December 29, 2010

Good Riddance, but Thank You.

I cannot say I am sad to watch the old year wane into what will soon be, "remember that time last year?" -seeming so long ago.  In this year's edition of my annual Christmas letter that I send to about 30 friends and family members, I described the year as being like the little girl in the nursery rhyme with the curl right in the middle of her forehead:  'when she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid'. This was not an easy, gentle year, the kind where one event blends seamlessly into the next like a harmoniously patterned quilt, not the kind of year one would describe as calm and uneventful, like a good summer road trip without traffic or delay.  2010 was as full of bumps and bruises as it was full of triumphs and good times with friends and family.  It was a year to turn the most prosaic of thinkers into a philosopher, and I think all of us have grown because of it.

My older daughter and I watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles the other day. That film could be a metaphor for our year. There were moments to laugh along with the characters and moments to laugh, painfully, at them. The two characters, polar opposites played by Steve Martin and John Candy (may he rest in peace), went through every delay and difficulty imaginable while they attempted to make their way home for Thanksgiving, but home they did finally arrive. Or rather, Steve Martin's character arrives home, realizing that John Candy's character is esentially homeless, and invites him in to stay for a while. Through all his trials, and his new relationship with Candy's lovable, generous, but clownish character, Martin's uptight, impatient, selfishly driven character realizes that he has been spending too little time at home and with family, and concentrating too much on work and ambition. He finally truly appreciates what he has, but it would not have happened had he not gone through the comedy of errors which made him look deeply into his heart and examine what he finds there.

Every member of my family took their turn to go through something difficult this year.  Whether it was a prolonged,  toxic social situation at school or a tough predicament at work, a decision to finally say 'no' to something expected of them or 'yes' to something unattractive but needed, a bout with the much hyped 'swine flu', or a sinus infection that went on and on, we all pushed through our troubles and came out the other side alive and kicking.  This year, one phrase passed my lips more often than any other:  'It could be worse.'  After all, all we were dealing with was what most other families deal with from time to time.  We didn't endure a Tsunami and lose loved ones, have our home shelled by enemy gunfire, lose our jobs to a giant global recession, or lose our home to fire, flood or devastating earthquake.  We are still here, carrying on together as before, which is a good place to be. 

One of the trials of 2010 happened just over a week ago.  My husband, on his day off and relaxing with our youngest while I took the others shopping, came down the stairs to help us bring up the groceries, when he felt two sharp pains in the left side of his chest and a numbing in his hand.  Like pneumonia or broken bones, chest pains are cause for concern and a visit to the doctor, so off we went at about 1:00 pm to the emergency ward of the closest hospital.  We were admitted straight away, but as soon as the nurse took my husband's blood pressure and temperature, which were normal, we were demoted to almost the bottom of a long list of waiting patients.  And wait we did.  Finally the doctor, a thin, youngish woman in high heels clicked her way over to us, examined my husband, and ordered some tests.  The tests were taken and we waited almost two hours for the results. The staff brought us a meal to share, and then I went off to phone our children and talk them through the making of their own supper.  When I returned my husband informed me the tests had come back negative but that we would have to wait until 11:30 when a second blood test  'just to make certain there was no damage to the heart' would be administered.  If it came back negative we would be able to go home.  By then it was dark outside and a few patients had been admitted to the ward for overnight observation.  As the hours went by, a little girl coughed and cried, coughed and cried, and the very ill gentleman beside us also coughed painfully and moaned for the nurse repeatedly.  I went to make another call home, and soothe my youngest daughter, who was crying over the phone.  When I returned I went up to the nurse's desk and said, did we really have to stay here another six hours if all the tests had come back negative the first time?  Yes, we did.  I began to feel like a caged animal and said so.  The nurses laughed and the doctor said they did sometimes, too.  I briefly considered making a fuss, but I knew that would be stupid.  We simply had to wait for the final test results.  I could have gone outside for a walk, but the hospital is in the middle of a dark wood and there is nowhere to go without walking a long way alone in an unfamiliar town, so I stayed with my husband who appreciated the company.  Fortunately, I had brought a book, so while he rested and slept, I read...and read, and when he was awake we talked.  We both knew by then he had not had a heart attack, but believed the chest pains were some kind of warning.  Finally, just after 1:00 am the night nurse, a tall, businesslike young woman, though not unkind, came in and gave us the 'all clear', with the promise from my husband that he would visit his own doctor as soon as possible to explore other explanations for the chest pains. We thanked her and went out into the silent darkness, where the lunar eclipse, the only one to occur on the Winter Solstice in 500 years, was ending and a thin, orange slice of moon peeked out from behind the dark circular shadow of the earth.  It occurred to me then that our eleven hours of waiting in the hospital were such a tiny speck in the vast universe.  We drove home accompanied by that lovely, unusual moon, and went, ever so gratefully, to bed.

