Happy Christmas Memories, Everyone


When I was a child, Christmas was really magical. I mean, seriously magical. As part of a giant Italian family, the celebration of Christmas spread over several weeks.

There was the night when Dad placed the bright, hot orange window candles in our bedroom, and my sisters and I would fall asleep bathed in that magical glow. We’d whisper about hoped-for gifts, promised treats, and the possibility of actually seeing Santa this time.

There was the setting up of the tree and the hot dusty smell of those huge old painted bulbs. Do any of you remember those? For a few years they would be perfect, but every time they were lit, they’d heat up and cook the paint that covered them, eventually leaving it cracked and peeling. That hot paint smell is one of my best and sweetest Christmas memories.

And we had the joy of a Sicilian Christmas eve. Oh, the food! Octopus, cooked perfectly by my Grampa, salty and “al-dente”, studded with green olives and tiny capers. Exploding in my mouth, telling me that Christmas was truly here. The shrimp, the pasta, the array of cookies.

And the exchange of gifts. On Christmas eve, we got gifts from our Nana and Grampa and from our loving aunts and uncles. Dolls, books, playdoh, brand new crayons in the box with the sharpener.

These Christmas Eve gifts were the appetizers of the Big Day for us.

Because when the evening was over, we’d head home to await the big guy. Oh, my gosh, the memories of trying to sleep with those warm orange lights!!

One year, my sister Liz and I woke up in the night. CHRISTMAS EVE night. We heard sounds on our roof. Seriously! We mean it! There were sounds on the roof!~ We were shivering with excitement.

The next morning, we woke up and ran outside. It had snowed that week, so the roof was coated in a nice white layer. And there on the roof, right in front of our wondering eyes, were long, thin trails where something had been dragged across the snow……

We knew, without a doubt, that we were seeing the tracks of Santa’s sleigh. We had no thought for the tall willow trees that stood beside our house or the way that their long branches used to drape across the roof in the wind.

It was Christmas magic.

When I grew up and was the mother of young children, the magic of Christmas happened through my kids.

Oh, I know how trite that sentence is. I know it’s boring and cliche and completely unoriginal.

But in my case, it’s completely true.

I remember coming out of my parents’ house on Christmas Eve. My Grampa was gone, but the tradition of the Sicilian Christmas Eve was carried on by my Mom. The octopus was there. The shrimp was there, along with the meatballs, the eggplant, the ridiculous supply of cookies. My kids opened gifts from aunts, uncles and grandparents. They played with cousins. They became more and more wound up as the party progressed.

I remember trying to get them out the front door and into their car seats. I remember pausing, somewhat obviously, and gazing up at the sky over the house. We live in a very rural area, far from any airports. My parents’ house was less than 20 miles from Logan Airport. So as you can imagine, there is always a flight or two overhead.

“Oh, wow,” I remember saying, pretending to be casual, “Do you kids see that red light way up there? I wonder……just thinking…..could it be…..?”

Invariably, all three kids would jump into the car and demand that we “get home, get home! Hurry!”

That was a kind of magic. And the magic of staying up until 2AM trying desperately to get all those presents out of the attic, wrapped, put together and placed around the tree….while not waking up any of the three kids. Well….that was a wonderful magic that Paul and I complained about but loved so much.

I remember one year when the toys were finally placed by 2AM, and the kids woke up at 4. I love looking back on our sense disbelief when we heard those little voices whispering, and asked each other, “This can’t be the end of the night, can it……..?” I remember falling asleep in front of a movie, on the living room floor, at 6pm with our youngest in my arms.

Magic.

Now the magic of Christmas is found in the simple repetition of traditions. Now I make the octopus. Now I fry the shrimp.

Now I give gifts to my grandchildren a day or two before Christmas. I am the “appetizer” to the big event.

Now the magic comes to me in the annual gathering of cousins and the few remaining aunts. It comes from seeing my Grampa’s eyes in the faces of his grandsons. It comes from the taste of the octopus, cooked by my little brother, as perfectly flavored as Grampa ever did it. It comes from my sense that life goes on, that children still believe, that a few marks on the roof can give little children faith in something more beautiful and profound than our everyday lives.

There is magic.

Christmas is magic.

