Shopping for, not at, Christmas

Christmas Tree 17-1The house I grew up in from the age of four on had a funny little built in cupboard off the upstairs hall, My parents called it the box closet. It was lined with narrow shelves, perfect for small boxes. I was told the gardener whose cottage this was originally, used them to ripen fruit. My parents kept boxes of different sizes that could be reused there, as well as to hide presents until Christmas came around. That’s how I got into the habit of doing my shopping for Christmas all year.

“Where do you do your Christmas shopping,” asked my physical therapist as she and I worked on helping my hip get better. I shook my head and smiled. “We don’t,” I told her, “At least not in the usual sense. We collect Christmas gifts all year long from wherever we find them—yard sales, thrift shops, white elephant tables, or any other alternative shopping experience you can think of. It’s more fun that way.”

In one sense what that means is that Stephen and I think about Christmas and people we like to give to, all year long. It is such fun to think about and to give presents. Many of our dear friends live at a distance from us, so we end up spending as much money on postage as we do on the gifts. What we save by not shopping in stores will most likely get spent on the mailing of them. However, we’ve avoided much stress and discomfort.

One can of course shop from catalogues and the Internet, and many do and will. Christmas catalogues flood our mailbox from October on. I used to try to tell them not to send me any, however no one paid any attention, so I gave up. I know you can also specify which you want to receive; however that too becomes tedious. I figure at least the printers and designers are making money producing them, so I don’t feel too bad about throwing them away. . It’s too easy to order and then be disappointed when the item is not what you thought.

Occasionally I buy a gift for Stephen from a catalogue–usually because he saw it and pointed it out to me. I seldom purchase from them for anyone else. I peruse one or two of my favorites but most go into the trash. While they are filed with lovely enticing pictures and descriptions, for the most part I prefer the physical experience of seeing and touching my purchases.

I find Christmas shopping at retail stores to be daunting. There is too much to see and think about. They are too full of hopeful shoppers trying to cross people off their Christmas lists. The glittery items do not attract me; I prefer to give useful, practical gifts. That’s what I like to receive. Furthermore, most children have lots of toys and games as well as stuffed animals. Our friends and relations often receive books we have found at the Friends of the Library. By supporting alternative spending there and elsewhere, we recycle and reuse. This is really a gift to Mother Earth as well, and surely she deserves one too.

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Riding a Time Machine into the Past

Reflections in SummerWhat fun it would be to hop onto a time machine and return to the Christmas shopping of my childhood, after I had turned eight. How I enjoyed buying my parents small stocking presents at Grants and Woolworth’s. I want to return to the days when the ten dollars I had saved up sufficed to purchase about everything I wanted to buy for them. Maybe there would even be enough left over for an ice cream cone. I loved the way the store smelled when I walked in, and the overflowing counters with the glass part in front to make sure items didn’t fall off.

I didn’t mind no longer believing that Santa filled the stockings, because it was such fun to wrap up my inexpensive gifts to fill them for my parents. Best of all would be to write notes on them the way they did. I bought Ponds cold cream and vanishing cream each year. I think they were ten or twenty cents each.

My mother told us a joke once about the latter. It seems a child took off all her clothes, rubbed her whole body with vanishing cream, and then went downstairs where her parents were hosing a party. The polite guests pretended not to see her. The next morning she told her mother gleefully that vanishing cream really worked. My twelve year old self thought that was very funny.

My time machine would whisk me back to my Great Aunt’s dining room with all the relatives gathered together and finger bowls brought in at the end of the Christmas meal–often roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Sometimes there would be a plum pudding brought in and ignited after brandy was poured over it. The dancing flames were blue and very exciting. I didn’t care much for the plum pudding but the had sauce with it was pretty good.

It would take me down the snowy streets with the sparkling stars way up high, and the carols on the radio. Those times seem quite simple compared to now. The television had only a few channels, and the programs didn’t play all night but ended with a test pattern. Mothers mostly were at home. Most had only one car per family, and my mother’s friends met bi monthly for lunch and chitchat over their mending.

