Tag Archives: tradition

Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic.  It’s not about the presents.  I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit.  I want to feel it in my bones.  I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back.  We know something:  we still believe in Wonder.  The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses.  The snowy walk.  The lit candle.  The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox.  When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true.  I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood.  Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall.  I’ve given up a lot.  I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one.  I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season.  I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea.  Keep going.  Keep practicing.  It’s all going to be okay.  You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try.  You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you.  You’re going to learn how to not try.  In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens.  You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside.  So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say:  have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.

I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemorrhage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.

I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.

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This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a God-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.

I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kids’ race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.

I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. So along with our Santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.

That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.

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Holidays Re-invented: A Spoon Funeral

Processed with VSCO with b1 presetHolidays are my haven, and not for reasons you’d imagine.  Sure, as a child it began with We Gather Together, and the Macy’s Day Parade, Santa Claus, and presents, and lunch under the Christmas tree at Marshall Fields, gingerbreadmen and sugar cookie iced snowflakes, listening to Bing Crosby by the fire and dreaming into the bright colored bulbs with blurred eyes—so that it all looked like a jewel-toned menagerie of the ultimate Christmas kiss.  That was all yes, magic.  But to me, the haven of it was in the people the holidays brought home.  Holidays meant that my people came back.  My sister and brother back from school.  Relatives in rooms we never used.  The living room and dining room came alive.  The house was full.  We were “the whole family.”

We prepared for those who would come, with those who came before them.  My mother would let me set the table with her grandmother’s soup porringers and aspic plates with gold edges framing forget-me-nots and cabbage roses.  She’d open cupboards that hung dormant all year until Thanksgiving, through to New Years, and pull shiny things from their shelves:

“These were your father’s mother’s Steuben crystal Teardrop Trumpet goblets.  Your grandfather gave these to her as a special Christmas gift in the 1930s.  They were farm people.  I’m sure he didn’t give her much at their wedding.  But by then he was the head engineer of a corn syrup factory.  Each of these is worth at least $150 a piece.  I’m not sure she ever used them.”  She’d hold each one like a tiny bird and wipe their rims with a soft cloth before she set them on the dining room table.

I wanted to touch them, but I didn’t dare.  She’d never let me get near them, but she would let me set out Aunt Eleanor’s silver.  I memorized the words she assigned to it:  Towle.  Old Georgian pattern from the 1800s, with ionic columns and rosebud wreaths.  My favorites were the teaspoons, with the roses running around the back of the spoon’s head.  I’d run my fingers over them and feel transported into other days before television and cars and airplanes that took big sisters and brothers away to boarding school and college, and fathers away on business trips.  The laying out of these shiny things meant that we’d be together around this table, our faces dancing in candlelight, the silver and china and crystal reflecting it all back.  The chandelier sending spectrums of starlight back down over us.  I watched a lot of faces in those spoons.IMG_9358

So for a long time, after I inherited these things, I kept them locked in a china cabinet, or hidden in boxes in eaves.  Then with our children still small, we built a house.  I fought for a dining room.  “We’ll be the family that uses it.  I promise!  We’ll have countless dinner parties and holiday soirees.”  And we did.  And I’d bring the shiny things out beforehand, telling my children the same stories, naming the names and wiping down these delicate surfaces as my mothers and mothers before me had, as I placed them on the table.

And then everything changed.

The man sitting at the head of the table no longer sat there, and I was thinking more about what I’d have to sell in order to keep the house, never mind what to put on the table.  There was a day when I stood in front of this china cabinet and thought, “They’d want me to sell that Steuben.  Wouldn’t they?  They’re resourceful farm people.  They’d want me to make my mortgage with their crystal.  Wouldn’t they?  I’ll become an Ebay wizard.  I’ll sell all of this stuff, even though every piece of it brings me back to my peopled world.”  Where I felt safe, and protected, loved and special.  That feeling was inside me, wasn’t it?  The three of us would still gather together.  It just wouldn’t be with two hundred year old plates that came to Illinois in a covered wagon during the Homestead Act, and then to Montana when my parents’ sold their home of forty-five years.  It just wouldn’t mean that we ate our turkey with the Towle, or stirred honey into our tea with the silver that was dug underground before the Yankees raided our ancestral home in Camden, Arkansas during the Civil War.  Aunt Eleanor’s rose-clad ionic columns would hold another hand steady in another room somewhere.  The shiny things would become our eyes dancing off of each other, not off of silver spoons.  And that would be okay.  My ancestors were house people.  They’d want me to do everything I could to keep it.