Tomorrow morning I will lie in my bed, with a dog on each side and my old husband snoring beside me. And I will smile, knowing that my daughter and her husband are probably looking at each other in the earliest light of dawn, asking “This can’t be the end of the night, can it……..?”

Buon Natale a tutti.

Merry Christmas, friends. I hope you are able to find your magic.

Oh, Mama, How Do I Do This Without You?


My beautiful Momma…circa 1949.

Dear Mom

I’m sitting here tonight in my house. The Sunday dinner is in the oven. The house is clean. The laundry is folded.

I don’t know what to do with myself.

Mom, this is the night before your wake.

How do we come to grips with that fact?

Everything is in order, just as we think you’d want it to be. There are flowers, and beautiful music, and photos of you and Dad and all of us. All through our years together as a family. It’s all set. All organized. Your kids will do you proud, I promise.

But, Momma.

How do I do this without you?

For all of my life, you’ve been there when I needed to dress up and present myself well. Today I looked through my closet, trying to choose what I should wear tomorrow as I stand beside the casket that holds your precious body.

Will I look OK? Will you be proud?

How do I know if I’ve chosen the right clothes, without your unerring sense of style to guide me?

Mom, I don’t know how to conduct myself without your guiding hand.

I’ll do my best. I’ll channel my inner “Zena” and put on makeup. I’ll wear earrings that match my blouse.

But.

Mom.

I’m not sure that I can really go through this without you there. When Dad died, we had you there to help us. I stood beside you. I handed you tissues during the wake. I sat beside you on the couch as we chose the music for his service.

Now what do we do?

Momma, I’ll do my best. I’ll stand there and smile. I’ll shake hands and give some hugs, even wearing my mask. I’ll thank people for coming, and I’ll say all the right things. “She lived a long and happy life. She had a peaceful death. We’re happy that she’s with Dad now.”

I’ll say all of that.

But inside of me, inside of the little girl who hides within my aging self, I will cry and sob and ask the universe, “How can you possibly go on without my MOM?????” I’ll ask myself, over and over and over again, “Did I do it right? Did I look OK? Did I ask the right questions and give the right responses?”

It will all be done well, and everything will be fine.

But long after your wake and funeral are over, long after the last flowers have faded and the last cards have been filed away, I will ask myself, “Am I OK? Did I do it right? Does she know that I truly loved her?”

Dear Momma,

My best prayer for you is that one day, in that special place on the other side of the veil, you will look at yourself and see yourself as we do. I pray that one day, on the other side, you’ll look at yourself and say, right out loud, “Good Lord! I was fabulous, wasn’t I?”

Until then, dear Momma, please know that every time I find myself needing to get “dressed up”, I will think of you, and try to follow the stylish lead that you have given me.

A Lesson From Moana’s Grandma


My mother died last week, the night before Thanksgiving. She lived a long and very full life, and she left that life reluctantly.

Mom was a practicing Catholic, so my family grew up with the typical Catholic imagery of life and death. Heaven or Hell and all that. In her very last days, Mom was unsure of what was coming. She expressed her doubts that she’d really be reunited with our Dad, who was the love of her life for over six decades. She worried that her death would be a true ending, and she held on tenaciously to every fading breath.

It made me incredibly sad to hear her.

**********************************************************************************************************

Yesterday I spent the day with my grandsons. I hadn’t seen them for 10 days, the time of our vigil by Mom’s bedside. Both had been sick, as had their Mom and sister. They were in COVID quarantine, and as I grieved for my Mother, I missed all of them terribly.

So I was filled with relief and joy to have them here yesterday, although I worried that my sadness and my distracted mind might bother them.

I should have known better.

My little Johnny, all of four and a half years of wisdom, was working on a puzzle of the “Polar Express.” I was sitting with his baby brother on my knee, just watching the puzzle master at work. Suddenly, Johnny asked me,

“Is Great Grandma a spirit now?”

“Yes,” I answered. “She is.”

“But, what is her spirit?”

“What do you mean, honey?”

“What is it? What is her spirit?”

“I don’t know,” I answered as truthfully as I could. “You can’t see it. It’s the part of Great Grandma that loves us. It’s still around us.”

This seemed a bit too metaphysical for such a young child, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. My daughter and her family don’t go to church, nor do we. I know that the kids have talked about life and death. I know that they have looked at and thought about the deaths of birds and salamanders and other animals. They’ve been through the death of their family dog.

