Wednesday, November 23, 2011

As we gather

And present gratitude
Insures the future’s good. . .
John Greenleaf Whittier

It's a sleet-y, snowy day before Thanksgiving here on the coast of Maine. Buttery mashed potatoes have been made, the smell of pumpkin pie is coming from the oven, I'm taking a break before I make my mother's sausage stuffing. There's a fire in the stove, the house is warm, the children are napping. It's a traditional and comforting feeling here today.

(Aren't sleeping babies delicious?)

(Cozy fire today)

There have been times in my life when I have rebelled against tradition. Truly. I barely think of myself as "traditional." Yet I am going to polish my silver candlesticks until they shine, set a centerpiece of fruits and dried corn and iron my newly made napkins. Let's set the record straight. We aren't wealthy, monetarily speaking. In fact, we'd be firmly in the "99%" of Americans who generally live paycheck to paycheck, struggle with their insurance co-pays, and wonder if Santa could possibly be real because otherwise it will be a lean lean Christmas for their children. All this is very real, very depressing at times, and very uncomfortable to ponder. Here's the thing, though. I've decided that my strongest, fondest childhood holiday memories come from two things: a sense of love in a gathering and a sense of beauty and care taken with preparations.

I have wonderful memories of Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house. My grandmother had ironed her heirloom linens, set the table with her best china and silverware, even for the kids to use!, lit candles and decorated with gleaming fruits and nuts. My grandfather would be standing over the stove, stirring gravy, eating bits off the freshly-roasted turkey, inevitably cursing and probably drinking whiskey or vodka. I remember the sense of awe and delight upon coming in, being welcomed; coats would be shuffled off the spare bedroom, my grandmother would offer us gingerale in her fancy glasses, my grandfather's warm hard hand would "koosh" my head and he'd sneak us kids bits of crispy turkey skin. There would be a fire in the fireplace, Bach or Beethoven on the record player, (those who wanted to watch "the game" were relegated to an upstairs television), and there was always the sound of laughter, the tinkling of glasses and china, and the rich scent of spices, wine, and roasted meat. Looking back, I don't think my grandparents were particularly "wealthy." They were pretty typical for their generation - my grandfather had to work two or three jobs at a time, my grandmother's heirlooms were all handed down to her and she simply kept them well, took care of them, and yet wasn't afraid to use them. We used to drink out of her cut crystal and she never minded if we spilled on the tablecloth or if a glass or plate broke. The children felt just as welcome as the adults and everything was lovely, comfortable, serene and beautiful. We always, regardless of religious belief or affiliation, said some sort of blessing over our meal, holding hands in a sense of calm, security, touching a bit of the sacred, if only for a few moments. The food was always delicious - prepared with love and joy. We always had lively conversation too and lots of hugs, kisses and laughter. Our hearts, minds, and bellies would be filled to the brim upon departure.

(This is my grandmother, in the center, sometime in the 60s. I was not around then but you get the idea.)

I'd say, today, that we, The Man and I, have less "money" than my grandparents did. But this week we're going to host our own little Thanksgiving and I am realizing what I want my children to remember about the holidays. No, I don't have embroidered linens, nor matching china, but I do have a few special pieces that my grandmother handed down to me. We do have plenty of firewood, a lovely turkey from a local farm, family recipes for stuffing, pie and cranberry bread, and the desire to make the gathering special, lovely, memorable. I will set the table well, showing Blueberry how the dinner fork goes on the inside of the dessert fork, and that the butter knives' blades should point toward the plate - we may not have fancy glasses but they can go above the spoon, as my grandmother and mother taught me, just as the mismatched bread plates go above the napkins. I made the napkins myself out of pretty calico, but they can be starched and iron and treated well, as if they were heirlooms. Blueberry will help me make a centerpiece out of bits foraged from our forest. Care will be taken. No television will be blaring, no one will be without a seat of honor. The point is that my children will remember the sense of aesthetic and care and love I take in my preparations. The atmosphere of beauty and generosity is what I want them to remember. I want them to remember the table set, the faces around it; the solidity of wood with the gleam of silver and the flicker of firelight.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since
creation, and it will go on.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make
men at it, we make women.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They
laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together
once again at the table.
Joy Harjo

(Homemade dinner napkins)

(Centerpiece constructed by Mama E and Blueberry)