So one day when the kids were at school, I went into every eave, the attic, the dormant cabinets, took it all out, and splayed it on the dining room table.  My family story in shiny things.  I wanted to shake with silent wails.  But I shook it off instead.  I had to stop seeing these things for their stories and their people.  These were just things, after all.  Weren’t they?

I couldn’t think about it.  I had work to do.  I started to research the cost of it all.  Nine crystal bowls for my wedding that I’d never used?  Those would be the first things to go.  Actually, all of my wedding china and crystal and silver—that hurt me the most.  It had been chosen with such hope, such belief in the future.  Part of that future came.  Most of it didn’t.  I’d been saving my wedding china for the part that didn’t.  Most of the parties we’d had weren’t formal.  They happened around bonfires and in the living room with mugs of hot cider and breakable risks in semi-shiny things.

“I should save it for the kids,” I thought.  But how sick was that.  They’d be better off with the china and silver and crystal from the parents whose marriages lasted, and whose tables were peopled in the way they’d set out to create.  “I’ll sell the wedding china.  And the crystal.  That’ll take care of another mortgage payment until I can get on my feet.”

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetBut when I got to Aunt Eleanor’s silver, the ionic columns and the rose wreaths, I ran my finger over the back of the spoon head, and sighed.  Aunt Eleanor hadn’t had children.  Aunt Eleanor had given me my first Emily Dickinson.  Aunt Eleanor had travelled the world and taught me to love stories of the finer things.  And she had passed these down to me, along with a farm—the original Homestead.  I owned those two things.  And I decided then that I would not sell them.  They were the comfort, the security of my people, long gone, but still dancing in these spoons if I looked closely enough, if I looked in just the right way.

It turned out that didn’t sell any of it.  I asked myself a different question, instead:  “what do I know how to do that I can monetize without selling my legacy?”  And I gave myself permission to create a business out of what I’d spent my adult life mastering—and started facilitating people’s creative self-expression by using what had sustained me all my life:  the written word.  Out of the ashes, as it were, rose Haven Writing Retreats.  So it makes sense then, that I use my shiny, storied things on my retreats.  New people around this table, lips to Steuben as they tell their stories, real and imagined.  Lifting my homemade food to their mouths with my Aunt Eleanor’s Towle as they think-tank their books and characters.  Share about their process and projects– new faces spinning in the silver, refracted by the chandelier that hangs above us.  The dining room is alive again!

But on my last retreat, ‘tis true:  a spoon was lost.  A Towle teaspoon.  I’m sure it was an honest mistake.  My mother used to count her silver after a dinner party, and often ended up rifling through the garbage in search of lost silverware.  I found myself doing the same that night, after all the candles were blown out and the good day spent from word play and the people too for the same reason.  Alas, no spoon.

And there was a time when I think I would have cried about it.  Bemoaned this loss.  Felt less secure because of it.  Or like an irresponsible person who shouldn’t be handling the shiny things, no matter what her age.  My mind parading with, I should have left them in the shiny suburbs of Chicago where they would have survived.  Not my Montana life, which came with a bit of country road dust on it.  There was a time that I might have just given it a damn…spoon funeral.  I’m not kidding.  You’d give your goldfish a funeral, wouldn’t you?

But it wasn’t that way at all.

Instead, I took in a short breath and a shorter sigh.  One less spoon.  If I could fill my dining room with such brilliant minds and open hearts and a spate of candlelight flickering off smiles and so many glittering surfaces, it was worth losing a piece of shiny something every time until there was nothing left.  Because what matters is what is gathered:  the people.  The people.  The elegance:  their minds.  Their hearts.Processed with VSCO with b5 preset

So this holiday season, my children and I will gather with yes, our shiny things, less a spoon.  But this year, it all won’t be so cold and dusty and faraway when we bring it to the table.  It will be recently used.  Maybe a little tarnished from being out in the air.  And maybe even chipped or without their perfect placing.  But they will hold new stories.  New people.  New hope.  New future.

