Friday, December 30, 2005

Sing a song of Christmas socks

It was a good Christmas. I got a lot of socks.

We are a family of people who teach and people who make rules, all perfectly fine until you get us into a room together and we each try to bend others to our own sets of rules. Several years ago, some family members jumped onto the Christmas list bandwagon, the concept being that specifying some items as interesting would prevent horrible gifts, those well or not-so-well intentioned items that someone spends hard earned money to acquire and that subsequently clutter our houses. It is a good concept and one that sometimes even works.

Still, I don’t really approve, because I consider Christmas more than the season of stuff and more stuff. I think the heart of Christmas is considering how we can touch each other, and the Christmas list gets in the way as much as it bridges gaps.

In the end, I had no alternative but to offer up a few suggestions just to cut down the yammering. So I confessed that I like socks. I like warm socks and silly socks, slipper socks and all kinds of socks. It is hard to have too many socks or too many mittens or too many hats, because these items all disappear, even when rigorously protected from dogs who love them as chew toys.

Socks can make a fashion statement, but even people (like me) who are picky about clothes cannot be picky about socks.

The iPod was a delightful gift, all the more so because I didn’t even know I wanted one. Probably the best gift I got was my nine-year-old niece stopping in mid-unwrapping to curl up beside me and read me the book she picked out for me all on her own, and a surprisingly appropriate book at that. These were wonderful, unexpected gifts.

But I would really have been happy with socks.

There is little that I want these days, and the things I need are unromantic and unsuited to gift-giving occasions. But anyone who knows me even a little knows how little it takes to please me. Cookbooks or cooking gear—the simpler the better. Dishtowels trump the latest gadget to carve vegetables. Luxurious towels and sheets in white. And socks.

One of the best gifts I ever received was a four-pack of luxurious gray socks with blue snowflakes on them. Multiple pairs of good socks are wonderful, because when one sock gets lost or eaten, there are other matches. I loved these socks so much that I have protected them from dog mouths and I think I still have seven of the original eight socks. They are still my very favorite socks.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Home for Christmas

It was a wonderful Christmas. But then I can’t recall a bad one. Christmas always has a message for those of us who listen for it.

This year I had the quintessential holiday experience complete with small children tearing through paper in the company of lots of extended family and longtime friends. It was the kind of warm and cozy holiday experience that you see in the movies.

I love Christmas gifts, and I enjoy thinking about them and shopping through the year, but this year, for the first time in many years, I actually got a gift that far exceeded any expectations—an ipod! I would never have even thought to request such a thing, but it was exactly what I wanted. Exactly. I think the last time I got such a perfect gift was when a long departed boyfriend gave me a router so that I could dream of replicating moldings in the house I was renovating. As I recall, I burst into tears then, as I almost did again, but mostly I was just delighted. Like a kid at Christmas.

There were shadow moments, of course, including remembered and new trials of traveling by air. I have not traveled much since security measures ramped up, nor since airlines have been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and I have mislaid some of my skills for dealing with expected travel challenges, not to mention a few new ones.

And it always makes me cock my head in confusion when the people who claim to know me well don’t understand what I do with my time if I don’t go to movies or out to eat. Readers of Vermont Diary know what I do. It is a Christmas miracle that we manage to rub along as well as we do, given that we have so little contact throughout the year and—really—so little in common. The warmth of the holiday leaves everyone saying, “Let’s keep in touch more!” Let’s hold on a little longer to the thought that it might happen.

But, gosh! It is great to be home. The South is not home to me, not any more. It is a lovely place to visit, and I particularly enjoyed morning walks in the sunshine. But I feel as strangled by expectation and unwritten rules as ever, and I am glad to be back home where life is a little slower and more deliberate, where people ask for what they need and respect your right to give or withhold according to your resources.

As someone pointed out to me when I took my puppy to work a few weeks ago, I am in danger of going native and of becoming a Vermont booster, blind to her faults. I was obscurely proud this morning to hear that there were only seven murders in the state this year, and I was absolutely delighted to arrive at the parking lot yesterday to find my car ready and running, waiting just for me. In this tourism state where I have frequently complained that service providers don’t understand the demands of travelers from New York and Boston, I was overwhelmed at this welcoming touch.

