Winter Shopping

I am not a big shopper. Most often when I do get around to it, I am sitting in front of a keyboard, while sitting on my sofa and flipping through Netflix offerings will clicking on ads that entice me on Facebook.

I have never liked to shop, especially for clothes, and my forays into clothing stores are more about restocking inventory than shopping sprees. Shopping implies discovery and adventure, a certain excitement and delight. Restocking implies exactly what it is, a list that instructs “one of these, four of those, a pack of those unless they can be purchased separately, then get two.”

And let’s face it, customer service—remember customer service?—has died a slow and painful death, has been dying for years, and some days it seems that it is as dead and buried as our ancient forbearers.  Now there is much discussion about the death of “brick and mortar” stores, and we have a shuttered mall to prove it. It has orphaned brothers and sisters all over the country, and I have sat on my sofa and contributed to their demise, and chalked it up to progress, and congratulated myself on moving with the times.

But then, one day, my phone wouldn’t work. That very sophisticated and expensive bit of technology from which I am inseparable, had a malady, and there was nothing to do but make an appointment with a twelve-year old “genius,” who hangs out at his “bar” at the Apple store, and so I signed up—on line and with some complications—for an appointment, on Wednesday, at 1:30, in Nashville.

It was a cold and rainy day, the middle of the week, in the middle of winter, and we pulled into the Dillard’s adjacent to The Mall at Green Hills. My pal, Alice, was having Apple troubles, too, so we had dual appointments and some time to kill. I had a wedding coming up and, while I had ordered some clothes, and then some shoes, I thought, why not take a gander in Dillard’s, just for the fun of it.

Well. You all.

Shiela was there, folding clothes and looking a tad bored, and since I was only one of two customers who seemed to be on the entire floor, she made a beeline for me, and help me she did. She was great. It was old school customer service, with honest opinions, and multiple trips to get me different sizes, and I left with an armload of things, all giggly at my good fortune and with feelings of genuine warmth for Sheila.

On my way to find Alice, I passed the Bobbi Brown counter, and Elliot was there, fussing around with the displays in a half-hearted way. He perked right up when I asked about the pot rouge and he fixed me right up with color, and lipsticks and an expensive but magical brush. Then he spent a good fifteen minutes showing me how to use that brush.

I looked fabulous.

Alice was having the same kind of luck over at the Origins counter. We carried our treasures—for they were treasures, so small and dear—in their nice little bags and blew kisses over our shoulders. Elliot and Alice’s person blew kisses back. I swear, it seemed as if we did, as we floated toward the escalator in the embrace of such goodwill.

We got a bit lost trying to find the mall from Dillard’s, but no worries…Tate saw our confusion and walked us to the door, then over the pedestrian walkway and waited and watched to make sure we found the mall’s back entrance.

I swear, it was if they had opened Dillard’s just for us. And the service at the Apple store was superb, too. And the Cheesecake Factory. Williams-Sonoma. Lush. Sundance. Nordstrom’s. And all the shops we popped into.

And we didn’t even venture into the fanciest and finest. Those scenes from old 60’s movies finally made sense, the images of the idle rich shopping with abandon, think Mrs. Maisel sashaying through Manhattan with bags and boxes stacked taller than the doorman’s head.

They say that bricks and mortar stores aren’t dead, but are transforming. Shoppers—read that millennials— love to shop, but want not just for goods, but for experiences. I get that, too. Shopping as theatre, spectacle, entertainment. Let me say, if retailers can deliver that, all presented with the big bow of outstanding customer service, then sign me up.

I will take a second job just to be able to see Elliot again.

Flesh and Blood – A Memorable Memoir

A year or so back, a friend gave me a copy of a beautifully crafted memoir entitled “Of Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Sicknesses.” It is written by Dr. Turner, from “Call the Midwife,” or more accurately, it was written by Stephen McGann, the actor who portrays Dr. Turner. He has chosen a fresh and clever architecture for this book. He uses illness as the load-bearing walls to support the textures and patterns, the shape of his family over time.