But I didn’t know how much of the “invisible spirit” idea a four-year-old could grasp. I didn’t want him thinking of ghosts.

Johnny never stopped placing his puzzle pieces. He never even looked up at me.

He just said one thing before I broke down in tears and he came to give me a hug.

“Nonni,” he said. “I think her spirit is you now. I think it’s you.”

***********************************************************************************************************

It was later in the day, as we were eating a snack, that I asked Johnny what he thought about spirits. He thought for a minute, then looked up at me seriously.

“Remember Moana’s Grandma? She turned into a spirit of a ray.”

That was all this sweet, wise little soul needed to know. He wasn’t thinking of Heaven or Hell or worthiness or sins. He was thinking that he’d learned everything he needed to know about spirits from one Disney movie.

Call me crazy, but I am so happy to think that my strong, powerful, smart Momma is out there somewhere in sparkling spirit form. Maybe she is a spirit cat, like her precious kitty Tess. Maybe she is an octopus, so fitting for our “pulpi” eating Sicilian family.

Or maybe, just maybe, her spirit really is me.

I don’t know yet.

But I know that Johnny has taken a valuable lesson from one sweet movie. He doesn’t fear death, because even at his tender age, he understands that spirits go on and that death is not goodbye.

This, if you ask me, is the most perfect belief a human could have.

Those Who Bring Gifts


Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

When I was a child, I thought that gifts were something tangible. I believed that they came in boxes, and were carefully wrapped in shiny paper, with bows attached. Just the other day, I told my little grandson that I was giving a gift certificate to his Dad for his birthday.

“No, Nonni,” he said, “Presents have to be wrapped! You have to open them and they have to have wrapping paper.”

I smiled. And I hugged him and assured him that I would carefully place the gift card in a “real” birthday card which I would decorate.

But for the past few days, I’ve been thinking.

One of the things that the pandemic has taught me is that the world is filled with gifts and that many of them come from the people around us, whether or not they are wrapped in ‘shiny paper’.

I’ve been looking back on my 65 years of life, and I’ve been recognizing those gifts.

I am thinking about the girl who was my very first “best friend” in the world. She lived right next door to me, and we went to kindergarten together. I remember that I loved her very blue eyes. I loved her creativity. When I was too timid to make up good stories, Patti pretended that the big lilac bush between our houses was a rocket ship, and we were heading off to space. I can still remember the thrill I felt, way back in 1961, pretending to be inside a rocket on its way to the “atmosphere”.

Patti was a key part of my life for the next few decades. Her gifts included some adventures in hiking and swimming, some moments of getting into a little bit of trouble, and some serious laughter that I can still recall.

Those were gifts. I didn’t necessarily see them that way at the time, but in my elder years, I see them for what they were.

And I’m thinking of my old friend, Sue. My first school buddy. Sue was fascinating to me from the very first time we met. She had flaming red hair, pale white skin and freckles, a beauty mark that this Italian American yearned to share.

Sue was the best reader in our grade. She was smarter than anyone I knew. She and I used to walk to the town library and come out with stacks of good books. We’d sit on the wall outside of the old building, with a pile of snacks beside us, reading “The Black Stallion Mysteries.”

Sue introduced me to the “Hobbit” and then to “The Lord of the Rings”. These books changed my life, ignited my love of words and provided solace for me through the next five decades of life.

Sue gave me more gifts than I can count.

And I am remembering the family that hosted me when I became an exchange student in 1973. I was sent from my safe, middle-class, Catholic family in Massachusetts to the wilds of North Africa and into the arms of a family in Kairouan, Tunisia. A family that turned out to be a safe, middle-class, Muslim family in a beautiful city.

The gifts given to me in my three short months with them are uncountable. The gift of understanding. The gift of acceptance. The gifts of new and wonderful foods, a new and beautiful language, new music, new art, new ideas. The gift of realizing that this is in fact a very small world and that we all share it.

A gift that came back to me many many years later in the person of an unknown cousin in Italy, who welcomed me and my family into his home with love and food and laughter. A cousin who answered my apologies for bursting in on them unannounced with the statement that “Tutto il mondo è una famiglia”. All the world is one family.

