Christmas Eve, 2014

Perhaps you are reading this first thing this morning, coffee in hand, still dark outside. You are up early, not to feed the birds, or for quiet time, but to prepare to work through the list, that list that seems to grow longer every day, no matter how many items you have checked off.

Perhaps you are reading this, mid-afternoon, all out of steam, Ice storm with berries reading for a small diversion, because, really, you are just about at the end of your rope, and the kids are just getting wound up, or wound up again for the fourth time today, and the cookies have burned, and the candy won’t set, and you dribbled something permanent on your favorite Christmas sweater a year ago, and now what will you wear tonight?

Perhaps you won’t read this until tomorrow, or Friday, or at all, because as priorities go on this, one of the busiest days of the year, reading this column ranks somewhere down there between planning the 4th of July fireworks bash and selecting your 2015 fantasy football team.

Bikes in the snowPerhaps you are listening to music, all your favorites. Burl Ives wishing you a “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver Bells” and you think of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, although you don’t have an inkling what to do with them once they are roasted, and there is an ordinance against open flames in the city, but still. And as tiresome as that song might be, we would miss it if it disappeared from the rotation.

Maybe you are listening to Handel’s “Messiah” or some Christmasy Bach. I have my ear tuned to “Once in Royal David’s City,” a song I have heard for years but am just now paying attention to. It isn’t so very old, the tune and lyrics written in the mid-1800’s. It was first poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander, who also gave us “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” and it was set to music by an English organist, Henry John Gauntlett, which explains its majestic swells and why it is often used as a processional hymn at Christmas Eve services.

Carp in tubsMy  friends in the Czech Republic will gather tonight with their families to enjoy their traditional Christmas Eve fare, carp and potato salad. The carp will have been bought live from big vats in the city center, and brought home for a few laps in the family bathtub before, well, you know.

They will save the Christmas cookies and cakes for tomorrow as they spend the day wandering from home to home, pub to pub, toasting each other with slivovice and chilled sweet wine. I have friends with Italian mamas and they will sit down tonight to the feast of the seven fishes.

My southern friends with southern mamas will have a nice glazed—make that candied–ham. My family will gather to circulate around the table in an unending loop, filling our plates with a mishmash of favorites, Czech garlic spread, hot artichoke dip, strong imported blue cheeses which no one eats but the guys and Hannah, my mother’s icebox cookies, a jam cake or two, maybe a ham, maybe shrimp, supplemented by whatever else we had energy to prepare.

We don’t care all that much, as long as we are laughing and the line keeps moving. Christmas Eve can be for a crowd, or for a couple. There can be food lovingly–or grudgingly–prepared, or there can be pizza.

I have spent some Christmas Eves alone, and that has been nice, too, all quiet, and calm, and peaceful. But, if nothing else, on Christmas Eve there should be light. Nothing garish or overly bright. The Christmas tree lights in a darkened room, or here and there a couple of candles.

Or just one. Just enough light to draw the eye, the heart.

Light enough to gaze upon and ponder. Wonder. And wonder some more.

Unlikely Christmas Memories

Don’t look at the calendar if you are faint of heart. This time next week will be Christmas Eve. Panic ensues.

My Christmas tree is  still in a bucket out back, the pine roping still in the backseat of my car, where it had been for some time, and while it gives my errands a lovely pine-forest scent, my mantel would like some festive garb and the the little niches in the living room look pretty bare and sorry, too.

I know a bit about being terrorized by beautiful Christmas decorations. My sister alone has scalped several magnolias in her
neighborhood–some with permission, some, I suspect, without. She travels the streets in darkness, driving slowly, trunk open and clippers on the passenger seat. We try not to look and we never ask.

Her house is festooned–there is no other word for it–with magnolia and three different kinds of pine, a half-mile of gold ribbon and spotlights.  Inside there will be  a fire going. There is nary a cookie baking. It’s not her thing.

