Circling Back (Way Back….)

Photo courtesy of cousin Kristen Seashore (Keeper of Tradition)

It makes no sense to talk about Christmas trees or holiday dinners in the middle of January.  But we are doing it anyway because this strange December season made both of us – in different ways – visit our role as “elders” in keeping connections with the past alive, even when nothing was normal….

Holidays as Liminal Space….[Karen Rose]

From the time I was a child in the early 50s, my mother would always remind me that our Christmas Eve dinner “would keep me Swedish for the rest of the year”.  That didn’t make me face the pickled herring, bonddost, lutfisk, potatiskorv, bruna bönar, rödkål, and risgrynsgröt med lingon with delight….The bread and the cookies were ok.

Yet, after my parents died two decades ago (when we were finally free to find substitutes for the dreaded lutfisk), my sister and I maintained the food traditions.  The beans were often crunchy, good korv was hard to find, none of our kids liked pickled herring and my brother-in-law made great julekage with a sourdough starter and extra cardamom!  For all these violations, not much changed. 

But my kids are now in their 40s.  They didn’t like this food much and my grandchildren like it even less.  Nor did they (by that time, American mongrels with a mixed ethnic heritage) feel a need to “keep Swedish for the rest of the year”.

So, as I entered December 2020, it felt as if everything could change because everything had changed.  I vowed that our tiny “family pod” would have a normal American Christmas, putting up the tree before Christmas Eve and maybe baking lots of new kinds of cookies.  I was ready.  Until a week before Christmas, when I started thinking about my parents – both third generation Swedish Americans – who knew only a few words of Swedish but who felt an intense desire to honor all who had come before on this one evening. 

For my parents, it wasn’t really about food – it was about being in a brief liminal space where we could feel close to our ancestors in their small Småland farm houses, acknowledging all that they had given us.  It was like The Day of the Dead transported to Michigan-in-December.

Photo: Astrid Lague, The Julbord

I started feverishly making lists of what we could find (or substitute).  I baked.  I gave Dan a recipe for limpa and asked him to do his best.  Some of the old recipes, in feathery handwriting, were inaccessible.  I researched Swedish websites to duplicate things as best I could.  We produced a meal that would keep me Swedish for the rest of the year – and that prompted daughter Erica to demand that we visit as soon as we could.  Opal (age 3 and, only about 30% Swedish) ate a bit of everything except the herring. It was liminal, seeping into the future, drawing from the deep past.  That is what ancestors are supposed to do, and it is my job, even if I didn’t ask for it.

Karen Martha:

          This year we bought a tree before Thanksgiving (I have never bought a tree before my birthday in early December), thinking we would have an entire month to feel the holiday spirit during a time when spirit seemed needed—the pandemic and ongoing election concerns.

          Nevertheless, isolation loomed over the holidays, no friends or family would be coming over to share in the festivities, so “who cares,” I thought. I couldn’t bring myself to decorate the tree. Then one night, sitting in the living room listening to Radio Deluxe’s Thanksgiving weekend program, I heard Irving Berlin’s I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” and Let There Be Peace on Earth. I remembered my parents and the trees of my childhood—fighting with my sisters over who got to hang which ornament or to open the new package of tinsel. The wonders of music. I found myself singing and decorating the tree.

From my very first “adult” Christmas tree

No one saw the tree but my husband and me. I walked past it many times a day and soon found myself pausing to say “Namaste,” I bow to you. I wasn’t bowing so much to the tree but to the memories evoked by the ornaments. Even though no one would see the tree, I felt a sense of responsibility for preserving the web of relationships represented by the simple ornaments collected over nearly fifty years of family history. Isolation was not a reason to abandon tradition.

          My ties to the larger world changed with retirement, but that change opened an opportunity to engage in other ways. We older people with our experience in the world, are both keepers of memories and of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. We share these gifts whether by creating a Swedish Christmas in Colorado or by decorating a tree in Minnesota, the little p’s—purposes—that give our lives continuity from generation to generation.

          After Christmas, whenever I greeted the tree with Namaste, I promised it one more day in the spotlight. Soon it started dropping needles, signaling it was running out of the energy it had stored when rooted in the soil. It was time to give it back to the earth and time to put my ornaments away, time to give the past a rest and circle back to that which roots us all, our talents and interests, however expressed in work or retirement, but most of all, our webs of relationships.

And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

WE ARE WAITING….

photo by Adam Tinworth

There is a December season of waiting every year – waiting for Christmas, waiting through eight days of Hanukah to commemorate the oil that lasted, waiting for the New Year.  My Viking ancestors, along with most northern European tribes, waited for Yuletide and the return of light, as I am sure that Romans anticipated Saturnalia’s (December 17-23rd) gifting and respite.  The waiting season reminds us to slow down, reflect and be grateful.