The puppy has grown. She looks about 30% bigger in just a week. So far her sitters have said she was good, but we have not yet had the full debriefing. The old boys are happy to see me, but did not panic at my absence as they sometimes have. We are all happy to be back in our morning routine of coffee and kibble, looking out at snowcapped mountains, sitting under the artificial light, and blogging.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cooking and cleaning and catching the puppy in the act

Despite having left behind the rat race of Manhattan, I still rush through weekdays and catch up at weekend time. Saturdays are the time allotted for picking up the shreds and tatters of whatever the puppy found, and perhaps even vacuuming the living room rug. Sundays, assuming the Saturday cleaning catchup has been successful, I cook.

Today I went looking for a recipe for sweet potatoes. Last night’s frugal cooking led me to bake two large sweet potatoes along with dinner, my little nod at energy conservation. If you throw all kinds of things into the oven together (but separate), my gleeful spirit feels I have gotten the cooking of some of them for free. So in they go, potatoes and sweet potatoes, eggplant and garlic, peppers and popovers. Nobody seems to mind sharing.

But then I am indentured to vegetables, and I have to figure out what to do with them. I had just unearthed a nifty sounding recipe for sweet potato soup with lime and cilantro, when I noticed that where once there were two large tubers, now there was only one. With yesterday’s breakfast roll experience still smarting, I went looking for the puppy. Sure enough, there was half a sweet potato on the living room rug, which as all dog lovers know is the only place that messy food really tastes good.

Damn. In case you, gentle reader have not encountered this part of my personality, let me enlighten you that my language goes shockingly to hell whenever I am stressed, not that a sweet potato theft generally takes me over the edge. It is one relic of having worked with bond traders, who, no matter what anyone tells you, are not nice people, not wholesome, and not pleasant to be around. It is something of a departure that I have made such a judgment, determined as I am to see the good in everyone, even bond traders. That world is a long way from my world now, except for the occasional inappropriate expletive. Never mind.

While I was thumbing through cookbooks, a recipe card floated to the floor. Anti-chew spray, composed of equal parts of lemon juice and rubbing alcohol, with a dash of Tabasco for flavor. Now there’s a recipe with promise.

I wonder if Toby would like it sprayed on his back legs?

Meanwhile, I am continuing to clean today, having frittered away not only yesterday but also a snow day on Friday, and I want to say a word about cleaning. I don’t like it. For a variety of good reasons, I never really learned how, and I never really learned the discipline of a cleaning routine. My mother always said that a hundred years from now nobody would know if you vacuumed, but they might know what kinds of kids you raised. While I accept that she is absolutely, one hundred percent correct about that, I still bask in a clean, tastefully and sparely decorated room. My soul craves cleanliness as godliness, but my wayward being does not know how to get there as a matter of daily life.

I wish I did have the talent for creating comfort and light around me. At various times in my life, I have tried to learn the skills. Jeff Campbell of The Clean Team is one of my inspirations, at least as important to me as many skilled writers and thinkers. It was from The Clean Team I learned that even if my mother had taught me how to clean, I would have needed to learn all over again. So now, when I am moved to clean, I use Red Juice and Blue Juice. I clean sinks and bathroom fixtures with spray and cleaning cloths rather than sluicing them with water. I wash many, many things in the dishwasher—the glass parts of light fixtures, as my mother taught me, but also dustpans and the plastic head off my brooms, resting in the conviction that the dishwasher sanitizes everything.

