Her Light in Me

This Christmas, Laura always remembered to plug in the strand of colorful lights around our patio door before I got home from work. The gumdrop colors framing the glow of light from within our apartment gave me something to look forward to as the evenings darkened.

img_7245In fact, all of our decorations inside made me eager to be home from the cold and dark. The three-foot Christmas tree sitting on an end table, laden with ornaments we’ve collected through the years; the nativity scene on the bookshelf; two snowmen figurines and some festive Christmas balls on the mantel; a decorative towel on the stove. It’s not much—not compared to other more elaborate decorators.

When I think of elaborate decorations, I think of my mom. Decorating my apartment takes me thirty minutes; Mom takes a series of days or even weeks to scatter her house with garland, ornaments, bells, cardinals, holly branches, pine cones, cotton snow mounds, glitter, and the many musical Hallmark snowmen and Disney characters that my grandmother sends my younger sister every year for Christmas.

But whether extravagant or meager, why do Mom and I go through all the trouble? In fact, why does anyone decorate at all?

According to historians, ancient people thought the darkening winter days meant that the sun might go away forever. To entice the sun to shine again, they built enormous bonfires—the first Christmas lights.

Though we know better now, on winter days we still feel as if the sun may never shine again. Good tidings of comfort and joy are eclipsed by the early darkening evenings. Isn’t this why, rather than enticing the sun to shine again, we provoke our spirits to lift by wrapping just about anything in lights or tinsel or shiny ornaments? (Even Rudolph contributes with his nose so bright.)

When the world turns blue in the winter evening darkness, I can think of nothing more relaxing than to admire the tree twinkling in the corner of my living room. But I didn’t always feel the excitement of turning on the lights.

When I lived at home as a teenager, Mom was gone for whole days during December, Christmas shopping. The phone often rang close to dusk as Mom was running into the last few stores. “Can you start dinner?” she asked. “Just turn the oven to 350 and stick in the casserole.” I already knew her next request. “And can you turn on the lights?”

Some folks understand their responsibility to light an entire season.

It was a chore, back then, going from one end of the house to the other, reaching behind tables and beds to plug in the electric candles taped into each window sill; trudging out on the cold concrete porch to plug in the icicle lights; getting stabbed and poked as I reached around the Christmas tree to illuminate the strands of lights and the star for our neighbors to see.

If the house wasn’t lighted when Mom came home, she shuffled through the kitchen and dining room, each arm laden with shopping bags, and yelled, “Nobody look!” After she stashed the gifts in her bedroom, we’d find her half buried behind the tree, feeling among the branches for the green electrical plug and mumbling something about how she didn’t understand why someone couldn’t plug the lights in and was it really that hard?

I always felt guilty right then, feeling I was somehow failing to carry out or carry on a tradition that meant so much to her.

I’ve learned since then that decorating for Christmas is something you choose to do or not do—it isn’t mandatory. Just look at any neighborhood where some yards are lit up like a—well a Christmas tree while the neighbors house is Halloween dark. But it seems some folks understand their ability—even perhaps responsibility—to light an entire season with the glow of lights. It’s our defense against the darkness. I like to think that the urge in these people starts with the light in themselves—a selflessness that sends them climbing attic steps or descending basement stairs to retrieve boxes and bags, to wrap and hang and stand and string their decorations for others to see, to dispel the wintry gloom and darkness threatening to consume their patch of the world.img_7259

Last year, I visited my parents at Christmas. When she walked into the house after being away all day, Mom was smiling, pleased. “You can tell Sarah’s home—the lights are on in the windows.”

The truth is, I couldn’t wait to plug in those candles and her tree and watch the darkness flee.

And last week, as I hesitantly stashed away my  decorations for another year, it occurred to me that maybe, even with my dinky tree and measly decor, I have a little bit of Mom’s light in me.

 

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Hopes and Fears of 2017

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

nativityThis line from my favorite Christmas carol is speaking, of course, to the little town of Bethlehem that welcomed the Christ child to the world.

Tonight, as we sit on the edge of a new year, do you realize that within “all the years” is included 2017? I’ve seen people on Facebook beckoning the new year with open arms, eager to escape a fearful and turbulent 2016.

Well, 2017 might be better; it also might be worse. We have as much reason for expectation as we do for cautious trepidation. But in all times, the good and bad, our hopes and fears are met in the grace, goodness, and peace of a Savior who already knows what the year will hold.