But this year is different:  We are waiting for the end of drawn-out ordeals — COVID isolation, closed schools, the U.S. election farce, and Brexit.  We are not waiting with delighted anticipation, but for a concrete end to crazy-making uncertainty.  Oh, what fools we mortals be….

Personally, I am reacting with impatience and a persistent stream of random desires…Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, I am waiting, made me laugh by capturing the preposterous and trivial hopes that populate my mind during this year’s waiting period:

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone to really discover America

and wail…

and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead…

and I am awaiting perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder.

That’s where Ferlinghetti got me – a rebirth and a renaissance of wonder!  I cannot change the world or make people discover the real America.  I can (returning to themes in earlier blogs) make an effort to calm my “monkey mind” and reflect on the underlying message of hope that infuses both the pagan and modern December days.

Waiting implies that something is coming.  In my least reflective periods, that means waiting for the bus to arrive or a planned vacation. But what are we all waiting for post-COVID?  After the current political turmoil runs its course?  Neither I nor anyone else really knows – and all of the predictions offered in the newspapers seem like misplaced flailing against a brick wall of existential uncertainty.  So what can waiting mean now, when my only conviction is that the future won’t be the same?  

Waiting without impatience, to prepare for the unknown — that’s hard.  It means slowing down.  Really slowing down.  Not taking time in the big chunks of weeks or days, but focusing on each hour’s potential. Dan Albergotti’s evocative poem about waiting points to the same lesson:  enforced waiting requires attention to life’s details and distractions, but also to moments of quiet grace and awakening, in preparation for the time that will come.

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

But I still find myself bound to an electronic datebook that defines the somewhat arbitrary landscape of my week — ignoring this, as Albergotti urges, is a tough call.  John O’Donahue, asks me to think about what it would mean if I abandoned futile hopes of domesticating everything I touch.  Both remind me that the gift of uncertainty (that we encounter in the belly of the COVID whale) is that a disorientation invites becoming more awake – if I allow it.  And, O’Donahue assures me that “Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.”  Not sure that I buy that as a certainty either, but it is a starting place…..

One thing that I know is that it is hard to relinquish my efforts to domesticate everything – make it manageable on my terms – without relying on others.  I am astonished at the degree to which acknowledging mutual vulnerability has become part of my routines:  Call someone who is floundering.  Reach out to grasp the certainty that I care for someone and that they care for me.  Be honest about how hard the little things are, and get my friends to laugh with me at my human imperfections.  And I am reminded, when I berate myself at night for all of the unaccomplished things on my list, that I wake up every morning feeling disoriented, but that disorientation slowly shifts to a sense of awe when I face the immovable mountain outside my door, which then eases me into morning’s hope and curiosity (along with two cups of coffee). 

I have a friend whose name is Patience, who has spent a great deal of effort over her more than 70 years to live up to her name.  She lives alone and has had the same year of cumulative perplexing loss that we are all experiencing.  However, her patience is not inert but is sustained by daily attention to well-honed practices that induce attentiveness and keep her awake to hope and joy. I learn from her practices, the most accessible of which are PAUSE. LISTEN. FREQUENTLY. Patience, along with all the poets, urge me to just pay attention during and after this season of anxious waiting.

The Pandemic in Six Word Memoirs

The Pandemic in Six-Word Memoirs As collected by Carla Wilks, guest blogger.

Borrowing from the six word memoir form, our guest blogger, Carla Wilks, asked friends and relatives to send her six word memoirs about the pandemic. These are shown below. Karen Rose notes that anyone of these could be epitaphs on a tombstone marking the end of the pandemic.  Enjoy and then add your own!

Alone time is good, short term. (CM)

Stay home, no vacation, wash hands.  (CS)

2020 Wake-up call: COVID, racism, wildfires.  (KS)

Missing friends but got a cat.  (KR)

The cat wants us to LEAVE.  (JC)

Cooking, cribbage, ponytail, gazebo visits.  (CW)

Time freedom excites, stimulates.  Zoom obligates.  (KU)

Singing to dogs.  We run again.  (JC)

So glad we have a dog.  (MW)

I’d rather not talk about it. (TM )

Missed prom, graduation, friends and Milwaukee.  (MW)

New shovel, new gardens, new plants.  (JW)

Summer of Dave, Fall, Spring, Summer!  (DW)

Coffee, walk, text, pizza, wine, repeat.  (KW)      