In my own personal variation of the Clean Team’s Shmop, I clean floors with wet towels right out of the washer. Never an athletic person, I many years ago passed the milestone at which a bend to the floor is an occasion to ask oneself, “What else might I do while I am down here?” You can imagine how pleased I was to learn that one can clean floors by putting down wet towels then dancing on them, slipping around a little, then throwing them right back into the washer for another round. This kind of effort-conserving innovation makes it all much easier to have a puppy, but she does cock her head bemused when she sees me cavort across the utility room floor which she has worked so hard to make her own.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Why I got a puppy

The old boys are old, it is true, but even at age nine dogyears, Toby is strong and energetic. He has slowed down a little, but he still enjoys a run and a romp as much as anyone. Max cannot keep up, but Max is smart and self-reliant. Either he stays close to me when we are out, or he lies down in a spot where he can keep watch over his little flock of Toby and me and—most recently—the baby Cassandra. We like to go out together, at least we do when the four-legged ones can coax the two-legged one off the couch and out into the cold.

One of my personal goals is to get outdoors more and enjoy this magical place where I live. It is an irony of rural life that tied as we are to automobile transport, unless we plan for foot travel, it does not naturally happen as daily life grinds relentlessly forward. And it is a reality of life in Vermont that we must have different schedules, adapt to different rhythms as the seasons change. Walking is a delight in summer and fall, but the cold and snow of winter bring a halt to that activity.

Snowshoeing is a wonderful replacement for walking, but some adaptations are required. Compared to even the most brisk autumn hike, walking on snowshoes is hard work, although far easier than slogging through the snow would be without this inventive footgear. People from around here recommend ramping up on snowshoes, starting with the first snowfall of two or three inches so that when the snow is really deep, leg muscles are accustomed to the work and feet no longer cramp in protest at peculiar angles. Well, I forgot to do that.

Still, this morning was the right time to head out on snowshoes. The puppy has gone into a bratty phase that clearly calls for a couple of good runs a day to flatten her out. I am reminded of a year-old German Shepherd pup named Xena that Max and Toby used to play with in Prospect Park. It took Xena’s owners a good hour of hard running twice a day to turn her into a well-behaved dog appropriate for apartment life. I thought a lot about Xena when I was thinking about bringing Miss Cassandra home. A lot.

So after this morning’s antics, which I will spare you, but they involved two pairs of shoes, both old dogs’ breakfasts, my breakfast, the garbage, the clothes I wore yesterday, and the garbage again, not to mention an unauthorized flat out run all the way around the house and across the road, we went up the hill, me with my snowshoes and my dogs.

The snow is beautiful. There is no adjective that conveys what it is like. This particular storm left us with six inches of grainy, but fluffy, pure white stuff on top of another three or so inches, so the dogs are sinking in to elbow and chest. They don’t care, they just love it. Even with snowshoes, the snow is so fluffy that I sink in about six inches, so it is a serious cardio workout to get up the hill into the sugarbush.

Cassie covers four or five times the distance that Max and I do, and she is in heaven. She is covered in snow. She jumps and runs and dives, skidding along like a sea otter. She chases Toby, and he chases her, but old-dog-canny, he mostly lets her run circles around him. The two of them break trail for me, and Max follows, taking the easiest route for weary old legs. Later, he sticks close behind, sometimes walking on the backs of my snowshoes, his breath warming the backs of my knees.

Just up to the top of the hill and back, then across to the garden to throw a few snowballs, and baby Cassandra is ready for a nap. It is a great workout, with incomparable beauty and the simple joy of dogs enjoying snow. To get me out more to experience this kind of thing—that’s why I got a puppy.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Choosing the right story

As humans we are driven to connect the dots, to try to make a story from the stuff of event and experience. We choose the story that pleases us, whether one that involves a higher being directing our lives, one that puts the individual firmly in control of his or her own life, or one that takes direction only from other people. Even the view that all events are independent, random blips, that there is no story is a kind of story, just as random splashes of paint on canvas can be a kind of art.

Some of us spend much of life blissfully unaware that we are living in our own dramatic creation until something happens to jolt us out of it, perhaps an illness or a spouse who suddenly rewrites their own story line and shoves us onto a different path as well. And some of us are uncomfortably aware of how easy it is to make different stories of the same raw material.

