December 30, 2013

Morning walk

Holiday celebrations in my family consist mostly eating food, playing games, and talking. We all gathered at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve to talk and eat, and we had a big dinner here on Christmas Day. I’ve spent the last week mostly sitting by the fire, with bowls of hot soup and plates of cookies, hanging out with everyone. It’s been wonderful to have kids home, extras here, and family in town.

On Saturday, I met some friends downtown at a cafĂ© that serves vegan food. We crowded around a wooden table near a window that looked across at a little urban park. Since there were four of us, we decided we’d each order a different sandwich, cut them in four pieces, and each get to try all four. So while we talked about the holidays and our plans for the new year, we also rated each sandwich. I am proud to say that the sandwich I choose — made with a smoky-flavored tempeh bacon, tomato, and lettuce — finished first in our rating system.

Saturday night, my husband and I went to an Italian restaurant for a meal with his family. His sister and niece were in town, and his brother joined us with his wife and two of his sons. While we talked, I ate fresh Italian bread with dipping oil, salad with olives and peppers, and a bowl of angel hair pasta with veggies and marinara sauce.

After a week of holiday meals and snacks — and a pretty sedentary life — I woke up this morning ready for a long walk in the woods. I pulled on my boots, grabbed my winter coat, and headed out my back door. We’ve got snow, but just an inch or two, and the ice on the puddles is thin enough that it kept cracking under my boots. I wandered along deer trails, following their tracks back to the groves of hemlocks. The cold, fresh air felt great after so much time in by the fire.

The woods are mostly brown and white on a winter day. In a few places, I could glimpse some green mosses and green ferns beneath crystals of ice, and branches that were reddish in the sunlight. The young beech trees hold onto their leaves, a goldish-brown against the snow. In the winter, I can see far into the woods, catching a glimpse of a white-tail deer as it dashes away at my approach. I tramped around, not even following my trails, crashing loudly through the ice on the puddles, until finally, I was hungry for breakfast and hot tea back at my house.

December 27, 2013

Holiday music

No holiday is complete without live music. That's my youngest son at the piano.

December 25, 2013

Prayer flags on Christmas morning

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered red cloth napkins to use for Christmas dinner. When they arrived, though, I was horrified at the texture. Instead of soft cotton, each napkin was the texture of a waterproof tarp. I couldn't use them as napkins but they were perfect for another project I had in mind: prayer flags. I found some black markers and began writing on them.

I chose to write things like "peace" and "faith" on mine. Then I asked my sons to help. Boy-in-Black wrote "Life, the Universe, and Everything" on one, and "It's all right, ma. It's life and life only" on another, and "Don't Panic" on a third. We started adding pictures, including a drawing of the Lorax and another of a cat. With-a-Why added one that said, "Fascists" with hearts all around it. "That one only makes sense if you've seen the movie The Trotsky," said Boy-in-Black.

When the flags were done, I tied them together with twine, and Boy-in-Black helped me hang them in the front yard. This morning, when I woke up early and went out to take a walk, they were frosted with ice and snow, glittering in the sunlight.

December 24, 2013

Killing zombies for the holidays

When Boy-in-Black comes home, he sleeps on the couch or the living room floor to leave the upstairs bedrooms for his siblings and cousins. So when he moved home for winter break, he piled his stuff — laptop case, laundry basket full of Ultimate gear, winter clothing — in my office, right near the front door. His stuff included a present he'd gotten for his cousin Blonde Niece, a life-size cardboard figure of her favorite character from the show The Walking Dead, which they watch together every Sunday night. Every single time I opened the door to my office, I jumped and screamed.

Blonde Niece had the same reaction when he gave her the present last night. She loved it.

December 23, 2013

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling

Last August after my mother-in-law died, my husband and I went over to the nursing home near us to clear out her closet and pack up her belongings. This week, we went back with Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why for a holiday celebration with the residents. Shaggy Hair Boy played the piano, while my husband and With-a-Why sang Christmas Carols. My job was to ring the jingle bells.

 When we first began this tradition, With-a-Why was very young and shy. What a difference, now, I thought, as I watched him standing confidently in front of the residents, singing in a loud, clear voice. He's all grown up. His grandmother would be proud.