Should I be social or responsible?  (AW)

Next door with kiddos and coffee.  (EW)

I met some new, amazing people.  (AW)

Work and play – hours become blurred.  (JW)

Child welfare became even more difficult.  (SW)

My online clinical experience was tedious.  (MR )

Enjoying yoga pants, commute and introversion.  (BW)

New workload-overwhelmed.  New granddaughter-overjoyed.  (JW)

Add your own below

Main Course. . . Patience

My 16-year-old granddaughter, our “technical consultant,” called me last week in tears that her school, which has been hybrid, was going completely online.  There would be no more “real school” as it is delivered now, with plastic barriers in the lunch room, one-way halls for passing, tables that once afforded group work replaced by desks spaced far apart, and masks, masks, and masks! She said, “Even if we have to wear masks and don’t have as much chance as normal to socialize, it’s still better than sitting at home alone in front of a computer!” She almost never shouts or gets riled, but she was mad and making it known.

“Be patient” I advised. “Your teachers and the principals want to keep everyone safe. I’m sure they have good reasons for doing this.” She wasn’t hearing me, although a few days later when some students started an online petition to keep hybrid school, she said she wasn’t going to sign, arguing that maybe it was for the better since Minnesota is having a real Corona Virus surge.  Patience has prevailed for now, although she loves to dream about everything she will do this spring, when “we get a vaccine.” Her patience for now, is grounded in hope, that dreaming ahead we humans love to do.

We’re having a great opportunity with the Corona Virus to practice patience, and now with the election of Joe Biden, it’s twofold. First we were in limbo about who won and now we now find ourselves waiting for the handover of power. As for the virus, in Minnesota the governor has ordered a significant lockdown for the next four weeks. What can we do but wait—be patient?

That said, being patient is not always easy, especially when confined to the same house with the same people doing the same things day after day. I have four grandchildren, and all of them are experiencing disruptions to their lives that they neither anticipated nor have been taught how to handle. I can remind them that humans have survived many terrible things, world wars, other pandemics, droughts, depressions, etc., and I can express encouragement. Nevertheless, I wish I knew how to do more to help them. 

As a teacher, I learned that one of the most powerful ways to teach is to model, or, by example. Practice what you preach, walk the talk! This was brought home to me when I was teaching fifth grade while in graduate school. I would make note cards to study for a test, and whenever I had a break in my teaching day, like lunch, I’d use the notecards to study. I’d sometimes have students test me with the note cards. One day before a math test, I noticed that many of my students had made note cards about what would be on the test. When I commented on this, they told me they were studying like they saw me study. Wow!  I had not even tried to teach them this strategy, but they had learned it by watching me.

In a reverse of the generational expectations about who teaches whom, my technical consultant granddaughter is the one teaching me how to DO patience.  Her approach is about kindness, thinking about others instead of oneself. At the beginning of the pandemic when schools and everything else abruptly closed, she started calling her two grandmothers every couple of days so we wouldn’t be lonely. She has continued this throughout, and I truly look forward to it, as does her other grandmother I’m sure, who, in her late 80’s, lives alone in South Dakota. Talk about modeling!  And talk about “to teach is to learn!” She teaches me by example as she teaches herself. I am awed.

Last week my other granddaughter texted me that she missed my sloppy joes. It’s a custom in our family to get together to celebrate birthdays, and I make sloppy joes. I told the technical consultant granddaughter about this text, who immediately said, “You should make some and take them over to her.” I did, and as I set them on the doorstep, I welled up with pure joy—I was doing something to help, making the waiting just a tad easier.

When our governor nixed even outdoor gatherings for Thanksgiving, I was angry. In my family, we know how to gather around a bonfire while socially distancing, which was what we had planned. I remembered why Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a holiday not about gifts or elaborate decorating or religious significance. It’s about celebrating our many blessings, the reliability of a sun that rises every morning on a spinning planet, rich with everything we need; strangers, friends, and family who mostly want to live right lives; and moments of joy and love.

Henrik, about to mix the filling

While I fretted about how to preserve my favorite holiday, my grandchildren, via a series of texts, planned a virtual pie baking afternoon for Wednesday (We’ve always baked pies together the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving). They are not letting a shutdown order stop them. Who better to forge a new way to celebrate than the young!

Next, our families sent out Zoom invitations to get together for the holiday. So, this year, on Thanksgiving day, after my husband and I have stuffed our chicken and put it in the oven, we’ll gather with our families around a laptop, the province of the young, for moments of joy and love, waiting hopefully and patiently for next year, when we can all be together once again.