Like all good memoirists, he begins with a question. How did the McGanns go from a family of extreme poverty in Ireland to a flock of successful and siblings, actors whose names glittered on marquees, the brothers sharing real estate on theatrical posters, grinning out at us with those larger-than-life and  handsome faces?

How did this occur in a relatively short time, a span of a 150 years or so, especially when so many of the McGanns “failed to thrive” in infancy, died of starvation, in fact, during the potato famine? How was it his branch of the McGanns found their way to Liverpool, still poor, still vulnerable to diseases from overcrowding and poverty, but with hope for a different outcome?

McGann sets out to answer these questions, delving into family birth, marriage and death records, researching illnesses and sussing out secrets, until he comes to the page like a builder might, unfurling his technical drawings, tracing with a finger the medical and historical context of one illness after another, this backward-looking blueprint of how he has come to be, and from whom, and why.

The result is a sophisticated piece of writing, elegant in its use of language, but the real strength of the book lies in the rich and engaging way he tells us about his people. McGann’s work is clear-headed and clear-eyed, honest, deeply personal but never sentimental. You can trust this one, you think, and you are happy to sit with him and hear his stories for as long as he wants to tell them.

As fascinating as “Flesh and Blood” is as a memoir, I was equally fascinated by this.

Stephen McGann became interested in genealogy and he began collecting and researching his family history at a young age—as an adolescent, a high school student—a kid.

I think of genealogy as the great endeavor of the geriatric, the retiree, at the very least the middle-aged.

I am gratified and oddly reassured by his youthful enthusiasm, and I like to imagine him, this young lad with his hair flopping in his eyes, bending over dusty family Bibles, and dustier family records and photos in boxes in attics or basements. Perhaps he shared table space with an octogenarian in a courthouse records room somewhere, as they asked each other, Can you read this—“Is it a T or F?” or “ What is that date? Does that look like a 3 to you?”

In the past week I have talked to my cousin as we have worked to make sense of some new information she has uncovered. She, herself, is recently retired, and a genealogist, and right now she is working on our side of the family.

She can list the names and birth order of my grandmother and her siblings. I can never remember if there were six children or seven. They were born in Indian Territory, 120, 130 years ago.

Granny told us stories of her childhood when we were young. I loved the stories, of course, but when I was the perfect age to start paying real attention—in adolescence, in my twenties—I couldn’t be bothered to ask questions, to write things down.

And now there is no one to ask.

And there is a family mystery.

But there is also a new cousin out there, one we didn’t know about, a granddaughter of one of my grandmother’s sisters, living in Illinois, I think.

With this mystery and this new relative, I am beginning to see the appeal of all this family history business. That genealogy isn’t just a remedy for boredom, like working jigsaw puzzles, something easily done sitting down. There is the hunt, the discovery. There is the unexplainable something —call it resonance, connection—that comes with knowing your people. Knowing their stories. Making sense of those stories, making sense of yourself.

Stephen McGann’s book, “Of Flesh and Blood” sneaked up on me, helped me think of family genealogy in a new way. That the search for family history begins as all good mysteries, as all good memoirs do, with a question, and then another one, and another.

New Year’s Eve –Almost

And what to do with the pittance that remains of 2018? In my misspent youth I would be arranging and rearranging my outfit for New Year’s Eve right about now, would burn up the phone lines with plans and agendas and shopping lists and logistics for the Night of Nights.

Oh, there was high drama, almost certainly, as plans changed, members of my partying posse dropped off the list, or new people had to be accommodated. And what to wear, what to wear? This was the question that kept us up at night, staring at the ceiling, kept us in the mall, kept us perusing the cosmetic counters in search of the perfect shade of blush, lipstick, that hideous blue eye shadow.

We wanted snow and frosted windows to go with our wools of winter white, our sparkly sweaters. Our fellas would appear, dashing in new leather jackets, but shivering like delicate flowers or stray puppies, because, anyone will tell you, leather is cold.