The next morning, as soon as he was awake, our girls ran into the kitchen and hugged their dad fiercely.  He gained an extra day off out of the ordeal and went later to our own doctor, who told him it was all due to stress and that, though very healthy due to good eating and plenty of cycling, my husband would have to make some changes in his work/life balance.  This, of course, is much easier said than done for an awfully conscientious man during a record busy time at the hotel where he works, but hopefully, things will slow down a bit come the New Year as they usually do.  If they don't, well, we will have to make some decisions. 

So, we welcome the New Year, which will be "new with no mistakes in it yet" (Anne of Green Gables).  That is the gift of the seasonal, episodic nature of life.  All good things come to an end, but all bad things do, too.  What does not kill us makes us stronger, and hopefully, more sensible, more patient, and more generous toward others.  As I ended my annual Christmas letter: Bring on 2011...2010 you trained us well!

December 22, 2010

The Digital Nativity

A dear friend sent this little video to me last week.  I loved it, my teenagers thought it was great and the eldest even posted it on his Facebook page, so that proves its worth as a thoroughly modern retelling of the age old Christmas Story!  We are baking gingerbread today, for fun, and enjoying this point in the holidays when most of the work is done and all we have to do now is sit back and open our arms to Christmas.

A very Merry Christmas to all.  Peace on Earth!

I hope you enjoyed the video! 

December 14, 2010

The Walls are Closing In - In a Good Way

This is the time of year for clutter in our house.  We move the furniture closer together in the living room to accommodate the seven foot tall Christmas tree, we unearth the lights and decorations and the manger scene from the basement storage, fill the table with the Advent wreath as well as piles of odds and ends from various projects on the go, and make list after to-do list that we stick on the fridge next to the calendar and check more than twice.  My house is starting to feel very crowded and I am okay with this because I know it's temporary.  And besides, all this bright and happy clutter in the house is very cheering on a gloomy, Wet Coast day like today.

My girls were really eager to get going on the decorating last week.  My older daughter, Emma had spent hours in November making a Christmas village for the mantle, so she was eager to display it:

She placed a village tree in the middle of her display and grouped around it a merry little band of nuns I inherited from my Granny.  The paper snowflakes were made by my younger daughter.  One of the houses is a mini replica of ours.  Can you guess which one?

Emma made a wreath from cedar boughs she snipped off our hedge and decorated it with walnuts and hazelnuts from local trees.  I tried to convince her to add some red berries, but she preferred it as it was and hung it from a festive red hanger on the front door:

I used to do the decorating, with a little help from the kids when they were small.  Now it seems I have handed that torch to my willing Emma and her assistant.  My girls share a room and have a string of lights and their own little tree set up on a dresser.  When I go into their room to get them up in the morning I plug in the lights at their request so they can wake up to warm little orbs of colour. 

I am glad the girls want to take over some of the Christmas preparations.  I'm busy keeping track of when next to pour rum on the Christmas cakes, baking for all the events, and putting cards, letters, and packages together.  It's a lovely way to spread the workload and the joy, so I give them free reign to do what they like, as long as it doesn't involve a stuffed dog that woofs 'Jingle Bells' (a present we once received from a relative) or is liable to catch on fire.

And what about the boys?  They are more than happy to sit back and let the girls do their thing, with the thought that 'too many cooks spoil the broth' or something like that.  They used to be more involved in the preparations, in fact, one year, our eldest made coloured icebox cookies as gifts for everyone he knew.  They have different ways of contributing now that they are growing up.  Our younger son, the violinist recently accompanied his two sisters at a Christmas recital, and will play at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We will play carols together, I am sure, over the holidays, and he will join in the decorating of the gingerbread cookies we will make next week.  He's also very good for games. Our eldest son will enthuse over all the food, repeatedly, and offer to do extra dishes to help out.  He will also rent movies he thinks everyone will enjoy watching together and buy snacks to share with his own money. 

