The Pleasure and Pathos of Paper Dolls

I was dismal at crafts, never liked them much, beyond decorating a shoe box with doilies for Valentine’s Day.  That was easy, as crafting goes, and it was my limit.  The little Sunday school lambs made with glued-on cotton balls, the bean and macaroni art in Vacation Bible School — I am  pretty sure Joseph didn’t wear a beard made of pinto beans—I completed them, but was never proud of them. 

And Girl Scouts, oh, how I hated crafts at troop meetings.  Those pleated  Reader’s Digests folded into fat Christmas trees, the green paint all over my hands, ending up smeared on my cheek.  Popsicle sticks stuck to my fingers, or dropped and glued to my shoe. Glitter everywhere but in the spot I aimed it.

No, I was built for other things.  But now, it seems, I have the rare opportunity to teach one of my craftiest friends a thing or two, and it has gone straight to my head. 

You can barely move in Alice’s work space for all the scissors, colored pencils, pads of watercolor paper, and stacks of Flow Magazines, magazines that seem to be filled with nothing on earth but wallpaper samples, although I am told it is art paper.  That’s it.  Just a magazine full of brightly printed paper.  And here, there, and everywhere, shoe boxes and fruit boxes full of ephemera, ribbons and feathers and buttons and I don’t know what all. 

Yet, for all this, Alice does not know how to cut out a continuous strand of paper dolls. 

And I do. 

Because my grandmother, a child of the prairie, taught me.  With her off-limits fabric shears she sat on the floor and folded newspaper and grocery bags, and with fingers flying, cut in one intricate but smooth motion, ten, fifteen little girls, all holding hands, dress hems touching, hair turned up on the end, their tiny feet pointing in opposite directions.  She and her sisters entertained themselves for hours doing this.  She entertained us for hours likewise. On winter days she folded typing paper and with her sharp little embroidery scissors fashioned beautiful snowflakes as big as our heads.  Well, our faces. 

Alice doesn’t know how to make these, either. 

I have promised to teach her, and was practicing over the weekend to see if I still remembered and I cut a string of paper dolls.  They looked so cute I posted a picture on social media.  You can’t believe how many people responded, many wanting to know how to do it so they might make them with their own grandchildren.  A smaller number remembered making them themselves when they were children.

My niece, Hannah, commented on my Facebook page, saying they were “cool,” and I couldn’t believe in all the times she and her sister, Katie, were at my house, we never made paper dolls.  I felt like quite the wretched and neglectful aunt.  It seems now it should have been an essential part of our time together, that sweet particular bonding activity which was sadly forfeited for other, lesser things. 

When I was little, maybe six, I loved Betsy McCall paper dolls, a page of creamy paper with Betsy standing demurely in her underwear and shoes, dresses and coats and sometimes hats, framing her delicately drawn figure.  Each little dress, little sweater, pair of snow pants had white tabs protruding, tabs to fasten the clothes at critical junctures — shoulders, waist, ankles.

My mother had to cut out Betsy, all those frills around her petticoat or panties, but I attacked the dresses with the peter pan collars, the pedal pushers, the sweater sets.  And always, always I got in a hurry, or got distracted for just a second, and snipped off a tab, sometimes more than one.  And I am pretty sure I cried.  Not so much for having botched it for Betsy, but in frustration for the perfect thing, now not.

Mother tried to repair the damage but the make-do-ness of it just killed me.  I wore my  brother’s hand-me-down corduroys, wore sweaters with turned up sleeves, bought at the end of a season to “grow into,” had socks that bunched at the toe or chewed down into my shoe, always too big or too small.  But Betsy McCall was perfect, holding a little doll in front of her while standing in her undies.  A summer dress and she is holding a bunch of flowers.  A winter coat, and she holds a muff.  And I was Betsy, wearing those pretty clothes, perfect on the page, until the cutting began.

Finding a Forest, Pondering a Pond

We were told a couple of years ago that sitting was the new smoking, but I haven’t seen that referenced much lately. Perhaps COVID and binge-watching make it too cruel to contemplate just now. There is news, though, for us to consider, something to get us out of those fitness counters and back into watches as is right and proper.