A gift. Right?

I think of the many, many gifts given to me by my students.

The child who told me, “You’re kind of a weird teacher. You really like the boys.”

The child who said, “It makes me happy to look at your eyes.”

And the one who said, “You are a very funny lady.”

I think of the lessons they taught me, about how to be fair. How to be kind. How to support without judgment.

And I think of the many, many gifts given to me by their parents.

Sure, some of those were tangible gifts, like the necklace of silver beads that read “Teach, Inspire, Love”. But there were many more intangible gifts given by these parents. The book about “Social Stories” that helped me to help my students with autism. The Mom who gave me a book of math challenges to support my above grade level students. The parents who sent me messages when my father died early in the school year and I had to take some time off. The families who thanked me and those who challenged me to do better.

I remember one child who told me that my attempts at humor made him uncomfortable. “You like to say, ‘Because I am she who must be obeyed. I really don’t like that.” And the little girl who asked me to stop saying, “Oh, my God!” because her religion found it offensive.

These were things that helped me to grow.

They were gifts.

They all were gifts that have helped me to build the person, the woman, the mom, the teacher that I believe myself to be.

Gifts do not always come in shiny paper. They don’t always have ribbons or cards. Some of them prick a bit when you get them. Some go sailing right over your head for a few decades.

But every act of sharing, every act of trust, is a real and true gift.

I am so grateful to be the recipient of so many lovely presents.

Go Gentle Into That Sweet Night


Photo by Altınay Dinç on Unsplash

You are a fierce warrior. You have stood up straight and strong for all of your nine decades of life.

You are powerful. You were the first warrior woman I ever knew. You stood up for yourself when the Catholic Church told you to stay quiet and obedient. You stood with your hands on your hips when the schools told you to send your girls out into the snow wearing skirts.

You have never backed down, even when the idea of standing up made your hands shake.

But.

You are a tired warrior now. I think that you have fought all of your battles, and I think that you have nothing left to prove.

You have raised a troop of healthy, happy children. You have watched your grandchildren grow and thrive and multiply.

I think that your journey is complete.

In my loving daughter’s heart, I think that you have earned your turn to rest.

I stand outside tonight, under the Hunter’s Moon. I breathe in the crisp scent of the dying year. The gentle exhalation of the oak leaves, the wet smooth smell of the soil, the bitter scent of fallen seeds. I pull them into myself. I hold my breath.

I think of you.

I think of how fiercely you are holding on to this life.

I wish that I could tell you that your work here is done. You have earned your gentle rest. You have been a loving wife, a supportive mother, a loyal friend. You have done enough. You have been both good and worthy.


“Please go gentle into that good night,

Old age should sigh and smile at close of day;

Embrace, embrace the dying of the light.

And you, my mother, there on the proud height,

Bless, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Please go gentle into that good night.

Embrace, embrace the glowing of the light.”

You can, if you choose, let go.

Strange, Sweet Memories


Photo by Mats Hagwall on Unsplash

I am at my mother’s house today. This is the house where I grew up. The house where I learned to read. To write. To understand math.

This is the house in which I learned what it meant to be a member of a family. I was one of six children here. One of a group. I was part of a team.

Today I am here, having lunch with my Mom. She is old now. She doesn’t remember much. Her spirit is still here, still strong and still powerful. But she is only a shadow of the Mom I knew when I was young.

I stand in the kitchen. My arms are crossed. I look out the kitchen window.

I remember.

This was once the spot where I stood observing the power of my Mother. I stood here. She stood at the stove, apron around her waist, spatula in hand.

This is the spot where I stood and watched as the meatballs were browned. Where the sauce was stirred. Where the chicken was sauteed and the stew was simmered.

I stand in the kitchen.

I look out the window, across the yard. I see the aging shed as it now stands, and I see the slightly overgrown garden that sprawls across what used to be our lawn.

But I don’t see today. I don’t see the aging of this yard, of this land, of this house.

For some inexplicable reason, as I stand in this small spot, I see one small memory from my childhood. I see it clearly. I feel it in the skin of my feet. I smell it. I hear the sound of that one afternoon.

When I was a child, my identity was largely shaped by the ethnicity of my grandparents.

We were Italians.

We were a part of that land. A part of that heritage.

We honored our Italian heritage.