Too often the evening ended, if not in disaster, then disappointment, because no matter the attention to detail, New Year’s in reality would never be mistaken for a snowy and romantic Manhattan soiree, with twinkling lights, and lavish apartments and guests as glittery as the ball in Times Square.

We always knew we were not in New York City, but Owensboro, Lexington, or Louisville, the places I was most apt to ring in the New Year. I I think in those days we just tried too hard, frantically working to have fun, for anything less than a legendary evening was just a total waste of time.

My current outfit for New Year’s now is one of my favorites, something soft and well-worn, and like the sign I saw once advertising an upscale car wash—it delivers the promise of “nuthin’ touchin’ “ I may be with friends and family, and some years I am home before darkness falls. On occasion I am home in time to celebrate the turning of the calendar with Great Britain. 
 One New Year’s Eve I celebrated with the Marshall Islands as I drank my morning coffee, just to get it over with.

I appreciate these quiet New Year’s, and I prepare them, too, but with less fervor and fever, and with more gratitude and warm regards for the year. I am grateful for the year just done—if it was a good one, then thank you very much.

If it was a bad one, or a challenging one, or a sad one, then, I am grateful for its going. And I look to the new year for some relief or a change of perspective and patience.
I buy new notebooks, calendars, journals, and pens. I admire my penmanship on those first few entries, letters lined up like neat little soldiers marching across the page. By February I am back to writing on the backs of envelopes, my letters slanting, illegible—sometimes I can’t decipher what I have just written, and it doesn’t matter anyway.

I will lie awake and reorder my plans as I stare at the ceiling, too lazy to turn on a lamp and write it down, committing it all to memory, awaking with no recall whatsoever. I have given up on some of my organizational interventions and embraced others. I still think the perfect calendar will save me, but I only think of it in the same way I think unicorns might have once been real, or the way I envision a parallel universe—it’s interesting and I am open to the possibilities but it has no relevance in my day to day life.

I enter into this new year a lot calmer than I have in years past. I spent 2018 getting rid of things—objects, activities and obligations that no longer bring joy to my life.
In a recent interview the British actress, Hermione Norris, said that one way she keeps depression at bay is to be mindful of the company she keeps. I read that, then I read it again. It resonated with me. I cast about and took a serious look at who was rubbing off on me in good ways and bad, who causes me pain, who enriches me.

I made some adjustments.

This too, is a kind of uncluttering.

So, come ahead on, 2019.

I will be well-rested and relaxed when you peek over the horizon on a cold Kentucky morning. I will have be lighter and less encumbered. I will be the one drinking coffee and looking east, patiently waiting for you, and a new day, to begin.

2019 – Not Resolutions, exactly, but…

Here are some things I wish to improve in the new year. Not resolutions, because I don’t make those, but just some things to think about and work toward. Things that, in my rich fantasy life, will make me 5’10” tall, thin and blonde.

I had little expectation of enjoying France this fall, beyond seeing my pals, Beth and Kris, and maybe eating some great cheese. I didn’t plan on falling in love with Bordeaux, the vineyards, the lifestyle, and the great service.

That’s right. You heard me.

Great service.

I attribute this, in part, to the crash course in shopping protocol that Beth hissed in my ear before I entered my first shop. The French greet you before the bell stops tinkling, and the custom is to offer a pleasant bonjour in return. And not just any bonjour, but one offered in a sing-song lift, an octave higher than normal.

I excelled at it.

The inflection is almost exactly the same one Czechs use in their greeting and I have years of practice with that. So now I think I have an ear for languages, and am toying with the idea of taking French lessons, because I clearly have a gift, and it is just how I see myself. All five feet, ten inches of me.

Some of my pals met up with some of their pals in London, and when they came home they talked about their admiration for the way their British friends live. Let’s start with the fact that they are just lovely people, down-to-earth and creative, and accomplished in interesting ways. But more than that, my friends were graciously treated, and they both made mention of it.

I wanted to know more about that, so they told me. It is about being invited to their friends’ home and all the attention to detail that surrounds their lives. The food was delicious, well and lovingly prepared. Abundant Everything at table, just, well, right.