A spoon funeral?  The funeral that the spoon inspired was instead for my old life.  And it came with no great pageantry.  Rather, a short sigh.  Because three out of four of us are where we are used to being for the holidays.  We are grateful.  We are blessed.  We are family.  Shiny things or not.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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Haven Gravy Giveaway!

Thank you to all who participated in my Haven Gravy Giveaway! We had some very interesting submissions, all in response to the challenge: why do you want my fabulous turkey gravy recipe? The prize? (aside from the recipe, of course) is a discount to a 2015 Haven Retreat in Montana. I’m pleased to announce the winter: Laura Probert from Bethesda, MD who responded with a 500 word poem about why she doesn’t necessarily want my gravy recipe as much as she wants to come to Haven! She gets both! You can learn more about her great work as a physical therapist and coach here: Bodyworks. And find her here too!


My next Haven Retreat will be February 25-March 1.  There’s still room but it’s booking fast! Give yourself the gift of creativity, voice, self-expression, community, support and inspiration!  You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker.  Gravy not included.

Now for the secret revealed!

Lining the Pan with your root vegetable gravy thickener...mmmm.  GOLD!

Lining the Pan with your root vegetable gravy thickener…mmmm. GOLD!

Laura’s 20 years-in-the-making Delicious Coveted and Begged-for Turkey Gravy Recipe

(Not heart smart, but who cares.  It’s one or two meals a year!)

The secret to this liquid gold requires some prep time but it pays off.  Oh, does it pay off.  The idea is this:  you dice an abundance of vegetables and line the roasting pan with them, cover with a rack and rest the turkey on the rack so that the juices drip into the vegetables during the cooking process.  Then, while the turkey is resting, you puree the entirety of the pan ingredients, grease and all, in a blender, and that is your gravy thickener!  It should be illegal.  The base is your reduced giblet stock.  It’s so easy and no stress and no raw flour ick and no corn starch yuck, and no intimidating de-glazing and no gizmo-dependent grease/juice separating… I’m telling you.  It’s the BEST.  Don’t be intimidated by the prep work.  I chop all the vegetables for the pan and for the stock the night before and put them in respective zip-loc bags so that Thanksgiving morning, I don’t have to do any more chopping than necessary for other preparations, like stuffing etc.  I strongly recommend this.  I never used to do this, and always was stymied by how long it takes to do this prep the morning of.  Cuts down your turkey morning prep by an hour!

Ingredients for roasting pan:  (if you do this the night before, put all of the vegetable out-takes (see parenthesis below) into a zip-loc bag for your giblet stock, so that you have 2 ziplocs– one for stock, one for pan)

Peel and dice:

1 Turnip

1 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

2 Carrots (use the ends plus another carrot for giblet stock)

4 Yukon Gold Potatoes

2 Celery stalks (use the outer tougher stalks for giblet stock)

2 Shallot cloves

2 Garlic cloves

1 Leek (use the white part, and some of the green.  Wash and reserve the tougher top greens for giblet stock)

1 yellow Onion

4 crimini Mushrooms (reserve the stems for giblet stock)

1 cup chopped (Yep):  Parsley (Italian flat leaf), Sage, Rosemary and Thyme—fresh (use the stems/twigs for giblet stock)

1 stick Butter

1 cup dry white Wine

Ingredients for final touches:

Madeira

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Liquid:

    • Melt butter in small saucepan and add white wine.  Turn off heat once combined.

Lining your roasting pan:  (gravy gold)

    • Dump the diced veggies into the roasting pan.
    • Pour a cup or so of the warm butter and wine mixture from stove.  Salt/pepper.
    • Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula so that all the veggies are coated. (you don’t want them to dry out during the cooking process, so remember to baste them as well as the bird)
    • Add any additional chopped herbs.  This should coat the pan about an inch thick. 
    • Put the rack on top of this, flat.
    • Put turkey on top and cover with additional butter wine, salt and pepper
Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below...

Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below…

Giblet stock for gravy base

Giblet stock for gravy base

Giblet Stock:

Ingredients:  (Don’t cheat and use canned broth.  This stock has a very specific flavor and makes the gravy sooooooo good)

Giblets (The gross stuff in the turkey cavity, but get over it.  Your hand is in a turkey cavity!  That’s already gross.)

1 tbs. olive oil

Whole pepper corns

Out-takes from all of the above vegetables and herbs (described in parenthesis above.  Best to put them in zip-loc bags while dicing the rest for the roasting pan the night before, to make prep time faster on Thanksgiving morning.)

Additional sprigs of rosemary and thyme, roughly chopped, stems/twigs included

1 garlic clove– crushed

1 medium yellow onion quartered

1 Yukon gold potato quartered

      • Heat a large saucepan, add olive oil, not butter—too greasy.  When hot, put in the liver.  This needs to be cooked through first.  Then deglaze the pan with Madeira—1/8 cup or so.  This stuff has a lot of flavor and you don’t want it to overwhelm, but it’s perfect for this feast.  Let it cook down—you don’t want the next ingredients to stew in pan, but to sear like the liver seared.  (you might have to add a bit of olive oil again to give it something to cook in)
      • Add the neck and other organs—brown
      • Now add the veggie out-takes plus the additional veggies/herbs described above.
      • Cover with water, a cup of wine, and add a few tablespoonsful of whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves.
      • The trick to any stock is to bring it to a boil, and then drop the heat down so that it is just simmering.  This is going to simmer all
        Swimming in turkey goodness.  Now for the blender...

        Swimming in turkey goodness. Now for the blender…

        Veggies from roasting pan to blender-- pureed heaven

        Veggies from roasting pan to blender– pureed heaven

        day.  If it gets too low, then add more water.  Taste it as it cooks to make sure the flavors are coming along.  Add salt/pepper to taste.

      • Keep to about 8 cups total

Gravy:  (drum roll…HERE IT IS!!!  My very own special, time-evolved gravy recipe!)

      • When the turkey is done, remove from the rack and let rest, covered in foil.
      • Remove the rack and put all the pan-liner veggies/fluids in a blender and puree
      • Put a large bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout) in the sink with a colander on top of it.
      • Strain the giblet stock.
      • Pour the stock into a small/medium saucepan—should be about 8 cups of stock
      • Add 3 tbs. or so of Madeira and lots of fresh ground pepper (a tbs. or so)
      • Cook down for a few minutes.
      • Now grab your whisk, and whisk in the puree, little by little until you get the right consistency. 

It is absolute magic and you never need any flour or anything else for thickener!!!  Secret shared!  Now pass it on to future generations!  Say you learned it from an old friend who wrote.

 

And here...it...is!

And here…it…is!

Gravy happiness.  Happy cooking to all!  May you share it with loved ones!

Gravy happiness. Happy cooking to all! May you share it with loved ones!

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Holiday Haven: Musings on Comfort and Joy

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

IMG_4412“A toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.”

The holiday season can be for many people…let’s just say:  fraught.  Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you imagined.  Maybe you’d planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother’s secret egg nog recipe.  Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice.  Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part—only this year, there’s only one parent in it, and you can’t find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose.  Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours.  Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you’ve heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche !   My God…maybe you’re alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years.  Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth.  Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you’re far from little these days.  Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe.  Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly.  Only maybe, all those people are gone now.  

Don’t worry.  I’ll stop.  It’s not my goal to depress you.  But I’d like to think it’s my job to provide you some comfort and joy.  So here goes:

Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little.  And before we get too far into the season, I’d like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole.  Fortified.  Happy to be beating whatever shape it’s in.

There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what’s missing.   You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter.  You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward.  If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special.  You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments—one per day until you ring in 2014.  You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had:  Truman Capote’s “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Christmas Memory,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,”  Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.”   You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out. 

candleA toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.  You may tell yourself that it does.  And where will that get you?  On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues.  Let’s step away from that train wreck and into the sacred.  Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is:  There is no shortage of sacred this time of year.  It’s everywhere.  You just have to receive it as the gift it is.  And there’s no re-gifting the sacred.  It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it’s all yours.  No one can feel it for you.  Or take it away.  You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel’s Halleluiah chorus, standing next to everybody who’s ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born…and feel nothing.  You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver…and feel empty.  You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost…and feel heartless.

