I drove my younger son to work at a local market around 5:00 PM last night. Though the sun had officially set already, the sky remained light enough to not need the headlights for the fifteen minutes it took for me to get home. These little moments, long before Spring arrives, allow me a smile and a contented sigh.
How did we get to a place where January feels longer than any other month? Several have remarked upon it. There’s even a meme that I used last year complaining about it. Once again, this year we’re into February, a short month, and it feels like it will be smooth sailing until Spring.
It won’t be of course. Though we just had the warmest January on record, there is still plenty of winter left. We also have lots of experience with Spring snow. There’s the April Fools storm several years ago that people still talk about, and the year that it hardly snowed at all until March 10, my younger son’s birthday. He is my winter loving child and fort-worthy snow for his birthday was the very best gift.
Today, February 1, is Imbolc, a Celtic festival recognizing the midway point between winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is traditionally the beginning of the lambing season (don’t you want to go out to a farm and see lambs being born right now?) and a celebration of fertility. Because so much of Celtic tradition got subsumed into Catholic teaching and practice, it is also known as Candlemas, and St. Bridget’s Day. Of course there was no real St. Bridget, the name was borrowed from a Celtic goddess.
I’d never really heard much about Imbolc until this year when I was suddenly seeing references to it all over social media. I wonder why that is. Are we reaching for signs of hope in these incredibly dark times? Is the growing disaffiliation with organized religion, or perhaps a greater awareness of climate change, causing us to seek a stronger connection with the natural world?
For me, I suppose it’s a combination of all three of these things. I am desperately seeking something hopeful and positive to focus on in this political climate. I am tired of watching the bad guys win; tired of losing hope. It’s not good for my health, either.
As I continue to search for a way to live my life in this new reality, the calming constant is nature, the sun, the circle of life things like lambing and looking for the new ducklings in Boston’s Public Garden every spring. I mark the days, mark the seasons with my observations; a probably half-assed form of mindfulness. I see time moving forward as I struggle not to lose any more ground.
True winter temps (below freezing, but not below 0º) coincided with a lingering respiratory infection over the past week. Thankfully, both seem to have subsided for now, making me feel as if my head has breached the surface of a very deep pond. I can breathe again, and I have the energy to attack things that I haven’t gotten to in several days.
Today that means a series of phone calls I have been putting off for too long; pursuing car repairs, medication, and a misplaced peacoat at the dry cleaner’s. The medication call takes a half an hour, while I start to make my request, they take my details, and then I get transferred to the “correct department” where I repeat my information EVERY SINGLE MONTH. No one can give me a direct line so I can save time and not have to repeat myself. For this foolishness, I am charged $250 a month for the generic version of my medication. No wonder I put it off for as long as possible.
I would like to see some study done of the toll on patients of having to deal with insurance companies, and its effect on patient outcomes. It has to be significant.
Both boys are back at school, so my days are once again full of driving. T is scheduled to get his license next month, so some of this may fall to him once he’s legal. We’ve discovered that the car he takes he test in must have a hand brake accessible from the passenger seat. Neither of our cars do, which means we’ll be renting a car for this purpose. More money out the window.
As I write this, there is a pack of coyotes howling and yipping nearby. It is their mating season and they are out early, the sun having set not long ago. The proceedings have all the feel of a Beltane fire, and it would not surprise me to look out the window to see canine figures dancing against flames in the woods.
The coyotes are frequent enough visitors to the area that the dog doesn’t bother barking back at them anymore when he is in the house. His body language is alert, but he only listens now. If he sees them, it’s a different story. He encountered one a week or so ago in broad daylight. Both creatures stood their ground several yards away from each other, the dog barking in warning (to us, or the coyote? Hard to tell). I couldn’t see the coyote, but I knew something was up when the dog refused to be distracted by the shaking of the snack bag. I sent my son out with the leash. He secured the dog and chased the coyote away.
It started with a drive home. I dropped my son off at an event in the next town and rode back looking at all the Christmas lights.