A recent “Wall Street Journal” article suggests that spending two hours in nature, on a regular basis, is the new 10,000 steps.


And they mean nature, not just outside, but surrounded by trees, and green—or brown as the season dictates— and water and twigs, and birdsong and breezes, and rocks, maybe, anywhere away from concrete and cars.


According to the report in WSJ’s Health and Wellness section, doctors and researchers are scrambling to address the physical and mental issues caused by COVID, and all the isolation, especially from the natural world. It seems there is abundant research supporting our need to be in nature, the health benefits of it, and COVID has cranked up the urgency to interpret the research and put it to use.


This large and growing body of research tells us we must return to nature, and sitting in our little yards won’t cut it. We must get away from the urban landscape, even pretty ones, to improve our mental health, our well-being, our blood pressure, our cognitive functioning, our creativity.


The Japanese call spending time in the woods “forest bathing.” I know how that sounds, but no, it isn’t that. They go to the woods, wander around, sit on a stump, saunter—saunter, you all—and come home with lower blood pressure, better heart rates and less fatigue and depression. Spending 300 minutes a week is about what it takes to get for yourself all sorts of healthy benefits. Just five hours a week.


I have a new friend from western New York, one who posts photos on Instagram of the natural places she walks and hikes on a regular basis. She posts images from the water’s edge of Quaker Pond, images taken in fall or the first days of winter already glazing the pond’s edge. I don’t know, just the name Quaker Pond makes me feel better, breathe more deeply.


Sometimes the pond is rimmed by golden reeds, sometimes the reeds are held captive in the glassy grip of ice, all of it lovely. She posts short videos of pines swaying in the high autumn wind, images of other trails covered in a carpet of fallen leaves. A photo, just as night falls, taken from the lip of Lake Ontario, with shadowy figures shrouded in mist gazing across the wide expanse searching for the Northern Lights. A life outside.


Here’s the deal. Since COVID, no—even before it—and since seeing and admiring these photos, I have had a longing, a primitive, true longing for woods, and walks in the green of summer or the russet of fall, the white—right this very day—of a walk in a winter snowfall.


But I don’t do it. I lament our lack of a Quaker Pond, but my pal, Alice, reminds me, and kind of huffy, too, we have equally beautiful woods here. We have trails in county parks, we have access to natural spaces. We just have to get off our duffs and go.


And she is right, of course. I have googled Quaker Pond, and my pal doesn’t just fall out her back door and into the woods. She makes for the wilds with intention. But neither must she drive for hours. And neither would we.


If Lake Ontario is right there, on the edge of town for my friend to explore and enjoy, the Ohio River is right here, on the edge of ours. We are ringed with little parks with hiking trails. We are half an hour, barely more, from two state parks, Audubon being a hidden jewel, ask anyone who has been there.


My writerly pals, with few exceptions, spend as much time outside and in the woods as possible. They grew up playing in creeks and running through woods, and they make a point of doing it still. One would tell you his time among the trees, on the lake, in a park is as critical to his work as the computer, the printer.


Will I move, and move in woods? Will I take myself to the wilds? Will I do it, just get up and do it? I really think I must.

Good Books for Long Winter Nights

January seemed especially grey and depressing this year. Maybe not depressing, that may be too strong a word, but I experienced more of a post-holiday let-down than usual. Most years I sort of revel in January, enjoy the dramatic image of myself slumped on the sofa, bored, bored, bored like some minor relation of the Downton Crawleys come to visit.

This year, I don’t know. It’s hard to enjoy a good pout and wallow when you’ve spent almost the entire past year having done just that, so I had no where to go with my ennui and discontent. I reverted to childhood—age eight—and spent the month under the covers reading with my Girl Scout flashlight. And way past my bedtime, too.


The modern equivalent of the flashlight under a blanket is the Kindle, and if you read with one, you might want to check out Bookbub. Every day an email arrives with seven or eight books for you to consider, curated from your reading list. They are deeply discounted, most can be downloaded to your Kindle for $1.99, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.