The guest room wasn’t large and fussy, but the linens were luxurious. Falling asleep and waking up were events cradled in comfort and ease. Indoor living and outdoor living were seamless, pleasant and easy. Striped sling chairs in the garden, a little table for the lemonade. Flowers well attended.

I have friends who create the same kind of graciousness right here at home. They build fires and read by them, on rainy afternoons or snowy mornings, with coffee and warm socks. Friends who would rather cook for you than meet at a restaurant—because their food is better. Which is true, but it is also true that the act of feeding people, and doing it well, has at the heart of it the gift of time, attention, care.

Graciousness.

Over the holidays a pal and I were talking about our lives, our hopes for the coming year. We were discussing, as always, clutter. I have too much of it, she doesn’t have enough. Naturally neat, she purges and curates her belongings to the point of austerity, and then she feels untethered, impermanent. At which point she goes and gets more stuff, and the winnowing begins anew.

We decided that the idea of gracious living might guide us both. So, I am working on that, one comforter, one bedside lamp at a time.

I ain’t getting any younger and the time has come, is long overdue, for paying attention to my health. Blessed with my father’s prairie stock genes and my mother’s hardy constitution— she could eat anything, could our Gretchen—I am rarely ill and surprisingly fit for someone as out of shape as I am.

I am paying more attention to what I eat, and when, and I find myself committing to memory articles I read about how to tell when a calorie isn’t a calorie, and why we must debunk the myth of metabolism, followed in a few days by new articles on how to fire said metabolism up.

You won’t find me eating kale, or chia seeds. Chia seeds, come on. I tried them once and the gelatinous mess they made in my teeth gave me nightmares for a week. I figure, if chia seeds are a superfood in their native Central and South America, then it is only sporting that a similar, but alternative, superfood must grow around here.

My father would have voted for the pinto bean.

So, I am dedicating myself to healthier eating in the coming year, and working on my house—adding gracious elements, removing clutter. I may download Babble for a laugh. If I can speak French, do I need to be blonde?

Merry Christmas. There. I’ve Said It.

We come into Christmas now, not the Christmas season—that vague and fuzzy time that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey is purchased, sometime mid-November—but finally, truly Christmas.  It rides in on a dark horse, shepherded by the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice.

The solstice is an eve of an eve of an eve, of sorts, as it points us toward the holiday.  The winter solstice occurs on the day that contains the exact instant the North Pole is furthest away from the sun, a tilt of the earth’s axis of 23.5 degrees. This is dictated by the tropical year and not a calendar one so the date moves around.

Even so, the winter solstice always arrives in late December, and occurs at the exact moment of time for everyone on the planet.  On December 21, then, at 4:23 p.m., CST, the earth’s tilt will be at its extreme, and in the next moment, the world begins to right itself. 

Would that everything could be so certain. Holding on would be a little easier.

We don’t know it or pay attention to it, always, but much of our Christmas tradition—the trinkets and trappings of the Yuletide—even the word Yule, by the way—came down to us from ancient celebrations of the solstice.  Candles, fires, greenery, revelry, gathering of friends and family, all have at the heart of it, a vigilant waiting for the return of the light. And then, a few days later, a child, a star, gold and precious resins to celebrate a new and promised light.

We take all this and bind it together and find in it meaning, mysterious and deeply personal.

For the past few years I have begun my holiday season by attending the Lessons and Carols performed by the Wesleyan Chamber Choir. Held at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, it is a worshipful and lovely prelude to Christmas, moving and wonderfully done.  “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” one of my favorites, was part of the program this year, as it often is.

I  don’t know the inspiration for this particular  arrangement, but it bore almost no resemblance to the carol I have known.  A slow carol, it was slowed even more, discordant at times, and the music washed over and around us, wrapping us in something atmospheric and ancient.  It was as if, straining, we might pick out fragments of familiar verses, but really, we were listening to the Northern Lights.

Haunting.  Moving.  Mysterious.