I’ve lived in this town almost thirty years. I barely see it anymore. It remains a beautiful place, but after a while, you stop thinking about it. I’m not sure why my attention was caught by the Christmas lights that early evening, but for a few moments I really saw the beauty of an ordinary drive I’ve done more times than I can count. I was present, and content; the first time in a while I felt truly happy to be living here.
I’ve written about aspects of this before, but it has been a hard couple of years. Between getting laid off, health problems, huge medical bills, the politics of the age, and family-related stress, I went into self-protection mode and dropped out of everything. The health stuff was brought on by panic attacks, so my response was to remove myself from anything that might exacerbate my anxiety. I spent months feeling as if under siege, I needed to rest and to recover my equilibrium.
I do this from time to time. When I’m hurt, exhausted, embarrassed, or otherwise in need of emotional restoration, I retreat. I’m very much an introvert anyway (until you know me, then I seem like an extrovert), and people exhaust me. Every year I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and hermit myself away from the world as much as I can. At the end of that time, I am usually ready to go back to work.
This time, my self-imposed exile has lasted about two years. I’ve been in a mental and emotional limbo both waiting for this transplant to move forward and wanting the “second half” of my life post-transplant to move in a different direction. Most of what set me on this trajectory two years ago has resolved itself or at least become less of an issue. The family is stable; I’ve managed to stay out of the hospital for months now (knock wood) because I know more about managing my Afib episodes. We’ve just had one of the most pleasant holiday seasons ever. It was low key, but everyone in the house approached it with the same spirit.
This year, there’s no work to go back to. I’m still keeping my eyes open for something, possibly part-time, local or remote, so that I can have some money coming in, but avoid an exhausting and expensive commute. I’m still trying to write more regularly. I’ve been at a standstill for two years, frozen in place, stuck. It’s past time for me to get moving again.
I worked briefly with a therapist earlier this year and soon came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a match. She was more focused on the practical day to day stuff, and less about how I felt and how I could cope. I struggled with how to end the sessions and then I discovered that the deductible for counseling services with my health plan was enormous; decision made. I was relieved, but no better off.
Driving home that night before Christmas I decided I need to experience that present and contented feeling more often, and that by deliberately seeking those “moments of light,” I might be able to help get myself unstuck. I might be able to start changing my mind. I’ve been thinking about how I might help myself do this, and here is what I came up with:
Movement – This is the probably the most important effort, but also the toughest, particularly in the winter when the cold air can make it difficult to breathe. I was never an athlete, but I used to walk everywhere. The myriad health problems I’ve been dealing with have put me in a state of de-conditioning (that’s what the cardiologist called it). With osteoporosis running in my family, and the effects of my rheumatoid arthritis meds, I need to start battling back to regain my strength. When I was doing yoga regularly, I always felt this peace at the end of a session. I need more of that now.
Dial down the carb-reliance – I don’t diet. I don’t need to lose weight. I don’t eat a lot of junk food or fast food or fake food; but I love pasta, bread, potatoes, and other carb-heavy ingredients. I put sugar in my tea and I’m a fan of the occasional soda. A small chocolate treat is a staple of most late afternoons. I absolutely need more protein, particularly at the start of the day. I’m very curious to see if tweaking the balance here has any noticeable effect on my mood and energy levels.
Gratitude / Appreciation / Observance – After the last two tempestuous years, things have calmed down enough for me to notice and appreciate moments of family harmony and growth. Sure there’s still plenty to work through, but reason and cooperation are more frequent visitors to our home, and they are most welcome. I have been trying to be on the lookout for things that support this feeling – whether it is the the boys working together to decorate for Christmas, the birds at the feeder, or the flowers I buy to fill our home with something natural.
Confront Shame – At a workshop a few years ago we were asked to think about some of the messages we heard or internalized growing up. My parents had quite a few snarky sayings that stuck with me, but I came to realize that a major theme of my childhood, between school (nuns), church, parents, and the society of the age, was “It’s not okay to make a mistake.” That got me to thinking about how much we used to control children by shaming them. We still try to do this to a lot of women. On some level, I rejected these attempts at control (hence my allergy to authority), but I know they made a huge impact on how I see the world. I know that a lot of my paralysis, a lot of my impulse to cloister myself comes from a sense of shame.