Here are a couple of books I have enjoyed when I should have been reading the ones assigned in my book group.


The first is “A Woman of No Importance,” written by Sonia Purnell. With impressive research, Purnell brings us the unknown story of an American woman, Virginia Hall, who worked early on to help establish units of espionage during World War II that would become, eventually, the more wide-spread French Resistance. She was remarkable, an adventurer before the war, and though she lost a leg in Turkey in a hunting accident, she was bothered by this only a little, when she was escaping the Gestapo by crossing the Pyrenees on foot and in winter, say, or when her slight limp threatened to give her away to the Nazis in occupied Lyon. I am only half-way through Virginia’s exploits, and I can’t imagine what happens next, but I am inspired by her story.


Bookbub sent me a ninety-nine cent offer to purchase Pearl S. Buck’s novel, “A Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women’s Quarters.”

I have long admired Buck’s award-winning novel, “The Good Earth,” but I admire this book more. Set in 1930s China, the novel centers on the wealthy and influential Wu family. More accurately, it centers on Mrs. Wu, the matriarch of this old and traditional family, and the ways in which she assures her family’s happiness and continuity.


She has great responsibility for her family but little actual power. She sets about sorting things by engaging in a great game of chess playing with her family’s relationships. Reading this book now, in the overly woke age we find ourselves, I wondered how Mrs. Wu might be taken by a younger reading audience. Would this book offend their precious, more delicate sensibilities? I don’t care.

Read this book in context of the culture and the time, it is beautifully written and wise, and I came to admire Mrs. Wu and her good heart and the hard truths she never looked away from.


The writing is so gorgeous, in fact, I underlined this book as much as any I have read. I would send sentences and whole passages to friends in the middle of the night so they might admire them with me, right then.

My pal, Alice, has a new boyfriend, but being a generous type, she has shared him with me, at least a little. How she does it I don’t know, but she finds the most interesting writers, long before the rest of us do, and her new fella is one.


She is, if not in love with, at least crushing on the Irish writer, Billy O’Callaghan. Not long ago she read his novel, “My Coney Island Baby,” and went on and on and on about it. I feared for her other boyfriends, sensed a long season of neglect coming up for them. And I was right. She is currently reading everything of his she can get her hands on.


Lucky for Alice, and us, there are several collections of short stories to choose from, and at least two novels. His story about how he came to writing is compelling, too, or at least Alice says it is. She won’t share much about that. Those early days of infatuation, you remember how it is. Secretive. Exclusive.

Wishing and hoping and waiting for the vaccine

I think I must have been four or five, standing in the sun with my father and older brother, in the Sportscenter parking lot with every other child in town close to my age. I may have been older, I don’t know, there is no one left to ask. But I remember rows and rows of long tables, the short ends touching to snake back and forth across the vast sea of concrete, army men everywhere.


We would see these men again soon, as we practiced our “duck and cover” and mock civil defense drills, but that afternoon lacked any particular drama, although there was a sense of occasion, expectation, some big something emanating from the adults around us.
We formed snaky lines, too, and stayed more or less in order, while the army men, who were probably the National Guard, barked orders, or probably they didn’t bark, with their uniform sleeves rolled up past their elbows, green camouflage caps on each head. Perhaps one or two whirly-gigged their arms to keep the conga line of children and parents moving, moving.


On the tables sat hundreds of tiny white paper cups, much like the ones Sunday school teachers used at parties to nestle jelly beans to look like Easter eggs. In the center of each little pleated cup was a sugar cube.


And somewhere within that cube of sugar was the magic elixir —the Sabin vaccine—meant to protect us from polio, that dread and awful disease, the one that worried our mothers into near states of panic every summer, the awful disease that robbed children of healthy limbs, and sometimes their breath and sometimes their lives.


There are those of us who remember the click and shuffle of a child walking in leg braces, the heroic stiff-legged and encumbered runs around the bases on the playground, the way we all knew, and didn’t know, what those leather and metal contraptions were about.


