Wednesday, December 30, 2015

And a slightly early end to a month of gifts: The Gift of Stillness

Too often in life, we avoid changing the path we're on because of possible rattlesnakes. (Side note: In this case, I did stay on the path, because I don't have a death wish, but I didn't see any rattlesnakes. Montana, you disappoint me!)

So here it is: the end of my month of gifts, the end of a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to make. I found it hard to contemplate stepping away from social media, even as the urge for quiet grew in me. I know it’s a risk. At the same time, it feels like the right thing to do.

Yesterday, while we were running errands, the Girl!Twin and I talked about some of the challenges inherent in a life in the arts, how hard it is to balance the need for publicity with the unhealthy dynamic that need can create. There’s a part of me that still wants to believe at some point, I could be popular enough, successful enough, cool enough to be okay . . . but that’s an illusion. The quality of being enough can only come from within, it’s not a gift bestowed upon the artist by a grateful world.

There isn’t necessarily a correlation between having that healthy sense of identity and having success—but the happiest creators, whether they’re famous or not, manage to maintain a space of stillness around themselves, establishing the true give-and-take of friendship. And the ones who need constant reassurance, who have lost the ‘enough’ setting on their souls? Nothing will ever fill that void.

Don’t get me wrong. We all enjoy praise, and we all have times when we need comfort and reassurance. If you’ve ever been the parent of an infant, though, you’ll remember the advice some wiser and more experienced person gave you: babies need to learn to comfort themselves.

So here I am, getting ready to take another baby step on the journey. The quiet is a little scary, a little uncomfortable. But it’s also exciting, and that tells me it’s the right path for me at this time.  Every faith tradition has its stories of solitude, I think in part because with too much noise and bustle, the still small voice can’t find room to make itself heard. For too long, I’ve been chattering rather than listening, and now it’s time to change.

I wish you joy, and peace, and wonder in the new year. May your lives be full of gifts, and the magic of creativity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A month of gifts, day 29: The Gift of Change and Endings

This year has been one of tremendous growth and change. And most of that time, I’ve been fighting it, trying to hold on to life as it was, life as I intended it to be. The more I struggled, though, the harder it became to keep everything together, especially myself. And then I read this amazing chapter in Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She talks about the tendency we have to try obsessively to fill whatever hollowness we find in ourselves, how we can become nothing but grasping hands and hungry mouths. It was such a riveting image, and one that resonated with my experiences. I’ve felt myself grabbing at things and people, trying to stuff them into the gaping holes in my heart so I didn’t have to feel all the scary things that were looming behind me.

In general, I think it’s human nature to fear change, to avoid it as much as possible. Let’s face it: even when it turns out for the best in the end, the process can be disruptive and painful. It often means leaving behind cherished places or beliefs or even people. Some of those losses can never be replaced, some of those griefs never heal, even if you find yourself in a better place in the end.

Yet change, like death and taxes, is one of life’s inevitabilities. If we freeze in the headlights, like deer, we may think we’re hiding from all that scariness, but we’re not. We’re only holding still as fate bears down on us.

Change, and the inevitable endings associated with it, is one of those things that a friend of mine calls “The blessings we don’t enjoy.” At least, not when we’re in the middle of the process. It’s only afterward, when we can see the whole situation and appreciate how far we’ve come and what we’ve learned, that all the growing pains seem worthwhile.

So, like I said, I’ve been fighting change for a while. Some of it is spiritual in nature, as I found myself adrift after some distressing stuff at church. It felt like my spiritual side had been ripped down to the foundations; I found myself questioning even the most basic assumptions I’d made about the universe and my place in it. (It’s the kind of situation that I wish I’d gone through in my twenties, like normal people. I keep thinking, “Aren’t I too old for this nonsense? No? Well, crap.”) There’s been a lot of sorrow, a lot of anger. But now I’m starting to feel little inklings of hope again. I don’t know where they’ll lead me. But I’d like to believe there’s some purpose to all of this, and that all my well intentioned religious beliefs imploded because only in that utter destruction could I grow. I hope that somewhere out there, Someone who knows way more than me is nodding and saying, “Now the real work can begin.”

Some of the struggle has to do with my writing career, or lack thereof. On an intellectual level, I can appreciate the revolutionary nature of this time, and the artistic ferment that’s going on. It’s exciting! It’s also super discouraging. A few years ago, I realized I would never, ever have the kind of writing career I dreamed of when I was starting out. That world, unfortunately, just doesn’t exist anymore. And I can also accept, on that intellectual level, that this means not just loss but opportunity.
Oh, but try to tell that to my wounded heart. As Anne of Green Gables would say, “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.”

