The Lull

I pull on my orange jacket and urge a reluctant dog out the door. The wind nips and the oak tree, clinging to its brown, dry leaves, rustles like an understated musician brushing at her drums. Ragged scraps of snow float to the ground.

The dog perks up. Are scents enhanced by cold and snow? Greta strains at the leash; now she is tugging me into a kind of sniff-and-tumble forage ahead. We skirt Sandy’s yard, loop up the big curved drive by the Helen Purcell home.

On the downslope, Greta pulls me off the pavement. She inches into the garden area where thick piles of leaves mulch the wintering perennials. She snouts around excitedly, upturning planks of leaves, exposing their darkened bottoms.

I let her go. It is Friday afternoon, Friday after a long and swirling week. Obligations have been met, and now the day’s ceiling opens up like the folding lids on a box–wide open to the sky and possibility. We can do anything we want. No need to hurry.

But even outrageous, exotic scents grow familiar, and small, aging dogs begin to feel the cold. We head to the house. I let Greta go at the stone front steps; she bounds around to the kitchen door and waits for me, grinning. I unhook her leash and we head in.

The kitchen smells like cinnamon; a small mound of snickerdoodles, edges just shy of burnt, just the way we like them, cools on the counter. Jim taps quietly on his keyboard in the family room. It’s an easy dinner tonight—packaged au jus; leftover beef, sliced thin to simmer in that dark sauce. Scalloped potatoes, made from a mix. Green beans.

I chop and mix and pour, getting things ready to cook. Then I make a cup of tea, move to the dining room table, and sit with my journal, pen in hand, staring out the window. It has been a week, a careening, charged time of meeting upon meeting, complex conversations rolling into each other, allowing no chance to absorb and reflect. The week was a tumbling, bubbling stew–a melange of things, all thrown in together; the simmering surface does not reveal the individual elements thumping around below.

But I remember, now,–now that I have a moment to reflect– the silver-haired man (silver hair like a lion’s mane) who got up to speak at Jim R’s funeral. It was after Jim’s three children had stood, bravely, fighting tears, to eulogize their father, to talk about his endless collection of classical music, and how they could never leave the house to go, say, to a restaurant until the entire side of a vinyl album had finished. About learning to make shelves and boxes in Jim’s basement woodshop to house those records and CD’s. About what he had taught them, and the teaching he shared with his more than 8,000 students. They went back to their seats, flanking their mother; they dipped their heads and they cried.

Jim was a lifelong learner, a scholar who was all but dissertated in history, a history teacher at the local high school. And after he retired, he came to teach at the community college. History was an elective, a course of choice in the one or two spaces where students could pick: one course from among the social sciences, say. Many chose history because someone told them it was the easiest, and then, they would encounter Mr. R. After that, they would usually opt to take the second half of American history, too, because he made them care so much.

“They don’t KNOW!” he would wail. “They don’t understand what happened or WHERE it happened! They don’t know why!”

And he wanted them to know, and he wanted them to care.

I would walk by the door of Jim R’s classroom on days when I badly needed a jolt of here’s why we are here doing what we’re doing. There he’d be, striding around the front of the class, pivoting, his hands flying, shaping balls of air into guns or bills or chains or victory. He would bend toward the students, with a laugh, with a groan, and the students would lean in to catch every single word.

And this was after the bad heart trouble, and after the belly surgery that left him so depleted. “If I have to quit teaching,” Jim said, a few years ago, “they may as well just carry me out of here.” For many students, Jim R, 72 years old, was not a history teacher or a grand storyteller so much as he was a transporter, holding open wide the door of a vivid time machine.

A month ago, he was teaching.

On Tuesday, we gathered at a little funeral home, filled to standing room capacity, to mourn him. And his friend stood up to share a tale.

He was also an educator, this friend, an administrator, I am guessing,– someone who shared a long chunk of career with Jim R. He talked about their passion for learning, and about other things they shared–love of hiking, of traveling; an inclination toward a good joke.

This man told us how he’d gone to see Jim at the hospital just two days before he died. Jim was sleeping deeply in his hospital bed, white as the sheets that covered him; his friend went and sat beside him. He took Jim’s hand.

“Jim,” he said, “I want to tell you what a wonderful friend you’ve been to me. And I hope I’ve been as good a friend to you.”

There was a moment. And then Jim squeezed his friend’s hand, and slowly his eyes opened. They shared a long look, the two old teachers, and then Jim, still squeezing his buddy’s hand, spoke.

“You’re getting fat,” he said. And fell back to sleep.

Oh, it was a good story, and oh, Jim’s friend told it well. We were all shocked into laughter. Driving back to Zanesville, I thought, “Jim taught us all a little something about friendship and humor, a teacher to the last.”

And I thought, too, that maybe he wasn’t above leaving his bud with a good story to tell at his funeral.

***********
And now I realize it is 5:00; I slide the red porcelain casserole into the oven, put the green beans on the simmer burner, start the water on to boil to make the au jus. Greta jumps up and barks: Mark has  pulled into the carport. She and James greet him at the door. He comes into the kitchen, rubbing hands together, cheeks red above his gray scarf and long black coat, and his eyes light up at the mound of cookies.

“Smells like cinnamon,” he says, and then Jim is pulling colorful Fiesta-ware from the cupboard, and the dog is jumping around my legs as I stir the beef into the bubbling juice, and Mark is telling us about a visitor he had, a funny encounter that happened. And he’s hanging up his coat, and we’re dishing up our food, and we’re toasting with our ice water: Let the weekend begin!

Warmth and good scents and steaming food: we relax into the meal and the conversation; we linger and enjoy.

****************
I am swishing my hand in hot soapy water, agitating the suds to scrub the pans, when I think of the young man I met yesterday. I was on a field trip to a nearby village, going to explore a home-grown leadership program that was seeping its way into all kinds of the town’s corners. Into the high school, where it linked high-achieving students with developmentally delayed counterparts, creating new friendships and new ways of leading. Into the courts where young people with promise were funneled into, of all things, a leadership course. Imagine! Into Job and Family Services, where people struggling to turn their lives around got a chance to explore their leadership capacities, and to tussle with concepts like ethics and self-fulfillment.

Shelly, the dynamic force behind the program–its pilot light–told me that they’d applied for a grant for a leadership curriculum. And plummeted when they didn’t get it.

And then, when the initial shock wore off, they said, Well, we can’t afford to buy a program. We’ll just have to create our own.

She handed me a facilitator’s handbook and a participant’s guide, glossy and professional, and we paged through together. Then she took me out to meet her peeps.

It was the kind of place where everyone pitches in. So the program coordinator might also stop to get refreshments, and the executive admin teaches a module. The marketing crew make phone calls and know participants’ names and the names of their family members, and staff members take time to stop and talk with a visitor come to see their program.

One of Shelly’s colleagues is a young man whose hair–top of his head, lashes and brows,–is snow white. Three years ago, he told me, he was laying on his couch, turning his head away when his wife or daughters tried to interest him in what they were doing, in some exciting event. He had an auto-immune disease. His body was attacking itself, and the doctors had nothing to offer him. He turned his head away.