Sometimes we change our stories at different times of life. I lived through periods when I could not see past depression, and that is a kind of sick, weary, misdirected story. It is a sad thing to believe the world is random, or worse, to believe the deck is stacked against you. I lived through periods unsure of a belief in God, then as if I had walked through a revolving door, that changed for me, although I am uncomfortably aware that for more serious and faithful souls, that gift is sometimes withdrawn. Still, faith is a gift for which I am grateful today and for as long as I have it.

It is important to have respect for our stories. We cannot force the world to live according to what we wish to see. Denial is a short term fix, although one that can appear to be a powerful cloak against truth. To those who counsel making lemonade of lemons, I say instead learn to appreciate the lemon and its meaning in your life.

I come from a line of story-telling people. Not much gets written down, at least not as far as I know, but there are many, many stories of funny, sad, hopeful, and triumphant events, all of which seem to have happened to relatives. There are a few disgraceful ones, too, but very few, because it is the way in my family to keep darkness away by pretending it is not there. And because we embrace and celebrate hope and light. I still want to write a novel called Story Wars, which would be about big battles of dark and light, alongside siblings’ battle to top each others tales.

Recently I finished reading a lovely book called Sight Hound by Pam Houston, a book I wish I had written. She does a good job of writing the same events from different perspectives, showing the stories of different people interact in specific times and places, and also how sometimes the story changes, and it is time to move on. But the real passion and brilliance of her book is in capturing what it is like to love a dog.

Each dog, she says, has something different to teach us. It is our joyful task to discern what that is. In the book, old wolfhound Dante taught his human Rae how to be loved, and young Rose is to teach her how to play, both important lessons that Rae can only learn at the appointed time in her life.

I can see the same truth in my dogs. Max has taught me dignity and self-respect, how to growl when necessary, how to flirt and how to be a little goofy. Toby has taught me what it is like to be loved completely and unconditionally. Those lessons will be with me all my life and likely long past the ends of their lives. Thinking of how much they have taught me—and at exactly the right time in my life—makes it a little easier to think of losing these old, beloved friends.

Is this view of them, this story a construct that creates meaning out of thousands of walks to the park, squabbles over kibble, and cuddles on the sofa? Yes. But it is a story in which I perceive truth, at least for now. Will I ever come to accept different story in which they are only dogs, only pets, weak substitutes for having more people in my life? I hope not. I like this version, sappy as it may appear to those who have not had the blessing of dogs in their life.

As for Miss Cassandra, I wonder what she will teach me. For now, I am enjoying watching her learn to be part of the pack and learn from the old boys what they think I will need from her in years to come.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Shepherd for a shepherd

A shoe. One of my good work shoes, actually. The edge of another shoe, the ones I wear out in the snow when it isn’t too deep.

One Christmas sock, the kind you wear, not the kind you hang.

A dishtowel. A plastic milk jug.

A bottle of Murphy’s oil soap, still with cap intact, thank goodness.

A shepherd from the nativity scene. I wonder why she picked….oh, I get it. Perhaps a little glue will save him.

This is yesterday’s list of the puppy victims. At my feet, I hear happy crunching sounds as another soda bottle gets pre-recycled.

Monday, December 05, 2005

My kind of day

A snowy Sunday. About three inches of sparkly, fluffy stuff. Dogs out to romp in the fenced yard. Clean the floors, a task best tackled without dog help.

Bake the gingersnaps I made yesterday. How will they turn out, gently hot with candied ginger, dry ginger, and black pepper, molasses mellowed? It is Maida Heatter’s favorite Christmas cookie. I cut them smaller—just over two inches—and get seven dozen from the recipe that makes three dozen of her larger rounds. Enough for my cookie swap on Tuesday. Ah, the satisfaction of an obligation met early.

Dogs in sometime during the baking. Evil puppy Cassandra helps out by stealing the wax paper that wrapped the cookie dough, the foil on which the cookies baked, and the remains of a pound cake—each shredded in its turn on the living room rug.

Dogs out for a romp. We take the “bait” from the freezer—leftover roast beef a tad too rare for me, cut into tiny cubes—and go across the road to the big field for recall work. Three dogs on leashes to get across the road, one of whom does not know how to walk on a leash. The old boys are patient, me too, and we get there. Now, sit to have your leashes released, and they are off!

