Is it time to take the Christmas lights down yet?
January can be a long month here at the 44th parallel. There’s still a lot of dark time, both morning and evening, and when it’s dark my inclination is to be thinking of bedtime, slowing down, curling up in my pajamas. One reason I don’t mind waiting until mid-December before we get our Christmas tree and string fairy lights in the living room is so that the lights don’t feel too overdone, once we hit mid-January.
Today I had my first inkling of a thought: hmm. Maybe it’s time to put the holidays away…but why not leave the lights up a bit longer? They do use up a bit of power, but maybe they bestow even more. Maybe, in the lift those lights offer, they produce more positive energy than they consume. Maybe a little glow is just what I need to get through the long nights of January.
I get a little draggy this time of year, especially during a January like this one - no snow sparkles under the sun; no snow brightens the darkness. There's more rain expected tomorrow; floods and wind damage are wreaking havoc around the state. We need to grasp at any little thing that lightens our load, our day, our spirits.
They’re so small, those tiny lights, but they have a big oomph inside a droopy head and heart. I’ll keep the lights on, just a bit longer.
I remember this strange phenomenon. When I was a young mother steeped in infant care, day in and day out, my baby filled every crevice of my world, my thoughts, my preoccupations, my field of vision. Then someone offered to hold my child. They walked off a little distance, and I had a moment to look away. Turning back, I was startled to see how tiny she was, over there, away from me. How is it possible that this enormous presence is so insignificant in size?
I think of that sometimes when I’m off adventuring with my husband. Not uncommonly, he finds his way to highpoints and vistas not exactly on the main path, so he appears to me as a tiny silhouette against a cavernous expanse of world, this effervescent man who has so prominently filled my universe for over 40 years.
I admit it does give me pause. Seeing that my everything can quickly become an imperceivable speck is disconcerting, but it’s also a reality check. We are, each of us, almost nothing, really. It is a wondrous marvel that we are here at all, both feeling the immensity of our individual life experiences and occasionally catching a fleeting glimpse of eternity. It’s complicated, isn’t it? I want to cling to my life's treasures, and I want to fling my arms out and set everything free at the same time.
When I see Jonathan as a tiny silhouette on the horizon, I feel a surge of…love? urgency? protectiveness? freedom? I am reminded to hold onto what is precious while it is near at hand, because eventually, we will all dissolve into the cavernous expanse of this extraordinary world. I will hold Jonathan’s hand and listen to his heartbeat, and I will celebrate when I chance to see him, far away, reaching out to touch the infinite sky.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but instead counting our blessings as we sit down to share a meal with my family, J and I are literally living a world of Castles in Spain. It’s an appropriate metaphor. J and I are in the midst of a dreamlike, monthlong exploration of Europe, currently making our way across the northernmost parts of Spain, east to west, getting lost, following our noses. Medieval villages dot the landscape, a tower here, an old walled city there, a monastery on a hill, an arched stone bridge leading into narrow, cobbled streets.
We have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful to have made my way into my 60s, to have the freedom, the means, and the time to travel (plus no covid restrictions and relative security in western Europe). I am thankful to meet so many people in different countries, in multiple languages (including hand gestures) who smile and help out and share a piece of their life with strangers. The world seems scary and despairing too often. When we live in the news and in social media, we miss out on the reassurance of human connection.
Everywhere there are babies getting pushed in carriages, dogs trotting with their humans, cats sunning on doorsteps, children’s voices bubbling over the walls of playgrounds, people stopping for a drink, going to work, laughing, yelling into cell phones, meeting friends, stopping at crosswalks, tending to farm animals, waving hello. We have so much in common, no matter where we live. Traveling encourages the opening of boundaries, both internal and external. We’re getting opened up to the idea of dreaming again, dreaming of castles in Spain.
I wish for all of you, friends, family, and passers-by, the luxury of dreaming, perhaps your own Castles in Spain. I wish you, too, the comforts of human connection – over a table laden with food, over a hot cup of coffee, on the street, on the subway, at the checkout counter. We are not as alone as we think, if we can find our way to open up and reach out.