Let’s cherish 2016 for what it taught us and take 2017 as it comes—one day  at a time.

 

Good Tidings of Eggnog and Joy

eggnogWhen I was young, Mom threaded popcorn, piece by piece, in strands to drape around the tree.* After Christmas, she wrapped it around a slab of cardboard and stored it in a tin where it kept for close to 20 years. But a few years ago, instead of the real popcorn, I went home to find strands of plastic popcorn draped around the tree.

Soon, even the tree itself was in jeopardy when Mom mentioned buying an artificial one rather than the fragrant pine my parents usually haul home from the Lowe’s parking lot.

A few years ago, another tradition bit the dust at my own suggestion.

Thanksgiving is the starter pistol that launches the Christmas season marathon. It also launches Mom’s festival of turbo baking. For most of the Christmas season, Mom stands in the kitchen, her oven glowing. We can expect ham and Swiss sandwiches with poppy seed spread on Hawaiian rolls; a cheese ball rolled in pecans; chocolate covered pretzels; peanut butter fudge; peppermint brownies; cappuccino punch; cracked corn casserole; fried bread; Rolo pretzel bites; and lemon cookies rolled in powdered sugar.

Jesus didn’t eat the cake, and neither did we.

During the week of Christmas, Mom always baked a star-shaped white cake, slathered it with her homemade yellow icing, and wrote in blue frosting letters, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” We sang to Christ then blew out His candles. But inevitably the cake sat there for weeks, molding under the cake-taker cover. Jesus didn’t eat it, and neither did we. But who could blame us with all the other gratuitous goodies that Mom spread before us.

At some point it became awkward to gather and sing “Happy Birthday” to a conspicuously absent Jesus. Finally two years ago when I saw her reach for the cake mix box, I objected, “Mom, don’t make it. I mean, why don’t we just stick candles in one of the brownies or pieces of fudge?”

She looked hesitant, as if I may have been spouting heresy.

“I don’t think Jesus will mind,” I insisted. “Do you really think He’d want us wasting a whole cake? Besides, it isn’t even His real birthday. Some scholars say that he was probably born in the spring.”

Another skeptical moment, and then, “Well, all right.” She wedged the box back in the cupboard, and so ended that tradition.

It’s the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.

One Christmas tradition, however, remains as constant as a carol. And unlike the neglected, moldy cake for poor Jesus, it hardly lasts a few days.

Thanksgiving is soon enough for my family to hope that Dad will pull out his deep silver pot and whip up a batch of eggnog.* We wait for the moment when he lugs a gallon of milk and carton of eggs from the refrigerator, grabs the blue sugar container with the melted edge, and pulls a little brown bottle of rum flavoring from the cupboard.

The milk “glub glubs” as he empties the gallon into the pot and turns on the burner. Egg whites, sugar, and vanilla thicken and mound like snowdrifts against the sides of the silver mixer as he beats them on the highest speed.

Next, he folds the egg white mixture into the heated milk and dusts it with nutmeg. He stirs and stirs and stirs, a mesmerizing rhythm of spoon tapping the sides of the pot. The simmering brew fills the house with the smell of rum and spices—the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.

eggnogWhen the eggnog has cooled a bit, he calls someone to hold the strainer and funnel while he pours the concoction into a milk jug. Baked pieces of egg whites and clumps of nutmeg catch in the metal strainer as the warm mixture flows into the funnel. Finally Dad rinses off the sides of the jug and into the fridge it goes.

About eight ounces of eggnog that won’t fit in the jug gets poured into a cup. Most of that remainder never makes it to be chilled in the fridge, not after the cup is passed around to lips eager for the first sip of the season.

It’s a long process, so Dad only makes two or three batches a season. But those we ration,  in the back of the fridge, and peek in now and then to make sure no one has taken the last of it.

Those rich, thick sips remind me of the very essence of Christmas

Holiday guests ask for it, and more than once we’ve watched half a gallon at a time go to particularly close friends. As they carry off a brimming Rubbermaid pitcher, I’m initially hesitant to share. It’s not that I even like the stuff so well. (Truth be told, the eggy sweetness turns my stomach if I drink much more than a slosh.) It’s just my favorite Christmas tradition.

Each year those reliable rich sips, unchanged by the passing of time and variance of life, remind me of other enduring Christmas’ traditions—peace and goodwill, charity and love, tidings of comfort and joy.