So. As a part of that shared experience, my Grandfather Giuseppe took all of us to the beach. I remember it as if it had happened an hour ago. My Grampa leading the way across the rocky outcroppings, bucket in hand. I remember following each of his steps. He lead us across the rocks, down toward the tidal pools.

I remember the smell and the feel of the slippery green weeds, and how it felt to lift them up. I remember the feel of the small snails clustered on the rocks under the weeds. I remember, so very clearly, how it felt to pull them up and plop them into my bucket.

This was joy. This was summer. This was food. This was family.

We used to gather up buckets of “periwinkles” and bring them home to eat. We felt that we were a part of the earth, a part of the sea, as we’d capture our tiny prey and place them in our small beach pails.

It was magic.

But it was everyday life, too.

So today, as I stood in my Mom’s kitchen, a half a century past the last time I stood here with a pail full of sea snails, I felt my heart melting and pounding in equal measure.

I stood there in our kitchen. I looked out the kitchen window.

I didn’t see the overgrown yard or the falling shed.

Instead, I saw my young and tender self, seated on an old wooden picnic table, a shining silver pin in my hand. I watched myself laughing as I used the straight pin to spear a tender morsel of seafood and pop it into my mouth.

And I felt the salty, briny, sandy bite of that little snail. I felt the sun beating down on the back of my neck. I remembered the laughter of my siblings, and I saw the smile of my Grampa, watching us as we ate these tiny sea creatures.

Today I stood in my mother’s kitchen. I looked out into the backyard. I felt the sand gritting between my teeth. I felt the warm laughter of my Grandfather as he helped me gather a bucket full of food.

I stood still.

I remembered the sound of the little shells as they fell at our feet. I remembered the way that that the tiny “doors” would stick to the soles of our sandy feet after we had eaten our fill.

I remembered.

There is joy and purpose and meaning in the smallest of moments.

Today I remembered the feeling of the periwinckles on my tongue.

Tonight I wonder what small and tender moments my own grandchildren will take from having known me.

Loving A Grandchild


(Baby Ellie as a newborn)

He is only 18 months old, this youngest member of our family. He is barely tall enough to peek out the front window when a car goes by.

He was born with twisted feet, and needed a lot of support to get up and walking. He wears the boots and bar at night, after a full year of wearing them day and night for months after his scary mid-pandemic birth.

But he is strong. He climbs on every available surface, moving chairs across the room so he can turn on lights and ceiling fans. He jumps, he rides his little train, he hops on and off the couch.

He is sweetly unaware that he had a difficult start on his journey toward mobility.

He doesn’t talk yet, but he points and gestures and makes the most intensely purposeful funny faces. Everyone knows exactly what it is that he is saying, even without a real word being uttered.

My grandson. My youngest grandchild.

There were moments before his birth where I honestly asked myself, “How can I possibly love this third child as deeply and intensely as I love his older siblings?” It didn’t seem possible to me; it truly didn’t. I had fallen so deeply in love with his older sister, even before she was born. She was our first grandchild, and I was still reeling from the sadness of my emptied nest.

She came into our lives; I retired from teaching to become her daily nurturing caregiver and I was filled with purpose and joy and a depth of love that shocked me to my core.

When her brother was born less than two years later, I was once again swept up in love and excitement. This little guy was added to my daily life and nothing could have made me happier. I was the delighted Nonni of two perfect little charges.

I hoped and trusted that I’d love this third one just as much; but before I met him, I wasn’t sure that would be possible.

But you know what? Even as I thought those traitorous thoughts, I remembered how I’d wondered the very same thing as I carried my own third child within my body. As a fertility patient, a struggling momma wanna-be, I had been intensely invested in the gestations of my first two children. There had been medications, injections, high-tech interventions….but we’d finally had our first two children. A girl and a boy. What could be more perfect?

So when at last I found myself pregnant with my deeply wanted but easily conceived third child, I wondered if I’d be able to love him with the same depth of emotion that I’d felt for his siblings. Without that sense of desperation, would he mean as much to me?

Then he was born. Easily, happily, more gently born that my older two, this one came to us with a smile and a sense of humor.

I adore all three of my kids, but my third was far easier to love than I’d feared.

He was my boy. My baby. My funny, silly, goofy, gentle loving son.