Zoe at the aquarium.
I should have written it down. A scientist was on the radio recently, talking about the value of stillness, but I can’t remember her name or the program now. Most, if not all, of her innovative ideas, she said, come to her in moments of stillness, when her thoughts are left to wander undirected by external input – no phone, no computer. Only then does she come up with new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking. The world needs more stillness, she contends. Science needs more stillness.
Watching my one-year-old grandchildren (I have three of them now!), I observe exactly what that scientist means. Left alone, undirected, they are tiny scientists discovering the world. I, too, try to practice observational science when I hang out with them. If I put away my phone and any agenda of instruction, they teach me things. I watch them learn about physics as they try to balance on two feet, climb a slide, descend a staircase, or drop a handful of sweet potato onto the floor. I listen to them mimic sounds – not just human language, but birdsong, barking dogs, or a squeaky wheel. They taste the world, reach out to touch and manipulate every object. Their looks of wonder are everyday expressions, or maybe it’s not wonder but deep concentration. So many neurons firing in the brain, processing, sorting things out, fitting them into one possible interpretation, then reassigning connections as more data comes in. Learning the science of life.
My grandchildren are okay with undirected time. You could call it idleness. Idleness should not carry the pejorative weight it is often assigned. There is nothing static or lazy about an idle child. In idleness they find their way, all on their own, little budding scientists. Idleness allows for stillness; stillness leads to discovery, or to sleep, when that’s what is needed. Don’t we all still have a lot to learn? Have we forgotten how to discover the world, which is new in so many ways, every day? Don’t we all need to sleep when we’re tired? Shouldn't we re-discover the science of life?
Thank you little ones, for reminding me to be still.
I spent a few days on Sutton Island this past week, after an intensive stretch of non-stop activity. You know the kind. My first two days I was alone, a rare situation for me on the island. On the first day I decided to take a walk around the east end loop without my phone.
The number of times I reached for that darn slab of plastic and metal was embarrassing.
How far have I walked? What time is it? Oh, that's beautiful; where's my camera? Has anyone texted me? Have I done Wordle today?
Sutton reminds me to sit still, put my phone away, and immerse in the light and shadow of fall. Watch the gulls, eagles, osprey, heron, cormorants, loons, songbirds, and seals - all going about their lives, busy working, eating, interacting - without a thought for what's happening in some electronic other-world. The physical world is a good one, and we miss too much of it. It's our home. You'll remember it, if you give it your attention.
Take a deep breath, Robin. Slow down. Immerse in the air of autumn. Can you find a time to turn off the electricity and simply be present with the natural world? I aspire to do it, but often fail. I wish you all the balm of "disconnection" too, which really means, the balm of reconnecting to the physical world.
To dog or not to dog?
That was the question.
Just now I looked back at the dates and saw that our dogless existence – after thirty-nine years of dogfulness – began almost exactly a year ago. Doglessness is a seductive condition. We slipped into its hypnosis for a long time, but then…
This August Jonathan and I will celebrate forty years of marriage. Forty years ago, on our way home from an 8-day honeymoon in New Brunswick, we found a starving puppy on the side of the road. After an hour or so of sleuthing in the neighborhood, we learned he was abandoned. In an exuberance of love and protectiveness, we impulsively decided to smuggle him over the border (I hope the statute of limitations on penalties has passed).
Brunswick lived to be sixteen. By the time he died, we’d long since adopted Ella, who was joined by Meg, then Guster, Kate, and Clara. When Clara died last June, our last dog, we had four new grandbabies on the horizon. “Let’s just wait a little bit,” we thought.
In a dogless life, you can be spontaneous. You don’t have to get up on Saturday morning to walk anybody. No tumbleweeds of dog hair under the couch. No noisy interruptions. No one pestering you to pay attention, get up, go out, rub my belly. You are free to remain lost in thought, in moodiness, in yourself. Hmm. We began to see the problem.