December 17, 2013

Snow day

From my bedroom window

When I woke up this morning and looked out my bedroom window, snow was falling onto the pine trees, the cars in the driveway, and the river birches on the front lawn. Snow plows had come through during the night, but even so, the road was shining white, visible only because of the snow banks on either side. It’s warm enough that snow is sticking to the branches of the trees, outlining them with white.

My grades are handed in. The Christmas tree, decorated with white lights, gold garland, and a host of mismatched ornaments, fills the living room with a piney scent. The piano has been tuned. The garage is filled with firewood. The kitchen, thanks to Boy-in-Black and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter taking a late-night trip to the grocery store, is bursting with food. I can barely close the refrigerator, and bags of goodies are piled on the counter.

I love snowy days when I’m not obligated to be anywhere. My husband, who took the week off, sits at the kitchen table, writing Christmas cards. Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why are still asleep, since they spent the middle of the night hanging out with some of our extras, including Quick, who is home from grad school. I'm working on a manuscript, but earlier I took a break to shovel the driveway and take a walk in the cold air. Now I’m sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of hot tea. I think we're ready for the holidays.

The smallest of our Christmas trees

December 13, 2013

As soon as I finish grading

I’m looking forward to cleaning my house. Really. That’s what I’m thinking about while I’m reading student portfolios, grading papers, and going through my end-of-semester to-do list. I can’t wait to toss away stacks of junk, clear off the top of my desk, and get rid of all the clutter that has piled up over the last fifteen weeks.

Fall semester is busy for all of us, and that means the house just gets messier and messier. I’ve had academic colleagues say that they just lower their standards during the end-of-semester craziness, but let’s face it, our standards are already pretty low.

Last week, when Boy-in-Black came home for day to hang out with With-a-Why, he cleaned the kitchen. It was great to come home and see all the counters clean. “Thanks,” I said to him gratefully. “Things had really gotten out-of-hand.”

“It was kind of creepy,” he said. “Toast in the toaster that was made and never eaten. Partly filled cups on the counter. Like the lost colony of Roanoke.”

December 08, 2013

Beating swords into plowshares

Both huge gyms in the local high school were filled with tables and booths. Local craftspeople had set up shelves of pottery, racks of handmade scarves, tables of handmade wooden toys, and jewelry that sparkled under the bright lights. Activists had spread out posters and t-shirts and bumper stickers. There were petitions to sign, letters to write, and pamphlets filled with information.

One corner of the gym was set aside for musical events. When I arrived a troupe of belly dancers in colorful costumes were spinning and jingling to Middle Eastern music. They were followed by a community choir who sang, “Solar Power Inexpensive Energy” to the tune of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” In the first gym, a group of volunteers cooked up all kinds of delicious soups, burritos, and sandwiches. After coming in from the cold, I couldn’t resist the vegan chili, which was steaming hot and delicious.

I usually hate shopping of all types, but at the annual Plowshares Craftsfair and Peace Festival, I get to talk to the people who made the beautiful things they are selling. Besides, it’s more of a social event than a craftsfair. I’d just walked in when I got hugs from Mystic Woman and Healing Plumber Guy, who were shopping for gifts for the grandchildren. I made my way over to the booth where my friend Quilt Artist was selling her beautiful hanging quilts. I ate lunch with Nurse Friend, just one table over from some of my Two Row Wampum friends. I saw a friend from my environmental activist days, three colleagues from Little Green, two women who have come with me on monastery retreats, my friend Makes Bread, and a bunch of folks from the Peace Council, which is the group who sponsors the event.

I signed several petitions, bought some lovely handmade gifts, sat with friends to listen to music, got into long conversations everywhere, and hugged pretty much anyone who called out my name. It was wonderful on a wintry December day to spend an afternoon in the company of folks who care about peace, who work for justice, and who value lovely locally made work.

December 04, 2013

What I learned this semester

On the last day of class, I gave each of my first year students an index card and asked them to write one thing they learned during their first semester in college. Then I shuffled the cards and read them aloud.

I learned how to manage my time.

Biology exams are hard.

Tie dye is cool.

I now know why my brothers sleep until noon every day.