So it’s time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year.  If the magic happens…good for you.  As long as it’s something not nothing…full not empty…heartful not heartless.  Otherwise, let’s change the way our holiday minds think.  Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy.  And let’s create that safe haven around us.  It begins with us.  Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall.  Not who toasts with us.  Sings with us.  Eats with us.  Gives us gifts.  Receives ours.  We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney.  And we can replace them with a Being verb.  It’s possible to actually BE comfort and joy.  Not wait for it.  Of course it’s powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments.  But again, it has to start with us.  Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain:  Our heads don’t bow on their own.  We bow them.  And whatever we’re bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let’s let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy.  Not expectation for the future or grief over the past.

This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be.  Because it’s free.  It’s un-fraught.  It’s as simple as lighting a candle.  Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained.  But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath.  This exact moment.  Right now.  Take a flame to that wick.  Sit quietly and watch.  Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip.  Don’t clean it up.  Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat.  That it’s still friendly flame.  Just you and a lit candle.  All of a holiday winter’s night. prints

As featured on Huffington Post 50

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Long Ago: Community Entry #3

My characters are in Mexico, but they have the souls of Fir trees, snow laden…

A space just opened up for my Feb. 27-March 3rd Haven Writing Retreat in Montana…  Maybe it has your name on it!  Contact me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com… 

I am loving your entries for my “Long Ago:  Community” writing series.  Thank you to all who are submitting.  Keep them coming!  The winner gets a scholarship to one of my Haven Writing Retreats here in Montana…where I am taking the dormancy of winter and turning it into prose this month.  Thank you for keeping These Here Hills warm in community.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Please enjoy this lovely piece by Lynn Trudell who blogs here.

yrs. Laura

The Christmas Tree, by Lynn Trudell

“We’re Jews,” my father would say when I begged him each December to buy me a Christmas tree.

The truth is, we weren’t anything, really. Though my father narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Russia at the age of 14, bribing Auschwitz bound train conductors with gold pens, he left the practice of religion behind him when he came to the United States. My mother, who he met three months after arriving at Ellis Island – also a Jew in name only — agreed to marry him before a judge at City Hall. But because they were medical interns, the only night they both had off was Christmas Eve. So they tied the knot then, and ever since, celebrated the occasion of their union on the eve of the birth of Jesus, alongside the rest of the Christian world.

As you can imagine, this celebratory nod to Christ slightly confused their three children, of which I was the youngest. Every Christmas, gifts were exchanged, flowers were delivered, all kinds of delicious food was prepared, and even a few decorations were hung with care over our grand piano. But there was never a tree.

“We can call it a Chanukah bush,” I reasoned one evening at the dinner table. I was probably eight or nine at the time and convinced that if I presented my argument in the right light, my father would concede.

“There are more practical things we can spend our money on,” he said, pointing the end of his knife at my half-eaten broiled chicken breast. “Finish up,” he added, ending our discussion. His colleague, a man I will always remember for his huge stature and his odd propensity for smothering everything he ate in catsup, happened to be eating dinner at our home that night. And though I didn’t know it at the time, he was paying close attention to the conversation.

That Christmas morning, like every other morning, I opened our front door to collect the New York Times for my parents. But instead of the usual gust of crisp winter air, I was greeted by a monster-sized blue spruce leaning up against the outer glass door of our home, its branches extended wide as if waiting for an embrace.

So began the start of a new and magical era in the home of a Jewish girl who dreamed of decorating a Christmas tree. Every year after that, like clockwork, a perfectly shaped, deliciously smelling tree would arrive on our doorstep, freshly cut and awaiting my adoration.  I’d spend hours stringing popcorn through dental floss, cutting out stars of David on yellow construction paper and tossing silver tinsel over the outer branches. One year, my parents even sprung for a few colorful iridescent balls that I hung with precision on the side of the tree that faced the room. All of this fussing over a freshly cut tree made me deliriously happy through much of my childhood.