I never want to say to my children, "No, we don't have enough money to do that, so you be content with that paper plate." You don't need to focus on what you don't have. Thanksgiving, the very act, is to be walking in gratitude for what you do have. I have elbow grease, ingenuity and a sense of how to make something beautiful. It does matter. I don't want my children to say, "Oh, we grew up poor, we had to have Thanksgiving out of a can." There is nothing thankful about that. I refuse to embrace a spirit of meanness or want. We have all that we need, and more. And for that I rejoice. For that I set a beautiful table. For that I carefully choose my food for the feast, not based on price, but on quality. I want to flood my children's senses with loveliness. I want to teach them how to live well with the bounty they do have, rather than looking over their shoulders at others. I want to foster contentment by making what we have the best it can be. Is this an elitist attitude? No. This is good stewardship. This is showing gratitude for what you have by using it well. Using it well today, not saving it for some future that might never come. We are young now. As The Decemberists say, "But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see." I look around my home and I can count a lot of beautiful things.

Here are some things that are true. You do not have to have a lot of money to set a pretty table. You don't have to have a lot of money to dress in your nicest clothes. You don't have to have a lot of money to make delicious and healthy food well. You don't have to have a lot of money to greet people warmly. You don't have to have a lot of money to turn off the television and put on the classical music station (if that's where your tastes lie). You don't have to have a lot of money to make the children at the feast feel equal and to have them sit at "the big table." You don't have to have a lot of money to make a beautiful centerpiece - the woods abound with greenery, berries and nuts. You don't have to have a lot of money to light some candles and turn off your electric lights. You don't have to have a lot of money to linger over your meal, to make washing up fun, and to play charades or shadow puppets after pie and tea. You don't have to have a lot of money to teach the youngest ones how to make a pumpkin pie or the right amount of real butter to put into the mashed potatoes. You don't have to have a lot of money to have joy.

Benign and dozy from our gluttonies,
the candles down to stubs, defenses down,
love leaking out unguarded the way
juice dribbles from the fence when grounded
by grass stalks or a forgotten hoe,
how eloquent, how beautiful you seem!
Maxine Kumin, from "Family Reunion"

(Silver polish is probably super toxic but it works wicked good.)

History buffs will forgive my retelling of the first Thanksgiving, but wasn't it about making due with what was available? Making something out of "nothing"? The settlers, starving and whining, "Wah, wah, we're so hungry, this land sucks, there is nothing here, we have nothing to eat, what are we going to do?" The Native people saying, "Umm... look at all this! We have corn, we have cranberries, we have venison, and we'll even be nice and show you how to gather and cook this stuff into a proper feast." The settlers saying, "Whoa, look at all that is here! This is actually awesome. We thought we had squat." The Native people saying, "You just need to look around you." I want to be like the Native Americans this Thanksgiving; making and sharing from the beautiful bounty that our land gives us.

This Thanksgiving, I will ask a blessing over our meal, over our gathering, we will hold hands, we might even sing together. That's right. We will truly gather together...

Friday, November 11, 2011

{this moment}

Inspired by SouleMama, a fantastic mama blogger. The idea is simple. Every Friday post only a photo, with no words, that captures a moment you want to remember and revel in from the past week. Here's mine.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gratitude, our high-wire act

So, cliche as it may be, November is the month for giving thanks. In this generally dismal month, it seems a fitting exercise to list what we are grateful for in our lives, from the smallest detail to the fact that we have lives at all. To that end, I'd developed a daily ritual for Blueberry and myself. We made a calendar, sort of like an advent calendar, called "30 Days of Gratitude." It has little construction paper flaps and underneath we write something every day that we are (well, she is) grateful for. It was going wonderfully well. "I am grateful for my food." "I am grateful for my family." "I am grateful for my toys." Ok, ok. Excellent. Expected, but good. And today, day 9, we had one of those days. I was feeling edgy, over-tired, sarcastic. Blueberry and I clashed a little bit in the morning over getting dressed, chores, etc. I did not allow her to turn on the television when she asked so she declared that I was "not being a good mommy!" and stormed off to the school room. Attempting to breathe deeply, I followed her and tried to derail her mood by engaging in the gratitude activity. Well, day #9's post, as dictated by Blueberry, would have been, "I am grateful for my mommy only when she lets me turn on the tv." (Hear me sigh heavily.)

This got me to thinking, though. Gratitude isn't really just saying, "I am thankful for ....", it isn't just making a list, saying a prayer over a meal, being happy in an excess of material possessions; it's a place of being. It's a hard place to be. It's a high wire. I get this feeling that gratitude is a skill too. You have to practice it, like piano playing or yoga or driving. There are days when I am home with my girls and it feels like the day stretches into monotonous eternity. Don't get me wrong; I love what I do, but there are days when I feel like I've been swallowed by a whale. I suppose these days come to us all. On these days remembering gratitude is hard. It's tricky to find, tough to practice and I fall off the wire. My response to Blueberry today was, "Well, thanks for that, Blue." (Sarcasm is sometimes my refuge when I'm driven crazy by these little beings.) And then I stopped and realized what she was doing. She was falling off the wire too. Maybe this was a stupid idea, I thought. Maybe writing down what we are thankful for is the exact wrong approach. Like saying, "I'm awesome" instead of just being awesome. We just have to be it. We have to live in gratitude; to practice balancing until we get it. And once you get it, you can just run.