I suppose those should be shared, a pitcherful at a time.

 

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*I won’t deny nibbling at it once or twice when I was very young. In fact we have pictures catching me in the act. My only regret is that it wasn’t cheddar flavored.

**Though we don’t know exactly where the word eggnog originated, some etymologists believe it comes from the term noggin, referring to a wooden mug that eggnog was often served in. Some etymologists believe that nog stems from the Norfolk word referencing strong ales. But perhaps it came from colonial times when Americans asked their bartenders for an egg-and-grog. Say it fast over decades and you’ve got eggnog. Man, language is weird and wonderful.

Stuffing and a Silent Moment for Thanksgiving

thankfulforFor the past several Novembers, I’ve watched eagerly as my Facebook news feed turned into a gratitude fest with my friends posting daily things that they were thankful for, leading up to the big day of thanks itself.

But this year, it seems that Trump and Hillary, emails and lewd tapes, Democrats and Republicans (and third partiers), shootings and riots, legals and illegals, Harambe and alligators, and every other piece of news festering in my feed has robbed us of the one thing we need to concentrate on the most: a quiet moment to be thankful.

It reminds me of my favorite part of Thanksgiving.

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Though I attended many praise services on Wednesday evenings in my childhood, I don’t remember a single one. No doubt, I sat through many readings of I Thessalonians’ invocation to “in everything give thanks.” I’m sure I droned out the dusty hymns that sat in the back of the hymnal: “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “We Gather Together.” Albeit sincere, those services seemed terribly predictable and, quite frankly, just seemed like a desperate attempt to catch up on what we should have been doing every day all year.

In all those praise services, my attention span was shortened by eagerness for the pastor to say the final “Amen,” because Thanksgiving began for me as soon as the service was over.

Thanksgiving began for me as soon as the service was over.

When we got home after church, I slipped into a nightgown, then milled around the kitchen, waiting for Dad to change into his plaid pajamas and begin gathering the ingredients for Thanksgiving stuffing: two loaves of bread, a stalk of celery, an onion. He balanced three eggs gingerly on the counter. Then out came my mom’s biggest pot into which he plopped the butter. I stood on my tiptoes to watch the sticks grow shiny and soft, transforming into a puddle of gold.

Wiping his eyes on the sleeves of his T-shirt, Dad swept chopped onion pieces into the pot.

I rushed to hand him the next ingredient, my favorite, the celery. He chopped off the end and separated the stalks down to the center. “Can I have the heart?” I asked eagerly. Dad had taught me the term heart years earlier, one of the first years I was allowed to stay awake and watch the process, and I was proud to have remembered the term.

When he handed me the neon yellow center, I fingered it for a bit before nibbling the end. I hated—still hate—the taste of celery, but something about eating the heart felt exotic.

Scratch-clunk, Scratch-clunk, Scratch-clunk. The knife chopped through the fibers, and Dad added the green u-shaped chunks to simmer with the butter and onion.

Something about eating the heart felt exotic.

Finally the bread. His machete-like knife sliced through two loaves with Dad’s big hand holding the cubes in place. Crumbs sprinkled the counter as he dropped them to soak into the butter mixture.

Next the soggy cubes went into a big Tupperware bowl where he tossed them in beaten eggs.

To be honest, I’m not sure of the next steps because at this point, comforted by the kept tradition, I usually slipped off into my room and crawled into bed, the scent of onions and celery tucking me in. And in the stillness, with light seeping under the closed door and the sound of Dad’s pots and pans clinking in the kitchen, I counted all my blessings and fell asleep.

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I didn’t type all of my thankfulness into a Facebook status this year. But this evening, when I crawl into bed, I think I’ll pretend to be that little girl again, wrapped not in the aromas of onion and butter but in the silence of gratitude and contentment.

I wish the same for you.

“One Horrible Thing After Another”: A Celebration of Hagfish Day

It’s National Hagfish Day, a day to focus on the unattractive and downright disgusting or horrific creatures of nature.* Seemed like a good time to run this portion of my MFA third semester research project, “A Place in the Family.” This paper focused on learning from women nature writers how to reconnect with nature. It’s important, I think, to value all creatures and to figure out where they belong in our ecological family of creation.