But as I grew older and my siblings moved out, the tradition grew less magical. Until one Christmas there was no longer a tree to decorate. And I didn’t miss it because I was busy making plans with my friends or traveling to visit a college boyfriend. In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that I was reminded of how a simple tree dressed in white lights and colorful ornaments could undo so much sadness.

I was thirty-four-years old, living in a beautiful home in Northern California with my two-year-old son, wishing I was dead.  It had been over three months since my husband’s accident, and though no one at the acute rehabilitation center where he lived ever said so, I knew I had already lost the man I married to the fathomless world of traumatic brain injury.

In spite of my broken heart, Christmas came anyway. And because I had a two-year old with piercing brown eyes and a penchant for pirate costumes, the members of a small non-denominational church in the town next to mine stepped up to make his Christmas, if not mine, magical.

People I didn’t know arrived at my doorstep with food and presents wrapped in colorful paper. They came with scented candles and snowman mugs and icicle lights for the outside of my home.  Then they brought the tree.  A simple green pine they propped up on an upside down cardboard box covered in red felt. When they asked if I had any ornaments to decorate it with, I told them I didn’t because I was Jewish and Jews don’t decorate Christmas trees. So they went home that night and returned the next day, each carrying an ornament for the tree they had placed on the box the day before.

That evening, Christmas Eve, my son and I laid on our backs under our sparkling tree, breathing in its earthy, citrus smelling sap.  I watched as his eyes grew big, taking in all the colors and lights that hung above our heads, and felt for the first time in months, a twinge of joy in the remote corners of my heart. It was at that moment, I think, that I realized there’s only so much room in a person’s life for sorrow. Eventually love does find its way home.

Fifteen years later, as I jot these memories down, I find myself gazing up over my computer screen at the gigantic pine tree that sits in the corner of our living room, decorated with many of the same feathery angels and beaded snowflakes that the members of that tiny church contributed to my now abundant collection of ornaments. My son is no longer a child. He’s bigger than I am and asks for dress shirts and cologne for gifts instead of toy helicopters. This year he tried to convince his eight-year-old sister that we didn’t need a tree.

“We’d be contributing to global warming,” he argues.  “And besides,” he adds as an afterthought, “we’re Jews.”

His words are a chorus to a song I’d long since forgotten. I catch my breath, wondering if my father, several years dead, is returning from the grave to finish our battle once and for all. But before I have time to respond, my eight-year-old daughter speaks for me.

“Have you lost your mind?” she shrieks with the authority of a person three times her age. “One stinkin tree is not going to make a difference.” She’s Montessori-educated, which gives her an edge. She also knows better than to touch the comment about being Jews. I, on the other hand, am ready to explain that our being Jewish is entirely beside the point. But I resist the urge because I know that one day my son will get it. He’ll understand that a tree decorated in white lights and weighted down with feathery angels – no matter where it comes from or why it’s standing in the corner of a living room — can’t help but bring joy into this world.

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Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Oh Holy Night

Featured on Rita Wilson’s Huffington Post 50…

Every year at this time I meet the holidays with an Andy Rooney attack that comes on a lot like gout. It begins with the first Kay Jewelers ad. And expands with the Lexus sporting the big red bow in the driveway. Then it snowballs with the slender young mommies in cashmere V-neck sweaters sitting on the couch with their kids doing Fisher Price arts and crafts, and then the deal is sealed by Best Buy which manages to make me feel badly every year about my last Christmas present. And the anxiety ensues. Even if I boycott the TV…the anxiety ensues. Please don’t judge.

Only fifteen more shopping days til Christmas. Coughs up the same hairball as: It’s twelve o’clock– do you know where your children are? For some reason this year I’ve tossed change into every Salvation Army bucket I come across and managed to totally ignore the rest of the holidays. Call it over-compensation. I’m daunted. Dashed. Maybe even depressed. My children’s wish lists look like checklists for a Moon mission and everything begins with a lower case i. The only item I’ve had the stomach to purchase is a pair of Ellen underwear because I remember a friend of mine saying recently, “I would do anything for a pair of Ellen underwear.” I went on her website. And lo…they’re not just give-outs to movie-star guests. They’re actually for sale! So I bought her a pair. In red. Cost me twenty bucks. And didn’t do much in the way of assuaging holiday angst.