The puppy still forgets sometimes to put down her front feet, so she skids in the snow, but she doesn’t care. She is as happy as happy gets. She has her favorite Toby to chase, her favorite Mom with roast beef to hand out, and she is learning to work. Working dogs really do love to work. We have a productive session, and even Toby, whose recall skills have been slipping, does well. Even with rare roast beef in my pocket, and even as deeply as Toby love me, it is hard for me to compete with frozen manure, rabbit holes and deer tracks. What a world of doggy delight!

Old dog Max keeps up and gets a little treat from time to time, just because. His medication is getting adjusted again, but he sticks close to me. We probably cover less than a quarter of the distance that the other two skim across. Another inch of snow, and this would be snowshoe depth. It’s the kind of snow that swirls around and piles up in valleys, leaving the hills all but bare.

Home again, and no, nobody wants to go back in the fenced yard. The living room stove is in all our thoughts, and we curl up for a cup of tea and to figure out how you put binding on a quilt. I even find the cool technique by which you make bias binding from a square of fabric cut, sewn, folded, cut, sewn and cut again to the perfect width and length. Math and sewing and an old movie (Adam’s Rib) all in one afternoon, how cool!

I have four more kissing balls to make for the Rotary auction. Our three-person team (one for greenery collection, one for oversight, and myself for labor) will produce eighteen hanging confections of greenery, ribbon and baubles for next week’s big fundraiser. I don’t quite have the will to pull out the greenery again today, not with my newly clean floors. The dogs are joyous when it comes to tree branches in the house, and they help spread sticks and needles all over. Instead we take a nap.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Back for Christmas!

One of my favorite Advent traditions from last year is back. It's Susan's advent calendar

So far, I like Rudolf best. Be sure to click on his nose. (Not sure how this will work unless you have broadband.)

Making room for Christmas

The rush and bustle to create the ultimate Christmas experience is on. Some of it is fun, particularly if we can savor the tree-cutting, decoration-hanging, cookie-baking, present-wrapping and all the layered elements that comprise our individual and family experiences of Christmas. Savoring takes time and mindfulness, and it is ever so human to layer on more and more until our overburdened spirits cry, “Stop! I need rest.”

That rest is the moment of Christmas. In that moment we give up the need to be all things to all people. We recognize our frailty as animal beings that require food and sleep. We learn that adrenaline can be a high, but it carries us to the edge of self-control, only to leave us gasping. We see that our friends and family are human, too, and that each of us does for each other what we can do, no more but also no less.

I go into the holiday season with trepidation. I love my family, but I don’t think they know me. How could they? It has been years since they spent much time with me.

I’m the weird aunt, the one who lives far away where it is cold (why would you do that?), the one who has a family of dogs rather than people, the one who used to have a high-paying job but chose a simpler life. (Do you really think it will change what kind of presents we get? Yes, it will.) A card-carrying introvert, I don’t even seem to make an effort to explain myself, not nearly enough, and I end up feeling like a wayward zoo animal taken in by a family of cartoon bears. They are charming and lovely people, and they know each other’s quirks and habits with a degree of intimacy and a level of judgment that make me shudder.

I drop literally from the sky—thanks to Jet Blue—into a swirl of human relationships that have nothing—or almost nothing—to do with me. Not having any recent data about this wayward zoo animal, my family reverts to roles, expectations and memories from many years ago. I become—whether I like it or not—the big sister away at college. I relive all the mistakes I made from ages ten to twenty, the time when my siblings were in high school or middle school, when they were first aware enough of other people to form impressions. There are some isolated memories from other periods of life, but it was those years that shaped the way we relate to each other. With limited contact in later life, we have not had much opportunity to change roles, although we are all now very different people than we were thirty years ago.

