The Gift of Christmas

Deb's mantleWhile generally speaking Thanksgiving is about being thankful, for many people Christmas is about gift giving. There are multiple tales about the giving of gifts on this day or shortly before or after. Christmas legends are fun to read. One of my favorites is about La Befana, an old lady from Italy. It is she who leaves the gifts for children on or around Christmas. The story goes she missed out on the actual birth of the holy child and so leaves all children gifts hoping not to miss out.

Lately my mail has been flooded with appeals. Every charity I give to throughout the year and quite a few I never do has sent me an urgent letter stating its need. Some hope to sweeten the pot by saying a donor has offered to match every donation if it comes in before a certain date. Giving at Christmas is built into our society; however, it is also a tradition that is so old it is part of the body of thinking that in psychological terms is called the collective unconscious.

Many people at this season disregard that way of thinking and deplore the emphasis on gift giving, calling it materialistic, or a symbol of our greedy society. They may be right in their way; however, I wonder if they have considered the inspiration to give that is inherent in Christmas. The focus in many ads is all about buying for others, for those on your Christmas list, and so forth. No one has much to say about buying gifts for yourself.

Actually, it is a good idea to buy yourself a Christmas/Holiday gift—at least one. I am a firm believer in giving to oneself as well as to others. That way you don’t feel deprived if you don’t get much back. To be sure, giving with unconditional love—likely the best way to give, means giving without expectations. Yet this is much easier when you give to yourself, perhaps purchased something you really wanted, or bought a highly personal item that no one is apt to give to you.

I believe the true gift of Christmas is the inspiration to give that it inspires. Depending on their belief system, many will tell you what the basis is for this tradition. For them this may be very important, yet from St. Nicholas to Santa, from the Three Kings to La Befana, whatever the inspiration may be, the gifts in the stockings and under the tree spell Christmas/Solstice/Chanukah /Kwanza, and perhaps other days, for us all.

Mementos of Friends Are Special

3musketeersI took the red and white baking dish out of the drawer under the oven and set it on the counter. An image of the person who had given it to me rose in my mind, and I sighed. We had been friends for many years. Now however she had joined the angels that she so often spoke of. Her faith was strong and she shared it on occasion though not intrusively. A colorful character, she was always fun to see and over the years she had given me other gifts I cherished.

As I reached to put on my earrings, I opened a small trinket box and fished around for a tiny plastic “ear nut.” I keep a lot of them in it, ready to make sure I don’t lose a precious earring. The pretty little box with a woman on the lid was another gift from a special friend and I think of her always when I open it to get one. There is a pair of cute stretchy pants in my drawer, a present from a friend who has moved away, so I don’t see her any longer. I am happy to have this reminder of her and of our friendship.

The lovely glass vase I use for flowers when they arrive as a gift reminds me of a friend who lives in another state, too far to visit. Happily, email does help us keep in touch. These and other things are my special treasures, more precious to me than any glittering object in a catalog, because they remind me of someone dear and special. I feel most fortunate in my friends. One of them recently made me a special birthday picture that I frequently glimpse on the shelf next to my bed.

Treasured items come and go, and we cannot hold onto everything we cherish. Some vanish and others fall apart. There are some we hold especially dear because of how they were acquired. They bring us the memory of the giver and perhaps even the circumstances of the giving.  I have a lovely shawl my daughter knit for me. I feel the warmth of her love whenever I wear it. I also have the memory of the time we spent together choosing the wool. It is a pleasure to enjoy the remembrances attached to the gifts friends have given me.

Life is shorter than we know when are young. Each day is more precious than we can imagine while we move through our busy weeks. It is easy to forget to take notice of what may pass away unexpectedly, or be buried in the inundation of our to-do list. When I glimpse them, these gifts and many more from other dear ones are good reminders to stop, say a short prayer of thanks and wish the giver well. Whether or not we are still able to communicate, I cherish what we had while we had it and give thanks for it and for them, always.

 

 

The Wonderful Jacket

Tasha in hood 2Those of us who come from New England are familiar with Yankee thrift: use it up, make do, or do without. I am of a conserving nature, having in addition to a Yankee father, a German mother born at the outset of WWI. Nothing was ever wasted in the house I grew up in. I thrived on hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds. Over the years I have accumulated clothing items I am happy to see again when their season rolls around. I often develop a fondness for clothing that has served me well.

Recently as I pushed my wagon through the aisles of a grocery store, I saw a woman standing by the meat counter in a unique and lovely white furry jacket. “I can’t resist telling you I think your jacket is magnificent,” I told her. She laughed and said it was from the 70’s, yet she could never bear to part with it. “Nor should you,” I replied. We each continued on our way, pushing our shopping carts in opposite directions.

I smiled to myself. I was wearing a jacket I have had for close to thirty years. It is a fairly ordinary, black, nylon one, with some very useful pockets. Black fur edges the hood. It is warm and comfortable, and probably unremarkable as jackets go. However the story of how I acquired it and what has been done to it since makes it special.