A long time ago, I used to revel and delight in this season. I used to make all my Christmas gifts. Ditto my wreaths and garlands. I’d lovingly tie raffia around jars of plum butter and tomato sauce; make homemade wrapping paper with potato-stamped designs from star and tree-shaped cookie cutters. Arrange sentimental photos in shadow boxes adorned with glue-gunned dried rose buds from my garden. There were collages I’d assemble using magazine cut-outs I’d collect for each loved one over the year in a box with their name on it, cuz that’s how thoughtful I was. Very very thoughtful. For years I hand-designed each Christmas card and wrote loving messages in each with a silver pen– three-four hundred of them. All addressed by hand. What the hell was my problem?

Oh I know…I wasn’t yet an embittered middle-aged woman. I was still in the spell, nay, the myth, of Christmas carrying me somehow into wintery wonderlandy bliss. Christmas trees hadn’t fallen yet and broken the antique ornaments. Prime ribs hadn’t come out grey and tough. Yorkshire puddings hadn’t fallen. Santa hadn’t had one too many glasses of nog the night before and woken up at three a.m. without the stockings attended to. Those were the pink pure days of dog-earing catalogues like L.L. Bean and Garnet Hill and Williams Sonoma and Land’s End and FAO Schwarz and systematically making sure that the usuals were under that tree Christmas morning– a pair of pj’s, slippers, monogrammed something-or-other, a puzzle, the hot new board game, a Breyer horse, a hard-back classic book, a Brio train, a stuffed turtle, a baby doll. One year my daughter asked for an orange baby from Santa Claus. “That’s all I want for Christmas. An orange baby doll.” And by gum…Santa found her a baby doll with orange hair and an orange dress that smelled like freaking oranges to boot. She named her Halloween. I don’t remember what she was for Halloween that year, but apparently it had an impact on her.

Here’s what I’d like to do for Christmas this year: convert to Judaism. The Jews have it right. Spread it out. Make it sacred day by day. They don’t blow it all in one heap of wrapping paper and Amazon boxes flung all over the living room. In our defense, however, at least our family opens the gifts one by one and ogles. At least the kids can’t come down the stairs until there are adults standing by at the bottom. Yes, with a video camera. Okay, and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (that tradition ain’t going anywhere, even though they both roll their eyes the whole way down the stairs.) At least we’re not trying to impress anyone with our theme Christmas tree. No, each year our Christmas tree looks like a drag queen with dripping mascara because I’ve kept every single one of my ornaments from childhood, most of which have Snoopy on them somewhere, and every single one of the kids’ school project ornaments which means they sometimes catch fire. And because on principal I refuse to be “tasteful” and get dainty white lights anywhere near my tree. I like the big colored bulbs from my childhood– the kind that when you squint, the tree looks like it’s dancing. In Vegas.

I guess what I’m really saying is…I’m a sucker for Christmas. That’s the plain truth. And since my kids are growing up and will be off to college before I know it…and because they told me that they hope Santa has room on his Visa card this year wink wink…(and the truth is that Santa’s Visa card is in desperate need of some head room) Christmas hurts this year. It just plain hurts. Does anyone relate?

I don’t want it to hurt. I want to rally. I want to make a gingerbread house. I want to have a caroling party. I want to hang garlands over the breezeway door and adorn the mantle with cedar boughs and the staircase with drooping garlands and gold bows. I want to go to the Messiah and get chills and feel my heart explode during the Hallelujah chorus. I want to have Sees candy on the kitchen counter and I want to dare myself not to bite into one with a cherry in it. And smugly win. I want to force Paperwhite bulbs in my grandmother’s crystal bowl with tiny pebbles holding their roots and I want to smell them first thing Christmas morning when I start the tea kettle and everyone is still asleep and I want to feel grateful for the fact that I pulled it off another year. Everything magical. Dreams met. The baby Jesus safe in his olive wood creche being watched over by lambs and donkeys and shepherds and angels and loving parents and God. Traditions in tact. Still.