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Nature and humans are connected by our creation. . . . With our anthropocentric tendencies, we forget that we have been created just as the frog and the lily pad, the bird and the tree. It’s easy to forget our connection to nature because we have severed ourselves from it.

Once, not so long ago, humans respected nature, relying on it for many of our needs; we were a community with interacting species. More than just physical necessities, nature provided us with identity and purpose. A man was nothing without land to till or livestock to tend. But with the Industrial Revolution and subsequent advancements, humans built more walls, poured more concrete, and founded larger towns rather than small sustainable communities. As our need for nature’s resources expanded, our regard and respect for nature itself grew smaller. Rather than partners, we turned ourselves into strangers.

Nature finds its place with us by simply being close by.

Nature, however, has not drawn back from remaining connected with us. The tree that forces its roots through the sidewalk, a sparrow that builds its nest in a stoplight, the ant that makes its way into the pantry, and the frog that makes its home in the siding–nature finds its place with us not in an intentional desire for closeness, but by simply being close by. Humans will never find a complete sense of place until we rediscover the community that is waiting in nature. To do this, however, we must repair our damaged and neglected ties to nature including our toxic thoughts about it. . . .

One toxic mindset that we must address is our repulsion of or prejudice against certain parts of nature. In our obsession with aesthetics, we easily disregard or avoid species that we find unappealing. The goblin shark with its horrific horn-like snout and snaggle-toothed mouth; hairless cats with smooth gray skin instead of fluffy fur; proboscis monkeys with their Jimmy Durante-esque nose; the giant water bug with its capacity to suck the life out of frogs and small snakes; the dolls eye plant with blossoms resembling eyeballs impaled on red stems; viruses with an appetite for flesh or brain; and, most notably, the recent winner of the world’s ugliest animal contest, the blobfish with its gelatinous body, drooping nose, and down-turned mouth.

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No doubt, along with its magnificently beautiful and awe-inspiring facets, nature presents no small array of poisonous, frightening, and downright horrifying species. One creature was appalling enough to shake Charles Darwin’s religious faith. He said, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

Even much less gruesome species of insects . . . receive derogatory reviews. I walked out my front door a few weeks ago to find what looked like a yellow and black smiley face stuck in the middle of an ornate spider’s web strung across my porch. After some examination and a quick check on the Internet, I found the smiley face to be the spider itself–a star spider flaunting its striking yellow abdomen with black dots surrounding it. Later that day I posted a picture of the spider on Facebook, garnering various remarks. One friend commiserated with me about the inconvenience of the tenacious spiders that build webs across his walkway. Another aptly represented how many people feel about nature: “Oh, sick. Another reason I’m moving back north.”

Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.

Instinctively, we draw back in horror at creatures with more than two eyes and four legs, or an exoskeleton rather than fur. No doubt, horrific species exist with horrific habits. Even Annie Dillard, in her minute inspection and awe of nature, seems to shudder as she writes, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. . . . I ask why of almost every insect I see. . . . But they make up the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship” (Pilgrim Tinker Creek,64–65).

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However, just as Dillard acknowledged, the unattractive and horrific still hold purpose and value, even if only because they are living creatures. Gretel Ehrlich concurs with the need to connect with the uncomely species. Though in Wyoming Ehrlich typically encountered cattle, horses, and prairie dogs, with the summer heat came a plethora of insects. Like Dillard, she marvels at the populace of the insect world. “It’s said that 80 percent of all animal species are insects. . . . It does no good to ask . . . why so many insects exist–so I content myself with the cold ingenuity of their lives,” and she describes how ants heat their underground chambers in the winter by sending up worker ants to act as solar collectors (Solace of Open Spaces, 69). Instead of disregarding the ants and other insects, she studies them to understand their patterns and habits.

From black mold to flesh eating bacteria, from the sea louse to the oar fish, from the cockroach to the giant water bug, unappealing or dangerous species call for inspection, not repulsion. . . . [Why is it] not deemed unacceptable to grimace at an intricate species with a life and purpose its own as a part of creation that in the beginning God called good? It isn’t necessary to be best friends with everyone in a community, but we must respect them.

 

 

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For more reading on this topic, read about the Hagfish and check out this excellent article, “Caring About Creation for the Right Reasons.”

Thank You for Not Reading

sticky
“Keep up the good work. No one reads this stuff anyway.”

In my first days as a content editor at my office, one of my coworkers gave me this snarky piece of motivation. I frequently glance at the phrase scrawled on a yellow Post-it at my desk—and grin.