Food is my thing, and I pore over cookbooks and even when I get DSCF3337
around to decorating the mantel, I usually throw some walnuts and clove-studded oranges in among the greenery. I buy flour, brown sugar and marshmallow cream in school kitchen proportions, which reminds me. I need to go toss out last year’s, to make room for more.

I rarely get around to all my baking projects but it comforts me to think I might. Where do you think the cloves and walnuts comefudge from? The point is, some of us decorate, some of us bake, some of us just think we are going to do those things, and it doesn’t really matter, as long as what we do brings us joy.

The grey and wintry weather has me thinking of other Christmases, and the ones that come to mind, my favorite moments on Christmas Eve, are the least likely to seem nostalgic and are, by themselves, hardly memorable.

Twenty years ago, maybe more, I was young and working at the college, a new faculty member with other new faculty members. It was Christmas Eve, mid-afternoon. Three of us, unattached and free of responsibility with the exception of showing up at parents’ homes on Christmas Day,  found ourselves at loose ends. Our pals bolted from the office to pick up their kids, get Santa Claus ready, I don’t know what all.

We ended up at Colby’s, talking, enjoying the warmth of the restaurant we had to ourselves, as the staff clattered plates around us, for soon they would close. We watched the snowColby's interior begin, big feathery flakes that wouldn’t add up to much, but delighted us in that moment.

It was impromptu and unhurried, and as companionable an afternoon as I have spent before or since. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about, work, probably, and movies, maybe something philosophical, but only just. A small afternoon, a small moment, but not a Christmas goes by that I don’t think of it.

As a graduate student in Bowling Green, I worked part-time on the crisis line. It fell to me to work on Christmas Eve until midnight. I dreaded it, to be honest.

Statistics tell us Christmas Eve is the hardest day of the year on the lonely, the sad, the broken. The phone, though, was oddly silent until about eight p.m. Then, it rang, and rang and rang, not with crisis calls, but with Christmas greetings.

Our clients were in the habit of calling regularly. Some called every day, every shift, it was their only contact with the outside world. Or, perhaps their therapist asked them to call throughout the week, just to check in, to help keep them on an even keel.

They knew us by name and we knew them. On that evening they  called to see who was the unlucky one to work on Christmas Eve. They called to keep me company. They called to wish me Merry Christmas. That was it. Just checking on me. Making sure I wasn’t too sad.

I thought about it on that long drive home at midnight. The idea of Christmas, how Christmas Eve can be good, without candles, and punch bowls, without even seeing another person’s face, but together all the same.

Or happy and warm in a public place. Snow falling. Safe. I’d give every perfect bow, every pretty cookie for more of that.

christmas tree and ornament


Christmas Music Must-Haves

It appears that we have been in the Christmas spirit since before the turkey was thawed and roasted. Trees are up in homes and have been for weeks. Not at my house, of course. But in yours. And, really, it is lovely, all those Christmas sights and smells, fresh trees, garland, cookies baking, but while I might be a laggard in getting my own home ready, let me join you in a spasm of holiday cheer and talk music.

If you have grown tired of all the standard Christmas music—you know the ones–the compilations by various artists of the same sixteen Christmas standards, then you might want to find some of these. I mean, honestly. After a while, Garth Brooks, Maria Carey and Harry Connick, Jr. begin to sound alike as they beg us to have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.

My friend, Jason, a music connoisseur of the highest order, would suggest the following collections to start your holiday off right. OnTUDOR-CHRISTMAS his list of favorites is “A Tudor Christmas,” given to us by the Choir of Christ Church-Oxford. I have been to Oxford so that alone seems reason enough for me to find this and give it a listen.

He continues with Tori Amos and “Midwinter Graces”, “A Christmas Cornucopia” by Annie Lennox. You remember her. She was one half of the Eurythmics, the best half, as it turns out. Jason will be listening to Jessye Norman’s “Christmastide.” Jessye Norman is an Americanjessye_norman_250opera star, but don’t be put off by that, if in fact, you are tempted to be. Her voice is mesmerizing and compelling and rich as any confection at Christmas should be.