And then, somehow, he and his wife learned of a program in Chicago, and they gathered up their resources–no easy task for a young family–and they went. The medical innovators harvested stem cells from the patients, they brewed them into something injectable, and they re-implanted them in the patients’ bodies. And somehow, by some alchemical reaction, the infusion of stem cells changed the course of this young man’s disease.

It wasn’t, of course, as simple as my telling of the tale, and it took months of time away from home. But, he told me, he limped into the hospital, leaning on a walker. And he walked out, straight and tall, striding next to wife. His dark hair had turned stark white, but his health was back. And he was determined to work with people with disabilities. He found his place among the passionate professionals I visited.

***************
My tea water is ready. Mark and Jim are in the family room, guffawing at Frasier and Niles’ antics. I bring my IPad to the table and sip my tea and ponder what to write.

Some weeks are just nuts. Obligation flows into obligation; there is little time to reflect or assimilate. It can be dangerous, that kind of week; I can miss the miracles that roll gently into my path. I need an interlude, a lull, and time to sort the treasure from the dross.

And I think of good Jim R, gone so quickly, missed so much, and of the eight or ten thousand students he sent out into whatever worlds they were forging, out with new knowledge and new passion and doors opened in their minds. Not doomed to repeat history; not those umpteen thousand.

I think of how he left us with a good story and a good laugh.

I think of the young man with the white hair, who took an incredible chance and regained his health and found his purpose.

I think of the families who love and support both those men, and of the lives they touch and have made better.

It takes a lull, sometimes, to be aware and mindful of the magic and the miracles among us. Those hectic days–they suck my attention; they only let me focus on the jabbering and the demanding: the right-here-right-now, got to get it done, tip of the iceberg.  I need the lulls. I need the time to let the stories of wonder rise to the surface of my thought, and to remember the friendships and the decency, the loyalty and the openness, and the hope and possibilities, that always dwell among us.

Adventures in Ordinary Time

The sun is not yet up, and my son James, 26-years old, is stretching his arms in the dining room.

“Should I get my shoes on?” he asks.

Jim’s dad, Mark, passes him on his way upstairs to dress for work.

“Good morning, Sabu,” says Mark.

“Morning, Dabu,” Jim replies, their own special dialect in play.

I have just poured my first cup of rich dark decaf; I haven’t even pulled my binder from the cupboard to parse out some loose-leaf, pick up a pen, and write my three required morning pages. My slow, fuzzy morning mind churns reluctantly.

“Sooooooo….” Jim says, a question in that one-drawn out word.

And then I remember. Last night, clipping coupons, I’d chopped a page full of great Tim Horton deals into their discrete elements. And I said to Jim, “Hey–we should go to Timmy H’s tomorrow for breakfast.”

“Cool,” he’d said, and I went back to my clipping. I’d been thinking of a meander over to Maple Avenue at, oh, say, maybe 9 or 10 A.M.

Yet here, up and waiting well before 7, is Jim. A whole thought-reel plays in tiny seconds: I NEED to do my morning pages; I haven’t even combed my hair. Everyone knows I need at least half an hour to wake up–and what the heck is he doing, up before the sun? Moms need their morning quiet time. Is the paper even here yet?

And I look at Jim, shining with expectancy. Autism and depression and OCD are all parts of his complex personality. One of his greatest pleasures is eating out. One of his autistic attributes is a tendency to be very, very literal. And last night I said, “We’ll go to Timmy H’s in the morning.”

It is morning. He’s been waiting. I bite off a retort, run upstairs to wash my face, comb my hair, make a feeble attempt at wide-awake presentability. I grab the coupons, kiss the dad, and we head out, James and I, just as the sky gentles into gray.

It is a warm January day, heading up toward an unseasonable 60 degrees. It is raining, the streets dark and shiny. The windshield wipers slap rhythmically, and Jim says, “Want some music?”

“Sure,” I agree, and he says, “Nothing dark though, right?”  He pulls up the theme song from The Karate Kid. It’s the score to our trip to the doughnut shop.

Inside, a cheerful but sleepy bespectacled girl waits on us. We do a Laurel and Hardy routine, she and I. I hand her a muffin coupon and say, “Doughnut.” She says, “Muffin?”

“Yes,” I say and order up some decaf.

“Wait,” she says, pushing keys. Then, “Orange juice?”

Actually that sounds good, so I say sure. “Any coffee?” she asks, and I start to laugh. She pauses and then smacks her head.

“Decaf!” she chortles.

Too early, we agree, for effective communication.

Jim, using his coupons, orders a toasted bagel and two doughnuts. He surveys the case carefully, seriously, and asks for a honey cruller and a Boston cream.

“Anything to drink?” asks our new friend, and he requests a Pepsi.

For breakfast???? I think. Doughnuts and pop for breakfast?  My teeth hurt just thinking about it, but I clamp my lips together and do not preach. This is not everyday; this is an everyday adventure.

At the pickup stand, we realize brazen inauguration hype is playing on the big screen TV.

“Mind if we sit on the other side?” asks Jim, and I agree wholeheartedly. We get the last table by the window and unload our bounty.

Jim lines his food up–doughnut, bagel, doughnut,–and begins to eat. And to talk. He has a passion for film, and he tells me about one of his favorite producers. This guy, he says, had a story he really wanted to produce, and so he signed an agreement with the studio to direct two superhero films. Then they produced, and he directed, his story which was, Jim agrees, a magnum opus. But the characters in the super hero films were neither: not super, and not, in Jim’s considered opinion, anything resembling heroes.

He crumples up the paper from his first doughnut and muses, while unwrapping his bagel, on why it seems that modern film-makers want to bring super-folk down to the level of mere mortals. He has worked this through, and his ideas are interesting. I nod and ask a question here and there, but mostly I sip my coffee, break my muffin into bite-sized pieces, nibble; I listen as James expounds an evolving theory.

By the last doughnut, he is talking about a screenplay he’d like to write, a story that’s a crossover between two popular, but, on surface, dissimilar franchises. It’s an intriguing idea, and he has thought it out. He knows which characters would be drawn to each other, in friendship and in romance. He has ideas about conflicts and enmities and how a new story would spin out among the characters from oft-told tales.

And then the food is gone, and Jim winds down.  “Well,” he says. “Shall we go?”

We stop at Kroger, more coupons in hand, to buy the pizza he’ll cook himself while Mark and I go to a bar association dinner that night. We pick up a few necessities. I stop and pump gas, and then we head to the post office, a few miles across town.  Jim plays more music. “Lord of the Dance” is followed by Metallica doing “Whiskey in the Jar,” and then he plays a new artist doing a cover of Night Wish’s “Story Time.” The artist is called Amateur, and a clear, sweet voice caresses familiar lyrics.

Jim’s tastes in music are eclectic and surprising.

I buy stamps and mail a bill and then, windshield wipers fwapping, we head home.

“I’ll get the bags,” offers Jim, and he grabs the groceries from the backseat and runs through the rain to unlock the back door. We schlep in, stomping rain off our feet at the door, greeting the bouncing dog.

Jim puts the grocery bags carefully on the counter.

“That,” he says, “was fun.”