Changing roles is tough. I spoke today with a colleague who works closely with a bright, sensitive young man who has recently started living as a woman. The kind of pain that a person must experience before taking a step as dramatic as changing gender I cannot even imagine. My colleague is struggling to get his mind to accept the change, but he cares about his colleague so he will make the effort. This change is a big, outwardly visible, even shocking change in role, so it gets attention. The smaller changes in roles, in how we wish to be perceived, that we ask of our families and friends are much easier for them to overlook in the bustle of Christmas preparation.

Enforced joyousness also brings with it a heaping portion of guilt. We think of friends and family at this one time, but the rest of the year passes in a blur of work, school and other obligations. At one level, it makes me sad that of my entire extended family—brothers, sister, in-laws, nieces and nephews—only my mother and sometimes one brother make an effort to stay in touch with me. Only my mother reads my blog, although I used to send it out to everyone until I recognized this sad truth. At another level, I understand that people are busy and after they tend to relationships that are most important to them, there is not much left over.

I believe in love, and I believe that love is action, not feeling. At Christmas, I believe it is important to make an effort to keep connections alive So even though I am sorely tempted to stay at home with friends, with the comfort of old dogs and with my bright and beautiful new puppy, I will spend money I can’t afford and brave the horrors of holiday travel to visit my extended family. I will drop into a family dynamic that does not involve me, since I am only a shadow from the past, but where I am expected to play roles I no longer fit. I will experience conflict and likely tears, possibly my own, possibly tears I cause. It’s what we do at Christmas.

I made an off-hand, flippant comment to a friend that I try to make Christmas simpler every year. Reeling from a new job and a multitude of other life changes, she fired back by e-mail, “How do you do that?” It’s not easy to beat back the urge to bustle. But it is possible to give yourself permission to stop.

This year I won’t have a Christmas tree. Christmas trees and puppies and dog-sitters are not a good combination. I used to make dozens and dozens of cookies. This year I will do a cookie swap and find somewhere to give them away. I like to do my Christmas shopping during summer vacation, but this year I surprised myself by finishing my shopping and mailing all presents before December. A breakthrough! I feel so free!

I used to try to preserve traditions by doing the same things every year, but I ran out of steam. Now I save up energy for the things that matter, and I pick a different one each year. Last year it was important to me to have a Christmas tree and spend Christmas in my own home; this year I will travel, so I will cut back on other things.

Why fuss with the juggling? Why bother with any of it? Because this act of mindfully choosing to spend time together keeps alive a connection to people who are important to me and creates a channel for future connection that may become important one day in ways I cannot foresee. Choosing to spend time together for these few special days is an act of faith in family and in love. The fact that we—like millions of other families—don’t necessarily get along every minute doesn’t change anything. If we pay attention to what we are trying to do, and if we are a little lucky, we may experience a few really special moments of connection, of recognition of each other as unique and special, of mutual support. Then it is really Christmas.

The real work of Christmas is making room for the magic to happen. Even so, we can’t force it. We can only create a little stillness and wait.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Wait a minute

In New England, they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. With snow forecast for last night, I was surprised to wake to late autumn browns and grays, not a flake in sight. Hearing that the anticipated storm had dumped its load to the east, I ventured to drive to Montpelier along the pretty route, the route I dare not drive in winter weather.

Black ice and moose occur on Route 12 too often to trust to good luck, and an unfortunate encounter with one or the other could be deadly. And so I was a little daunted when a quarter of the way on my journey the morning rain turned to snow. Grateful for my new snow tires and a little wary of other drivers, I carried on, and three quarters of the way, the snow turned back to rain.

Returning home after a day of weary bureaucracy, I was sure it was warm enough to go back the same way. It really is a very beautiful drive, winding past farms, pastures, and every variation of the Gothic Revival farmhouse, all with mountain backdrop. A quarter of the way home, the rain turned to snow. I could almost swear that the same red pickup was behind me, lights on high beam to encourage me to go faster than what was quite fast enough in my view. Still, it was pretty. Three quarters of the way home, the road dropped into the valley, and there was rain again.

Most entertaining of all, as I climbed to my house on the hill, I crossed yet again—for the fifth time today—the snow line, climbing, climbing into a frosty wonderland. The dogs were joyous, jumping and romping in the snow, winding up for weekend play.