The Perfect Christmas Eve

If I had a blog, today I would write about my recipe for a perfect Christmas Eve day.

Sawyer - Zen Master of the Nap

Sawyer – Zen Master of the Nap

Throughout the years, I’ve always had trouble knowing what to do with the daytime hours of Christmas Eve. In our family, we actually wait until evening to start our celebration, so the early part of the day can be a little flat. Well, no more. Today I discovered the perfect lead-in to my favorite Eve of the year: Spend the day with cats. There is no creature on this planet that understands the finer points of rest, relaxation, rejuvenation better than a cat and today, I let Sawyer and Claudia Jean set the tempo of my day.

Claudia Jean

Claudia Jean

The three of us got up early and had breakfast, then returned to bed for an hour of luxurious rest. I left the cats curled up among the blankets and did barn chores around 9:00, then returned to the cat-cave for more nourishment of body and soul. After a long bath, with cats sitting on the tub’s edge, basking in the steam, I gave myself a pedicure, put on my comfiest jeans and a favorite shirt, then did a bit web-surfing with Claudia perched on my shoulder like a guardian angel turned gargoyle. She particularly enjoyed the funny cat videos a friend posted on Facebook.

Claudia Working Hard

Claudia Working Hard

By then, it was time for a holiday ice cream cone (shared among the three of us), followed by another rest-period. I plumped up the pillows on my bed, put a heating pad on my back, and snuggled beneath my favorite fleece blanket, the edges held down by my feline friends. We napped and watched a movie, then napped some more. Occasionally I’d feel a bit guilty for doing nothing more than lounging, but one look at the cats, dozing peacefully around me, and my concerns vanished. If the cats’ say its ok to lounge, then its ok to lounge.

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Even though I don’t put much stock in New Year’s resolutions, I am tempted to make “Cat Days” a regular feature in my life this coming year. Cat’s understand something we humans don’t: They are masters of the art of “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” and that is a skill I desperately need to learn. Today, for the first time in ages, I feel relaxed, refreshed, and filled with peace – the things I believe Christmas should bring. Thank you Claudia and Sawyer, for giving me this rarest of gifts – a truly happy Christmas Eve.

 

Longest Night

Snow-Light

Snow-Light

If I had a blog, today I would write about Yule  – The passage of  the Winter Solstice.

Forty-five years, and most of what I remember is light: The mellow gold of sunlight in autumn, the cobalt hue of a snowy morning, the greenish hue after a passing storm, the pink and violet of a summer’s eve, and the welcoming glow of the lights of home. These are the palette upon which my memories are painted and so, on this shortest day of the year, I think it is fitting to share some thoughts on the return of the light.

December 10 - Winter's Tapestry

Endless Twilight

Each year I look forward to the Winter Solstice, to the annual tipping point when the daily loss of light is stopped and the process reversed, bringing us a little more dawn and twilight each day until mid-summer. If there was ever a year when I need the Return of the Light, it is this one. Since the passing of our two canine companions in October, my inner light has been burning low. I get up every day and do my chores, my desk-work, and my errands in town, but it is all in a world as grey as the winter landscape outside my window. Until now, my only resource has been to submit to the perpetual twilight and ride it out as best I can.

The Yule Log

The Yule Log

As we gather around the fire tonight and light the Yule Log – an white oak log draped with juniper boughs, sage, and rosemary, aromatic herbs that symbolize life; with holly and ivy to symbolize the ancient celebration of Yule, and with sunflower seeds to celebrate the return of the sun. As we sprinkle the log with a few drops of wine as a toast to the coming year, then set it alight as a symbol of letting go of the past, I will try to send my sadness skyward with the fragrant smoke and dancing flames. Though my grief will not vanish as the Yule Log turns to embers, perhaps I can draw warmth from the memories of Owain and Hank and let that drive out the darkness of grief.

Celebrating the Light

Celebrating the Light

One more long night and the earth begins to tilt back towards the light. I am ready to reach for the light as well.

Happy Yule to one and all.

Julie

May the Circle Be Unbroken

If I had a blog, today I would write about my quest to reclaim the treasures of my youth.

The Wonderful World of Christmas

The Wonderful World of Christmas

It began almost ten years ago on eBay. Christmas was coming and I was longing for the holiday music of my childhood. I had been able to reclaim some of the classics: Johnny Mathis Christmas, Percy Faith and His Orchestra, and the country Christmas albums by Alabama, Kenny & Dolly, The Oak Ridge Boys, and the Statler Brothers. As much as I enjoyed listening to my old friends, one set of voices was missing: The dulcet tones of an album called The Wonderful World of Christmas. This compilation of songs sung by 70s stars like Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Shore, Bobby Vinton, and Nat King Cole defined Christmas for me when I was young. In fact, I still have the original record, but it is so scratched and fuzzy from loving wear, that the music barely comes through. When eBay appeared on the scene, I searched the internet year after year, hoping to find a high quality version of my album, but my searches always came to naught. Then, one foggy Christmas Eve, it happened: I typed in my search on eBay and there it was – in the original cover and everything. Winning the lottery wouldn’t have made me happier! The joy I felt listening to my favorite record (now converted to MP3) inspired me to search for other childhood treasures that I had lost or worn out over the passing years.

My Little Paleo-World

My Little Paleo-World

Three years ago, I located the dinosaur play-set I had as a kindergartener. At the tender age of five, I was determined to be a paleontologist and I spent endless hours reenacting the life-and-death struggles of the brontosaurus, T-Rex, and others as they meandered through their plastic paleo-world. These toys, too, had been loved out of existence long ago and when, after forty years, I held those beloved dinosaurs once again, I was moved to tears as another hole in the fabric of my life was made whole.

Combat Nurses of WWII

Combat Nurses of WWII

This year I located a book I loved in middle-school: A collection of biographies of nurses who served in World War II. I latched onto this book because, at the time, I had just seen the mini-series Ike, and was fascinated with the Second World War. This particular book was also a milestone in my life as an aspiring writer: Because many of the stories did not have “Happily Ever After” endings, I realized, for the first time, that there is a poignant beauty in sadness, a sense of pathos that is deeply moving. The book inspired me to write more, write better, and write stories that touched people’s hearts.

My Little Elves

My Little Elves

The second treasure I reclaimed this Christmas is a set of five elves climbing a rope ladder with twinkle lights in their hands. These little pixies had been absent from my life since I was five or six years old – when the wires disintegrated with age and the lights went dark forever – or so I thought. Now the wee elves again climb merrily on our glistening tree. Their presence is reassuring. In a world that moves forward at a furious rate, I need to know the past is not lost; that I can still reach out and touch bits and pieces of a time when life was simple and pure. These totems from my early years transport me back to a place where I felt safe, secure and cared for in a way children know.

Life is so fleeting and so precious, I don’t want to forget a moment of my time here on planet Earth. I want to be able to reach back and grasp the hand of the child I was as well as reach forward to the woman I will become and let her, too, clasp hands with the child. Then the circle of my life will be complete; a seamless pattern without beginning or end. Perhaps it is this continuity that inspired Ebeneezer Scrooge when he said, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

We cannot be whole without embracing each phase of our lives, however imperfect they may be. If we are willing to take on this challenge, not only will we understand the magic of Christmas, but we will live that magic all year round.

Christmas to Me: Part III

If I had a blog, today I would finish telling you the story of my best Christmas ever…

Crossing Conchu Lake

Crossing Conchu Lake

Christmas Day dawned clear and cold. Without the folderol of opening presents or cooking a big company dinner, we ate our Paddler’s Porridge. This is our usual North Woods breakfast as it was the traditional breakfast of the French Voyageurs, the legendary fur-traders and explorers who made this part of the north part of song and lore during the 18th and 19th centuries. In need of a hearty breakfast, these strapping young men started each day with hot cereal made from of oatmeal, mixed with wild rice, and craisins. I add cinnamon, vanilla, cream, and butter to up the ante just a bit, but either way, after a bowl of Paddler’s Porridge, even a Southerner is ready to spend the day out on the frozen lakes.

Once the dishes were washed, we bundled up and strapped on our skis, traveling east towards Uranus and Conchu lakes. Around noon, we crossed from Conchu to the Kawishiwi River, a ribbon of ice between tree-lined shores. The name: Kawishiwi (or Kawashaway) comes from the Algonquin words Kaw, meaning “no” and Ashaway meaning “the place between.” To the Chippewa, who dwelt here until the coming of the white man, this land of “No Place Between” was a spirit land; home to those who had passed beyond the mortal coil and was forbidden to those who still lived. Despite the legend, we chose to follow in the footsteps of naturalist Sigurd Olson, who came to this place often, in search of some sense of the magic the Chippewa found in this world between worlds. We did not know what we would find, but it was thrilling to be in a place so steeped with mystery.

Mom & Dad on the Kawishiwi

Mom & Dad on the Kawishiwi

As we traveled along the river, we discovered we were not the only ones to use the Kawishiwi as a winter roadway. The new-fallen snow was crisscrossed with the tracks of deer, foxes, moose, and wolves and it made me feel good to be part of this tapestry of life, a member of The Wild. In the trees along the shoreline, chickadees, timberjays, and pine siskins went about their daily round, gathering pine-nuts or retrieving seeds hidden during the bounty of autumn. In the distance, we heard the raspy voice of ravens patrolling the landscape for food. The wolves rely on the ravens’ aerial reconnaissance to locate deer or moose that have died from injuries, starvation, or cold. The ravens circle above the carcass, calling loudly, in hopes that the wolves will come and tear the bounty into bits the ravens can share. It is a somewhat macabre relationship, but that is the way of The Wild, the way of The North.

Lunchtime found us near a frozen waterfall. Across the river was a rock outcropping where we ate the sandwiches we’d packed for just this occasion. Despite the cold temperatures, the dark rock face was warm and it made a perfect rest stop after a long morning of skiing. By the time we’d eaten and basked in the sun, it was time to turn towards home. That far north, it was twilight by 3:30 and full dark an hour later, so we didn’t have time to waste on our journey home.

Lark Lake Sunset

Lark Lake Sunset

We crossed onto Lark Lake at sunset, the sky awash in magenta and purple. Most winter sunsets Up North are quite pale, so this blaze of color was a perfect end to a perfect Christmas day.

Nearly twenty years have passed since our Christmas on Lark Lake. We’ve been back to Ely many times since and each trip has been more akin to a pilgrimage than a vacation. There is something powerful, mystical and magical in the wilderness of the North that opens a person to experiences most profound. Part the magic comes from living simply – without the bells and whistles of modern convenience – and the rest is experiencing Nature in her wildest, freest form. Up North, Nature is still a wild thing, unfettered by human design. When you step into the woods or onto a frozen lake in the North Country, you become the servant and Nature is the master. It is an exhilarating experience, a gift from The Wild I will never forget.

Christmas to Me: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would continue the story of my favorite Christmas…

The Dogs Arrive at Our Cabin

The Dogs Arrive at Our Cabin

Christmas Eve dawned grey and cold. By mid-morning, snow began falling, giving the landscape an ethereal, “Jack Londonesque” quality. Just before noon, the tableau was complete as two teams of sled dogs appeared from the forest edge. If Santa and his reindeer had appeared on Lark Lake that morning I could not have been more excited. I had wanted to be a musher since I was ten years old – the winter I hitched our yellow lab, Michael, to my toboggan and played “Iditarod” from dawn to dusk on the snow-covered fields that made up our farm. Now, at long last, I had a chance to do the real thing: Ride behind a string of sled dogs in the wilderness of The North.

Our Sled Dogs

Our Sled Dogs

The afternoon was everything I’d hoped for: Flying over the frozen landscape under the expert guidance of our mushers, getting a sense of the skill it takes to manage a team of eight canine athletes. My experience driving horses did little to prepare me for the experience of running dogs. Although the dogs were harnessed and attached to the sled, there were no reins to guide or stop the team. All directions, “gee” for right, “haw” for left, and the all important “whoa,” are spoken by the musher. The dogs have complete control over whether they obey or not, thus making a well-trained team an absolute necessity. Happily, both teams we rode with that day were the picture of obedience and their synchronicity with their drivers was poetry in motion.

Rest Stop on the Trail

Rest Stop on the Trail

After a couple hours of traveling, we stopped for a rest. We were cold and needed hot cocoa to fuel our inner fires, while the dogs were hot (it was, after all fifteen degrees that afternoon) and needed time to rest, drink, and roll merrily in the snow. If I ever had any doubts as to whether or not sled dogs were happy in their work, they were erased that winter’s day. I have never seen dogs with more joie de vie. As soon as our break was over, they were ready to go: Jumping and barking and pulling at the traces so we’d know they were far from ready to go home.

Thanking Our New Friends

Thanking Our New Friends

We returned to the cabin shortly before dusk and thanked the mushers and each of their dogs for giving us the adventure of a lifetime. As they vanished into the woods across the lake and the light from the mushers’ headlamps faded from sight, The Great Silence returned to Lark Lake and Christmas Eve began.

A Toast to Christmas

A Toast to Christmas

Our holiday dinner was simple fare: Hamburger casserole and dinner rolls, accompanied by fine wine, with which we toasted family, the North Woods, and the sacredness of the season.  As we did the dinner dishes, we turned on the short-wave radio and listened to a boys’ choir in Germany, singing carols to celebrate that holiest of eves. One-by-we made our way to the sauna, returning warm, clean, and ready for an evening around the fire. We sat up until midnight, sharing memories of Christmases past until, at last, we blew out the lamps and turned in for the night. Mom and Dad slept on the futon by the stove and David, Kindra, and I slept in the loft, nestled in our sleeping bags, with starlight shining in the windows. Music from a choir in England lulled me to sleep and for the first time in decades, I felt the spirit of Christmas in every fibre of my being. My last thoughts that wondrous night were the words of favorite carol. “O Holy Night…O Night Divine.”

To be continued…

Past, Present, and Future

If I had a blog, today I would write about living in the present.

Granny Holly & Ava Isobella

Granny Holly & Ava Isobella

As a seeker of spiritual growth, I have spent a lot of time considering the value of living only in the present moment. A lot of energy has surrounded this idea lately and I admit it has its values, to be sure. If you stay in the present, you can’t worry about the future or get lost in regrets of the past; you drink deeply from the world around you in the present; and time itself seems to slow down when you are focused only on the moment in which you live. Living in the present is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism, a philosophy I greatly admire, but after careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only do we need an awareness of the past and the future to be whole, learning to balance life in three separate “time zones” is one of humanity’s great spiritual tasks, one of the reasons The Universe gave us knowledge of time.

Looking Ahead

Looking Ahead

Humans have a unique relationship with time compared to other species: Not only are we aware of the past and future, we can recall the past and imagine the future in great detail, then use them as springboards to aspire to better things. Humans were telling stories of their ancestors well before written language came into being and the preservation of such memoirs inspired us to develop a more permanent way to preserve our histories for generations to come. If no one thought about the past, the written word might not exist. Our sense of the future inspired our species to invent, create, and navigate towards what we believed were better lives. It is the motivation to make a better future that caused our ancestors to ask, “What lies beyond those mountains?” and the pull of the years ahead drew us from our African roots into every corner of the world.

Philosophers are right when they warn us of the dangers of yon and yore, but cutting ourselves off from our beginning and end is not the answer. The answer lies in learning to manage the pitfalls of remembering the past and knowing we have a future. It is like having a chronic illness (like my insulin-dependent diabetes): You can’t make it go away, but you can live well if you learn how to manage your condition. We must learn to let go of the regrets of the past and move forward, then resist the temptation of living only for an imaginary future. Finding the balance is the challenge laid before us when we were placed here at our birth.

Four Generations

Four Generations

Oddly enough, I have found the validation for my argument in a favorite Christmas tale. We may be months away from reindeer and sleigh bells, but Charles Dickens’ prose keeps coming to mind: At the end of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s night with the spirits, he makes a vow to “Honor Christmas in my heart and keep it throughout the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Our challenge, then, is to live in all three realities, gleaning the best of past, present, and future as we move through our lives. When we make the most of the days that are past, the day we are now alive, and of all the days yet to be, we will have the resources we need to face whatever things may come.