On a trip to the Cape many years ago, Stephen and I were in a consignment shop, poking around. I saw the jacket hanging on a rack, and figured I might be able to use it. I took it down, intending to try it on. “If you can zip it up you can have it,” said the woman behind the counter. I looked down at the zipper and saw that it was slightly frayed on the bottom and could be a bit challenging. When I tried it on I liked the feel of the jacket and resolved to see if indeed I could zip it.

Very carefully I inserted the frayed end into the metal slot and continued to be careful as I zipped it all the way up. The saleswoman was good at her word and gave me the jacket without charge. In the ensuing years I went on zipping it up carefully until finally one year I invested in a new zipper. Along the way parts of the jacket lining began to wear out. I was fortunate in having friends who at different times were able to repair the worn places in the lining so that it looked almost new.

Now when I put on my wonderful warm winter jacket I remember my friends and their generous work on my behalf. I also think how fortunate I was to have found it, been able to zip it up and to have it still after all these many years. What keeps me warm in it is more than the lining or the material, it is the memories and the love of friends that has been sewn into it. How could I ever part with this jacket? I believe I never could, nor do I ever wish to.

 

Making My Own Music

A musician by avocation, from the time I was a young child I was usually involved in some kind of music making. I’ve always loved to sing, and I can remember singing to my mother when I was quite small. At my grade school, weekly music classes the teacher played the piano as we sang British folk songs and music from Gilbert and Sullivan, typed and collected into a loose leaf notebook. Later the same teacher gave me private piano lessons. These ended after two years for two reasons: I found the practice songs to be boring and my mother, an amateur musician and child prodigy on the violin, disliked my fumbling attempts at learning the piano. She didn’t even like it when I played around on the piano keys, making my own music for myself. She would scold me for “making noise” as she called what I thought of as music.

Later I sang in various choruses at various schools and then in my church choir. To my delight one year my then husband bought me a guitar for my birthday. I began teaching myself to play. There followed a number of years playing and singing in coffee house, at hootenannies, and then professionally for parties and special occasions. I even volunteered at the local hospital, playing for the patients every week or so. My mother seemed pleased that I was following in the family musical tradition. Encouraged by her, and a poet by inclination I began to write my own songs. The melodies were simple, reminiscent of the many folk songs and hymns I had sung over the years.

Although I enjoyed playing the guitar, from the time I was a young child the idea of playing the harp had attracted me. However the many strings of the large harps looked difficult compared to the guitar and surely transporting one would be a nightmare. Then I injured my shoulder and because of the position required for me to play it, had to retire my guitar. After reading many articles on the importance of keeping the older brain alive, and disliking the recommended suggestion to do crossword puzzles, I decided to try a smaller folk harp. Searching the internet I discovered a lap harp with a playable nineteen strings and purchased it from the maker along with a book to learn from.

I spent a respectable amount of time teaching myself the initial songs and techniques. As I advanced, the lessons became increasingly difficult. I realized I was losing interest in playing. I felt frustrated and began to neglect my harp, even allowing it to get out of tune. My mother’s former diatribes from the days I used to play on the piano rather than practice my lessons had come back to haunt me. Then one day I realized I didn’t have to play actual songs, I could do ass I liked. I could just enjoy myself, making musical sounds; I could play for fun. I began to do that. Spontaneous tunes emerged in my head and then from my fingers. Now playing my harp has become a treat and the music I make from my heart has become a daily joy.

Pleasure Can Take Many Forms

As regular readers of my column know by now, my mother really did not like to cook. She did what she had to do to feed her family. However, at least as far as I can remember preparing meals gave her no pleasure. Nor did she want my father to cook because, she said, he burnt everything. Perhaps he was impatient or perhaps he wasn’t watchful. I don’t know because I never saw him in the kitchen except to mix cocktails.

The only household chore I ever knew him to do was to polish the silver. My mother refused to do that and I do not blame her in the least. It is a dirty, tedious job. My father however seemed to enjoy it. I have a memory of him in an apron made from black and white striped mattress ticking material, vigorously polishing some of the lovely silver items he had inherited or been given by family members.

I on the other hand have always derived great pleasure from preparing food, baking, and providing meals for loved ones. For years I collected recipes. In the 80’s I wrote a cookie cookbook as well as a completely refined sugar free general cookbook with many recipes I had created. In those desserts I used only honey or maple syrup. Now even that kind of baking, along with a lot of other recipes I enjoyed making over the years, is history.

Recently I was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires severely restricting my carbohydrate intake. This has resulted in a major upheaval in both my eating and my cooking. In addition to sugars I have had to stop eating rice, pasta and potatoes. Thus I have had to eliminate many favorite comfort food recipes. I can no longer eat the Chinese fried rice I specialized in, the home fried potatoes or the shrimp scampi I enjoyed making as well as eating.

Then along came some difficult news. This caused a reaction I did not expect. I found myself in a depressed state and developed new aches and pains. I kept asking myself why was this happening? Then I realized I had been limiting most of my pleasure to cooking and eating. This is not to say I wasn’t doing fun things or having enjoyable experiences other than with food, however, I had concentrated principally on food related pleasure. I no longer regularly practiced other experiences I found pleasurable, like playing my harp or coloring.