He will be giving the McGarrigle sisters a listen, too, as Kate and Anne perform on their Christmas album, “McGarrigle Christmas Hour.” It shames to say that I don’t know the work of this sister duo from Canada, except for the songs they wrote that are performed by others, Linda Ronstadt and  Emmylou Harris, for example. One song on this album you may be familiar with is “Some Children See Him,” a lovely and touching song that reminds us we are all connected, and it is nice to be reminded of that at Christmas.

The only album on Jason’s list that I know, and by know I mean I can sing along and I can sing all the parts, is “A Light in the Stable” given to us by Emmylou Harris. This one gets a good workout in my car all December long. I purchased the original version of this album back in the early ’80’s. It has been expanded, and while the original was great, the new one is even better.

It now  includes a song by the McGarrigles, as well as Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has an album entitled, “Hymns.” While it isn’t a Beth Chapman Neilsen HymnsChristmas album, it is lovely beyond measure and would fit right in this time of year, what with its offerings of “Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus” and so many more. With Jason’s permission, I would like to recommend a couple of my favorite Christmas albums for your consideration.

The first is Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night…” I know, I know, Sting is all angst-y and well, so Sting, but this album is beautiful, if moody in its way. In selecting the songs for this project he talked about wanting a range of music that reflects the realities as well of the mysteries of Christmas.

Not an album to put on while you are stringing popcorn, but trust me. There will be some evening or grey afternoon in the next few weeks where this will be exactly what you want to hear.

I love Loreena McKennitt, the Canadian singer, harpist, and composer whose music is shot through with Celtic and Eastern Loreena McKennittinfluences and it is dramatic and otherworldly as all get out. She has three Christmas albums that I have, and love, and recommend. They are “To Drive the Cold Winter Away,” “A Winter’s Garden,” and “A Midwinter Night’s Dream.” As their titles are all similar, so are the albums, so just pick one, you won’t be disappointed. Her music is grounded and mystic at the same time, with rich cellos and instruments you can’t even name.

Perhaps these suggestions will help round out your Christmas collection and set the tone while sparing you Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer on an endless loop.

In Flanders Fields

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row…” So begins the poem by John McCrae, a Canadian brigade doctor engaged in the Second Battle of Ypres, during The War to End All Wars. World War I. Dr. McCrae wrote the poem, it is thought, sometime after the burial of a comrade who was killed by an exploding grenade near him.

The poem goes on to speak of the larks, still singing in the sky, high above the devastation and death that lies below. This detail, the singing larks, and the feel of a low country breeze—these normal things—move through the boys’ letters homes, their journals, their memories.

american dough boysFor they were boys, most of them, caught up in the Great War, and for those lucky enough to return home, the war haunted their dreams with its cruelty, it’s unmitigated horror. This war, fought from fox holes, tunnels, and across broad fields, has all but slipped the pages of the high school history books, getting a few pages of ink, not much more.

Even so, anyone reading “Lord of the Rings” has read about this war. J.R.R. Tolkien has given us a glimpse of the war, even though he would state that the impact of the war in which he fought had limited impact on his writing. But surely the war shaped some of the imagery he used, and some have said reading “Lord of the Rings” is eerily similar to reading accounts of World War I.

Real accounts, historical and fictionalized, exist, however. Two of the best are these. “The Guns of August” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The historian, Barbara Tuchman, says of her approach to writing history, “I make up nothing, not even thewwI trenches weather.” For “The Guns of August” she culled her research from primary sources, letters, journals, news accounts, military logs, and if she wrote that the sun rose at dawn as a flaming red ball, it is because she read in numerous accounts of those there on that morning that the sun, did indeed, rise in the sky as a flaming red ball. Her research is meticulous, and she visited each battlefield in the season in which the battle was fought, so that she might understand not only the facts but the atmosphere, the weather, the way the light falls across the fields in fall, let’s say, or winter.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, tells the story of six German soldiers suffering physical and mental hardship in the war. It is an apolitical account of war, seen from the lowest vantage point, the view of the foot soldier, and it could as easily have been written by an American, a Canadian, or a Brit. The war experience at its most basic must surely be universal.