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about courage, and creativity, and trying to understand what it is I’m looking for and what I need to hope for. It’s not an easy journey. Being a goal-oriented, driven sort of person, all this uncertainty has been excruciating. But I suspect that, like the physical therapy exercises I’ve been doing for my injured shoulder, it’s the painful parts that will help me get to where I want to be. Only by stretching through the stiffness that’s been caused by guarding myself too long 
can I become something more than I am right at this moment.

This is me, standing at the brink of something I hope will be amazing, and true, and beautiful. This is me, ready to let go of the comfortable so I can embrace something magical.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A month of gifts, day 27: The Gift of Good Teachers

This weekend, I learned a new thing! Or at least, the beginnings of a new thing. I've been trying to teach myself to crochet for years now, but all my efforts ended in a tangle of yarn and profanity. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with a friend who's great at a number of fiber arts, and she showed me the basics of crocheting. So during today's Bills game, I did this:

It's not exactly even, but it's so far beyond any of my previous attempts, I'm delighted. And it's all thanks to having a good, patient teacher to show me the way.

I'm grateful for all the good teachers in my life, from my mom and dad, through the men and women during my school days, to my friend Jennifer yesterday. My life is so much better because of them. And now I can look forward to building this new skill, and maybe making some magic for people I love.

For me, the hardest part of learning a new skill is quelling my inner perfectionist. I've always hated being wrong and making mistakes, so it's a challenge--and a good one--to step up and be really bad at something. And now I'm pondering things I've put aside in the past, or the ones I haven't even tried yet for fear of how much I'm going to suck at first. This year, given my plan to take a break from social media, I'll have time to try new things. Maybe I'll start drawing again. Maybe I'll finally get that guitar I've been thinking about learning to play.

The possibilities are endless.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A month of gifts, day 26: The Gift of Books

I came home from the library today with too many books. Actually, pretty much every time I come home with too many books. There are stacks of books by the bed, more in my closet, a heap beside my desk, even a few in the trunk of my car (just in case). My life is measured out in pages, chapters, authors' notes and afterwords. Give me a plot twist or a bibliography, some good light and a comfortable chair, and I'll entertain myself for hours.

I love the way books smell, the weight of them in my hands, the sound of turning pages. I love the possibilities inherent in libraries and bookstores.

Books are some of my oldest and dearest friends, my companions in times of loneliness. But more than anything, I love recommending them--finding just the right person for a favorite story, or just the right book for a favorite person, is a great joy. 

Once in a while, I get to meet one of my favorite authors and tell them how much their work has meant to me. It's a privilege to share someone else's world for a little while, and look at things through their eyes.

I used to think I'd figured out a way to use the library's automated system to take out more books than I was supposed to, but it turns out they just raised my check out limit without telling me. I guess there are some advantages to bringing borrowed things back on time. Right now my library backpack is full to overflowing, so it's time to curl up and enjoy the temporary stash. I've got history books, psychology, anthropology, true crime, self-help, a couple of Craig Johnson's Longmire novels, the latest Pendergast book from Preston and Child, and a Star Wars tie-in. Among others. I'm not quite at my new, higher checkout limit. But I bet I'm getting close.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A month of gifts, day 25: The Gift of a Childlike Spirit

The times are a-changing in the Crow household. The three kids pillaged our remaining cash and took off in one of the cars, hoping to catch the evening showing of The Force Awakens at the local theater. (Some of us have already seen it. Once. So far.) It’s strange that they’re all so grown up that we can just turn them loose without supervision. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined this day would ever come.

One of the best parts is that even the older two have kept a childlike spirit, at least about some things. At one thirty in the morning on Thursday, driving home from picking up the Girl!Twin at the airport, I was listening to her and her twin brother laughing in the back seat over some video they both found hilarious. That sound has been making me smile for the past two decades. And now they’re bringing their little brother along on their adventures.

I wouldn’t have minded seeing the movie again in the theater, but it’s good for the three of them to have a little time together. All too soon, the twins will be really grown up and building lives of their own, and I want their brother to have good memories of the things he’s done with them. For a while, when they’re here at home, they don’t always have to be mature and responsible.

For the mom, Christmas spirit usually means focusing on the needs of others and finding ways to make the holiday special for those we love. That’s a good thing—but this coming year, I have a goal of regaining some of that childlike spirit of joy that too often gets crushed out by the weight of responsibility. Making magic for others is a good thing, because it grows when it’s shared, but it’s okay to keep a little for yourself.

The childlike spirit believes amazing things—even miracles—are possible. It holds fast to hope, takes pleasure in creativity, treats others with generosity rather than judgment. And it really enjoys the leftover cookies on the counter.