In my time machine I would also visit the wondrous Daniel Lowe’s department store in Salem with all the glittering silver and crystal when you walked in. I did no Christmas shopping there. Salem was the big city to me and we seldom went. Nearby Beverly was smaller. That was where the Woolworth’s and the Grant’s were, as well as Almay’s department store. We did some of our shopping there. In those less frantic times no one thought to purchase gifts until a few weeks before Christmas. The stores waited until after Thanksgiving to decorate for the holidays or play Christmas music. However, that was then. Though different from that time, now has its delights as well. While the past is fine to visit, I wouldn’t wish to live there.

The Wonderful Jacket

Tasha in hood 2Those of us who come from New England are familiar with Yankee thrift: use it up, make do, or do without. I am of a conserving nature, having in addition to a Yankee father, a German mother born at the outset of WWI. Nothing was ever wasted in the house I grew up in. I thrived on hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds. Over the years I have accumulated clothing items I am happy to see again when their season rolls around. I often develop a fondness for clothing that has served me well.

Recently as I pushed my wagon through the aisles of a grocery store, I saw a woman standing by the meat counter in a unique and lovely white furry jacket. “I can’t resist telling you I think your jacket is magnificent,” I told her. She laughed and said it was from the 70’s, yet she could never bear to part with it. “Nor should you,” I replied. We each continued on our way, pushing our shopping carts in opposite directions.

I smiled to myself. I was wearing a jacket I have had for close to thirty years. It is a fairly ordinary, black, nylon one, with some very useful pockets. Black fur edges the hood. It is warm and comfortable, and probably unremarkable as jackets go. However the story of how I acquired it and what has been done to it since makes it special.

On a trip to the Cape many years ago, Stephen and I were in a consignment shop, poking around. I saw the jacket hanging on a rack, and figured I might be able to use it. I took it down, intending to try it on. “If you can zip it up you can have it,” said the woman behind the counter. I looked down at the zipper and saw that it was slightly frayed on the bottom and could be a bit challenging. When I tried it on I liked the feel of the jacket and resolved to see if indeed I could zip it.

Very carefully I inserted the frayed end into the metal slot and continued to be careful as I zipped it all the way up. The saleswoman was good at her word and gave me the jacket without charge. In the ensuing years I went on zipping it up carefully until finally one year I invested in a new zipper. Along the way parts of the jacket lining began to wear out. I was fortunate in having friends who at different times were able to repair the worn places in the lining so that it looked almost new.

Now when I put on my wonderful warm winter jacket I remember my friends and their generous work on my behalf. I also think how fortunate I was to have found it, been able to zip it up and to have it still after all these many years. What keeps me warm in it is more than the lining or the material, it is the memories and the love of friends that has been sewn into it. How could I ever part with this jacket? I believe I never could, nor do I ever wish to.

 

Giving Thanks is not just for Thanksgiving.

Deb's party food 2When I was growing up we usually said grace only at Thanksgiving, Christmas or on other very special occasions. I don’t remember any special discussion of gratitude in my family. God was often presented as a punitive figure, rather like my dad—as in or God will punish you for that, see if He doesn’t, and “Just wait until I tell your father what you did…” The church I grew up with emphasized being sorry for one’s sins and saying prayers for the protection and preservation of my family and myself. All that changed when I was in my mid thirties and I learned about the virtue of gratitude and its importance for a happy life.

I began giving thanks on a daily basis after a phone conversation with a wise older friend. She told me that rather than complain about what I thought I was lacking, I needed to be grateful for what I did have: good food to eat, a roof over my head, a comfortable bed to sleep in, warm clothes to wear, and so on. She reminded me how important it was to give thanks for the simple yet necessary blessings most take for granted. I believed her. Now these many years later, I am very grateful to her. An attitude of gratitude leads to true happiness.