I look at the clock. It is not even 9:00 yet, and we have crossed the morning errands off the to-do list, shared an unexpected treat, had a chance to talk.

“That WAS fun,” I agree, and I look at the kitchen with different eyes. I could, I think, take the aging apples and cut them up to make the kind of apple cake my mother used to make. I’ll use a recipe for Busy-Day Yellow Cake that Jim recently transcribed for me.  The unexpected day’s start seems to open up other possibilities, a  little healthy perspective-shaking having taken place.

I slice and chop the apples; I throw together the simple, one-bowl, cake batter, and soon the house smells warmly of cinnamon and sugar, flour and butter. What else is on offer, today?

Jim goes off to start his screenplay, and I realize I have all the ingredients for a pot of chowder waiting in the fridge. And I can roast the chicken bones leftover with some veggies and herbs to make a base for broth. The day simmers forth, and I decide to do unexpected things: I put away the outdoor Christmas trees I’d been waiting (Why?) for Mark to take care of; I decide, having just read an article about dust mites, to wash all the pillows. I change the shower curtain and pull the sheets off the bed. I throw laundry in, then head up to finish a book review I’d started way back the week before.

Jim switches from his screenplay to his paid work; he begins to transcribe a new batch of recipes as Frazier re-runs play in the background. Every now and then he roars with laughter; every now and then he calls out a progress report: Five recipes done!

Five more, he tells me, a little bit later.

And the cake bakes and the broth bubbles and the day flows into a wholly unexpected shape, not exotic, not extraordinary, but somehow morphed by the simple expedient of an unexpected start. A lesson to be learned, I think, and a habit to be broken, perhaps.

Certainly, there’s possibility to be pondered, in the transformation of the expected by a different kind of day’s beginning. There’s a lot of energy generated by adventures in ordinary time.

In Good Hands

Capable, the American Heritage Dictionary tells me, is from the Late Latin capere, which means “to take.” And I think of all those people, who, understanding their strengths, make bold to take things into their own, capable, hands.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/capable/

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I remember my parents, seated at the kitchen table, heads bent toward each other. My mother held one of my father’s broad, battered hands in her left hand. With her right hand, she rubbed healing lotion into Dad’s cuticles, using the blunt, rounded end of a metal nail file to gently push them back.

Dad’s hands took a beating. The first knuckle of his right ring finger was permanently V-ed from some awful long ago accident (depending on the day, he’d tell me a different horrific story; I always wondered the real truth of what caused that awful bent). During his working life, Dad’s roughened hands were shaded with black in all the crevices, black that wouldn’t come out with washing, no matter how strong the soap or diligent the scrubbing. Dad drove heavy machinery on the coal pile at the electric company. The coal dust worked its way into his hands, under his nails, and didn’t leave.

Those hands were fearless behind the wheel of any vehicle, and they wielded hammers and saws and screwdrivers with confident ease. My dad, I often thought proudly as a child, can fix ANYthing.

And at night, in the amber light of the brown-shaded lamp next to his Barca Lounger, Dad’s hands quietly turned the pages of book after book, thick historical fiction, usually–Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener. Dad’s path, during the Depression years, had led him to leave high school a math credit short of graduation; his hands were his ticket to earning a good living, to helping the family he was born into, to providing for the family he later created. To serving his country. But he never lost his love of the written word.

Dad’s hands threw endless baseballs in the backyard, shot up unfailingly to catch our errant pop flies.

When grandchildren arrived, those hardened hands were gentle as he danced cranky babies into calm: a soothing rub on the back, a crooning whispered song in fretful ears, and those babies went from rigid, insistent crying to sighing relaxation as Dad waltzed them off to a snug, warm sleeping spot.

Mark’s Dad, Angelo, same generation, had nearly the same story: left high school to work and help the family. Service in World War II. A long working career in a factory that demanded hard service of those hands.

At night, when his kids were growing up, when his wife, Pat, went off to work, Angelo would fix dinner, fix problems. His hands were seldom still. He’d tear out walls and reconfigure the entire downstairs, putting his hands to plumbing, wiring, carpentry–whatever the task required.

In his spare moments, Angelo set himself up a wood-shop in the basement. He’d slide his hands over slabs of wood, considering, and then he would take the chosen slab to the lathe, turning out candle sticks and fluted plaques and decorative, polished wooden wheelbarrows.

For both Mark’s father and mine, their hands were their livelihood. We knew that—although there might be momentary fireworks when the subject was broached,–we could take just about any problem and lay it in our fathers’ hands. We rested in that reassurance that all children should have: we believed our parents were capable of handling anything.

Handling: no coincidence in that wording.

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

I watch Jim’s hands at the computer. He has an idea burning; his hands are his medium of expression, flying over the keys. Keyboarding classes were excruciating for him; he has perfected his own technique, and his fingers are confident on the keys.

This past fall, I brought Jim stacks of recipes–hand-written recipes from family members and friends long gone; recipes ripped from magazines and yellowed clippings from newspapers printed in long-ago home towns. Jim took that dross and Rumpelstiltskin-ed it into gold…created three family cookbooks with neatly typed pages and tables of contents and indexes, the chaotic clutter of someday recipes turned into usable, findable inspiration.

In job situation after job situation, Jim has come home frustrated: I’m not coordinated that way, he would say, talking about the challenge of quickly sorting tabbed pages into piles and inserting them into binders. I get behind, he’d say. Everyone is faster than I am, and the coaches are always telling me to hurry up.

He’d fall further and further behind; his paychecks, based on piecework, would be disappointing, and soon that particular experience would be over. Hope and confidence had slipped another notch.

But on the computer, Jim’s hands find a comfortable niche, and his expertise becomes a livelihood. Now he creates cookbooks for others, too, sorting, organizing, typing, comfortable in the computer milieu, sure of his way forward, confident of the outcome.

And when that paid work is done, his hands fly over the keyboard, spinning imaginative tales of superheroes and sci-fi figures, creating fan-fiction that brings him warm reviews. Jim has discovered one way to use his hands for good and for glory; he has discovered one important facet of his capability.

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I think of my hairdresser, with his sure, smart hands, a man who makes a wonderful living for his family through his artistry. A ‘coiffure engineer’ he calls himself jokingly, and he went into the hairdressing field when few men did: when there was a sort of stigma or expectation attached. His father, my hairdresser tells me, was shocked at this career choice; he belittled his son and told him he’d never earn a living from wielding those scissors.

But he knew early on, that coiffure engineer, just what his hands were drawn to do, and he proved his father wrong, wrong, wrong.

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I think of artist friends and the amazing, inspired work of their hands.

I think of a woman I am always happy to see when blood-drawing time rolls around; that woman can smile and chat and find a vein and draw three vials of blood, leaving me with my hand in a fist pointed upward, scrunching that cotton ball tightly in my elbow pit, before I have time to blink. She’s a genius; I want her always to be on call when I am in blood-draw mode.

I think of a young man with verbal communication challenges whose hands fly over a small keyboard, ‘talking’ to waitresses and clerks and colleagues at the retail shop where he works diligently in the back room, sorting and stocking and packing for return. His hands have found some of the things they are capable of, and the work of his hands is valued and respected; he uses his hands to share his thoughts and needs.