Saving this for future reference . . .

Win an inn contest

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A month of gifts, day 24: The Gift of Joy

Before Morning

In that hour when the first pearl gray of dawn glints between the trees,
And bird shadows flutter and shift, lavender ghosts on the snow,
Every child—even the ones with aching bones and silver hair
Tinseled across their brows, even the ones who stayed up late
Building and wrapping and baking, even the ones who drove
Lonely roads or flew, who window-shopped and made lists
And mailed cards—children wake in that dim hour,
Hugging the promise of joy tight to their chests,
Whisper their secret hopes to the angels of the longest nights.

Everything is possible in that moment, every hurt soothed,
Every doomed dream breathing with new life.
We remember, when the still night closes around us,
Who we were before the world wore us down to fit.
We remember the thrill of story, the way songs
Threaded our bones. This moment, ripe with possibility,
Will fade as the sun breaks the horizon.
Joy leaking out into the world as a memory
Shared hand to hand between brothers and sisters,
Mothers and fathers and friends.
Joy passed as fingers brush and eyes meet

And hearts crack a little to let hope in.

c, 2015 Jennifer Crow

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A month of gifts, day 22: The Gift of Light

For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. Psalms 30:5

If you live in the frozen north, like I do, then you’re probably not surprised that pretty much every religion and culture has a holiday associated with the long nights of the year. This month, I’ll stand at the window in the afternoon and watch the darkness closing in, too early. It’s no wonder we string lights over our doors, put electric candles in our windows, light bonfires in the yard or put another log in the fireplace. However beautiful the stars are, however sheltering the arms of night, we need the light.

One of the most astonishing things I saw when I visited Russia in 1987 was the Winter Palace of the tsars, in what was then Leningrad.  [Picture] There’s a room in the palace with towering columns covered in gold leaf, and the light in that hall is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.  One of the guys I was traveling with said, “Well, you can see why they had a revolution.” And while that’s true, there’s also the matter of the tsars having enough money and resources that they never had to be in the darkness, at least in the literal sense. But literal darkness isn’t really the problem, is it?

One of the tricks depression plays is to make you think there's nothing left but darkness. And just like a palace hall designed always to be full of artificial light, the cell of depression is equally false. If the night is inevitable, so too is the dawn.

Today was literally gloomy, and night fell earlier than I anticipated. This is it: the lowest point. From here, everything gets lighter. After a long night’s darkness, I’m ready for a new day.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A month of gifts, day 21: The Gift of Dreams

In the waking world, I have two beautiful sisters who are both blonde. But in the dream, my sister was a lovely brunette, a talented architect . . . and the building on which she was working collapsed and killed her. My dream-self was devastated, and wanted to honor her in some way. Someone—maybe her ghost, maybe one of those wise voices that sometimes show up in dreams—told me to finish the building for her, but I was afraid. It had killed her. What if it destroyed me, too?

“You have to build what you fear.” That’s the line that echoed in my mind when I awoke. I knew it was true. Or maybe it would be better to say I knew it was a True Dream, one of those occasions when the deeper mind speaks and the night visions are more than just a reflection of gut-level urges and fears. Still, I didn’t know what to do with it. I’m afraid a lot of the time, or at least anxious. I felt like I was building in fear all the damn time.

But that’s not what the voice in my dream meant, though it’s taken a few years to understand. Trying to construct a career or a life out of fear is not the same thing as building what you fear. Here’s the thing: I’m afraid of being invisible. Forgotten. The only thing worse than a bad review is no review at all. In some ways, it’s a great time to want a career in the arts. Changes have made it possible to reach audiences in ways that were never possible before. The flip side of that being a world so crowded with writers and artists waving their creations, so full of a cacophony of voices—many of them very good—that it’s almost impossible for any one person to make themselves visible.

One blink, and you’ve disappeared.

At least, that’s the new narrative. You’ve got to put yourself out there, create content, connect . . . constantly. Any lapse invites vanishment. Silence is failure.

That pace has been crushing for me, though, especially because there’s no payoff, no point of ‘enough.’ Interacting with people always makes me feel like a foreigner trying to learn strange customs, and I never seem to get it right. Now I’m exhausted. All I have left is the rubble of who I thought I was.

You have to build what you fear.