Due to the warming of the oceans and the higher temperatures, crabs are in Antarctic waters for the first time in 30 million years.

I learned that I have a talent for beaning people in the head in racquetball.

Even though it’s fun, you can’t cuddle all of your time away.

How to function and make decisions without relying on my parents.

How to balance a social life with an academic life.

To embrace my failures.

I learned that when you look at your schedule, you think you are going to have all this free time, but really, you don’t.

I learned how to organize my ideas and write informational papers.

I learned how to use Excel. I can make graphs and charts now!

I should never take my mom’s cooking for granted.

How to find the molarity of a solution and the limiting reactants.

How important it is not to procrastinate.

There are endless opportunities: you just need to take them!

Bottled water is evil.

Don’t experiment with Ramen or Easy Mac.

College requires a lot more independent work than high school.

You can revive a dead hard drive by freezing it.

Don’t drink in the dorms. Oh, and I learned how to use Excel.

Rabbits eat their droppings in order to fully absorb the nutrients.

You should not expect a 90 or a 100 on everything even if that is how high school was. An 85 is a good grade you should be proud of.

Teaching others helps you retain information like nothing else.

All about phytoremediation — using plants to mitigate environmental damage.

How much things cost. They are expensive.

How much I relied on my parents.

In dueterostomes, the butt comes first.

Sticky notes are a great organizational tool.

I need to start doing work when it’s assigned instead of when it is due.

I’ve learned to be open about how I feel about environment issues.

If you don’t study for biology, you will FAIL.

I learned how to do laundry. And how much easier it would have been if I’d gone elsewhere.

I learned how a plant works. That includes its functions, hormones, evolution, and many more things.

If you put off doing your work, you get overwhelmed on projects.

The cemetery is a great place for shenanigans.

The environmental impacts of hydrofracking are huge and scary.

Pinecones are leaves. Also, an octopus is flexible enough to fit through your entire intestine.

Look out for yourself. Keep friends and family close. Study harder than you think you need to.

You never know how good your family food is until you eat at a dining hall for two months and then go home for Thanksgiving.

I learned more chemistry and biology than the human brain should be able to hold. Also, it is a good idea to always have extra toilet paper handy.

December 01, 2013

The holiday season begins with snow and cookies

Woodpile in snow

Thanksgiving often coincides with winter weather here. On Thursday, we all descended upon my mother’s house for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, followed by pumpkin pie and apple pie. The rest of the week, we’ve been mostly just hanging out in front of the fire. I love it when my kids and extras are home. My daughter’s boyfriend, Sailor Boy, made us all breakfast one morning — or perhaps brunch would be a better word since we ate mid-day. Shy Smile made two big pots of soup. California Girl brought pastries that her mother had sent her from the west coast. We’ve spent the days mostly just talking and eating.

Every once in a while one of us will say, “I need to get some work done,” and take out a laptop, but that surge of energy doesn’t last long.

“It’s the fire,” said Boy-in-Black, who was lounging on the couch between his girlfriend and his brother. “It sucks all the energy out of the room.”

Last night, we all went over to Sailor Boy’s parents’ house, just a couple of miles away, to join them for a tradition his family has kept for more than 50 years, the annual cookie-decorating party. Their house is on a long driveway that curves through snow-covered pine trees. When I came in the door, stamping the snow off my boots, I was greeted by the smell of mulled cider and spaghetti sauce. “Come have something to eat,” Sailor Boy’s mother said.

My daughter, Sailor Boy, and Pirate Boy had spent the afternoon making hundreds of cut-out sugar cookies. The aunts and grandparents who arrived brought more. Pirate Boy mixed up bowls of icing, and we gathered to frost the cookies and decorate them with bright-colored sprinkles. It’s fun to watch people’s different approaches to icing cookies. Shy Smile is the artist of the group, and her cookies were lovely, with details and carefully chosen colors. Boy-in-Black, on the other hand, kept just slapping on icing and cramming them into the sprinkles so that they looked like something a two-year-old would make. The sports fans of the group frosted just a few cookies before disappearing into the other room to watch a football game, but the rest of us persisted until we had filled a long table with hundreds of cookies.

It's official. The holiday season has begun.

Christmas cookies