I think of Lois, whose hands fly as she teaches American Sign Language: her hands are a language bridge between two cultures. She is a genius at communication, Lois is; she knows not only how to sign the language, but how to share it with hearing students. She teaches the signs, and she makes them want to learn.

And I know some people who are frustrated and searching. They have not yet found the work of their hands. They do not yet know what they are fully capable of doing.

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

And I believe this: I believe each of us has wonderful capabilities. Our quest and our goal is to find the work of our hands, to land at that place of satisfaction and pride–a place where we can step back and show the onlooker just what we have completed. And then, Look, we can say–whoever we are, at whatever age or phase or level; Look what I have done.

For many of us, our hands are the accessories of our brains. They tell the tale, they soothe the aching back; they create, create, create, in whatever shape, whatever form. And everyone, everyone, everyone, has a niche and a gift and a passion. To find, then, the right and proper work of our hands is to begin to explore all the things we are capable of doing.

Capable: both mastery and potential. The things we know our hands can do. The things we’ll discover we can–perhaps to our complete surprise–take capably into our own hands.

The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie & That Something about Baking

I can’t tell you how many of Jodi’s recipes I have bookmarked, and how many of those have become family favorites. So it’s a really, really big deal to have a recipe featured on Jodi’s blog!

the creative life in between

reeses-peanut-butter-cup-cookies-stack The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie

The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie

A few months ago, I recall my youngest son, watching me mix together a batch of cookie dough, asking, “Do you actually enjoy doing that?  Seems like a lot of work!”

I thought about it.

It is a bit tedious.

It makes a mess in the kitchen.

I could be binge-watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix or painting or exercising or reading or so many other things.

But…

There’s something about baking…

reeses-peanut-butter-cookies-close-up

There’s something about using Grandma’s old tin measuring cup and reminiscing about childhood summers.

There’s something about the way the house smells like home when you bake.

There’s something about the smiles you know will emerge when hubby sees stacks of cookies cooling on racks when he comes home or comes in from out of the cold.

There’s something about making goody packages to send home…

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Left Breast, and the Woman Who Brought It In

[This time, the story has a happy ending…but here’s to Kim and Sandee and Susan G and John H and Patti, to my mother and your sister and our dear friend’s uncle…to all of those for whom the follow-up appointment was not closure, but the beginning of a frightening and unexpected journey…]

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Years ago, after I’d had my mammogram, I complained to my doctor that surely a male had invented that machine. And he–that shambling, wild-haired, guffawing man—he laughed outright. In Europe, he said, they have developed a machine that gently cups the breast instead of flattening it.

Well, I suggested, let’s get one of those.

Nah, he said. That was the day he had a piece of gauze sticking out of his nose, stanching a bleed. You ought to see a doctor for that, suggested his sharp-tongued nurse, eyes twinkling. He shooed her away with a flapping hand and turned back to me.

Nah, he said again. Whaddaya want? That we treat you like some kind of person?

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Don’t move, they tell me, and so I don’t. I lay on my belly; my head rests in the crook of my right arm. I hook my left foot around my right ankle just in case my right leg, which tends to get crampy, starts to twitch. I am buffeted by warm flannel, and I am floating on a Valium cloud–all of me is, that is, except my left breast.

My left breast hangs through a hole in the weird, strong plastic table; it, and I, are suspended above three practitioners, a doctor and two nurses. They all seem like lovely people, but they situated me, then they elevated me, and then they ducked under my floating table to deal with my breast. I hear the murmur of their words, but I am detached, separate, not part of the goings-on.

It is easier, maybe, to forget that there’s a person attached. They need to focus. I am merely the pleasant woman who brought the breast in for them to work on. I am left breast needle biopsy, Thursday, 3:15.

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

One morning this fall, after months of avoiding the idea, I woke up with an imperative, fully fledged, in my mind. Make your OB/gyn appointment. Do that today.

I called as soon as the office opened, called before I left for work; they had an appointment for me the next week.

I met with a nurse practitioner, Abby, who looked as though she might be all of 25. But she was calm and capable and friendly; we had a good discussion about career choices and how it is that she came to work in the OB/gyn field.  A tough field, I thought, as Abby apologized for pressure and prodding and cold steel instruments. Gynecology, to me, seems to have the potentials of extreme joy and of total disaster.

The joyful days, Abby said, balance the depressing ones, but she was glad to be a part of the process either way. Sickness and health. Babies and menopause. Prevention and cure. Diagnosis and management.

Are you doing your breast exams? she asked, and I allowed that I was, and I found nothing  amiss. She did her own exam, and she agreed. She wrote me a scrip for a mammogram and ushered me out.

See you in a year, she said.

The receptionist set up the radiology appointment; there was an opening that Friday afternoon.

Good, I thought; let’s get this over with so we can concentrate on packing for our Thanksgiving trip, and then on Christmas preparations. But I had a sort of nubby suspicion, free-floating.

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

Diana came out and got me within five minutes of my check-in; I’d barely had time to crack open my book. She walked me through a cheerful hallway maze, and told me she’d be taking my mammogram pictures. She ushered me into a pleasant changing room where the ubiquitous pink flowered cape waited.

I changed and pulled the cape around me, and I cracked the door open to let Diana know I was ready. Diana was a wiry, attractive grandma, just about my age. She was excited about her new grandbaby coming for Thanksgiving. We talked about brining and roasting bags and just cooking the damned turkey; we compared notes on stuffing (sausage? oysters? in the bird? out?) as she shaped first my right breast, then my left, like Playdough and sent the top clamp pressing down. The machine buzzed and clicked while we chatted.

Then her talk wound down.

Let’s just try this again, said Diana, and she re-situated me, a different left breast view, and took more shots.

I’ll just take these to the radiologist, she said, smiling, patting me on the shoulder. And then we can get you dressed!

I heard her cushioned shoes pad down the hallway, heard her stridently cheerful voice greeting a colleague. She was back quickly to steer me back to the dressing room, and she waited while I dressed to guide me back through the maze to the door.

“Bye, now!” she said brightly. “Have a nice Thanksgiving!”

“Happy Thanksgiving to you,” I said, and I knew: there was something. I’d gone from being a friendly woman to talk with to being Left Breast, mass identified.

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The second mammogram was scheduled within in a week. A different radiographer, Lois–substantial and forthright. See? she pointed out. See there? And there?

My breast tightly vised, I turned and looked. One spot was  the dark open end of a flower stem; the other, a tiny, bright asterisk.

Definitely there, said Lois. Sometimes it’s just the way your tissue overlaps in the shot. But not this time.

We’ll get you down to sonography, she said, and handed me over to a firmly cheerful young woman who told me about her three year old and likened this kind of sonogram to a search for a needle in a haystack. But she found the needle; she snapped shot after shot, typing in a description on each.

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An appointment with a specialist, who was brisk and professional and reassuring. Benign properties, she adjudged (but I recollected uneasily that Sandee’s doctor told her the same thing), and she set me up for a biopsy the following week.

It’s not a pleasant procedure, she told me, but it’s not horrible. The worst part is getting numb, she said, and cheerfully left me to get dressed.