So this is what I fear: Being invisible. Being forgotten.  I’ve fought that all my life, tried to move faster than obscurity, and only recently have I realized I can never outrun it. So much of what we are, is fleeting and fragile, a brown leaf curling in the wind, and gone. I can waste my life trying to escape that—trying, in essence, to escape myself—or I can take a step to the side and really examine what’s going on. I’m not sure what will happen if I stop grasping, but I want to believe that at that moment, I will begin to build.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A month of gifts, day 20: The (Lost) Gift of Creativity

Somehow, I lost one of these gifts, the one I need to tell stories. The one that lures me to the laptop day after day. “Here,” it whispers, “I have something to show you. Sit down and pay attention.”

Somehow, that went away. Looking back, I’m not sure if it happened all at once, like ripping off a Band-aid, or if it trickled away, sand slipping from an hourglass with a hole in the bottom. Sometimes I see glints of it, the way you can catch glimpses of minnows at the bottom of the creek when the sun comes from behind a cloud and strikes the water at the right angle. A flip—a poem—a scene—and it’s gone again.

The sane, responsible, grown-up part of me tries to remind the rest of me that this happens from time to time. I really admire the people who sit down and grind it out day after day, and I know that when I show up, good things can happen. Until they don’t. This is how adults make art, I tell that small, scared child that lives somewhere in me. You calm down and put in the time. Or you do things that refill the well. You don’t whine and stomp around.

Except sometimes, whining and stomping is a lot more emotionally satisfying. It’s the illusion of power, when actual creative power seems to have fled. And I suspect I’m not the only writer who’s heard that sneering voice at the back of my mind at those moments: “Who were you trying to fool? 
You put on a good show for a while, but now it’s over. Whatever magic you once had is gone.”

The thing no one tells anyone when they start out on this road is how scary it can be sometimes. There’s this idea that if you follow the path, the way will open up. The Way. Will open up. I mean, it’s part of the hero’s journey, right? The brambles and pits can’t go on forever.

Or can they?

I don’t know the answer, though it’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for more than a year now. The habit of hope—and I’m not sure right now if it’s a good habit or a bad one—is hard to break. Dent it, sure. Scratch it up, absolutely. But it still hangs around, its hand out, ready to pull me back whenever I’m ready to walk. Hope says to wait a little longer. Maybe take a step back, a deep breath, and accept that plan A isn’t going to work, and plan B was a bust, but plan C will show up in a minute.

And when plan C arrives, it says, “I had this thought. A question, really, about this guy. And this girl. Do you want to hear it?”

Yes. Yes, I do.

Although this does remind me of how Dorothy Parker said that if you know a young person who wants to become a writer, the second best thing you can do for them is to buy them a good thesaurus. And the first best thing is to shoot them now, while they're still happy.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A month of gifts, day 19: The Gift of Home

Last night we had the first snowfall of the season. Not much to speak of—only a couple of inches—but it never really feels like Christmas until there’s at least a dusting on the ground.

I never expected to feel at home in western New York. If anything, I always imagined going back to Maine at some point, but fate and a sucky economy have worked against that. Yet at some point when I wasn’t really thinking about it, Buffalo and its environs began to feel like the place I belong. 

Some of it is a matter of knowing people, both friends and nodding acquaintances. It’s the clerk at the post office remembering where I send packages, and the barista at the coffee shop knowing my favorite drink when I show up to hang out with a friend. It’s knowing their names and stories in turn.

Finding a home in Buffalo means cheering for sports teams that never quite seem to win in the crunch. It means Broadway shows at Shea’s, and taking all your friends and relatives to Niagara Falls at least once. It means learning to like beef on weck rolls with horseradish sauce. It means feeling passionate about 19th century architecture and taking pride in the history of the area. It’s sponge candy and fresh apple cider and picking your own berries on a hot summer’s day.

Home means the rhythm of the seasons and having a favorite spot to watch them change. It means having strong opinions about the new sign at the five and dime store (yes, we actually have one of those in my little town, and it’s terrific. The store, I mean. Though I like the fiberglass statue of Ed Vidler on the roof as well). 

It means checking the obituaries and the police blotter and the wedding announcements to look for any familiar names. It means knowing which neighbors don’t believe in the leash laws, and which ones want me to stop by and say hello when I’m out for a walk.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I live in some kind of bucolic time warp. There are thefts and drug problems, bitterness between neighbors, poverty, all the sorrows that accumulate when people live together. But all things considered, it’s a beautiful place full of people who are mostly a pretty decent bunch. In the stormy times, their best qualities shine through. Folks seem at their kindest when we’ve been buried under a few feet of snow.

(Not that I’m looking forward to the next round of lake effect madness. Well, okay, maybe a little. When the whole family is home safe, and we’ve gathered together to read or watch a movie, while the snow piles up between us and the rest of the world, and the kitchen smells like tomato soup, hot chocolate, and grilled cheese sandwiches . . . That’s home.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

A month of gifts, day 18: The Gift of Travel

The thing is, once you've traveled beyond your own comfortable corner of the world, you will never be the same again. And that's a good thing. 