When we focus on whatever there is in our lives that brings happiness, healing, kindness or friendship we are emphasizing that aspect in our lives. When we complain about our difficulties we are focusing on our lacks and our problems, most of which we can do little to nothing about. There is no happiness in dwelling on our misfortunes. When we do emphasize what is good in our lives it seems magically to increase. Giving thanks for that which we have as well as that which we do not have is an important key to a good life.

Gratitude for the bounty in our lives has been the theme of harvest celebrations throughout the ages. The Pilgrims did not host the first Thanksgiving ever, just their first one here in this country. Giving thanks to a higher power is common to nearly every religious or spiritual path. Most have some kind of ceremony to honor the powers that be that provide them with support and sustenance. After all, if the rains do not fall or the sun does not shine our food will not grow. Not a gardener myself, I know how grateful I am to the market and the farmstand that provide me with good, fresh food.

More than anything else I am grateful for the love that has come to me over the years. I have been extremely fortunate in the people I have met and with whom I have had the opportunity to interact. My friends, past, present and even future are important to me. I am thankful for each and every one. While some of those for one reason or another have vanished from my life, the experience of their past love remains to bless me with its warmth and the joyful memories of our happy times together. I am grateful for that good and for the dear ones still in my life.

The Dark Time is The Ideal Time to Rest

The trees outside my window have lost most of their leaves. Some few still cling to their branches as a result of the late warm weather, however not many. The leaves are being released from their branches. The tree has sealed off the part where the stem contacts the twig and the leaves are subject to the whims of the wind. Thus the trees move from active participation in growth and expansion to rest and restoration, solidifying what has been gained. Nature is sensible that way, bringing opportunities for alternative modes of being. Most animals as well as insects are in their burrows or nests, resting from the work of gathering and consuming food as well as maintaining the dwelling.

Once there was no electricity to keep us humming along 24/7. In many cases native peoples in the North went into quasi hibernation mode in the winter. Later, although torches and candlelight provided evening illumination, early bed times were likely. Judging from how I feel, the human body seems to be inclined toward seasonal rest. I always seem to sleep longer and even more soundly during the darker hours between November and February. I find that my body is happy with the additional rest. However I am fortunate that I do not have to answer to a time clock at work or an alarm clock at home that tells me I must rise and get moving regardless whether or not my body would prefer to stay under the covers.

We humans do love the light. Throughout history various cultures have provided and still do provide their own opportunities to invoke it during the dark hours. In our Western European culture, our holidays devoted to light in one form or another commonly include Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Hanukah comes to us from another part of the world, as does Kwanzaa, a recent addition. The Internet can provide information concerning the many other celebrations of light that are not as common now because they have faded or been forgotten. These include interesting customs—some of which have come down to us, that include all kinds of symbolism as well as special dances and other activities. All these opportunities help counter the inevitable lethargy brought on by the dark hours.

Although I do not count the years, I still celebrate my birthdays. Now I have another celebration coming up, and I am reminded that as a result of the numerous autumns I have lived through, the leaves of my days are indeed falling. Little by little they flutter down, gathering on the ground in colorful heaps. I have also noticed that as the days of my life increase, I am slowing down. I do not get as much done; I need to rest more. Sometimes this is frustrating. These days are precious and the daylight needs to be made use of. Still I need to be kind enough to myself to allow for the rest I need to keep up my strength, most especially as the days of autumn dwindle and the dark hours grow longer.

Weeds are Flowers Too

Dandelion and pebbles

When I was growing up there was local horticultural society in our town. They had a show every year, and I participated in the children’s class, always happy to compete for the prize money awarded. One easy win was to collect 50 wildflower species and label them. This was easy for me, as we lived in the country and there were plenty of them around in August when the show was held. I diligently combed the fields around our home and won. First prize: five whole dollars, was a princely sum for a ten or twelve year old. Later when I studied the medicinal qualities of wild as well as cultivated herbs I learned to value them even more. Now though I no longer live in the country I still feel fond of the weeds I studied as a child.