(I remembered Kim and Kathy talking about their biopsies. I remembered them talking about being placed on a table with a hole cut out for their breast, so that people underneath them could perform the necessary rites.

I remembered one of them saying, fighting back tears: This was the worst thing…)

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And so, Mark and I came to be in an inner hospital waiting room on a snowy Thursday afternoon.  A young woman in bright scrubs came and beckoned me, took me into a back room, and asked, Would you like a good strong dose of Valium?

Oh, yeah, said I, forgetting my strong stance against over-medication: Yes, ma’am. I do.

Good, she said, and she gave me the pill and a big glass of water. As I walked back to sit next to Mark, I could feel the fizz entering my veins. I was free-floating when the nurses came to get me.

There were two; their names have wafted away on a Valium tide, but one was young and dark-eyed and plump. The other was thin and taut and in the throes of hot flashes. She pulled her long-sleeved uniform jacket off repeatedly, grabbing it when goosebumps rose, flinging it off again when she began, suddenly, to sweat. We talked about menopause, and I admitted, feeling guilty, to having had very little trouble.

And they gave me a cape and introduced the doctor and helped me onto the table.

Don’t move, they said; you can’t move now.

And the table rose and their voices receded. I was strangely alone above the fray. I wanted to say to them, I’m a little bit scared here. I have a 26-year-old son with autism who’ll be terrified if he finds out I’m sick. I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m working on, and my husband and I are looking forward to traveling, post-retirement. I’m thinking, I wanted to say, of writing a book.

But they were huddled below me, intent on their tasks.

I felt the needles for numbing.

Now you’ll feel PRESSURE; that’s okay. But tell us if you feel anything SHARP, said the dark-haired nurse, popping up, patting my jutting elbow, then ducking beneath the table.

But I DID feel sharp things, pointed things, crisp flashes. There were tiny, glancing, interior pops of white light. It felt like the needle lanced my breast through to the other wall. There were murmurs and pushing and lightening pops below me; cushioned shoes scuttled to a monitor. Muted discussion. Tissue harvested!

And then the three abortive efforts to seat a minuscule marker deep in my breast–the lights popping more quickly and more crisply, the nurses murmuring encouragingly, and the doctor calling up, each time he started over, “Thanks for your patience!”

The Good Girl part of my brain thought, with satisfaction, “I’m a good patient.”

The other part of my mind snapped back, “What damned choice do I have?”

Done, finally, and the doctor soft-shoed away while the nurses lowered me down and said, Just stay still a minute while we clean up the blood.

I hadn’t thought about blood; I’d thought of a slender tubular needle zipping in, flashing out, process done.

I hadn’t thought about bleeding, or bruising, or about being suspended above the process itself, as if someone had said, in brisk annoyance, “Can we hide that person, please? While we tend to the breast?

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This story has a happy ending: the doctor danced in to our next meeting with the word, “Benign!” quick on her tongue.

So we’ll watch things a little more closely for a bit. I’ll have mammography a little more often, just to be sure that nothing changes or grows, no desperate tendrils unfurl in dark places, snaking out to grab healthy bits  and choke them.

And I will remember, warily, the feeling of disconnection, of being ancillary to the whole medical process.

The woman who brought in the breast–what shall we do with her while we’re busy here?

Just lay her down; we’ll raise her over our heads so we can concentrate on what’s important. Then ready Left Breast and let’s get cracking.

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I am thankful every day, for my undeserved, unearned health–health that beloved dear ones, and health-conscious young ones, and many someones’ precious, precious ones, do not enjoy. Then  I ponder the advances in medicine that float away the person, leaving only the silent, uncomplaining part of the body to attend to. I met many kind and caring people on this short journey, but I realized, in our time and in our system, that medicine is often about the limb, the lump, the blip, the blood…and not always about the complex personality affected by the pain.

GOT IT! (The end of my quest for the ultimate cookie)

peanut-butter-crinkles
It started years and years ago, when a visit to the Barnes and Noble in Erie, Pennsylvania, was a rare and wonderful getaway. My friend Sharon introduced me to the concept that, in the Starbucks snack bar connected to the book store, one could gather up a fat stack of glossy magazines from the well-stocked shelves, order up coffee and a treat, and sit and flip page after page without being accosted. And then, words and images and coffee treats digested, one could take those carefully handled magazines and put them back on the shelves.

And it was okay. In fact, the store management encouraged reading and browsing while snacking.

Those were days of diapers and tight budgets, of precious quiet personal time, and of limited opportunities for real vacations. A visit to the Starbucks cafe at B and N, an hour of paging through glossies that had no direct relation to mommyhood, a steaming cup of Italian roast coffee–that was a refreshing respite in itself. It didn’t think it could get much better.

But then, I ordered the Starbucks Reese’s cup cookie, and I heard the angels sing.

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The Reese’s cup cookie was big and flat and filled with chunks of peanut butter cup and chocolate chips. It had the perfect combination of crunch and chew, and I would savor it, breaking off small pieces, chewing them slowly, clearing my palate with a hot swig of rich, dark brew. I would slide the magazine across the little round table, making sure no crumb or drip sullied its pristine pages, and I would read about that year’s fashions or the best way to teach pronouns to middle-schoolers or how to make a tasty dinner from stale bread and leftover ham.

The cookie was big enough to last, if I was careful, for the life of the venti coffee. When both were gone, it was time to put the magazines on their shelves and head back into it.

The taste of Italian roast and Reese’s cookie began, to me, to mean treasured respite. But visits to the book store, an hour’s drive, were too few and too far between. I decided I needed to recreate that lovely, warm, restful experience in my own kitchen.

It wasn’t hard to master the coffee. I acquired my first coffee grinder, and I could buy Italian roasted beans at my local supermarket. Soon, I was sleepily brewing a wonderful pot of morning coffee, floating on its steam to a happy place before the day began to buffet me.

But the cookie. Ah. That was a different story.

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I thought perhaps I could adapt my traditional peanut butter cookie recipe, the kind that’s crisscrossed with fork tines. I mixed up a batch and stirred in chocolate chips and a handful of peanut butter cups, chopped; this was an activity that required stealth and the willingness to smack small grubby hands that reached insistently for the chopped chocolate treats. I  arranged one-inch balls carefully on the cookie sheets, and put them into a pre-heated oven, waiting for them to flatten out and become the chewy-crunchy discs I loved so much.

They never flattened. They remained candy-studded peanut butter golf balls. Although the boyos ate them willingly, I was not happy. And I was determined to get closer to the mark.

Thus began my quest. At least twice a year, I would try a new recipe for peanut butter cookies. I rummaged through library cookbooks in five different hometowns, finding, along the way, some wonderful dishes that we have woven into family cuisine. But I did not find a peanut cookie recipe that approximated the Starbucks treat.

I discovered the Reese’s cookies were only available in Barnes and Nobles Starbucks,–at least where I lived–, and I swerved the car when passing such places. I interrogated hapless baristas who had nothing to do with the baking of cookies; they looked nervous as I pelted them with cookie questions. I was a woman on a mission, but my goal seemed elusive.

I bought baking books. Their recipes did not include the one I sought. I scoured the Internet fruitlessly.