(The pictures are from my trip to what was then the Soviet Union. It was 1987, I was about to start my senior year in high school, and I got to see some really amazing things.)

 (Summer palace of the Persian Empire, near Baku, Azerbaijan)
 (Tower and wall, in the old city of Tallinn, Estonia)
 (Soviet sailors in Leningrad)
 (Memorial and cemetery for the Siege of Leningrad during WWII)
(Tallinn cathedral)
(The Tsar Cannon in the Kremlin, Moscow)
(Cathedral, Moscow Kremlin)
(View from the palace, Tsarskoe Selo)
(Children at a summer camp near Sochi)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A month of gifts, day 17: The Gift of Love

If I look kind of cranky in that picture, it's because I've had a difficult day. Well, year. Well, actually, it's been a difficult decade. I'm working through it, but some days are better than others.

I'm regaining my will to live somewhat, because the Spousal Unit brought home doughnuts from Paula's Doughnuts tonight. If you're local, you know what that means. If not, you need to come visit and we'll eat doughnuts and hunt fossils and go to Niagara Falls . . . It'll be fun.

So I'm eating my key lime doughnut and thinking about love. Sometimes, in the midst of disaster or despair, it can be hard to remember how I got to this place, or why I made the trip. Physical pain, depression, those things can grind you down until life becomes a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other slog. It's been getting better, but today . . . Well, you know on the news when the neighbor says, "She always seemed like such a nice person, and then she just SNAPPED"? Today was the day I finally lost patience with the staff at my doctor's office after 15 years of dismissiveness and stonewalling. Not my finest hour.

So when the spouse called to say he was on his way home early, I was thrilled, even before he said he was bringing doughnuts. I told him I was having a bad day, and he said, "I can get dinner, too."

I love that man. He even listened to me vent my spleen and empathized and agreed that the staff at our doctor's office are unnecessarily obnoxious. That gift of understanding, of time, was just what I needed. That, and a key lime doughnut.

To me, one of the best things about the gift-giving part of the holidays is the chance to enjoy those moments when someone opens a present and tells you, “Oh, it’s perfect.” Or for that matter, opening something and seeing a surprise that resonates with you on a level that tells you the gift-giver understands you more deeply than you realized. It’s then that you see the gift is not so much in the package, but in the love that wraps it.

Like that cool coat I'm wearing in the picture at the top. I saw it in a store when we were on a road trip in Rochester and did a little oooing and ahing over it. Buying it was pretty much out of the question, though . . . and then I opened a box on Christmas morning and found the coat I thought I'd never get to wear. My sweet spouse drove all the way back to Rochester on the sly to surprise me with it. Every time I wear that coat, every time I think about opening that box, I can't help but smile. After all, it is an Awesome Pirate Coat--but it's also a reminder that I married a guy who'll go out of his way to remember the things I like. Putting it on is like armor against life's little wounds. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A month of gifts, day 16: The Gift of the Ocean

(The view from Windswept Point, South Harpswell, Maine.)

My friend Lynn and I bonded over living in the Buffalo area after growing up in Maine. “I miss the ocean,” Lynn told me, and I nodded agreement. “When I moved here, someone said, ‘Just go to Lake Erie. It’s the same.’ So I did. And I just stood on the shore and cried.”

I knew what she meant. Oh, the Great Lakes are nice, even impressive at times. But, no, they aren’t ‘the same’ as the sea. The ocean feels and tastes and sounds different. Tides measure out the days, storms cast up treasure, seals and lobster buoys bob off the rocks.

I think everyone has a certain kind of wildness they’re drawn to, and while I love the forests of my childhood home, and I’ve learned to love mountains and deserts and the sere high plains in my life’s journey, there’s something about the sea that always calls to me. I come from sea people, and I feel the tide the way I can feel the pulse of my own blood in my neck.

My dad’s family settled in Maine a few hundred years ago. There used to be a Bibber Island in Casco Bay—it’s known as Little Whaleboat now, and you can see it if you stand at the end of the point where my grandmother’s house stands. Shale breaks apart like the leaves of a giant book, slabs taller than me falling every year to the storms. Seaweed squelches underfoot, and barnacles will cut your feet and knees as you clamber along the low cliffs. Little green crabs, quahog clams with their royal purple lips, gulls shrilling overhead, slow starfish and darting seals. I even love that rich, rank low-tide smell.

(The house at Harpswell.)

