the cupboards and china cabinet, filled the sink with hot suds, and scrubbed down plates and bowls and mugs. The wreath on the front door sports a plush penguin, and a large ceramic penguin sits grinning on the brick step below. At dusk, Mark turns on the lights, and that ceramic penguin’s eyes gleam maniacally in the dark December night. Lights festoon a tiny tree that snuggles behind the maniac penguin, and lights encircle the big holly bush, and lights drape along the carport wall.

I don’t remember quite how we got all this done (some if it happened while I was squinting at a computer screen, typing notes on student papers), but the house is happily holiday-settled.

Today, we will unpack the Santas and put them throughout the house. After our trip to Columbus for Jim’s appointment, after dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant, we’ll come home and turn the lights on, light the fire once again, and enjoy the flickering warmth.

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There are things to be done, even while the happy, homey, holy holiday season beckons. There are Spring syllabi to be created, though for only half as many courses. There is shopping and baking. There are those cards to spread out, so fresh and new and inviting, and there are messages to write on them.

There are people to remember, people who cannot be with us this year. There are voices that are stilled and laughter that has stopped, and I must think of ways to honor those that are dearly missed.

Some night soon I must get my a calendar out and take a hard, long realistic look at it, and at plans and dreams and fripperies and must-do’s—spread time and tasks all out  like puzzle pieces, and see what fits into the picture, and what must be discarded. I must open up my journal and write down what I’ve learned, write stern messages to future self, reminding me to balance.

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But, in the nooks and crannies of now, I celebrate the ending to a busy time, and teeter on the brink of this year’s holiday season. I’ll cling, for today or a couple of hours, to this fulcrum, to this time of clarity and insight.

And then I’ll forge ahead, elderly, yes; worn a bit, maybe; but not too tired to be excited about what comes next and how to pare the layers down to reveal the shining nugget of possibility, just waiting to be nurtured.