Each spring, whenever I walk through the series of parking lots across the street from my building, my eye is drawn to the weeds decorating the barrier between two of the lots. All year long I watch them grow, flower, and then succumb to the cold, their length still softening the hardness of the barrier they have grown against. I also often notice the weeds growing next to concrete highway dividers. They struggle up through tiny cracks in the pavement, signaling the persistence of nature against human concretization. Soon now snow will fall and the remaining stalks I see when I walk will cast their shadows on the snowfall, reminding me of the inevitability of spring regardless of the current winter weather.

Despite the gardener’s dismay, weeds are flowers too. In addition to their roadside beauty, their seeds feed birds and the roots and leaves may be medicinal and even nourishing. Many of the weeds we have today formed a significant part of the diet of those who lived here before the Europeans arrived. The early settlers who planted them to harvest for food and medicine brought others. The virtues of a plant that we call a weed may be many. Now that I no longer have a garden I can appreciate their beauty even more. A weed is by definition something that grows wild, that grows where it has not been deliberately planted: an unwanted, uninvited guest in the garden. In a metaphorical sense, weeds could be defined as the unwanted catalogues that keep arriving in the mail, the undesired emails that show up in my inbox, or even those annoying begging or advertising phone calls from telemarketers.

How are these flowers in the garden of my life? Perhaps because as I eliminate them, they call me to pay better attention. I could also see them as helping me to be grateful that once they are gone I have more space and a better awareness of what I wish to keep for myself. These weeds are persistent in the gardens that we call our lives. However at least they do not require my bending over to remove them or to dig out their roots. As I appreciate the beauty of the actual weeds when I see them so too I can rejoice for that beauty that comes uninvited yet welcome to my view.

Our New England Fall

 

Autumn Blaze

 

When my children were young we used to gather colorful leaves and iron them between pieces of waxed paper to preserve them. There is something magical about the wonderful colors of fall leaves. They are everywhere, now, and people echo their beauty with doorstep pots of chrysanthemums in yellow, red, gold and rust. When I was growing up people didn’t decorate for fall or Halloween. People gave parties—I remember one year my parents gave one for adults. This was once also a popular time for divination games, which often centered around finding one’s true love.

I am enchanted by the colors of the trees at this time of year. I could almost believe that if I were pulled over by a policeman I might appear intoxicated. That’s a joke, of course, as for many years my body has not tolerated more than a sip or two of alcohol, and that only on rare occasions. No, what I would be drunk on is the beauty that glows along the roadsides. As I drive around on my errands these days, the slanting rays of the autumn sun shine through the reds and golds of the turning leaves, leaving me breathless.

I feel fortunate that I have the eyes to see it and the heart to appreciate it. I remember a conversation I had once with someone who was chronically depressed. When I said something about the beauty around us she shrugged and told me she couldn’t really appreciate it. Although she didn’t say it I could tell that she was simply too sad to do so. Her mind was totally preoccupied with her troubles and sorrows. I felt for her.

The gorgeous display that is the essence of a fall in New England is something many people travel here to see. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to live in this part of the USA. Nearly thirty years ago, before we moved to Grafton I spent seven years in Virginia. While we were there I found that the leaves that turned did not do so with much intensity, and I missed the brilliance of our autumn very much. When a great many years ago I was in southwest Texas in the fall I felt the same. I was three I have lived here in New England since I was three years old, and perhaps it is in my blood. One thing is sure: each year I look forward eagerly to the changing of the season and the beautiful colors.

One of the houses we lived in had a window that looked out over a very special Maple tree. The colors that brightened the leaves would begin with a single branch, sometimes as early as late August. How I enjoyed it when that patch of leaves burst into color. The loveliness of nature in autumn warms my heart in a way that enlivens my whole being. I am so very thankful for this special gift of loveliness, free for the gazing, billowing over the hills and presenting on yards: our New England fall.