I tried chocolate chip cookie variations–“Omit the half cup of shortening and add 2/3 cup of peanut butter…”

I chopped peanut butter cups and stirred them into dozens of different doughs, sharing results with family and friends and colleagues. None of them objected to the cookies I slid in front of them.

But none of the cookies was quite the cookie I needed.

Years and years went by. I savored Barnes and Noble visits, learning, in every town we settled, the fastest route to the closest store whose cafe offered those sweet treats.

I began to despair, though, of ever finding a recipe to come close to my cookie ideal.

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Favorite recipes.jpg
And then, at Christmas time, I reached for my mother’s recipe book, a book that contains, in her own handwriting, essential holiday recipes–the shortbread cookie recipe, the directions for making chocolate fudge delight. And I noticed that recipe number two was for a cookie called ‘Peanut Butter Crinkles.’

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Did I remember my mother making peanut butter crinkles? The criss-cross tine cookies, yes, but there was no memory of this other. We had cookies we called molasses crinkles; they were a favorite, and they flattened into the same kind of chewy crunch I sought.

I had a chocolate crinkle recipe, too; they yielded the same result.  Could it be…??

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I went ahead with my Christmas baking, stirring up the fudge, rolling out the shortbread, shaping dollops of clove-scented chocolate dough into Italian chocolate cookies.

It was all good; we ate and shared, and then when the holidays treats were gone, I pulled out the little recipe book, chopped up a package of Reese’s peanut butter trees found in my Christmas stocking, and mixed them into the peanut butter crinkle dough. I added, because I had them, a handle of white chocolate chips and a scoop of mini semi-sweet morsels. I shaped the candy-studded dough into 1-1/2 inch balls, and I rolled the balls in sugar. Then I put them on lightly greased cookie sheets, flattened them gently with the sugared bottom of a juice glass, and slid them into the oven.

They spread out beautifully, and the edges cracked and got crunchy. After ten minutes or so, I took the first tray from the oven, wielded my spatula, and spread the first twelve hot cookies out to cool. And finally, after an agonizing wait, I tried them.

And they were, as Goldilocks said so long ago, JUST RIGHT.

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Last night, Jim took the last of the Reese’s cookies from the cookie jar. But I know how to make more.

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I felt triumphant for two days after those cookies came out of the oven–triumphant and sated with my dream cookies. And then, a little reaction began to set in.

For there’s a cost, I’m discovering, to achieving a long-sought goal. There’s a vacuum. The quest is a thing in itself, powered by passion and possibility and the delight of the search.

And when the mission is completed, that power is gone. Now I have to say to myself, the quest for the Reese’s cookie recipe was a thirty-five year chapter in my life. And that chapter is now complete.

It’s a little unsettling; it’s a little…final.

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But still. I have my recipe! And I found it, of all places, in a book that’s been sitting patiently on my cookbook shelf, a little book that’s traveled with me over hundreds of miles and through five different kitchens. There’s a message there to ponder, kind of a Wizard of Oz wisdom-byte, about the things I need maybe being in my backyard all along.

There are other cooking quests to get serious about. I have my new pasta maker; watch out, ravioli. And this is the year I’ll finally learn to make a buttery delectable biscuit.

I’ll still treat myself to a Reese’s cookie when I visit my favorite Barnes and Noble store.

And every so often–but not too often–I’ll make myself a batch of Reese’s cookies. In the quiet of the morning, I’ll French press myself some smoky brew, pull over the magazine that arrived in yesterday’s mail, and serve myself a cookie on a dessert plate. I’ll savor it, making it last until I’ve poured the last steamy froth from my coffee pot, turned the last page of that magazine. I’ll savor the triumph, too, of finally achieving my goal–silly and frivolous though that goal might seem.

And then…well, then, I’ll  face the future, bravely embarked on a mighty new mission.

And fueled by a hefty dose of Reese’s candy-laden peanut butter crinkles.

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peanut-butter-crinkles

A Dog in the Manger

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We’ve had the creche for over thirty years. It has traveled with us, ceramic pieces snugly wrapped in newspaper and stuffed tightly into a box that a boy’s brand new Nikes once came home in. The pieces have been carefully unwrapped, each year, by two sets of boy hands–both sets grown, now, into man hands. The figures have been displayed in six different homes.

There’s a tip of a nose missing on poor Joseph; a few of the animals have dinged horns. I notice, snapping photos, that the ceramic pieces are due for a good soap and hot water soak. But all in all, this nativity scene wears the years remarkably well. It wears the years easily, and it gathers in compatriots. The ceramic figures are joined now by plastic friends, glass friends, friends fashioned of straw and wood. The newest mute witness to baby Jesus’s birth is a hand-carved, wooden dog.

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My mother ordered the set for us on a hot August day early in the 1980’s. She was browsing a craft show–an annual event called the Farm Festival– in the town next to the city where I grew up, and she came upon a ceramic artist. Arrested by the artist’s Christmas figures, Mom stopped, and she picked up the pieces, turning them over, lifting the baby from his manger cradle, looking at the faces of the wise men, shepherds, Joseph, and Mary.

It was Mary’s face, she said, that sold her. Some manger scenes had beatific Mary’s, with mature and perfect upturned faces soaking in the grace raining down from heaven. My mother had a different image of Mary–an image of a frightened but awed young woman, a girl, really, of fourteen,who was exhausted by a long, mule-back trip and by the rigors of giving birth.

And yet, still limned with that awe.

 

marys-tired-face

This Mary, Mom thought, looked the part, and so she ordered sets for me and my brothers.

The artist delivered them in November or so, and that Christmas, Mark and I set the figures up for the first time, in our first married home.

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In those days, we were purists. We set out Mary and Joseph early in December, but we wrapped and hid the baby. He would appear on Christmas morning, a reminder of gifts not so material. The wise men would start their journey to the stable in a far part of the room, and each day, they would inch forward, traversing the mantle over the fireplace, the end tables, the window sills. They would miss the birth of the baby, and arrive at the manger on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.

wise-men

That was the same day we took down the Christmas tree. I felt a little sorry for the wise men, missing all the fun.

But then, the Christmas in the year that my mother died, we set things up, the waiting parents, the hovering shepherds, the empty manger, the distant wise men…we set them up, and then, on Christmas morning, we couldn’t find Jesus.

It seemed like some kind of tiny ceramic tragedy, a meaningful metaphor for where we were–where I was–in life.

“Where’s Jesus????!!!” I demanded of my husband and my stepson, and they frantically searched in drawers and cubbies and the Nike box. But the baby couldn’t be found.

“I can’t find Jesus,” I mourned, not hearing that irony, and then one day, Jesus turned up, wrapped in a humble scrap of newspaper, stuck up on a high shelf, unassuming, tiny, but very, very important.

I marched on past the symbolism of the event. The next year, we welcomed everyone, baby and kings included, to the stable from the very first December day the scene appeared in the living room.

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The crowd at the birth has grown.