My grandfather fought in World War I. He slept in French barns, he admired the little German towns and villages, even though it was the Germans he was there to fight. He spent time in Koblenz—I stayed there over sixty years later. It was late, we were traveling by train and running out of options for places to lay our heads, and someone took pity on two backpacking girls and led us to a pensione.

The next morning we woke from a restful sleep, swaddled as we were in eiderdown, to a pretty town on the banks of the Rhine, just where it joins the Moselle. As I recounted my trip to my grandmother, she told me then that my grandfather had been to Koblenz, admired it, admired the German people, even though it was they we were fighting, which baffled him.

poppies 2Traveling through the French and Belgian countryside one is struck by the vibrant poppies bobbing on slender stems. It reminds us of dreamy watercolors by Monet. After Dr. McCrae’s poem,–after the end of the war on November 11, 1918, at 11 o’clock, in the eleventh month, after the boys came home–the poppy took on a deeper, more solemn meaning.

The poppies we see on the lapels of our British cousins at this time of year are known as Remembrance Poppies. They stand in stead for the fallen. The field poppy, this delicate flower, blooms in the late summer in Belgium and France. It bloomed against the odds during the war in fields turned over and utterly destroyed, bloomed where their seeds had fallen the year before. Bloomed in the smoke and fog of war. Bloomed in fields brown and barren and littered with spent artillery shells. Bloomed with and around the fallen.


Scary Movies — BOO!

As a child, my sister loved nothing better than a good story about “Bloody Bones” right before she went to bed. My father would oblige her, sitting on her bed and using that tone of voice adults use to convey mystery and suspense and I hated it, lying in my bed on my side of our tiny room. This was heap big fun for those two and I never understood why Bloody Bones was an acceptable bedtime activity and my telling Kathy that the world was coming to an end tonight, was not. Many were the nights Daddy would wake me from a dead sleep because he had found her quivering in bed, her tiny heart trying to get right with God, as I snored on. He didn’t see the humor it it, and at precise moment, neither did I. I don’t go in much for horror movies. I always think they are apt to be accounts of actual events. But if you want some quality viewing this weekend of some of the best scary movies, let me recommend the following. You may keep your Jasons, your Freddie Kruegers, your Chuckys and his bride. I believe this list encompasses the creepy, scary and bizarre, but does so with style and taste. The 1970’s was a rich time for horror films. First on my list is the 1977 flick, “The Sentinel.” I saw if at the dollar theatre on Western’s campus, and it was frightening, suspenseful, disgusting and gross, in equal measure. I saw it twice. Hated it both times, but there was something about it. I suspect the language was terrible, and I know some of the scenes at the gates of Hell bordered on the depraved, but it starred a young Tom Berringer, Christopher Walken, Christina Raines, and Beverly D’Angelo. Oh, yes, and Burgess Meredith. Nobody did creepy like he did creepy. carrie“Carrie,” in the original, was also a 1970’s horror flick, starring a young Sissy Spacek, who went on to bigger and better things, and William Katt, who did not. This might have been the first movie with the passioncarrie bloody play subplot of all the bad acting teenagers getting what they deserve. John Carpenter raised the ante with in his seminal movie, “Halloween,” which served as a model for all the following movies involving teenagers. He directed it on the slimmest of budgets, $325,000, and it went on to gross 70 million dollars world-wide. Michael Meyers, the murderous teenaged escaped mental patient, wore a two dollar Captain Kirk mask, spray-painted white. The audience spends some time inside that mask, seeing what Michael michael in the stairwaysees, and we hear his breathing, and it is subtle, yet confusing, and horrifying, too. I won’t watch it alone. We also have “The Omen,” all about Damien, the little adopted Antichrist, and you won’t believe it, but he kills people left and right, in all sorts of ways, usually through unexplained accidents. The search is on, then, for his true origins, The Omenand wouldn’t you know it, his mother was a jackal. Starring my man, Gregory Peck, it’s a really good one. One of the scariest movies you might want to find this weekend is a children’s movie–and I am not kidding you–a Disney film, called, “Something Wicked this Way Comes.” It is based on a story by Ray Bradbury and it involves an evil carnival, as of course it would, and it seems to be shot entirely at night, even something wicked green and blackthe daytime scenes, and it stars Jason Robards and Diane Ladd and some other people you probably don’t know. Lots of rattling leaves and unexplained thumps and bumps. Not really for young children. But the granddaddy of them all, the best of the best, has to be this old childhood favorite, “The Wizard of Oz.” When I was a child it came on once a year, usually at Easter time. Why, I couldn’t possibly say. But of all the movies then, or since, it is this one that has haunted my dreams, given me nightmares, and sent me scurrying through the dark halls of my house looking for my mother. The tornado, Miss Gulch turning into the Wicked Witch through the swirling window, the fire ball she tosses to the Scarecrow on the Yellow Brick Road, “Surrender Dorothy” written in the sky. Flying monkeys, people! The soldiers…ho-eee-yo…until finally, the Wicked Witch melts into a pool of herself, mourning “all her lovely wickedness.” Shew.