That’s the sea I grew up with, cold and stern like a Pilgrim preacher on the northern Atlantic coast. And when I grew older and moved west, I learned to love the Pacific, too. There’s Point Reyes State Shore just north of San Francisco, and Coos Bay on the Oregon coast, where the rocky cliffs are gentled by a warmer sun and soft sand. My sister tells me I bring good weather luck with me when I visit, because it’s always sunny and warm enough to visit the beach. (Apparently it’s not always cheery and bright in Oregon?)

When I was a little girl, I would give offerings to the sea. In my mind, she was a powerful woman, capable of great rages and yet full of playfulness. I felt her presence, her majesty, and I would toss the best seashells and stones I found back into the water as a gift. Maybe, in that little act of worship, I linked myself to something larger than I knew, something impossible to ever escape.

(Some of the treasures I picked up while beachcombing in Bandon.)

Not that I want to escape, unless you mean a little vacation spot by the sea.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I'm not here today, I'm over THERE

Halfway through December, and today I'm guest-blogging at Jay Wilburn's place for the Giftmas Tour. Please stop by and check it out!

Here's the yellow brick road to Jay's blog

Monday, December 14, 2015

A month of gifts, day 14: The Gift of History

Saturday night before the hockey game, the Spousal Unit and I went out for dinner and talked about life and stuff, as you do when you’ve got almost a quarter-century of shared history. In fact, history was one of the things we discussed. Specifically, the way some people seem to have a very selective understanding of the past, a sort of idealized vision of a world that never really existed.

(A page from the Book of Kells.)

Earlier this month I talked about my affection for science and technology, and how much I adore living in the future as we do. But I’m also glad to live in a time with so much easily accessible knowledge about the past . . . and it’s kind of sad when people don’t take advantage of that opportunity.

There are people with idealized perceptions of the past—fueled in large part, I think, by the relentless negativity of the 24-hour news cycle—as a place without random violence or scary people who are different, or whatever. If it wasn’t such a menace to the stability of our society, it would be hilarious. 

Grab a book about the Thirty Years’ War. (Go ahead; I’ll wait.) Or about one of the many, many horrible pandemics that routinely destroyed huge chunks of the population all over the world. Or a book about slavery, or the Armenian genocide during World War I, or the Holocaust during World War II, or Stalin’s terror . . .

I trust I’ve made my point. Bad things happen in every time. There was no lovely golden age where children didn’t come to grief, and regardless of what the talking heads on CNN or Fox News would have you believe in their relentless quest for higher ratings, kids are much safer, much more likely to live to a ripe old age today than at any other time in history. I would no more willingly raise my kids a hundred and fifty years ago than I would drive them around without their seatbelts on.

I’ll admit, too, that I used to keep my blinders on as much as possible, in that comfortable zone of heroes and villains. My fall from grace started in college, with a history professor who specialized in research on the late medieval/Renaissance period in central Europe. His work fascinated me—rather than an illusionary time of wholesome nuclear families, their lives were just as messy and fraught as any modern community. We just didn’t know about it before, because no one had bothered to look.

Since then, I’ve delved into the founding of the good ol’ US of A—which is even more remarkable once you understand all the negotiations that made it possible, all the squabbling and searching. One of my favorite biographies is David McCullough’s John Adams, in large part because he presents Adams as a complete person, a prickly genius who struggled with ego and faith and service. His accomplishments and his humanity are all the more remarkable when his fallibility becomes clear. And I think one of the dangers of idealizing the heroes of the past (however awesome they are) is that we can fail to understand our own capacity for courage and goodness.

(A portrait of John Adams.)

I’m not sure I believe that forgetting history means we’re doomed to repeat it. But I do think we can’t move forward until we have an honest understanding of the past rather than a na├»ve wish for a storybook time rather than grappling with reality. And remember, those who forget history are doomed to get a verbal smackdown from someone who’s done the homework.

(Danse Macabre--Even kings must bow to the greater powers.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A month of gifts, day 13: The Gift of Sports

It’s a good thing I’m a writer, because I can barely talk this morning. My throat hurts because I spent most of the third period of last night’s Sabres game either screaming for the team or giving the refs a detailed exegesis on my opinion of their eyesight (poor) and judgment skills (even worse). It was clear that pretty much everyone else in the building agreed with me, too, which was gratifying.

(Pre-game warmups at First Niagara Center.)

My very first pro sporting event, when I was about ten years old, was a Maine Mariners hockey game with my friend Amy and her mom. We sat up in the nosebleed section and cheered wildly for Archie—I can’t remember his last name—who was basically the team goon. I don’t mind admitting that my favorite player on any hockey team is still the one with the most penalty minutes for fighting.