Daisy hasn’t been with us for a week yet, and we are tired, and we are happy. She is comic relief, a torrent of wriggly, twirly affection, demanding. Oh yes, she demands – that we not sink into a fog of brooding, that we pay attention, that we laugh and play and celebrate. We celebrate wonders like moths and tennis balls, tall grass and windows, sunbasking and dinnertime. We didn’t know what a hole we’d slipped into until she arrived and dragged us out on a leash.
Welcome, Daisy. And thank you.
One of the gifts of small children is a reminder that we each house a full array of emotions in the crowded space of our brain, and that’s okay. Honor your emotions. Children give free rein to them all – elation, grief, frustration, fear, anger, determination, silliness, hysteria, serenity. They might get bogged down by emotional overloads (a three-year-old’s ferocity in the throes of perceived injustice is legion), but their ability to recover is wondrous. Many of us lose that ability as we grow. Maybe that’s because we try so hard to shut the door on negative emotions, a strategy that commonly backfires.
I recently returned from a beautiful, heart wrenching, hopeful weekend. Two years after the tragic accidental death of Brigit Feeney, a friend’s 33-year-old daughter, her family gathered to dedicate a memorial garden. The serene, circular plot in Manchester, New Hampshire’s Livingston Park celebrates the good work of Brigit’s life. The garden honors her memory and provides a public space of beauty, solace, and healing to the entire community.
Brigit worked as a victim and witness advocate, an underappreciated job that provides support for victims of violent crime at their most fragile. She was an exquisitely compassionate advocate, and a fierce ally to those in need. Brigit’s life calling was to provide hope and healing, and the foundation created in her name will work towards that goal.
I marvel at this family’s response to devastating grief – to look outside of themselves, to provide comfort to others as a way of softening the pain. Laughter and tears came both in full measure in the garden that day. Adults can do this thing too, this fluid movement between emotions, this embracing of love and hope, even in the midst of anguish. Suffering in life is inevitable, but denying it, smothering it, shaming it, is counterproductive. If we open our hearts to the pain it can wash through us and leave us cleansed.
I cannot help turning to my grandchildren - those dazzling, emerging beings – when I need instruction. The world of emotions is their playground, their schoolground. Little Martin, our fifth grandchild, was born in April, and already he displays tantalizing facial mobility, as though he’s experimenting with the emotional spectrum – a smile, a smirk, a frown, a brow knitted in sadness or consternation – all in his sleep. Good job, Martin. Keep practicing.
To all of you, young and old, I wish you good fortune, but I also wish you the essential skill of navigating the bad when it arrives. Let the raggedy feelings come, let them move on, then bring your goodness back into the light.
The Brigit A. Feeney Foundation for Hope and Healing will continue Brigit’s legacy by supporting the advocate community she cared so much about. The garden is open to the public.
For more information about Brigit and the Foundation named for her, visit: https://www.brigitsfoundation.org/
Back in the day, when I sat waiting to see a pink line on a little dipstick, I was hopeful. Am I pregnant? Yes? Joy! Love!
Since 2020, we sit hoping fervently that no line appears. Up until last weekend we had three years of good luck - no line. But maybe the dreaded pink line is everyone's eventual fate. In a way it feels good to have the years of worrying and evasive maneuvers behind us, at least for a little while.
Well, not quite behind us. For now we are commiserating - sharing aches and fatigue, sharing chores, side-by-side paxlovid prescriptions, comparing notes on our various symptoms and side effects ---
"Do you have an awful metallic taste in your mouth?"
"Yes! What is that?"
Apparently "paxlovid mouth" is a thing. We share, with the unlucky minority, this particular side effect of ritonavir, part of the paxlovid cocktail.
However, we are hardly unlucky. Here's a few reasons why:
We're going to be okay. Thanks everyone!*
*(researchers, pharmacists, the medical community, friends, family, birds...).