And here we are, a few days away from Christmas, and writing this I am not sure how to proceed. These days we are so easily offended, or told we should be, if only we were more enlightened, more woke. I  want to send you Christmas greetings. It feels as natural as offering a hello or good-bye. It is my tradition. But is it possible to proceed without creating some offense to someone, somewhere?

I doubt it.

No, let’s be more exact.

Is it possible to proceed without creating some offense to someone, somewhere?

Of course not.

Then, let me offer this.

I wish for you the warmest of regards, and hope for you good cheer and blessings—whatever you need right now, and by whatever word you call it—and I wish for you mystery and gratitude and to be surrounded by those people and things you love.  Especially now, in this deep December.

I hope there are cookies.

I would wish you Merry Christmas, which means for me snow globe villages and jingly songs on the radio and Santa Claus and excitement, anticipation and ribbon, and the second chapter of Luke. 

Your Christmas may be secular or religious and or it may not be at all.  Some of us love and embrace it.  Some of us endure it.  Some of us hide until it is over.  However you spend it, I wish for you the assurance, that always at the edge of the darkness, a faithful return of the light.

Comforters, Comfort and Hungarian Geese

I have a pal who cannot sleep, wasn’t a good sleeper even when she was a child.  She is ancient now and it has only gotten worse, so she decided to try one of those weighted blankets. 

You know the ones, kind of like a thunder shirt for dogs, but a blanket, which is heavy and is supposed to provide a nice hefty sense of safety to calm you and send you off to dreamland.

She says it works, sort of, but that some nights it is like sleeping in chain mail, and once she gets settled she can’t extricate herself from the bed until morning.  I am not sure what happens in the morning that makes it easier, but this is what she says. 

And I know it is the truth, because she sends us Snapchats in the middle of the night, all in the pitch black,  just her groggy voice reporting she isn’t asleep, she can’t move, she might die in the night and she wishes us a fond farewell.

An hour later she sends another Snapchat, still nothing to see but a pitch-black screen, and her voice, sleepier now, letting us know she is has been napping and she thinks she likes her blanket after all, and she will talk to us in the morning.

I read them in a dutiful manner, usually around 4:00 a.m., when I awake against my will, no spring chicken myself. Her Snapchats tickle me but I think she is excessive.

Excessive, obsessive, even about that weighted blanket, that is until I bought a really nice set of sheets back in the summer, and then I knew what true obsession was. 

I researched them, compared thread count and finish, made note of provenance and then sussed out if they were both organic and Oeko-Tex certified which means the linens are processed without the use of any toxic chemicals, right down to the threads and buttons, and even the testing process for those  chemicals is environmentally responsible.  The EU is all about  the Oeko-Tex certification, and we know what they are like.

If these sheets were chickens they would be free range.

I didn’t even know I cared about Oeko-Tex certification,  but once I read about it, well, I just had to have it. I settled on a set, which I like very much, and now I, too, am all about my bed and my sleep hygiene. 

Which is a thing.

As winter approaches, I want a down comforter.  I have a lightweight fiberfill comforter I like, but it doesn’t give me that “roasting on an open fire” feeling I find myself craving, so the hunt is on.

The first one arrived in a box so light I thought someone had sent me fresh air, but no, there was a comforter in there, and I gave it some time alone to collect itself and fluff up to a respectable degree, but I must tell you, it was a miserable disappointment.  

It was warm enough, but then, the one I have is warm enough. This one was just too feathery light, something  that most of the reviews raved about.  I thought I wanted something light, too, until I tried it and found I didn’t.

It seems my friend, the insomniac, and her blanket have a point.  While I want to be able to move my limbs once in bed, I think I underestimated how I associate warmth with heft, and had forgotten the importance of the weight of things. Somewhere in my quest for winter bedding, I remembered my grandmother’s quilts, and then blankets thrown over us, one at a time, as the mercury slid south.

The root word of comforter is both a noun and a verb, and that is exactly what I want for my winter bed—something warm to give comfort and to be a comfort, too. It’s harder to find than you think.