For many years, every gifting occasion brought me a new Willow Tree angel–angels with books and flowers and pineapples and babies, angels who celebrated hospitality and gardening, reading and motherhood. They were different sizes; they clutched different symbols, but they all eventually made their way to the manger.

angels-2

They were joined by other angels, gifted or collected, tiny fragile glass angels; angels, woven of some kind of straw, lifting trumpets to heaven; salt glazed angels. The tallest Willow Tree angel looms over her tiniest spun glass sister, but they are a warm and welcoming phalanx, watching over the baby, trumpeting his birth.

Angels 1.jpg

On Epiphany, we wrap them up and stow them with their ceramic family to wait for the next year’s Yule. The shoe box, like the feet of the boys who wear the sneakers, has, of necessity, grown.

Jesus’s family is joined now by Pez people, once an essential component of boys’ Christmas stockings. The little, flippy-headed dispensers–Mr and Mrs. Claus, a snowman, an elf–are unlikely companions for the religious ceramic figures. But a young man was insistent one Christmas–“You can’t kick them out!” he pleaded–and since then, Pez joins shepherd; plastic shoulders nudge in, next to a bevy of angels.

Pez guys.jpg

A plastic snow man has snuck in, too, one of a set we made from the little drink potion bottles that Jim loved for a while–Mio-type drinks; the kind you squirt into water bottles to change your pure, clear, mountain water into a soft drink. We made enough for a checkers set–Team Snowman against Team Penguin. Only one survived, and he stands guard, now, too, over the baby.

The ceramic core group seems undisturbed. They spread out, open ranks, welcome the visitors. It’s as one would expect, and as it should be.

This year, the newest visitor is a hand-carved Thurber dog–hand-carved by Kim’s father. Kim and I both love James Thurber, and we both love art that is shaped by love and inner vision, and this summer, during a visit, she surprised me with this special gift.

thurber-dog-with-jesus

The cherished dog lives on my desk for most of the year, but this Christmas, I could tell, he wanted so much to join the group at the manger. They welcomed him; they made him room right next to where the baby sleeps on his ceramic straw.

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Little children, of course, are drawn like magnets to the scene–the breakable figures just the right size for child hands. I spent some years yelling, like a harpy, “PUT JESUS DOWN!” and then I discovered a wonderful little Avon nativity scene, sweet-faced, indestructible little figures, colorful and irresistible to little ones. Those figures joined the scene, mamas and babies getting along just fine, although this year, they found their own stable in a cave made by leaning books on the book shelves. (Some authors say the stable was, really, a cave, and the little plastic people may have been looking, this season, for a stronger sense of authenticity. But they know they’re always welcome at the ceramic family tableau, just the same.)

Avon folks 1.jpg

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Some might see our nativity gathering as motley and irreverent; some might see our family that way, too.

But I believe in a baby Jesus with shining eyes and a deep, gurgling laugh. I believe that tired young mother and her stalwart husband must have had elastic senses of humor, humor that stretched to include unforeseen journeys and visitors and outlandish requests. You want me to do WHAT??? Mary asked the angel, laughing. But she did it. Hand in hand with Joseph, a baby nestled in the crook of her other arm, off marched that valiant fourteen-year-old, off to change the fate of mankind.

I think she would have put her arms out and welcomed the stiff, plastic visitors, the whimsical, snuffling, comical hound, the mismatched angels determined to blast out the joy. Mary would have planted a kiss on the broken nose of her husband Joseph.

That was the Mary my mother, years ago, shopping at a craft show in the town of my birth on a hot August day, saw, and that’s the Mary who shares, on the top of my oft-painted living room dresser, the birth of her special boy with all comers.

‘Twas the Last Week of Advent

The final Sunday dawns, in a season of anticipation, and the last candle is lit.  A circle of glowing, those four candles form; anticipation intensifies. Those who found the feasts find themselves kicked into hyper-drive. All last minute details must be accomplished–the cleaning, the last bit of baking, the clothes for the parties. Stocking stuffers must be bought or crafted and wrapped accordingly.

For some others–for dreamers, believers, lovers, and children (who oftentimes are all of the other three), time opens out into a fluid, pristine pool; it flattens and extends. There are wonderful tasks to take care of: a carefully chosen gift to wrap for a beloved teacher. The sparkling bauble to be picked up at the jeweler’s–both gift and signal of commitment to a whole new level of bonding. Packages arrive, delivered by the harried but cheerful UPS person,–packages that need to be swept off the steps and into the house before anyone else notices their arrival.

Some prepare for travel, a careful time of careful packing; they bear important treasures that can’t be left behind.

There are special dishes to be made–that cheesecake that has the sweet tart cherries and chopped cashews and carved chunks of dark chocolate swirled into its creaminess, maybe. The store-bought sandwich cookies dipped into melted chocolate and drizzled with glaze, finished with sprinkles. The meat that must marinate for 48 hours. The pasta that must be carefully stuffed. These important tasks become a focus.

For children, the waiting becomes almost unbearable, those four glowing candles, those constant television specials, the swift, hushed steps of grown-ups performing secret, essential chores.

For those that celebrate Christmas, this week becomes a time of readying, in both physical and spiritual senses. It is a special, solemn prelude to a special, hopeful joy.

And yet.

There are those who celebrate the holidays who also tend to other things.

The week before Christmas can be both sacred and ordinary time.

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He has an empty stool by his hearth.

It is his first Christmas without his wife of fifty years; she passed in the spring, and slowly he has been learning what life is like–and how to live it–without her. But Christmas–this was her holiday. She knitted and sewed for months before; she decorated every nook and cranny. She was especially invested in personal gifts; the thought of sticking cash in an envelope or tossing a gift card someone’s way was anathema to her.

He has tried to honor her spirit, and he has shopped for the kids and grandkids. He hopes he has done a good job,–done it for her, almost with her. But it has been a trudge through viscous muddy swamps and not a joyful journey. Next year, he thinks, he’ll learn to order on-line and avoid the piped-in music, the raucous crowds.

He has put up the tree, and hung the ornaments, aching, by himself. He has put a wreath on the door and dug the holiday dish towels out from where she always kept them. Just that much exhausted him.

His kids are great; they call and visit, and his dance card is filled for Christmas Eve and Christmas.

But this final week, when all the rest of the world seems to be gearing up and frenzied, he stays home at night, and he turns the TV on, looking for an old war movie or a murder mystery. Tears fall through a haze of cigarette smoke. He wishes the holiday would just be over.

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She is at Starbucks, sipping her dark roast and making it last, trying to decide how she can tell her family she has no job after the first of the year.

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He is in the parking lot, the car idling, warming up. He is absorbing the awful, harsh diagnosis.

He’d been so sure that all was well–Wouldn’t I know, he thought, that something was catastrophically wrong? Wouldn’t my body tell me?

Apparently not. The doctor had been gentle and caring but very, very clear. The treatment options. The prognosis. The time he probably had left.

His wife had wanted to come; he told her, Nah, it’ll be fine. Why waste your personal time?

He doesn’t know if he wishes she were here, or if he’s glad she isn’t.

This, he thinks, is probably my last Christmas.  A kind of numbing sets in and he puts the car in gear.

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Last year, she was in combat at Christmas. This–being home, and enfolded–was all she could think of, all she wished for.

But in some ways, she thinks, this is much, much harder.