Engage, Create – I do need to get out more, and since 2016, I have been searching for a way to have better impact than I did as a School Committee Member. I’m not a protestor or petitioner, but my interests have moved from education, to health care and transportation. Next week I will be going to a talk on Medicare for All, to try to understand, and see how much the proponents understand about our current health care system and a plan to move forward. Of course I will write about what I have learned. I am still hoping to find a role in the community, I’ve talked with a few people, but now I feel like I can be less tentative about it, and get myself out there.
Social Media Diet – Another tough one, especially for someone as hermited as I can be. For my own sanity I declared a moratorium of all things Trump for the holidays. I don’t want to hear him, I don’t want to hear about him, I don’t want to listen to the Sunday talkies, or other news programs, I’ve mostly stayed away from Twitter and Medium this week. It’s been glorious, and I feel so much less anxious. I’ve taken to leaving my phone upstairs for most of the day when I’m trying to write. I’m happier and less distracted that way. Writing longhand first is usually something that helps my creative process anyway.
I can’t call these resolutions. Rather, they are behaviors and ways of thinking that I want to use to check in with myself about regularly. I’m really hoping that this time next year, I will feel perceptively unstuck and moving forward.
I filled the feeders before the storm. When the snow stopped and the sun came out again, a pair of Cardinals, a reddish House Finch, and a large Red-bellied Woodpecker all came to visit, presumably breaking their fast. Occasionally, a squawking Blue Jay scatters the smaller birds, but when he takes a seed or two and flies away, the others return as if to say, “That’s just Jay, he’s obnoxious like that, just ignore him.”
These are the kind of winter mornings I can tolerate. The sun reflects off the newly fallen snow, making everything seem clean and bright. The sky will turn grey in an hour or so, but for now, I will sit here by the window with the light on my face, basking as if outside, on the patio, in the summer.
From my seat, I can see tracks in the snow where birds have sought seeds dropped from above. I’m fascinated by the behavior of some birds who light on the feeder, pick and toss seeds from the opening until they find just the right one. They fly off and come back to do it all over again. There are other critters out there, too. We didn’t used to have small brown squirrels, but now they’re everywhere. The dog sniffs about in the snow, pausing every few steps to bay at some unfamiliar scent. I haven’t seen a coyote recently, but I know they are around.
In a few days, we will go and get our Christmas tree, and part of the living room, including the table where I’m sitting now, will get shifted temporarily to make room for festive decor. The tree will be placed in front of this window, blocking the sun and my view of the feeders.
I really should move my workspace back upstairs, but the light is not the same. The guest room that also serves as my office faces west, so the sun comes in toward the end of the day. I will take the full spectrum light up there; that might help. I’m pushing myself to start the day earlier (still not early by most people’s standards), and the full-spectrum light makes it easier on grey days. I am napping less, and cooking more. I still have my flat days – when I can only accomplish the bare minimum, but there seem to be fewer of them.
In a few weeks the days will start getting longer again. It will be imperceptible at first, but I love noting the time of the sunrise, even if I’m not up to see it. There are still long months to get through after the holidays. I will be looking for ways to make the most of the available light.
When I worked in publishing, early in my career, I was introduced to the thrill of buying cheap flowers from street vendors in Boston. Every now and then I would grab a bunch of roses on a Friday and bring them home on the train to enjoy over the weekend. They never lasted much longer than that, but for what little I paid for them, it was hard to mind. I wasn’t home during the week to look at them anyway.
There aren’t as many vendors as there used to be. You might find them at Back Bay or South Stations, but no longer at North Station, where I would pass through to the commuter rail. The guy who used to stand in a doorway on Boylston Street with his buckets of about-to-fade bouquets is long gone; no doubt chased away by the new managers of the storefront, or new owners of the building.