I have choices, but shew, it isn’t easy.  There is fill power to consider, and levels of warmth, Hungarian white goose down vs. Siberian down vs. Michigan duck. Box construction vs. baffled, Damask, sateen or German batiste, and Oeko-Tex, most certainly, now that I know what it is.

It feels a little like  choosing a career, a car or a mate.  I’ll live with the decision a long time, and I want to get it right.  But winter is coming.  And like choosing a career, a car or a mate, it is best not to leave it too late.

Shut Up and Eat

No matter how many times I travel to the Czech Republic, no matter how much time I spend there, no matter how culturally sensitive I think I am, I manage to make one mistake after another.

For example:

I newly arrived at the offices of my colleagues at Caritas College of Social Work early on a Tuesday morning, and the way the office area is constructed, I made quite a racket as I climbed the steps and greeted the first colleagues I saw.

Soon there were several of us gathered around, every one of us calling out greetings– here a hug, there a handshake–when one voice rose above the others and asked, “how are you?”

“I am excellent,”  I said, in that expansive way Americans do, an exclamation point at the end.

Some voice in the back of the crowd repeated it, “excellent” with a surprised little laugh, and I didn’t give it much thought, but I remembered it because the tone was one of embarrassed surprise, or something else.


I thought of it again just as I fell asleep that evening, and it came to me. 

When I said I was “excellent,” what I meant was this:

My flights were all on time. I had no trouble negotiating the train and the tram with all my luggage.  I had slept well and felt rested.  I am  so glad to be here,  and I am especially happy to see each of  your  smiling faces, and therefore, in this moment, everything is just perfect, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.  The traveling experience that brought me from Owensboro to Olomouc had been an easy and, therefore,  excellent one.  And look! All of you!

What a Czech hears is this:

“I, Greta McDonough, am an excellent person.  My life is excellent.  Everything about me is excellent.  I have no need for improvement, at all, ever.”

Well, you can see how this might come across.

At lunch that first day I sat with my colleague, Miluska, and I asked how she was.  She wanted to know first, did I want the Czech reply or the American one.

As Americans, when we toss out the casual, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” when we see you, we mean,

“Hi.” 

And we keep walking because we don’t expect (or want) much of an answer beyond, “I am fine.”  When we toss a “how are you” in a Czech’s direction, he or she thinks you mean it, and they have already stopped to tell you how, exactly, they are.  You, on the other hand, have walked past them and already turned the corner, leaving them confused, and I am going say,  hurt.

I asked Miluska for the Czech answer. 

She told me about her weekend (busy) and her general health (okay but she is tired) and also, I think, how she had slept the night before.  Then we turned our attention back to our soup. As we were eating in the school canteen, other colleagues joined us, many surprised to see me, and this necessitated more greetings, more conversations, or so I thought. 

I turned my attention to this person, asking how they have been, then I turned to the person on the other side, and before long I noticed I was the only one who still had food left on her plate.  I was doing the polite table talk that we have been taught.  I was doing the table talk I always do in the Czech Republic or at any social or business gathering where food is served.

But then my friend, Viktor, let me in on a little secret.  It seems that Czech children are taught not to talk while eating.  It is impolite, unsafe. You won’t choke if you don’t talk.  You won’t distract others and cause them to choke, and after you master this rule of etiquette then you will be able to conduct yourself in polite society with confidence and consideration. 

Well, who knew? 

I wondered why the Czechs seem to fall on their food, why restaurants and cafes are so quiet, with perfectly behaved children whispering questions to their parents, if they speak at all. I imagine with some shame the hours of irritation and indigestion I have caused Czech  friends with my mealtime prattle.  What must they have been thinking?
“Won’t she ever shut up?” may be one thing.  “Didn’t her mother teach her any manners?” may be another.

I have almost trained myself to say “dobry den” instead of “how are you?”  Dobry den is a short, quite serviceable  phrase that means, simply, Good day.  It requires nothing but a dobry den in return.

Now, if I can just learn to  shut up and eat…

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