Eating and Sleeping

Fall Break is over and it is time to get back to normal, and by normal I mean get back to work and I found some interesting things to share with you in all my reading.

I think you will approve, gentle reader.

There is new research out on two of my favorite subjects, eating and sleeping. If the research bears out and if we play our cards right, it can be a holiday every day and we won’t have to go to warm climes to rejuvenate.

Let’s start with the new research concerning pasta. For a while there it was thought, and frankly, the U.S. Government is still flogging the idea,that to lose weight and be healthy we should  eat a diet high in carbohydrates. Oh, sure, we were supposed to be eating vegetables, beans and grains, with limited fats and protein.

imagesBut recent research suggests that, really, it is not grains, even whole grains, that aid in weight loss but the low carb diet, with what few carbs one does enjoy, coming from vegetables like broccoli and sprouts.sanjay gupta

Even Sanjay Gupta says so.

And yet, one of the most comforting foods, one of the easiest foods to prepare in delightful and surprising ways is pasta. I love the Italians for their great art and sense of style, but I would trade every Pieta in existence for a big ole bowl of fettuccine.

Pasta makes us fat because it turns to sugar very quickly and much too quickly for most of us to use the energy it produces, so it is stored as fat. But before that happy trick, the starch in pasta spikes our blood sugar, and that does all sorts of things to us, none of them good or pleasant.

According to Dr. Denise Robinson, a senior nutrition scientist at the University of Surrey, this is how normal starch reacts in the body, and that it is made up of tangled chains of glucose sugar molecules that break down easily and are quickly stored. Blood sugar spikes, insulin spikes, and then you get that sugar drop and feel hungrier than before you ate.


But, you all.

images copy 2New research suggests that if we cook our pasta first, let it cool, then re-heat it, the starch in the pasta changes from normal starch to resistant starch, and that is a very good thing. It means that the starches take longer to break down, and in fact, are no longer broken down in the small intestine but in the large intestine, where it takes longer to digest, avoiding the sugar spikes, and much of it gets passed around your system as fiber—aways a welcome traveler.

There are other health benefits, too, and I don’t know about you but I find this outstanding research and pray it continues. So, experiment with it. Fix it, refrigerate it, reheat it, you won’t know the difference. Any Italian restaurant will tell you

Then, there is this about sleep. We know that the hormones that regulate metabolism are produced at night while we sleep. But we must experience a certain quality of sleep to reap the most health benefits.

We also know that the light from iPads, cell phones, and televisions emit blue light, which is the same wavelength as morning light, and it wakes our brains up, just when they should be powering down to rest.

images-1 copy It is believed that for humans to get full and restorative sleep, they should sleep in the pitch black. Even ambient light from the streetlamp can disrupt our snooze time. The subtle glow from the alarm clock, ditto. All of this messes with our circadian rhythms and that hurts our metabolisms.