My friend Andy and my sister Alyssa got me hooked on baseball—mainly out of self-defense, so they’d stop making fun of me for not knowing what was going on. Those were some good times, summer nights at the field in Old Orchard Beach, or watching our beloved Red Sox break our hearts every year on channel 6. I can tell you exactly where I was in 1986 when Bill Buckner let that ground ball roll between his legs during game six of the World Series against the Mets. (I come from a family of truly epic grudge-holders, and was delighted when the Royals beat the Mets this year to take the pennant.)

 (Fenway Park, from the official Red Sox website. Someday, I will sit in that hallowed place, and yell like a maniac.)

(True confession time: I cried when the Red Sox finally won the Series in 2004. Cried like a baby, because we had been waiting SO DAMN LONG for that moment. Cowboy up!)

I’m pretty sure my first boyfriend broke up with me because I wouldn’t switch my loyalty from the Celtics to the Lakers. (Dude. Seriously?)

And then there’s football. I was lucky enough to attend BYU during the Ty Detmer years, which was a lot of fun. I can still sing most of the fight song—I learned the words to “Rise and Shout” during one epic game in which the Cougars scored seven touchdowns against the Air Force Academy.

(I know Utes fans are pissed off about this, but it doesn't seem like college football season without round umpty-jillion of the Holy War.)

After school, I kind of fell away from football . . . until I got pregnant with the twins. Since I wasn’t supposed to go out much, I spent Sundays watching football. Lots and lots of football. We were living in Sacramento, and that was the fall Steve Young (another former Cougar YAY) led the Niners in that epic Super Bowl run. If you’ve known any pregnant women, you know we can get kind of hormonal and emotional about stuff, and I was deeply invested in that team.

My loyalties have shifted a little, living here in Buffalo. I root for the Bills more than the Niners, for the Sabres rather than the Bruins. (But I will never, ever, EVER root for the Yankees, because my love of the Red Sox is more of a religious affiliation.)

Loving a sport is discouraging sometimes, what with the doping and concussions and assorted bad behaviors. But at its best, the love of sports brings out the best in people. For instance, last night there was a dad and his young son sitting a couple rows in front of us. The lady on the other side of them left a few times to grab snacks or visit the restroom, and when she came back during the third period, she handed the little boy a box of M&Ms. “Thank you for being so patient and standing up so I could get by,” she told him.

It was a great moment, even better than hollering with 18,000 other fans when Ryan O’Reilly scored that overtime goal that gave my Sabres the win.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A month of gifts, day 12: The Gift of Good Weather

(This was the alley beside the Aurora Theater last winter, after almost two straight months of below-freezing days. Brr!)

For the first time in 116 years, Buffalo has reached the second week in December without snowfall. Today it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit—practically shorts weather, as far as we hardy Northerners are concerned. With everyone I meet, weather is the leading topic of conversation, and everyone has a vaguely hunted look. The skiers and snowboarders, because precious days of slope time are slipping away . . . and the rest of us, because we know this good fortune can’t last.

Mother Nature may be caressing us with one hand, but the other hand, the one behind her back, is clenched and ready to smack us. If not today, then next week, or in January. Living here means accepting that sooner or later we’ll be snowed in, possibly for days.

(In November 2014, we got clobbered with 84 inches of snow in four days.)

And yet, I’ll be sad if we don’t have any snow at Christmas. Snowstorms muffle the sounds of the world. In the evening, when it’s falling so thick and fast I can’t see the houses across the creek, maybe not even the cars that crawl past, it’s like being in another world. Come morning, everything is fresh and new, the ugly dead lawns covered, the bare gray branches of trees decked in white.

It gets old and dingy after a while, but the beauty of that first snowy morning was something I missed every year I had to live in California. It’s hard to find my inner balance without the shift in seasons marking out time.

So here’s to snow. And to no snow.  (But hopefully not freezing rain, because I don’t think anyone likes that nonsense.)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Apropos of nothing seasonal

It's probably a sign of something dire that I've culled my inbox from 458 emails to 2. Whew!

A month of gifts, day 11: The Gift of Inspiration

(This is Lake Champlain, not Bear Lake. But it's a nice lake.)

The gentleman sitting next to me at dinner leaned back in his chair and said, “Bear Lake, huh? I was at Bear Lake the first time I saw someone drown.”

He’d been quiet all evening, listening to the rest of us telling stories, but when he spoke everyone else grew still. At that moment, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. And as he went on to tell the rest of the story, I knew I’d heard something magical, something that would become a story.

