Sunday, December 27, 2009

Finally, it's over for another year...

What is it in human nature that pushes us to buy into the Hallmark card holidays? We invest an inordinate amount of time, effort, and usually far too much money into a single family gathering, thinking that one day of forced togetherness will somehow make up for the other 364 days of squabbling and emotional distance. It doesn’t, of course, even if we manage to get through the day itself with gritted teeth, pasted-on smiles, and carefully avoided conversational topics. Too many people crammed into a too-small living area do not make for a memorable occasion, at least for me. And I don’t know of anyone who can honestly say they do not heave a sigh of relief when the door closes on the last guests, or the car pulls out of the drive, headed for the peace and quiet of home.

I would so much rather see us spend quality time together more frequently, in much smaller groups, when we can actually hear one another talk about something other than the weather and the latest TV reality show. Letters may be passé, but email is a great way to stay in touch quickly and regularly – and I don’t mean the Fwd: Fwd: Fwd messages. Even grandparents have email these days, at least in our family. Phone calls work, too, and hey, guess what? The phone rings at both ends! A quiet meal, a cup of coffee (or tea!), a walk in the park – those are the moments of emotional connection and relationship-building that mean the most to me. I can do without the holiday hoopla with its unrealistic expectations and over-hyped anticipation of…something.

Lunch, anyone?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Now - it's all we have

So – I let my ego self get the best of me today. While waiting ever so patiently (NOT!) for the arrival of my first authored book, all the months and weeks this project has entailed (19 months, so far, since the contract was signed in April 2008) caught up with me and I had a meltdown right in the middle of the kitchen, crying on the floor over spilled puzzle pieces, not milk.

I’ve been doing pretty well with the waiting since the final proof was approved and returned to the publisher in August. They’ve been promising delivery by Christmas, and it’s getting awfully close. I received an email Thursday morning (12/17) saying the publisher’s copies had been received at their offices in Texas and to expect our delivery that same day or the next. It’s now 6 p.m. Saturday and nothing. WHERE’S MY DAMN BOOKS?!

Ok, sorry, thought the meltdown was over.

Rather than addressing the rising tension of the past few days and taking a little extra time in morning meditation to deal with it, I’ve been fiddling with mindless distractions. Baking has been one; yesterday, I cleaned the house top to bottom. Today…I was running out of things to occupy my hands and my mind, so I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle mystery thing that has been collecting dust for several years. After an hour or so sorting pieces and trying to connect all the edges to complete the frame, I realized I needed the kitchen table for dinner (duh!). I scrubbed the filthy card table which had collected two season’s worth of crud on the back porch, found a table cloth, and started moving pieces from one table to the other on the back of a poster board…and dropped a whole tray full. The dogs looked at me rather oddly when I plopped down on the floor in the midst of the scattered bits and cried, but they cuddled in and settled down to wait. Good puppies!

Geo showed up a few minutes later and, bless him, joined us on the floor until I collected myself. I realized then I’d been avoiding the whole issue and letting tensions build for the past two days. I’m better now – a glass of wine helps! – and I’ll wait, semi-patiently, for the arrival of the tangible evidence of my work. Until then, I need to occupy myself with more work, not with avoidance and escape into fantasies of what will happen when the books arrive. Today is what matters.

“Life can be found only in the present moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh

That’s the moment I need to be in. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Practical traditions

Baking is taking up a good portion of my time these days as I enjoy a self-imposed sabbatical from academia before diving into my thesis in January. Bread baking is a regular event, but as the winter holidays approach, I dig out the recipes for sweets. We’ve jettisoned a good number of mindless (and in my opinion, pointless) traditions over the years, but the baked goods give rise to meaning of their own.

Topping that list is my great-aunt Zella’s Friendship Cookies, which are always greeted with raves when they appear on the buffet table. I don’t remember Aunt Zella much, really, but she – and her recipe – is a tangible connection to my grandfather, Chick Little. He was the primary male role model in my early childhood (Sorry, Dad, but it’s ok. We’re good now, and you know I love you!).