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He takes his pill and tries to shove the dread away, to stifle it. He does not want his illness to ruin everyone else’s Christmas, but oh, this is ridiculously hard. He knows he has to get on with the day, but having depression is hard enough. Having depression in the holidays feels like a burden too heavy to drag along.

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The expectation of the miracle is the gleaming heart of the season. It shines through child eyes and through the eyes of those newly in love. It thrums like a rhythm through the secret tasks of busy parents. It carries the grandparents, readying their house for an onslaught of celebration, through their holiday chores. This is, and it should be, a time of great joy.

But there are some for whom the miracle has receded, whose hearts are made heavy by their inability to share in the joyful preparation. Anticipation transforms into dread, and they bear the guilt of being unable to fling themselves into the preparation.

We light our candles and we sing about city sidewalks and we dust the ceramic baby Jesus in his finely crafted manger. We feel the surge: oh, the holiday is coming: coming fast. The light cracks open the darkness; it’s all happening again.

It is the week before Christmas; We anticipate the joy. And we pray,–ah, we pray and open our hearts to,–those for whom the joy, this year, will probably not come.

Chay-Chay-Chain: Chain of Yules

‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I was so happy to see Maggie, my former student, on a trip back home. In class, way back in the day, Maggie was a bright and funny over-achiever, a perfectionist, and a wonderful writer. I lost track of her after we moved. Then, when I finally figured out FaceBook, twelve years after everyone else had embraced it, Maggie found me and sent a friend request.

It’s been a delight to watch her soar, career-wise, and to see her find a mate and establish a family of her own, too. Now here she was, looking a little tired and a little frazzled.

This is what she told me:

I have to make twenty four cupcakes, from scratch, for my daughter Annie’s first grade class tomorrow. Jillie’s dance recital is Thursday night, and I still have to sew fifty-seven sequins onto her leotard. I’m in charge of the Christmas party at work, and I’m organizing a collection for some students who are dead broke this Christmas season. They’re debating whether they should stay in college or give their kids a real Christmas; we decided to take care of the Christmas part for them.  There are kids’ concerts  coming up and we’re both singing in the cantata at church and I made my own Christmas cards this year and Joe’s parents and sister are coming to stay with us. I have to plan the dinner and shop for the groceries and clean the house and hand craft gifts for forty seven of my closest friends…

What I did was hug her and wish her a wonderful, wonderful holiday season.

What I wanted to do was shake her and say, NO, you DON’T ‘have to’!

But, having once been a victim of “The World’s Most Essential Mommy” syndrome myself, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Maggie, right now, wouldn’t hear me.

As I said, Maggie is smart. She’ll figure it out; she’ll come to see that running herself ragged from September until January 2nd is not the best way to celebrate the holidays. It’s not even a route to making sweet children magically happy.

Until then, though, Maggie will wear the chains she’s forged herself–chains of super-mom selflessness and exhaustion. She’ll throw herself into bed on Christmas morning at 4 AM, having filled the stockings and etched an authentic looking note from Santa, thanking Jillie and Annie for the milk and cookies, having arranged the presents in person-centered piles and insured that everyone’s goodies were equal in cost and intent, having whipped up the breakfast casserole and wrestled the 16-pound roast, somehow, into her over-stuffed refrigerator. She’ll look at her blissfully snoring husband Joe, and she’ll feel a rising tide of resentment.

“Merry freakin’ Christmas,” she’ll think bitterly. “And once again, I did most of it myself.”

And, with a self-righteous little ping of satisfaction, she’ll drag those onerous chains up from the floor, wrap them around her tired self, and sleep until 5:15, when Jillie and Annie erupt to drag her and Joe out of bed.

Oh, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

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I know a wonderful wife and mom who stops at her favorite pizzeria every Christmas Eve and buys two enormous unbaked pies. On Christmas evening, after the visiting is done and the explosion of wrapping paper has settled, she cranks the oven up high and throws the pizzas in.  That’s their Christmas dinner; the kids look forward to it every year, and if she whipped up a full meal of roast and mashed potatoes and gravy, with cheesecake and handcrafted chocolates, they would groan and ask where the pizza was.

What a smart mama. She says she wants to be awake and rested at the end of Christmas day, so they can clear the table and get the board games out and enjoy each other’s company.

Never once have the Essential Mommy police shown up to ding her for offering pizza instead of a seven course meal on Christmas night.

We chain ourselves with imagined obligations.

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There are other holiday ways we chain ourselves, too—like Scrooge and Marley, we might have wrapped ourselves relentlessly in coils of nastiness, hoping the worst for our enemies, withholding love and joy from those we feel have wronged us. Maybe we are stingy with the tip for the paper carrier or the hair dresser; maybe we cut someone off our Christmas card list because we didn’t like an offhand remark they made last year. Fifteen years of friendship fries in the fires of resentment, and out pops a heavy metal link. It attaches itself to the growing chain we’re  wearing around our waists.

When others party merrily, we watch bitterly. “Sure. Easy for you,” we think.

Easy for US, too–if only our chains weren’t quite so heavy.

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Chains of worry and resentment and frustration. We wait for a shining savior-person to come and, wielding gleaming metal cutters, cut away those heavy coils from our weary persons.

But, really, all we have to do is let them go ourselves.

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Thank goodness Christmas brings other chains, too.

There are the paper chains crafted by childish hands, clumsily stapled or glued together, dangling, maybe, from one end of the curtain rod in the living room. Each day, the kids take turns ripping off a link. Soon, the littlest one has to stand on a chair to reach the bottom-most link.

When the links are gone, Christmas will be here.

For each link they tear away, those children do a secret nice thing for someone–clean up a mess, or bite off a nasty retort. Or say a little prayer in the silence.

They tear away the paper chain, but they’re creating another, more wonderful kind of linkage.

There are chains of connection–the long-awaited Christmas letter, the every Christmas evening phone call, the reunion that always happens on New Year’s Eve.  We forge these chains, too–the joyful maintenance of communication, of friendship, of caring.

We join hands with those odd people sitting next to us at church, and we are surprised by the warmth of their grasps.  We dish up the meal at the food kitchen and recognize ourselves in those we serve.

We launder the still-snuggly winter coat, mend its tears, replace its buttons, take it down to the homeless shelter, and hand it over to a retired teacher who volunteers there. She will get it to a person who needs it, a person who doesn’t need to see me or know where that coat originated. But, strangers to each other, we will still be part of a chain.

Those chains, too, are chains we forge in life.

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Oh, Maggie. I want to send her a gift card for a massage, bidding her to take the afternoon off. I want to call her husband Joe and tell him to make the girl slow down. I want to sit her down and spill all the wonderful wisdom I’ve gathered, over a somewhat self-satisfied life, into her already full lap.

But she’s no fool, our Maggie, and she will come to a day when she realizes that being fully present is the very best present, that having a perfectly peaked meringue never made the difference in a holiday celebration, that treating herself with all the kindness and energy she treats others is a gift to everyone, not just to herself.

She wears the chains of obligation, Maggie does, but she also wears the chains of joy.  And deep down, under the thrum and bustle of deep-felt oh-I-have-to’s, she knows (we ALL know) which chains are made to last.