On Friday afternoon, my kids will be let out of school for the two week Christmas holidays.  My husband is back at work today after a week off before the busy Holiday Season at the hotel where he works, so I am revelling in the peace and quiet of these next few days.  Along with the aforementioned displays of good will between my four children will also come the usual measure of squabbles, cries of  "Who ate the last piece of chocolate cranberry almond bark?!?" and "When's is it my turn on the computer? She's been on there for AGES."  We'll have a house full of their friends some days, musical instruments, and constant mess and confusion, and as the Grinch Who Stole Christmas said:  "Oh the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!"  But, as my husband always says, we signed up for all of this when we had the kids, and we wouldn't have it any other way.  (Until January, that is.)

People look East the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make yourself fair as you are able
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look East and sing today
Love the Guest is on the way.

Eleanor Farjeon

December 7, 2010

Season's Readings: Second Edition

Last year at this time I discovered a couple of cheerful, heartwarming gems to read during the Advent and Holiday Seasons, and this year, after just recently finishing the gritty, disturbing-at-times, absolutely gripping novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I am more than ready to continue my annual tradition.

It is so easy this time of year to get caught up in the frenzy of activity, especially when you have children:  extra rehearsals for concerts, the concerts themselves, parties, baking and cooking for various events, Christmas shopping, decorating, writing the annual Christmas letter, addressing cards (yes, I still do this by snail mail), packaging up parcels for faraway friends and family, "etcetera. etcetera, etcetera", as the King of Siam is known to have said.  It is all fun and definitely worth doing, but it can be exhausting if I do not take a little time every day to just sit and relax.  Reading seems to be the perfect antidote to the wearying effects of a busy day.

 As I think I've mentioned before, I like to soak in a hot bath before I go to bed at night. I find it a challenge to keep warm in this damp climate in winter, and if I get into bed cold it can take me a long while to get sufficiently warm enough to sleep. I look forward to my evening soak and always take a book with me. I have just begun reading a book my parents gave me years ago called A New Christmas Treasury edited by Jack Newcombe. It's a fat tome filled with short stories and poems, but I have yet to read much that I would describe as 'cheerful and heartwarming' in it. So far I have read two rather chilling ghost stories that happen to take place on Christmas Eve and Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Fir Tree', which is more of a cautionary tale than anything. Fortunately, I also have read the story 'The Rescue' by Cleveland Amory, which is a sweet story about the Christmas Eve rescue of a starving and injured cat by an animal welfare agency, so there is hope for the collection yet!

The other night, my nine year old daughter asked me to read her a book.  She is a voracious reader herself, but she seems to have rediscovered the coziness of sitting on my lap under a blanket and listening to me read a favourite story.  She is participating in something called The Reading Challenge at school.  The group has to read five novels over ten weeks and then attend an event where they go up against other schools in the district answering questions that test their comprehension of what they have read.  To break up the monotony of reading books that have been prescribed by someone else, she is nightly hauling out all the Christmas picture books we have collected over the years and enjoying them greatly.  This particular night it was a little past her bedtime, but she must have known if she asked me to read her the book she held in her hand I would give in.  Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell and Lillian Hoban is a favourite story that I knew as a film before I knew it as a book; the inimitable Jim Henson made a sweet and funny Muppet-tale of it when I was a youngster.  Now we own a DVD of the film, which my girls love, and a copy of the book.  Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas is everything a Christmas story should be.  It is about some characters that have very little in the way of material goods, but everything in the way of love for each other, and its storyline is similar to The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry.  In the story, the mother otter and her son risk everything to give each other a very special gift for Christmas, which does not work out very well, but results in something infinitely better for not only the two of them, but for some of their friends, too.  It is the kind of story that brings me back to my roots and to the true origins of gift giving.  It also kind of counteracts what I heard in a store the other day.  I was buying an amaryllis as a thank-you gift and the woman who works at the shop offered to take off the price sticker off the plant's container for me: "Or I could leave it on.  That's what I do when I give something expensive to my sister, so she knows how much to spend on me in return."

When one has the means to "make Christmas and keep it all year long", in a material sense, it can, I find, make life a bit intense at this time of year.  In my family, we are not big on expensive gifts, but we do put a lot of thought into choosing presents for each other.  We have traditions from both sides of the family, special foods we cook, special treats we bake, decorations buried for eleven months of the year we unearth and dust off, and the house to clean and make ready for guests.  We do all of this because we can, but there are many that cannot, or have lost the will to try.  Christmas can be incredibly hard for some.  When I read a variety of stories from a variety of writers who all keep Christmas in a different way, it opens my mind and expands my view.  It makes me incredibly grateful for the love I am so fortunate to have, the life I am so blessed to live, and gives me a deeper sense of the true nature of this magical Season.  It also gives me faith that if I were to lose everything I have, I might still be able to celebrate, if only in my heart and imagination. Which is no small thing.