When I stopped commuting and was home in the colder months, I started to buy tulips at the supermarket, when they were available, to keep me sane during the winter. The cold weather irritates my lungs and makes it harder to breathe, so I don’t get out in nature much during the winter. Just to be able to pass by a vase of flowers and take in their bright green leaves and pastel petals gives me hope for Spring and lightens my spirit. I tend to gravitate toward the hybrid tulips with two colors; lavender and white, pink and peach. I thought I would stop buying them when the weather got warmer and I had my own garden to visit, but what happened was that the variety of flowers available expanded. So I started changing it up a little.
Now almost every week I get several bunches of flowers from Trader Joe’s and mix and match to create my own arrangements. I have no training in this sort of thing, so I’m making it up as I go along, but I just find it so peaceful to work with the flowers and bask in the freshness of them.
A family friend owned a florist shop in Pacific Grove, CA, and as a wedding gift she did the flowers for the ceremony and the reception. She flew the flowers out to Connecticut and assembled them at my mother’s house. Had I not been the bride, I might have had the opportunity to learn a thing or two from her, but there was no time.
So I’ll remain self-taught, and keep bringing flowers home to get me through the winter.
I will never be a vegan. I mean, never mind meat, I don’t know if I could go through life without butter or cheese. I grew up in a very meat and potatoes oriented home. My dad frequently ordered prime rib at restaurants. We always had our spaghetti with meat sauce. Cheeseburgers were a staple of summers
But with all this concern about global warming that is finally seeming to get the news attention it deserves, one of the suggestions for adapting to the climate crisis is to eat less meat. Now that I can do.
I was raised Catholic. During Lent we weren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays. That led to weekends beginning with homemade mac and cheese or tuna fish and macaroni salad. I’m lucky that I really do like salads, and vegetables, and fish.
I was thinking about this as I made dinner tonight. Now that I’m home, I am either making dinner or at least coming up with ideas for L to make when he gets home. Somedays are just for leftovers. It’s a bit easier now that both boys have their own schedules and I don’t always have to come up with things that all four of us will eat.
Tonight’s offering was risotto. I’ve been experimenting with different ways of preparing it. Our most common effort is with butternut squash and parmesan cheese. This time I used acorn squash, onion, garlic, white wine, and a single Italian sausage stripped of its casing and chopped up for flavor. It was pretty good!
There’s nothing like hanging out on the couch on a Sunday morning reading a book or the Sunday paper with your coffee or tea. What I’d like to do with this occasional series is showcase some of the books I have read and enjoyed. Some will be current, and others with be old favorites of mine that might deserve a new audience.
I’m no book critic or professional reviewer, and that’s not my intention here. I’m merely sharing titles that struck me and hoping that you enjoy them as I did.
This week, I’m sharing a book I first read in my twenties. Composing a Life is a study of the improvisations of women’s lives and the shifting of experience to accommodate childrearing, career, or creativity. Using her own story and those of some of her friends, Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist, looks at how women adapt to different stages and roles.
I relate to this book more and more now that I’m older and have seen more of these phases as a woman trying to balance childrearing, a career, a ridiculous commute and trying to find time to write for myself. Now that I am in my 50s and looking back on what I was doing in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I can see places where I had to adapt, particularly around parenting when there were a lot of expectations and not a lot of answers.
Some of both partnering and parenting has evolved since this book was written, but women still carry an outsized share of the physical and emotional burden. As much as it might not seem so when we are in the throes of it, parenting is just a few chapters in the long book of most of our lives. Now that I am approaching the end of my active parenting years, I am already thinking about the next stage, the next step, the next improvisation.
Other things that caught my eye this week:
I have a couple of projects that I am researching. The first is a story that takes place during WWII. I was trying to find out more about Lyons, France at that time and discovered traboules. I can do something with these for sure.
Another thing I am looking into is a possible family connection to rum-running in Connecticut during Prohibition. It’s gotten into the family lore, and it’s certainly possible, but my mother vehemently denies it. This is a story of rum-running in the area. It’s given me a good starting point.
The November rain is kicking my ass; the constant grey, a dampness that chills the bones even when the temperature is reasonable, in the 40s. Blustery days have more leaves in the wind than on the trees now. At this point, I think I might prefer snow.
It doesn’t help that when it’s this cloudy out, my house, which is full of windows, is very dark during the day. It can be really depressing to come downstairs to an empty house with all the lights off. I fell weird about putting the lights on when it’s just me in the house, but I really need them.