Grandma and Grandpa Little offered stability, grounding, and a sense of home that was difficult to grasp as my mother struggled to find her place in the world as a single mom. I don’t remember Grandma baking Aunt Zella’s cookies very often, but she had so many wonderful recipes (Banana Nut Bread – another holiday favorite!) of her own I’m sure she never felt the need to borrow from a sister-in-law. Their home was the center of my existence, even after Mom remarried and we moved twenty-five miles away. Grandma and Grandpa were always there for me.

The Friendship Cookie is a basic sugar cookie, but with a unique twist that makes them extra-special – kind of like Grandma and Grandpa. They were simple, down-to-earth people, not concerned with material goods or social status. Family was the reason for their hard work, from Grandpa’s forty-odd years at the gravel pit followed by another dozen at the township landfill, to Grandma’s gardening, canning, sewing, baking and general mothering of all the grandkids and our assorted friends. But by simple I do not mean unintelligent. While I’m pretty sure neither of them graduated high school (mid-1920s), they were wise in the ways that matter. They knew money was a tool, not an end; they taught us kids to treat others with respect, no matter their social standing or skin color; and they loved each other throughout nearly 53 years of marriage, right up until Grandpa died just five days shy of 85 years.

Baking several batches of Aunt Zella’s cookies every holiday season is a long process, but it gives me time to reflect on those years with Grandma and Grandpa, to converse with them mentally, and to remember the love they shared so willingly.

As traditions go, it’s one I plan to keep.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Early New Year’s resolution

I know it’s a few weeks until 2010, but I’m getting a head start on my self-improvement campaign. As anyone who follows my ramblings knows (and there are a few regular readers), I tend to lean heavily on socially and politically charged commentary, even though I try to remain objective and to avoid personal character attacks – unlike many of my fellow bloggers. However, only so much can be said about the issues which pass for importance in our world today. I remain convinced that my word and actions have little or no effect on the world at large. All my fussing does is raise my already-borderline-high blood pressure, to my own detriment.

So enough! The broken political system, the grievous inequalities in economic resources, the narrow-mindedness of much of organized religion and of dogmatic persons of whatever stripe, the inane celebrity-obsession which passes for real news – all these will have to muddle on without my input. No more adding to the overwhelming negativity swirling in the ether. I’ve said all I care to on these matters…for now. We’ll see how long my resolution remains resolute.

I’ve been reading a number of other blogs recently, while on hiatus from my academic pursuits at Antioch McGregor (watch out, January…I’ll be back!), and I’ve noticed that it is possible to comment on less incendiary topics and still write with relevance. Life in my own backyard, with my family, friends and personal interests, offers a wealth of topics. So here goes –

After years of baking, I find I am still somewhat surprised when the odd assortment of ingredients I throw into my huge stainless steel mixing bowl – yeast, oil, honey, oats, flour and salt – result in an edible and delicious (I’ve been told) loaf of bread. It is rare when a kneading session doesn’t find me fretting over the temperature of the yeast when proofed, on the consistency of the dough, on the relative humidity of the kitchen where I store the bowl as the dough rises. And yet the outcome is almost uniformly good. I can’t remember the last time I ruined a batch (jinx!) and I’ve been baking at least two loaves every-other-week for over a year now, and much more than that sporadically for the past thirty years.

Many people don’t understand when I tell them I refuse to use a machine. I love the process of baking bread by hand, from scratch. I even love that astonishment when the perfectly baked loaf is turned out onto the cooling rack after another successful attempt. It’s a feeling of satisfaction that I can’t fully explain. Control, maybe? The sense that I really can do something right, critical outside opinions to the contrary? I don’t know.

But stop by some morning and we’ll discuss it over a cup of Irish Breakfast tea and a slice of freshly baked bread.