Some days, it helps. When I’ve had to rush through articles, and I’m sure that I’ve missed a comma here or a hyphen there, I chuckle to myself: No one reads this stuff anyway.

And it helps here on Goose Hill, too. When I lament the few hits on my posts, and when I’m thankful for the eight people who care that I’m writing, but still wish for more to hear my thoughts—even then it strangely helps to think, “No one reads this stuff anyway.”

No one reads this stuff anyway.

I’m just practicing here—it’s not perfect, and fewer readers means fewer critics to catch my weaknesses. I’m no pro; I’m just writing for anyone who wants to read, including those who choose not to. Who knows how many readers are left to discover Goose Hill—what a nice surprise it will be when they find it.

So to everyone who has never visited my blog, I hope that some day you’ll read something you like here. But until then, thank you for not reading!

Saving Spiders (And Zapping Them Too)

spiderEvery night for the past few weeks here at Goose Hill, a spider (huge by single woman estimations) crawled out from under our TV stand while we watched a show or read. These were, as best as we can figure, brown grass spiders. We also found them on the wall by the closet, outside my bathroom door, and crawling across the floor in my bedroom.

Each time Laura pounced on them with her bug zapper—a battery-operated fly swatter that looks like a tennis racket and sizzles and hisses and snaps when spider meets swatter. The spiders shrivel up, their life leaving in tiny little sparks of light set off from the mild electric current.

Laura calls it “castle law”—a spider intrudes into our house, she has the right to kill it.*

I never stop her from zapping them because, quite frankly, I’ve heard enough about the volume of spiders that supposedly crawl in my mouth while I sleep. And also I don’t want to get bitten in the middle of the night when I walk to the bathroom.

It’s just a spider, but it still is life.

But I also don’t wish them all dead.** I’m willing to share my world with them, to be grateful for the benefits they offer, to appreciate our differences—to choose to not see them as villains but misunderstood fellow inhabitants whom culture and instinct have programmed us to fear.***

spiderssBut these spider visits remind me, of course, of Charlotte with all her wisdom and grace, and also bring to mind two poems that encapsulate how I feel about killing creatures in general.

I hope you’ll enjoy these and maybe, the next time you kill a spider, you might not take quite so much pleasure in the smack and smear. It’s just a spider, but it still is life.

Remember, even spiders have their place and purpose—just maybe not in the house.

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Allowables
By Nikki Giovanni

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened.

 

There is. . .a reward for not loving the death of ugly. . .creatures.

 

Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy
By Thomas Lux

For some semitropical reason
when the rains fall
relentlessly they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise
bright and scary
arachnids. They can swim
a little, but not for long

and they can’t climb the ladder out.
They usually drown—but
if you want their favor,
if you believe there is justice,
a reward for not loving

the death of ugly
and even dangerous (the eel, hog snake,
rats) creatures, if

you believe these things, then
you would leave a lifebuoy
or two in your swimming pool at night.

And in the morning
you would haul ashore
the huddled, hairy survivors

and escort them
back to the bush, and know,
be assured that at least these saved,
as individuals, would not turn up

again someday
in your hat, drawer,
or the tangled underworld

of your socks, and that even—
when your belief in justice
merges with your belief in dreams—
they may tell the others

in a sign language
four times as subtle
and complicated as man’s

that you are good,
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

 

 

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*Castle Law “is a legal doctrine that designates a person’s abode . . . as a place in which that person has protections and immunities permitting him or her . . . to use force . . . to defend himself or herself against an intruder, free from legal prosecution for the consequences of the force used.”

**According to a Washington Post article, “Scientists have identified almost 45,000 different spider species.” If spiders wanted to take over the world, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Good thing that most of them are big ol’ scaredy “arachs.”

*Spiders are most useful for eating pestilent insects which would otherwise wipe out food crops (and also the rose bush in your front yard.) The Washington Post article reports, “A 1990 study found 614 species of spiders in U.S. croplands, representing 19 percent of the spider species in North America.”

But perhaps some of spiders’ most important contributions to our big old ecosystem we don’t even know about. Scientists are constantly studying spider venom for medical purposes such as for pain control medicines and curing muscular dystrophy. Spider silk compounds are also being researched for potential use in metal material for mechanics. We just never know in what ways these creatures might teach us to be better people.