Bear Lake lies right on the border between Utah and Idaho. It’s ranch country, and a prime vacation destination for locals who like the great outdoors. My dinner companion had gone there every summer for camp, and that particular summer, one of the other campers was impossibly cool. Taller and more muscular, bolder and more handsome, he had the interest of all the girls and the envy of every boy.

He had a knack for skating around the edges of trouble, at least until that fateful afternoon. Someone dared him to swim out into the deeper part of the lake, and he couldn’t pass up the challenge. He started out . . . and then he went under.

When he surfaced, choking and waving, everyone assumed it was a prank. Then the water closed over his head, and he didn’t come back up. By the time anyone realized he wasn’t joking, it was too late.

At least, that’s the version my table neighbor told us. My writer brain was working overtime, though. I wondered if he felt guilty, for staying on the shore, or for disliking that perfect, ill-fated boy.

If you don’t think of yourself as a creative person, if you’ve ever wondered where we get our ideas, that moment is my favorite example. A year or so later, I wrote a short story called “Adrenaline Blue,” about rivalry, envy, and sleep deprivation, and it became one of the first stories I sold.  It appeared in Hadrosaur Tales magazine many years ago. The main characters were sisters rather than acquaintances, but the core of emotion I sensed at dinner remained.

I’m hoping in 2016 I’ll have more of those moments, when stories grab me by the throat and shake me. I've missed that feeling. I'm looking for the magic again.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A month of gifts, day 10: The Gift of Sweetness

This week someone asked me about my favorite holiday tradition, and I’d have to say it’s hands-down the Baking of All the Things. Every year I make dozens (like, 20+ dozen) cookies and candy, and on Christmas Eve we load the car full of treat boxes and drive around delivering them to friends.

Since Joselyn shared some of her favorite holiday beverages yesterday, I thought I’d bring you my favorite recipes for sweets today. Enjoy!

Cookie Goddess Chocolate Chip Cookies
4 ¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups (4 sticks) butter, melted
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 ½ cups brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons (yes, tablespoons) vanilla extract
4 eggs
4 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 cups walnuts (if desired)

Combine dry ingredients. Melt butter thoroughly, add in sugar and eggs.  Add vanilla to butter/egg/sugar mixture when butter has cooled slightly. Mix dry and liquid ingredients thoroughly, add chocolate chips and nuts, and chill for at least 3 hours. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 minutes. Makes 5 dozen cookies.

(True story: One time I made these cookies for a funeral lunch at church. They never made it out to the bereaved. I heard later that all the little old ladies in the kitchen stuffed the cookies in their purses and made off with them.)

Dad’s Favorite Gingersnaps

¾ cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 egg
2 ¼ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
Granulated sugar

Cream first four ingredients. Blend dry ingredients together and add molasses mixture. Chill slightly. Form dough into small (about 1 inch) balls and roll in granulated sugar. Place balls 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

(These, hot from the oven, are my dad’s favorite holiday treat. You would not believe the carnage that man can inflict when left unsupervised in my kitchen.)

Grandma’s Double Decker Fudge

2 cups Reese’s peanut butter chips
¼ cup butter, melted
½ cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 ½ cups sugar
1 jar (7 ounces) marshmallow fluff
1 ½ cups (12 ounce can) evaporated milk
¼ cup butter

Grease 13x9x2 inch pan.
In a bowl, combine melted butter, cocoa, and vanilla. Mix thoroughly. Add 1 cup peanut butter chips.
In another bowl, place 1 cup peanut butter chips.

In a 4 quart saucepan, combine sugar, marshmallow fluff, evaporated milk and ¼ cup butter. Cook over medium heat until it comes to a rolling boil, then boil and stir constantly for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour one half of the mixture into the bowl with the cocoa and peanut butter chips, and one half into the other bowl. Stir until completely blended. Spread the peanut butter mixture on the bottom of the pan, then add the chocolate mixture. Chill and cut. Stores well in the refrigerator or freezer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Guest blog by Joselyn

In the spirit of the season, and as part of the Giftmas Blog Tour, I'd like to welcome Joselyn today. She's brought some of her favorite holiday beverage recipes. Yum!


Well it's December now, and with it we start decorating our homes and think about the food we will get on the 24th for Christmas Eve and all.

What I love more on Christmas will be to stay home with my family and the gifts, since I'm a book lover and a gamer I enjoy staying home reading thrilling books for Christmas and playing cool video games with my fiance.

Something else I love is going to my brother's house and drinking eggnog and sangria, so let me give you all one recipe of each so you can drink it with all your family members.

Eggnog Recipe

and for our vegan friends

Sangria Recipe

For the Apple lovers like me =)  

With these few recipes I hope everyone enjoy your parties on xmas and new years =D

and remember to come visit the blog for lots of reviews @