Pleasure can rebalance the body’s ph and help keep us healthy. So now I am working to discover ways besides eating and cooking to give myself pleasure. In so doing I have rediscovered hobbies from the past like embroidery and begun to watch favorite old TV shows we have on DVD. I am spending more time with my harp, simply playing for the pleasure of it rather than working to learn tunes. I got out my coloring books and blank paper pads and began to color and as well as to draw. As time goes by I expect to enjoy new pleasures as well and look forward to discovering them. Meanwhile I already feel better.

A Memorial Day Remembrance

DSCF0171-1My father’s father died in World War One when my dad was six years old. I can still see the picture of them both that stood on top of our piano in my childhood home. It was in an old fashioned, gold toned frame partnered by one of my Great Grandmother on the other side. Tinted brown, it showed a handsome man in an army officer’s uniform wearing riding boots—he was in the Calvary, standing opposite a small boy in a sailor suit, saluting his father. It may have been the last picture ever taken of him. My grandmother never remarried but raised my father and his brother alone.

My father was a colorful character who dressed as he chose and did things the way he wanted. Although he didn’t care too much what others thought, he was in many ways a traditional person. Every Sunday he attended the Episcopal Church in the neighboring town where he had grown up, and where my grandmother had endowed a stained glass window dedicated to her late husband. On the rare occasions I attended it with him as a child, I would gaze up entranced at the light shining through the image of a knight in armor with a face that seemed to me to resemble the man I’d never met, surrounded with emblems symbolic of his life.

A square in the center of that town was dedicated to my grandfather. He was a decorated hero and had been awarded a medal posthumously. Each Memorial Day the parade of marchers would stop there and a member from the American Legion would place a wreath of Laurel leaves on the hook on the pole beneath the sign that bore his name. My grandmother and later my father would add a big bunch of red carnations. I can remember one year my father lifted me up so I could do it. Each year we went as a family for the ceremony.

My father also decorated the graves of two elderly friends who had come from England to live in our town. Their pink marble gravestones still stand out among the somber gray granite of the rest of the local cemetery. He had been fond of them and I remember his taking me to visit them when I was very small.

My father’s grave is in a family cemetery on Cape Cod where some of his ancestors lived and worked. It is too far for me to travel to easily. His headstone, a simple boulder with a brass plaque, was his unique choice for his grave. It stands out boldly among the more traditional gravestones of his ancestors and the other members of his family. He was an individualist to the end.

On this Memorial Day as always I honor my late father in my heart. When I donate to a charity I know he would have given to, when I pray in my own fashion for the good of others, as well as when I emulate his kind nature and unique sense of fashion, I am honoring his memory. I cannot place flowers on his grave nor can I tend it as I would if I lived nearby; I can honor his memory in my own way by how I live my life and carry on in the way he taught me to do.

Tasha Halpert

 

Time is a Strange Accordian

Waters Farm View 3

When I was a child, school and playtime defined my days. My years were divided into summer and other vacations, weeks by weekends and school. My clothing was defined by the weather, although I do remember sometimes having to wear dresses in the winter, which even with knee socks were not as warm as pants would have been. However, pants were not an option then for girls. I also remember corduroy jumpers, and once I had a woolen kilt I dearly loved.

Later when I became a wife and mother, the needs of my husband and children determined the parameters of my life. Schedules were important, the days to do what was necessary, such as laundry and errands, intertwined with doctor’s appointments and school functions. The definitions of my life inspired these parameters, and helped me to maintain a sense of order. Now that my life has become that of a semi retired writer, the parameters and definitions have loosened up, yet even after all these years, they still exist.

The other day as Stephen began stripping the bed I shook my head in amazement. How was it possible that a week had gone by so quickly? It seemed as though we had only just done that. It is true that as I gain in years, time seems to have speeded up. I notice this most when I realize how quickly certain tasks come around again to be done.

I don’t have set days to do the laundry. Except for the day we change the sheets, I do it when it has accumulated to a point that it needs doing. However, the size of our washing machine defines the amount that can be washed at any one time. For instance, it will accommodate two sheets nicely; the pillowcases are better washed with another load of clothing.

Stephen and I write and send in our columns each week. That is another parameter. Whenever we may write them, Sunday is our deadline for submitting them. We don’t have a particular day when we grocery shop. That is done on an as needed basis. Being semi retired writers we have more freedom without the 9 to 5 limitations that people in the workaday world may have.

I get out our supplements once a month and divide them into daily envelopes. I am truly amazed at how quickly it becomes time to do this again. Thinking about the way that time seems to shrink or grow, I once wrote a poem with the line, “Time is a strange accordion.” When I look back the years seem to compress and five seems like two, with twenty becoming five.

Today the laundry, tomorrow the correspondence, my time is defined by doing. While I pursue my life the stars call me to gaze into their burning hearts where time is flame. The routines of my life do in some ways define my days, yet within the parameters of those routines there are poems to write and sunsets to observe, gifts to be given and hugs to be received. Making full use of whatever time I have seems to me to be the best way to enjoy life.

Tasha Halpert