I do a lot of tossing and turning at night, waking at odd times and feeling out of sorts, so I decided to experiment with this. I can’t fix the ambient light that comes into my bedroom. I don’t have an eye mask, thinking, as I do, they are a bit affected.

So last week I couldn’t sleep and I rooted around until I found an old bandana and I tied it over my eyes, and lay there, like a goner, due to be shot at dawn. I don’t know if it was the lateness of the hour or what, but I fell right into a deep and restful slumber, and slept right through dawn, thankfully, and into morning, and would be sleeping still if it weren’t for my cell phone chirping away.

Vacation All Week Long

The house is quiet as I write this. My travel mates are somewhere–maybe walking on the beach, maybe still asleep, why, they might have packed up and left me here for all I know. It’s been that kind of week, and wonderful.

We wander around, each in her own little world, and we pass quite companionable hours in the same room without speaking to each other. This one sits on the balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. That one walks through the door shedding sand while checking her Fitbit for accumulated steps. Me, I always seem to be just waking up. From a nap. From a nine hour sleep. From the exhaustion that comes from finishing a book. I’ve read three, by the way, here at the midpoint of the vacation. If I choose wisely I might be able to clock another three before we pull out of the parking lot in the early morning dark as we make our way home.

Here is a synopsis of our conversations in their entirety. “Did you sleep well?” “Should I make more coffee?” “Hand me the sunscreen.” “Where will we eat tonight?” That last one we broach before nine o’clock each morning and serious and complicated discussions ensue throughout the morning and afternoon. We always eat at the first place mentioned, but still, it seems to reassure us that we are intelligent and capable women who deal with complex issues with thoroughness and depth. It’s as close to work as we get.IMG_0135 There is something liberating about being of a certain age and hanging at the beach. In my youth I spent hours, days thinking about and assembling “outfits.” The perfect swimsuit, the cutest shorts, the little tops with spaghetti straps to keep the tan going and to ensure trips to the dermatologist later in life. No one could be more ill-prepared for a trip to the beach than I. My sister provided my beach towels, including a really nice one meaghan at the beachbelonging to Meghan. We don’t know who Meghan is or how my sister’s family came into possession of her towel, but it is very thick and colorful with her name embroidered on it. It has been a favorite all week, and we have fought over it.

My swimsuit, well, lets just say it is an embarrassment and leave it at that. And I only have the one, not multiples as I packed in my youth. Some days I don’t even wear it to the beach, opting instead for baggy shorts and a tee-shirt. As I teen I could imagine nothing worse, more sordid and repulsive than wearing clothes to the beach. It seemed a sacreledge not to expose every inch of skin that was humanly decent to the punishing sun, all in anticipation of lying in bed of an evening, sick with fever and pulsing as the soft sheets pricked my burning skin like needles.

When Nick, the cute boy who rents the chairs, came around to set our umbrella, we made sure he positioned it so that half our bodies would be in shade at any given time of day. He was sweet and accommodating, reassuring us he would be close by to make any changes we requested as the day went on. He all but kissed our cheeks as he might his aging aunties.

I don’t even have a pair of sunglasses. I am wearing my friend, Jackie’s, because she has two pairs. When the sun gets too bright I throw my sarong over my head, or across my legs, and I am pretty sure instead of a those crisp tan lines I worked on as a kid, I will come home with a mosaic of blotches, and I won’t even try to hide them.

There is an art to doing nothing, and while I can do nothing with a vengeance at home, it is usually in the service of the avoidance of doing something. This beach vacation is different. When I counted up the years that have passed since I spent a week at the beach–or anywhere—with nothing at all to do, it was shocking, the lapse of time. I don’t know when I might be back to the beach, but I can tell you this. I won’t wait so long next time. I will be on some beach, with Meghan’s towel, books and tee-shirts and no alarm clock anywhere.

Jackie Rogers
Jackie Rogers
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