Last year, I think I slept through most of the winter. It was an extremely stressful year on all fronts; health, work and family. This year is better, so I’m a little surprised to be getting hit with the same sluggishness. I know part of it is the medication I’m on. We’ve talked about switching medications, but I have to be in the hospital for three days to do that and that costs money.
I was not this tired in the Summer. Yes, I still took naps, but I was also able to do stuff without constantly yawning and struggling to keep my eyes open.
Last winter I actually bought a full-spectrum light, but never opened it. It sat on my desk for months and today I remembered it was there. I was never sure about whether I really had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), because I used to really love the winter months. Today I used the light for the first time and it made a difference almost instantly. My energy levels improved quite a bit. Considering that I haven’t been able to write much in the last several days, I’m grateful to have found a seemingly simple solution.
Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and a bit warmer, thank goodness. I need to get outside.
This is a bit of an experiment. We’ll see how well I am able to keep up with it.
One of the good things about being home these days is that I have much more time to read than I did when I was working full-time. Last year, when I was really and truly resting and trying to recover from all the health-related and teenager-induced stress, I read constantly, partly as an escape, partly to fend off boredom, and partly to explore the kinds of stories I wanted to try my hand at writing. I’ve slowed down some recently, which is not a bad thing; I am feeling better and a little more active.
But I’m still reading, and what I’d like to do is showcase some of the books I have read and enjoyed. Some will be current, and others with be old favorites of mine that might deserve a new audience. There’s nothing like hanging out on the couch on a Sunday morning reading a book or the Sunday paper with your coffee or tea.
I’m no book critic or professional reviewer, and that’s not my intention here. I’m merely sharing titles that struck me and hoping that you enjoy them as I did.
Last week I finished reading The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht . This book was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is an unusual story of grief, fantasy, and folk-tale superstition in an unnamed Balkan country after the war there. I was hooked right away. It deals with themes of war, family, and the things we do and do not say to family and friends.
Other things that caught my eye this week:
I have to make some side dishes for my neighbor’s Thanksgiving. I want to do something different. I looked up rutabagas because I’d never had them before. They look an awful lot like turnips.
I had a little time between pick ups this afternoon, so I ducked in to a Home Goods near campus while I waited for T. This is always dangerous. In fact we have a brand new Home Goods much closer that opened last month and I’ve been avoiding it since I don’t want to spend more money right now.
Of course, they are all set up for Christmas. Yes, they had a few tables that still had Thanksgiving related merchandise, but most of rest of the halls were fully decked (seriously, you know how hard it is to get past another person’s cart in an aisle because that place is so stuff with stuff?). It made me think about how often recently I’ve seen people complaining about others decorating for Christmas already when we haven’t had Thanksgiving yet.
Yet, wandering around amid the festive tchotchkes, the trees painted with faux snow, and the holiday dishes and linens, I didn’t feel annoyed or rushed, I felt happy. Now, I’m not going to be one of those super-early decorators, but I am on their side. These are dark times, and for those of us who are uplifted by whatever the season means to them, bringing out the spirit early offers a little reprieve. There’s a feeling of nesting that goes along with that, and the revisiting of family traditions with ornaments that may have an origin story.
I didn’t buy much this afternoon. I really don’t have room for any more decorations. By the way, it always amazes me that the smallest houses seem to have the most lawn ornaments for any holiday – where do they put them when they are not on display? I bought a new tablecloth and napkins, a gesture of hope that we’ll be having more family dinners this winter. I sort of want to dig out the Christmas dishes, but I probably won’t.
Last year I was part of a discussion with some women about when the Christmas / holiday decorations come down. Several took everything down the day after Christmas, others waited until after the New Year or the 12th Day of Christmas (Epiphany). In my house the tree comes down the weekend after Epiphany, the lights outside will come down slowly through the winter. Several years ago a local wrote to the paper asking people in the area to leave their holiday lights out through February so that there would be light through the dark hours of winter. As someone for whom the first three months of the year feel interminable, I signed on right away.