I suppose even writing about gratitude like this fails the gratitude test. I should be less aware of it. I should just see it and live it and breathe it. It's such an open place to be. My sweet Buttercup is excellent at it. She just turns toward things that please her - nursing, silly songs, kisses, toys with bells, mama playing peekaboo, love of any kind - and her whole being lights up with gratitude. It comes before words. It's instinct. As John Berger, the art critic, notes, "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." Babies see and respond in an utter attitude of thankfulness. Not the type of bowing lip-service we adults are so quick to espouse. Not Emily Post or Miss Manners type thankfulness. Nothing humble or modest or meek about it. It's a lightness in response to what is given them. My baby glows with gratitude.

There is a way to be grateful that includes everything.

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to the store
to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman

down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,

is this a message, finally, or just another day?
from "Starfish" by Eleanor Lerman

My Blueberry's rebellion against our gratitude "exercise" was the jolt I needed. Telling someone, yourself even, you're going to walk a high-wire and walking a high-wire are completely different things. You have to get out and step on, stiff knee and all.

It's sort of like that old mantra, "It's better to give than to get." So lame, the teenager in me thinks. But you are getting something. If you give out, you get the gratitude of others. Spark and light. It's electric. It's a refuge for the life-weary. It's the hardest place to get to but the simplest place to be. Flint and stone. Glint and fire in the dark. We gravitate to those who give it off; even in our deep wells of sarcasm, cynicism, negativity, stoicism, it is the grateful people, the people who glow with it, that attract us. I want that for my children. Heck, I want that for myself. Lerman's poem goes on:

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that

you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you

were born at a good time. Because you were
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your

late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,

with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

And so, I will keep things about me that remind me to be grateful -- things that fulfill the criteria of usefulness, beauty, and simplicity. They will be my cues. The simple white sheets and cloth diapers on the line. The wooden spoons in the kitchen. The richly-hued watercolor paint and thick creamy paper in the schoolroom. The photo of us on our wedding day. The box of matches near the stove. The brilliant blue silk scarf Blueberry plays with all day. The golden honey in a jar catching sun on the windowsill.

If my girls are going to learn to run on the wire, I must learn to first.

(picture from

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Blue November

"November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."
- Emily Dickinson

After a freak October snowstorm,

right before Halloween,

November has come to us wearing temperate winds and crisp blue skies.

When I look at all of this beauty, this achingly blue (is there such a thing?) sky and glorious sunny glints glancing off wave edges, I start sensing a worry, a lingering dread. Like how the wind has a bite to it now in November. Winter in Maine is so long, so terribly long and cold and snowy and I get very cave-like. I don't want to take Blueberry and Buttercup anywhere, dreading the bundling and freezing car and sneezing, coughing people everywhere. Part of me likes the cave, all cozy by the fire and deep into thick plummy novels. Part of me is afraid of the descent. To mix my poetry metaphors, I'm afraid of diving into the wreck of my boat of quiet hours. Because isn't that what we all do every spring? Step out of the cave and turn around and smash it to bits because we don't want to remember we ever lived there? The cave we had made so carefully, gathering things to adorn it, to make it habitable; our stores of food, books, cushions and quilts and long underwear and slippers and stacks of messy chopped wood for the fire and knitting needles and cocoa mugs and crayons and paper. Our caves filled with our hearts stiffened against the winter with sticking plaster, keeping out everything, forgetting to take things in. We want to destroy them. To crack them open like constrictive eggshells and step out into the sun, reborn. But now is the quiet descent into winter. Now is the time for fortifying our caves. For building our quiet boats that will take us through to the other side of winter.

The wild things are telling us to be quiet. Soon the balsam will be covered in snow. Soon the snow will hiss into the sea and freeze the tackle lines on the boats rocking at anchor. Soon the ice will cover the pond and seal the rocks to the edges as if securing its babies. This brief interlude of blue and gold will soon be lost to white white white freezing-knuckled-fist-clenched-fish-fleshed white....

Housebound with children amidst the white. This is what remains at the end of the descent.

And yet, here into this boat I willingly climb.