My first real job was as a salesperson at a local outdoor outfitters called Kreeger and Sons. At 17 I’d done lots of backpacking – their specialty – and I was a downhill skier, but I knew next to nothing about cross-country skiing. That didn’t stop them from assigning me the task of teaching a cross-country workshop one bright, snowy weekend at Pound Ridge Reservation. I arrived an hour early with a couple of my co-workers, so they could teach me how to ski before I became an “expert” instructor. Who knows if I fooled anyone later that morning. I wobbled a lot, but I dutifully aped the instructions that had just been thrown at me. I felt like I'd pulled off something brilliant.
Later that winter, my senior year, a classmate friend and photographer asked me to meet her at the school fields after a snowfall. She used photographs of me on Nordic skis for an art project, using the silhouette of a skier in full extension against the pure white backdrop of winter. She edited out the shots of me flailing, poles and skis creating awkward and precarious geometric shapes.
Forty-five years later, I still wobble. Cross-country has never been my metier, but those early introductions stuck with me, associating the activity forever with a sense of competence and beauty, even if faked. Nothing gives me quite the same joy as skiing across a sparkling landscape of new fallen snow, leaving first tracks, gliding in smooth rhythm, sweeping down hills with a teenager’s smile on my face, undimmed even after the flail and crash.
Time is a trickster. It acts unshakable, yet it bends and hovers and does loop-de-loops, curling back on itself. As a rule, I try to savor the present and look forward to the future in a logical, timely, sequential way. Sometimes, though, the past surges over me and bogs me down.
Jonathan and I have been frantically battling 20 years of accumulated clutter (Marie Kondo – help!) before all 14 of our beloved family (all those babies!) fill the already-crowded spaces of our home. You’re probably familiar with that pressure to create holiday magic? to make the season bright? Between that and work and bills and emails and broken things that need fixing and the phone call that took over an hour and meal prep and that thing you said you’d do before tomorrow…it’s terribly easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, sprinting and getting nowhere near a season bright, just the same old cloudy routine.
As years accumulate behind me, another obstacle deters my progress towards the happy holidays. Icons of the season are weighted with associations, and I slip away into Christmases past – my children, like little electrons, bouncing off the walls in anticipation, the all-nighters with Jonathan as we stuff stockings and finalize the dazzle of Santa’s touch around the Christmas tree. Then I go further back to my own child self at Christmastime – scanning the TV Guide to make sure we won’t miss The Grinch, Mom’s Brunswick stew on Christmas Eve, Grandpa’s eyebrow-raising rendition of the We Three Kings Balthazar verse (sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying!), stockings overflowing on Christmas morning, Dad’s pancakes for breakfast, the TREE twinkling up to the ceiling, and Christmas music as a constant soundtrack. Memories fill the heart with happiness...but sometimes not.
I was only subliminally aware of the potpourri of the past dancing in my head when Jonathan streamed some Christmas classics on our Bluetooth speaker last night. Nat King Cole crooned Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…and I was transported back decades, in front of my parents’ fireplace, Georgia fatwood crackling under the logs, Dad sipping a hot buttered rum, Mom bustling in the kitchen. I am carefree, comfort-drenched, at home. All of a sudden I was sobbing at my current day kitchen counter, missing them, missing home, missing all the days gone by.
It’s no wonder people get sad this time of year. Not only are we submerged in darkness for lengthy periods of time, we are submerged in memories and expectations as we try to cultivate that lightness, to share it, or just hold on to it for ourselves. Holiday preambles are a perfect stew of complex emotions – joy, nostalgia, elation, grief, gratitude, regret.
Time is a relentless life companion, never stops, never slows; no calamitous or triumphant moment causes even a hiccup in time’s stride, though that doesn’t stop it from using our emotions as a playground. But we can’t live without time, and who would want to be robbed of times past? Perhaps there is comfort in time’s dependable, intrepid march forward. So I take a deep breath, make myself a cup of tea, let sorrow wash over me and recede. I will be grateful for the rich memories time has given to me, and hopeful for what time still has in store, so many things I can’t even dream of yet.
Wishing you warmth and comfort this holiday season, and may time's tricks be good ones.
Robin Clifford Wood is an award-winning author, poet, and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her children, grandchildren, and granddogs.