But we all knew our mothers’ fear, so palpable, unrelenting, even when they tried to keep it from us. I can’t imagine it, thinking of it now, how long those summer nights must have been for our young mothers, their babies asleep down the hall, no breeze to be had through the open windows, and they more vigilant than usual, but not sure what they were listening or watching for.


We didn’t go to Sunday school and church, we didn’t play with other children, and we certainly didn’t go swimming. I remember none of this, but my mother spoke of it often. Sometimes, I got a glimpse of “Life” or ‘Look” and saw the full-page images of iron lungs in hospital wards, life-saving but horrifying to imagine, what little I comprehended of them.


It was the early 60s, and we believed in science and the community protection of the National Guard, so we lined up in a parking lot and took our medicine.


Vaccines for COVID-19 are out now, and I wish for long tables in the Sportscenter parking lot. You should see — and hear — the riotous dinging of my WhatsApp, as friends track down and follow up every possible lead and rumor about who has shots, what is the protocol, and how do you get an appointment for one — in a geographic area spanning five states.


It is important to note, that “five state” statement is not an exaggeration.


I have signed up for the vaccination, many weeks out, at a time I think, and hope, my age group will be eligible. If something should change in the production chain and I can get vaccinated earlier, well, I certainly will do that. If I have jumped the gun and need to reschedule, I will do that, too. But all the talk and scheming and finagling and wrangling to procure a vaccine–anywhere– has heightened my anxiety, not lowered it.


Right now, I think, it should be enough—more than enough —to know that the vaccine will be in my arm soon. I am working to relax into this knowledge. And then I will get the second dose. When that happens I will sleep easier at night with one less little worry nagging at me. A luxury my mother had to wait years for.

ORDERING MY BLUES AWAY

Out of sheer boredom and the notion that, really, I should pamper myself in these times of isolation, I have taken to ordering all sorts of personal care products on-line. My Facebook page is lousy with pop-up ads for this stuff, and if you click on an ad, just once and by mistake, you will be inundated with them, too.


This clickbait is subversive and perhaps even a little bit evil, but I succumb on a regular basis. I ordered, on purpose, a subscription box from FabFitFun, because Leanne Morgan told me to. You know Leanne, the comedienne from Knoxville, with her hysterical video clips. She said it would be nice to treat ourselves during COVID, and yes, I thought. It would. Here came my winter box — they are curated by season — and in it I found the following.


A Vera Bradley cosmetic bag, small, but cute, and a really nice Pottery Barn diffuser set that is supposed to smell like the Solstice. Then all sorts of make-up and skin care products, all full size, and my favorite, a set of WEI “purify and glow” masks.


They arrived in a pretty little box with what looks like K-cups inside, each containing a dab of facial mask, applied with a soft brush (included) so I can, you know, purify and glow. The presentation is so nice I can’t bring myself to get into it, and I have so few people around I want to glow for, I have decided to save it for “good.”


You get to choose some of the things in the box they send you, but I didn’t, and so now I own Kate Spade workout socks. I don’t know what a workout sock is, still don’t, even after looking at them. They appear to be inferior no-shows, I will never wear them and I would be too embarrassed to re-gift them.


I stumbled across the Smallflower Modern Apothecary online shop, and this one was a keeper. They had me at “German formula Nivea.” You know Nivea, old-fashioned, granny-like, in the nice blue tin. Our US Nivea is not the same as their Nivea. The European formula is so much nicer, and I ordered some, just to have something to look forward to.

I ordered a few bars of Fa soap, too, an inexpensive brand I use in Olomouc. It isn’t particularly good soap, but I like smelling it and getting all nostalgic. The website is full of unusual and interesting products, and if nothing else, perusing it is a nice ten minute diversion.


When my Nivea arrived, I had already read comments on the webpage suggesting mixing it with organic almond oil to soften your skin to a luxurious degree. I tried it, and really, it was so very effective, but, you all, what a glopped up mess you are until it soaks in.


Which it does, and quickly, but be prepared.


As an alternative to all that slathering, I then found — and you know I purchased — Kate McLeod’s Sleep Stone. It is an all-natural puck of cocoa butter, almond oil and other good things, that you warm gently in your hands or rub all over yourself, and then you are moisturized and fragrant and off you go to bed. It comes with its own little muslin bag, and I am sucker for little muslin bags. I don’t know why.


My niece was glowing, just glowing at Thanksgiving, and I commented on it. She proceeded to give me the deets on her skincare regimen, which included both an exfoliant and moisturizer you can’t get in town. So I tracked them down elsewhere, and they have now arrived, sitting in their boxes, looking like they mean business—because the expensive stuff is always packaged like products that might require a prescription.


I haven’t used them yet, because I am setting up the particulars for a clinical trial, to see if I can tell a difference between them and my normal routine of rose hip oil and a plain white wash cloth.


But I draw the line at this… lip mask. Yes, a mask to use, it is recommended, for one week straight in the beginning, to moisturize and condition your lips. Full of Japanese peach extract, rose and camellia oil, to “protect and moisturize your pout.”


Honestly, I thought that was what greasy fried chicken was for.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I was burnishing a piece of writing and I couldn’t remember the song with the catchy refrain, “Černy Glaza,” the one we sang over and over again, deep into the night, somewhere in a Ukrainian forest.


Perhaps my writing would flow better if I could find this song on the internet, for surely, someone, somewhere, has recorded it. Youtube seemed so promising, but I turned up nothing. The problem, it turns out, is this. When I first searched for the song I guessed wrong at the spelling of the word, glaza, which I knew meant “eyes.”


My next attempt was much more successful. Oh, so successful. I decided to do a backward search using Google Translator and BOOM! There it was, the proper spelling. Scooted over to Youtube, and BOOM! again, Černy Glaza popped right up, and I recognized it immediately from the jaunty electronic keyboard intro to the repeating chorus, which came back to me in a rush. I pounded time on the table and sang along for at least five minutes.


What times we live in. No running to the library, sending letters and waiting for correspondence—for if Youtube had failed me a second time, I would merely have emailed my friend, Kveta, and asked her the song. Or even better, instant messengered my musician pal, Lenka, who is always on Facebook, and she would have told me. I might have to wait for a response until it is morning there, but really, not long.


If you looked at my phone right now, you would see exactly one game on it — sudoku. I can’t imagine playing games when there is all that great stuff to read out there, just with a click and a swipe. I look up things constantly. Constantly.


In November I was trying to find the name of a champagne I had tried and really liked. Before I went to find a bottle, I thought I might need to know how to pronounce it. I googled and there it was, and then I Youtubed a video to learn how to pronounce French wines, because I didn’t want to sound like a goober asking for it, but also, I didn’t want to sound like an affected snob, either, and get it wrong that way.


Luckily, it has a nice, straightforward name, with the first part already something we are familiar with, Perrier. But while I was there, I thought the nice Frenchman might ought to teach me how to pronounce other champagnes, just in case. He has several videos, so I watched them all.

It comes up so seldom, which champagne I prefer, but the next time it does, I will be ready. I may be so feeble by that time I need someone to hold the coupe to my lips as I dribble most of it down my front, but I will have pronounced it correctly.


And just now, researching the correct way to pronounce “coupe,” I have learned from a bubble physicist, Helen Czerski, that the perfect-shaped champagne glass is neither the flute nor the coupe. It is a wine glass with a bowl shaped like a brandy snifter, but not a snifter, served with the champagne poured only about half-way up. I know the part that holds the wine is called the bowl, because I looked that up, too, googling “anatomy of a wine glass.”


According to Dr. Czerski, this particularly shaped wine glass creates the slow bubble-making machine of the coupe, while capturing all the flavor bubbles that burst on our tongues and up our noses, like the flute. Turns out, smelling is one of the ways we taste. Czerski is the real deal, too, Cambridge trained, a bubble and ocean expert, and the author of “Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life.”


Which should arrive tomorrow, as I scooted over to Amazon and ordered a copy while you weren’t looking.


I might continue down this rabbit hole for a few more hours, and I can tell you with certainty I thought this column was going somewhere else altogether. But really, it was apt to be ponderous and preachy and not nearly as much fun as thinking about champagne bubbles bursting in our faces. Even if you never touch the stuff, still fun.


Perhaps I was a research assistant in another life, but I love knowing things. I love sharing what I learn. A lot. I don’t know why my friends find me so tiresome. I really don’t.

A resolute New Year

I’m not one for resolutions, too much pressure and all my passive-aggressive tendencies kick in and it isn’t attractive. I truly hate to be told what to do, even if it is me telling myself to do what I came up with in the first place. I will not tolerate it.


This probably isn’t the year to waste much time on resolutions, anyway. We have hope on the horizon, two vaccines out there now, and more on the way. But even with the most spectacular logistics, we will be in our bubbles and pods for some time to come, and if we have learned anything in 2020, its that, at a moment’s notice, things can change.

We toddle toward the new decade as we leave behind the old one, masked, sanitized, and paunchy with sour dough and banana bread overload. But maybe with some new skills we had forgotten we have.


Like reading for pleasure.


I have read more this year than ever. The classics, murder mysteries, award winners, pure trash. I’ve loved them all. Right this very minute I am supposed to be reading Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” with my book group. They wanted something nice and long for the holidays.


We ZOOM our weekly meetings. Don’t tell them, but I can’t seem to get beyond chapter six, because I put the book down and have to start all over, it’s Dickens, after all, and I forget what I’ve just read.

My friends will have read at least through chapter twenty-three or so. I don’t even bother writing down the reading assignments now because I will never catch up. But that doesn’t keep me from attending the meeting, and, I am not kidding, contributing. But mostly I just want to hear their voices and see their faces and listen to the discussion. They come prepared. They are like a set of human cliffsnotes performing just for me.


My life has grown quieter, simpler, although I am more aware of the passage of time than ever. It seems to move so slowly, and yet I get fewer things done in a day. Even so, I am as leisurely, as unperturbed as I have ever been about this lack of industry. And I was pretty unperturbed before the virus.


I wonder if we are marking time in a different way, what with all the upheaval and change upon change upon change. Certainly we have all had to relearn habits and moderate expectations, and that impacts the rhythms of our days.

As alone as I have been most days—and I am such an extrovert I have almost no inner life—I have rarely been lonely and have come to value solitude. There is a peace in aloneness that I have never sat still long enough to appreciate. And aloneness here doesn’t only mean being solitary… perhaps you have been alone with just your immediate family in a way that is new to you, and perhaps you, too, have found the value in being still together, with no place to be and no distractions to pull you away.


And maybe that togetherness got to be too much, and you decided that some fresh air would do you good. And off you went on nice long walks, or you dusted off your bike and rode into the wind. Or you dug in the dirt and planted herbs and flowers, or built pizza ovens, or created a whole new outdoor space where crab grass used to grow.


Human beings are amazing creatures. When we finally stood up and walked on two feet it created all this room for our brains to grow large in all the right places. We make exceptional use of those opposable thumbs. It helps us persevere. With broken and heavy hearts some days, and in spite of uncertainty, and frustration, and fear, we figure it out.


It isn’t as if this pandemic hasn’t taken a toll. You would never hear me say that. But we know what to do. We have been doing it. I suppose if I had one resolution, it would this.


Continue.


Read those books, get out the calendar I once used for appointments and lectures and presentations and pencil in dates for morning walks, make note of ZOOM meetings and virtual yoga. Pay attention to the good lessons of 2020, and there were some. Be smart, but be brave, too. Pay attention. Reach out. Connect. Rest. Calm down. Wash those hands.

CHRISTMAS STAR

I first saw the Christmas Star in a college planetarium when I attended a special program, most likely for extra credit. It was a lecture designed to show what the Wise Men saw, and what they followed, pieced together by ancient and modern knowledge of the movement of the heavens. I was taking astronomy that fall semester, and was particularly dedicated to it, which was odd, because such dedication meant I had to climb the big hill to the Thompson Science Complex several times a week to sit in the dark and learn all the constellations for each season.


The planetarium was open for study sessions only in the afternoons and evenings and that I would willingly make this trek on darkening autumn afternoons is also odd, because I was a lazy student and thought all formal learning should stop before lunch.


Our final would require us to sit in the pitch-black room with a pointer in our hand. We would be instructed to close our eyes while they spun the sky around, mostly so we wouldn’t get sick, and then we were to begin, by looking up and saying,


“This is the summer sky. The major constellations are Cassiopeia the Queen,” while passing the pointer over all her stars, and then “This is Cygnus the Swan, Ursa Major…” and so on until we had properly named and pointed out the required constellations. Then they spun the sky again.


My roommate had the same class and we often went together to study the stars. But lots of times I went alone. I think what I liked about those afternoons was the solitude they provided, the cool dark of an empty auditorium, soft cushioned chairs circled beneath a dome of stars. I could think and breathe. Or simply breathe, and wonder a little about a universe too impossible to understand. To feel small, insignificant, and getting that this is just about exactly right.


There is a peace to be found in knowledge like that.

This week the Christmas Star returned, or what scientists have come to believe may have been the Christmas Star. And yet, it isn’t a star at all, but two planets aligned just so to blaze for a time as one brilliant light. I gazed over a field on the outskirts of town with strangers and waited until the orange flame of sunset fled the horizon. Staring at a place a little to the right of a waxing gibbous moon, the sky was dark, and dark, and darker still.


And then it wasn’t.


Hanging halfway between the moon and the horizon, Saturn and Jupiter met in a great conjunction, so close it appears not a fifth of our moon would fit between them. And they blazed as one to the naked eye, separating only when viewed through binoculars. It isn’t difficult to see how the Magi saw in it a sign, these stars as steady as a lantern, held aloft, come from out of nowhere to cast a beckoning light.


In this fourth week of Advent, we focus our minds on peace and the Wise Men are good stewards of that word. No frantic shepherds, these fellows, no boisterous and exuberant angels with trumpets and noisemakers, their scanty sashes blowing in a whirlwind of their own making. We see the three kings in profile, atop their camels, calmly traversing the deserts and plains. They approach slowly, serenely, peacefully, in every nativity play, in every imagining of their arrival.

They are the pure essence of peace and goodwill.


Thinking of the Christmas star, and the wise kings, while watching in a field with others called by a star, or what looks like a star, I was happy at our good fortune with a clear Kentucky night. The Ohio River Valley so often robs us of astronomical delights with cloudy skies or haze.

It is good to be reminded that expectation and hope and joy culminate in peace. In this quiet week, in this year of such sorrow, we can reach for peace and walk slowly with it, bearing it as a wise man might, with dignity and certainty and goodwill–which is another word for love.


the joy of small things

This third week of Advent celebrates joy, and it even has its own special candle, pink, but it’s not mandatory the candle you light this week be pink. But maybe it helps.


Because what are we to make of joy in this brittle season? Where might we find it, this kind of happiness that is more than happiness? Deeper, more intense than happiness is joy, and in the stillness we are to be cogitating on joy, and it is a heavy lift.


We are weary, we are sad, we have strung lights and decorated our homes before Thanksgiving, just to feel a little bit of it, joy. Sitting here on a cold and grey afternoon, I wonder when the corners grew so dark, and why I have been so lazy in getting my tree up, for surely those little lights might cheer me. I put on Christmas music to tide me over.


I’m not in the mood for chestnuts or sleigh bells so I dial up Gregorian Christmas chants and what was I thinking? They are beautiful, yes, but also mysterious and weighty and maybe a little creepy in a certain mood. Not always, but they fall hard on my ear just now, this year, in this season.


Handel’s “Messiah” might be a better choice since I sang it in high school when the choral society was short on altos. But no, not that, either. So I’m back to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and that suits me just fine. You can almost hear the horses’ hooves thundering across the steppes, the words and music Christmasy, but with a rasping icy urgency from the North, complete with a Cossack kicker and Mother Russia at her loom, weaving each and every song, each and every arrangement.


Which is all the more remarkable because they are Americans.


But still, the music is big. It’s bold. A little rough around the edges. And through it runs a sincerity, an abandon that sounds very much like joy. And I feel joy, imagining these musicians creating moving Christmas music as if they are shouting lyrics at their mics ten feet away, while they flail at guitars, keyboards, drums, all heavy rock and sweating.


Not tinkly Christmasy, but then, oh, so Christmasy.


I drag the Christmas tree stand in from the garage, clear the corner for the tree. I buy a proper tree skirt because every year I have to listen to another Douglas fir moan and groan about the sheet I wrap around its feet, while I try to convince it the sheet is snow.

Each year I set up my tree and recall the evening I invited my younger brother and sister to help me decorate it after work. I approached the task with great joy, all happy and bright, while they sat on their rumps, eating all my food, entertaining each other with bad jokes and adolescent humor—though they were in their twenties— and neither one touching a single ornament.


It didn’t matter. We remember that night every Christmas and laugh and long for the comfort and joy we felt in each other’s presence then, grown, but not grown, adults being kids, or maybe the other way around, in a little upstairs apartment, windows rattling in the wind.


This long hard season has tried to teach us the joy of little things. We shopped at nurseries and garden centers for seed and mulch, rediscovered our backyards, had time to finally hear the birds that nest in our trees, learn which ones peck the ground for food. We’ve knelt in the dirt, grime under our nails, not cared. We’ve had nowhere to be and no rush to get out of our comfy clothes.


We discovered ZOOM, and loved it, then hated it, then loved it again. We see our families, our book groups, our buddies. Without thinking too hard I count six new friends I’ve made via ZOOM, through classes and seminars. I couldn’t tell you how tall they are, or what they look like in profile, whether their hands are warm or cold, but I could be awakened by a call at 3:00 a.m. and I would know the voice. And this is a joy. And a mercy. And a gift.


We await the joy to the world, but we are most apt to recognize it if we sharpen our senses to the little joys before us. And they are there. Right there. I think I see them. No farther away than my arm is long.

sanctuary

On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, it seemed, to enter.


I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 15th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior. And it was cool in there, with only the faintest rays of sunlight making their way through the stained glass windows. It was mostly quiet, punctuated now and then by the organist’s practicing.


I wasn’t alone.


From my place in the back I watched an elderly man with heavy plastic bags of groceries swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door. He sat for a moment, then gathered his things, stood to settle the ballast of his bags, and left through the side door opposite the one he came in by. It was as if St. Moritz were a regular stop on his rounds, a throughway, a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.


A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm a fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it. She slumped just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion.


Minutes passed, I lost track of time. From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face. Some deep trouble had come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, without seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place. Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.

For in that moment—a twinkling, really— I knew I was meant to see her, bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.


I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in seven centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. I’ve read that in Great Britain, millennials are returning to church, not always as believers, not always for the formal services of Mass and Easter Vigil.

They fill the pews for events like evensong and often stop by churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have some place quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.


They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them. They come because they seek the sacred. Cathedrals are built with just such intention, these great sacred conduits that open up a space for the divine. We feel it, even if we can’t name it, don’t fully understand it.


In such places, tears often come.


It’s unsettling at first, as we feel that tender place within, a big place or a little one, where lurks a question, a grief, some uncertainty or fear. We are in need of some mending. We are missing something, and we think here we might find it.


For that is what hope is, isn’t it? An awaiting, an expectation of some desire to be fulfilled, even if we cannot name it yet, this thing we long for. We hope for resolution, or clarity or rest. In sanctuary is always the hope of deliverance.


In this second week of Advent, we light a candle and look into the flame, we contemplate love and hope, and like our young friends who sit for a while at evensong, we don’t have to know exactly what it all means. We just have to sit still. Crack open our hearts, just a sliver. Breathe.


In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it. Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Seek out the heavy door on any place of sanctuary—a church, nature, a friend. Find one open to you.


Go in.

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