And yet, for some reason that’s beginning to sort of scare me…I’ve got my heels dug into the ground this year. It’s the 11th of December and I haven’t bought one present. Except for the underwear. I haven’t done Christmas cards. I haven’t even gotten the Christmas music out. Truth be told, there are still pumpkins on my front porch. Really rotten pumpkins. I guess it’s because I want a different kind of Christmas. I want a quiet little chapel in the woods where we go in, shake snow off our boots, and watch our breath merge as we sing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel and Once in Royal David’s City and songs like that. Sacred songs.

How can I make Christmas sacred this year? I just don’t feel it. Maybe I need to have a Charlie Brown and It’s a Wonderul Life back-to-back all day marathon with toothpicks holding my eye-lids open like in Clockwork Orange. But even those good old standards (Clockwork Orange excluded) depress me. The sacred delivered by media. I want the holy to show this season. And yes, I’m sure that it will just when I least expect it. I’ll let you know when it does. And I’ll believe in it for now.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

A Nest in the Hand…

Every year we go to this Christmas tree farm and cut down a Frasier fir. We make a day out of it. We listen to Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra singing old Christmas tunes in the car on the way there. We laugh. The adults act like children and the children act like smaller children. We bring hot cider in a thermos and peppermint bark candy and sometimes a little whiskey for my husband and me.  We are easy on each other.

It took us a while to get our tradition right. One year, the year our first child was born, we were frazzled enough to go to a Christmas tree yard in town. We spent $90.00 on the most gorgeous Frasier fir. That sounded about right. We’d recently moved to Montana from the city. That’s about what a Frasier fir ran. I asked the cashier where the tree was from, assuming that it was at least from some little corner of Montana. “Wisconsin,” she said, smiling. Probably cut down in September, sprayed with green preservative, and shipped out here in a truck. We agreed would would NOT tell anyone where our tree was from that year.

Then for a few years, we used to go out in the woods and cut down a tree, but we didn’t like how we went from environmentalists to opportunists, stalking the perfect tree, looking suddenly at the forest like a decorator’s showroom, considering taking the full tops off 30 foot trees just for our living room pleasure. The Charlie Brown trees that needed to be thinned were not enough for our years of inherited and collected ornaments. No that had to stop. A farmed tree was always meant for one purpose, and it usually had been loved and nurtured by someone who needed the extra cash come Christmas time.

So every year we go to this farm, and every year I feel a wash of newness and simplicity. We are kind to each other on this day. We know to take it slowly, marching around in the snow, shaking hands with trees to make sure we don’t end up with a dread prickly spruce. We have fake arguments about who picked the keeper last year, who will find the prize this year. We pretend we hear its call. We let our kids carry saws when they were too young, the punchy snow so forgiving. We take turns with the cut. We giggle and clap our hands when it finally falls over in a little timber that couldn’t really hurt anyone if it tried. We love watching my husband drag it through the snow like he’s just bagged a buck that will feed our family for the winter. Like it’s a hundred years ago. And it is like it’s a hundred years ago. No one pushes any buttons. No one has anything pressed to their ear except for maybe a wet mitten. I love this day.  We all love this day.

And maybe for this reason, the last two years, something really beautiful has occured. As we erect the tree getting ready to proudly mount it atop the truck, my husband, with his dirty XL manly work gloves deep in its branches, stops and sighs and says, “A nest!” And we all peer in and sure enough, there’s a nest. “That’s pro,” my ten year old son said this year. “Of course it’s pro,” said my fourteen year old daughter. “It’s a bird nest. All birds are pros.” And that big work glove carefully extracts a tight, dried mud nest, woven with horse hair, and full of flaxen larch needles. I have last year’s nest on my windowsill in my office, and will put this year’s next to it as a reminder of what it is to receive life’s little gifts, especially at Christmas time. I like to think that nature showers those who are open to its gifts.

Icelandic lore says that a bird nest in a Christmas tree means a year of health and fortune for the whole family. I wish health and fortune to the family that meets at THESE HERE HILLS. Happy 2011 to you all from Montana.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts