The Great Idleness

There are those of you how are traveling now, on your way to family and friends, or perhaps  you are heading out west, or to Vermont, for ski slopes and sleigh rides and hot chocolate by a fire. 

Maybe you are knee-deep into a house project, one of those projects that you came up with this time last year, sketched out on graph paper over the President’s Day weekend, ignored in the heat of summer, and are shamed into it, finally, now that you have a yawning break between Christmas and New Year’s, motivated as you are, to draw a line through the task before the calendar turns on Monday.

I don’t know you people.

I am not like you.

For this is the idlest of weeks in my year.  The curtain closes on Christmas Day long about 3:00 p.m. for my family.  Alway has.  The tradition is rooted deep in our childhood, when the five of us, fueled by too much sugar and anticipation, and deprived of sleep and a control of our emotions, would crash and burn and dissolve into tears or pouts or fisticuffs mid afternoon on Christmas Day. 

Often the ending of the holiday was punctuated by a trip to the alley to sort through the trash of ripped wrapping paper in search of a part, or instructions or some other vital thing accidentally tossed out in the mayhem of the morning.

Flashlights were involved. 

Failure usually, sometimes success, but after you have had your head in a trashcan for half an hour, the magic of the holiday season is truly and finally over.

Then the Great Idleness began. For the next five days we barely got out of our pajamas, we ran around the house, played with our toys, stacked and re-stacked our presents in front of the tree.  Counted them, took naps with them, played and played, and wondered how the holiday had come and passed so quickly.  We discussed how long it would be until next Christmas, the agony of that, the letdown that this one came and went so soon.

So, the week between the holidays hasn’t changed much for me.  I sleep late, turn on the lights of the tree, and think…about nothing much at all.  I flip through my Netflix list, looking for something to watch, but fall asleep before the opening credits.  I read books, or rather, I think about reading them. Spend whole afternoon mapping my walks on an app on my phone.

These are walks I intend to take, not walks I have any intention of taking.  I might wander over to my sister’s, but her boys are home and they will have eaten all the good stuff.  I will go to the grocery and  bring home something healthful and cosy, a chicken to roast, or soup. 

I will prepare these things, but I will eat Chex Mix  and cheese balls instead.

Winter has always been a time of conserving.  Our must-do tasks boil down to only a few essential things—keeping warm, keeping fed, keeping our minds occupied.  So, maybe this is the week we make our first preparations for surviving the rest of winter, the dreary days, the cold.

Yes, let’s say that.  I am not slothful or idle.  I am preparing, mentally and physically, to conserve my strength and mental outlook for the bleak days ahead.  Me, this here chicken, some chocolate and Chex Mix.

Of Dark and Light


I was sneaking around last week, trimming some branches overhanging a sidewalk, branches of the evergreen variety, which I planned to take home and drape artistically across my mantel.

That I was driving around with my pruners on the front seat of the car is, frankly, no one’s business.  That it was dark, just after dusk, is a happy coincidence that, even so, hindered me in performing this civic service to the walking public.

Perhaps my eyes have not adjusted yet to early nightfall, my rods and cones still scanning the environment for the crisp light of autumn.  Or, maybe it is coming for me, that old age thing that descends like velvet across a window as I approach the time I can no longer see at night, at least not well enough to drive.

For I was having trouble.  I ran a few errands along streets I have known all my life, but in the gathering darkness I felt a bit off-kilter.  The shadows sooty black, headlights too bright, neon signs along Frederica strobing and blinking and making me a little sick.

Or, maybe my rods and cones haven’t seen total darkness in years, if ever, and they were just searching for the best possible reading, not unlike a camera searching, searching, in and out, for the proper exposure in difficult light.

My head felt a little like that, buzzing and catching, and I came home and had to sit down for a minute.

Even at night, in our beds, we do not drift off in complete darkness. We are instructed to turn off our TV’s, leave our phones in other rooms, keep the blinking and beeping of computers and gadgets to a minimum in our sleeping chambers.  There are eye shades and blackout curtains if all else fails. 

There are those who chase the light—pilgrims from overcast countries who dream of the sunny seaside, or t adventurers in parkas who travel far into the frozen tundra to glimpse, if conditions are right, the aurora borealis.

And then there are those who seek the dark. Total dark, without street lamps, the glare on the horizon of a city afire with neon and halogen.  A place so dark the stars come out—all of them—and the moon illuminates the landscape, at once familiar and foreign, lit, as it is, from the sun, once removed.

Total darkness exists, but it is harder to find.  It can’t be found on the continent of Europe, or in the eastern half of the United States.  But cross over into the prairie and into the plains,  and you can find it. The northern tier states have it, and in the mountain ranges of the West.  Parts of Maine, too.  Almost anywhere in Greenland, Mongolia, the western reaches of China.  Most of Kazakstan, the great midsection of Africa, the Australian outback.

On the eve of the longest night of the year, I think of the great darkness and the way it captured the imaginations of human beings, back when real darkness meant something.  I would have burned a yule log, too, would have kept vigil, done all sorts of things to ensure the returning of the light, this light made more precious for the long hours without it.

I would like to see the world, as it once was, as it rarely is now, pitched in utter darkness. 

Would the wind blow differently, would sound carry in odd ways, would I feel a change, a shift, would I still know who I am, what to do, with nothing but the light of the stars to fix my place? 

Would my eyes adjust?

The winter solstice arrives and we build fires, light candles, fill our homes with tinsel and glitter and shiny things. We do this for Christmas, for Hanukkah, for comfort and reassurance.  We gather our loved ones close, for they light our way, too.  We sing, boisterous or sweet, with abandon, or reverence, or joy.

We take a bit more time in our greetings, are pleased by chance meetings with old acquaintances in shops and on the street, happy in the encounter.  This, too, is a kind of light.  A reminder of who was once important to us, and who is important still.

We hunker down in December. Count our blessings like gaily wrapped gifts.  Watch for star shine in our loved ones’ faces.  Thank the dark for helping us see it, just there. And there. And there.


A month or so back, I received a long blue envelope in the mail, and inside was an irregular-shaped post card sent to me from my friend, Beth, who is living in Bordeaux with her husband, Kris.

The postcard was lovely, and contained greetings from Beth and Jason, our pal who was visiting her for a few days.  They met up in Paris and sent the card, of what, I can’t say just now, perhaps a panorama view  of the Seine—something outsized and requiring special wrapping for its overseas journey.

What I was most taken with was the envelope. Baby blue and impossibly thin, I hadn’t seen such a thing in years. Hadn’t seen it since the Seventies, probably, when I wrote my brother in the Navy when he was posted abroad.  In those days envelopes had to be stamped “AIR MAIL” if it had any hope of arriving in a timely manner. Mail, so marked, was bundled and loaded onto cargo planes bound for Europe, or Japan, other  exotic locales.

The rest of it got dumped into the hold of some slow boat to China, or Athens, or Hamburg, and arrived, oh, really, who can say? A lot can happen to a canvas bag heaved onto docks and flopping around the damp of a cargo hold, and who knows how much of it gets where it is going.

All mail is air mail now, of course, or mostly all of it.  But back then, air mail was expensive and postage was assessed by weight, and thus, the thin blue stationery.

I would drive my grandmother to the post office and we would pick pads of note paper and envelopes, the same blue color, onion-skin thin, so we could write my brother. The post office sold pre-stamped sheets of air mail stationery—and we filled up the blank backside of the paper,  and then spent a minute or so performing arts and crafts as we folded along dotted lines and made flaps from the odd triangular wings until we had a self-contained letter and envelope, all in one.

The business side of the envelope was pre-stamped with proper postage, and the words  “par avion”  and “air mail” jumped off the page. I mean, really, does it get any more cosmopolitan than that?

Beth has been in Bordeaux for almost a year now, and she and I chat on occasion through Facebook.  We make plans to Skype or FaceTime  but somehow that never quite happens. I think, well, I will write her a long newsy letter, but that never happens, either. 

But something about that thin blue envelope made my hands itch, made me tear off her return address in France—a physical address—and save it. Something in the familiar feel of it sent me to the office supply store and the post office in search of air mail letters.  

No one seemed to know what I was asking for,  although the older clerk at the post office remembered  that  “foldy paper” people used to buy.  I returned home discouraged and rummaged through my stationery drawer looking for any old thing.  

Still, the idea of writing Beth in France on short fat note paper left me completely and utterly cold.

It lacks cache.

I eventually had luck on-line, and found  air mail envelopes, the colorful ones with the red, white and blue checked borders, sporting a round crest with “air mail” in three languages.  The ultra-thin paper is on its way, but it must be in some back corner of a warehouse somewhere, because it has been a couple of weeks and still no sign.

I think Beth needs real mail.  I think I need to write her real letters.  I think those letters need to look like something.  Something to remind me that this piece of paper is traveling a great distance, and it is of some import, even if it is full of nothing more than the gossipy goings-on of our friends.

I will write small, and neatly, like I did on those winged pieces of paper long ago.  I will admire  the blue ink on the blue paper, and think it pretty, those shades of blue. I will take my time to write, then post the delicate envelopes, making a special trip.  I will go inside.

It doesn’t matter what Beth does with my letters once she gets them.  It only matters that she gets them, from me, and that they go par avion.