So when our little Max, our third grandchild, was born, I reminded myself to think of my own third child. I reminded myself that love has a way of working into our hearts when we can’t fully predict it.

And of course, of course, I was right.

Tonight we hosted a dinner for our kids. Our third child, our funny young Tim, came for dinner with his brand-new wife, a woman we’ve loved for years. I pulled my boy into my arms and was filled with the awareness of just how much I still love this wonderful kind young man. He was still my easy boy, my gift, my son.

I stepped back, and let him go to hug his Dad.

And my legs were suddenly encircled by two little arms. I looked down toward my knees. And grinning up at me, with eyes full of love, was our little Max. His dimples echoed those of his Uncle. His grin was just as delightful and just as full of joy.

I looked into his eyes, much darker than his Uncle’s, but matching those of his Mom and Dad. I reached down and lifted him into my arms. He leaned his cheek against mine, chuckled, and murmured, “yeah, ah, yeah.”

And I had to ask myself: why on earth would I have ever questioned just how much love I’d have for any little one who comes into my life?

I don’t know.

All I know is this: I may be foolish, but I am far beyond blessed.

Pruning My Way to Mental Health


Photo by Yoksel 🌿 Zok on Unsplash

About fifteen years ago, we put a chain link fence around a section of our yard. We’d finally gotten ourselves a puppy, and it had taken no time at all for him to convince us that if we didn’t have a fence, we’d have a happy hound dog rambling around the neighborhood chasing every chipmunk in sight.

He was not going to stay in place unless we fenced him in.

So that’s exactly what we did.

It was a good move, puppy-wise, but that fence was less than attractive. I didn’t like the ugly steel look of the fence around what had once been our son’s baseball field.

So I did what any frugal gardeners would do. I looked at what plants were already thriving in our yard, hoping for some transplants. I planted a nice little row of forsythia babies along the fence. They were free. They were super easy to grow. Their deep roots kept the dog from digging out, and the yellow flowers and arching branches of the bushes gave a new level of beauty to our mostly wild yard.

For the first five years or so, I was able to completely ignore the bushes as they grew.

After that, I learned to prune them a bit each early summer, in an effort to keep them from becoming overgrown.

But the dog got older, and eventually crossed that rainbow bridge. The little pups that came after him enjoyed the fenced yard, and the forsythia grew by leaps and bounds.

My back got older, my bones got achier, and the once lovely arches of my forsythia grew through the fence, and sent ever taller branches up toward the sky.

My yard felt increasingly out of control.

This morning I looked out there, and felt my anxiety rising.

EVERYTHING in my life feels out of control these days. Literally everything. This was simply one more item that I could not tame.

For a few minutes, I stood gazing out the window. The news was on, the Sunday morning blathering causing my heartbeat to increase even more.

I couldn’t take it another minute.

I took a deep breath and a long drink of water, then headed outside to the yard. Clippers in hand, I approached the giant row of tangled limbs. I had to tilt my head all the way back just to see the top branches.

I reached into the middle of the first bush, and blindly started to cut. I snipped and pulled and wrangled, piling each chopped branch onto a growing pile.

I was not careful. I was not subtle, or thoughtful, or mindful as I hacked into the wall of tangled green.

My muscles hurt, and my back maintained a steady beat of complaint. But I felt GOOD.

I had taken control. This was MY yard, dammit, and these were MY plants. I could hack them right to the ground if I chose to.

As I clipped and cleared, it occurred to me that I had become the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, faced with a giant wall of overgrown roses and thorns.

Like the Prince in that old classic, I was wielding my sword against an overgrown and thickly tangled mass of vegetation. I felt that I was facing an enemy.

OK, I wasn’t fighting actual thorns, but my arms were definitely getting scratched by the branches. The deeply tangled limbs were doing their best to push me out.

And while I wasn’t in pursuit of a sleeping Princess, I was in search of a sense of empowerment. My Sleeping Beauty was my suddenly dormant sense of control over the key parts of my life.

So I hacked and I slashed and I chopped. I unwound branches from the coils of the fence. I piled more and more branches into the pile of brush that we hope to burn in the winter.

I sweated, and I cursed and I thought, “I am pruning you out of my life, stupid social media posts.” I thought about my constant need to monitor the news as I cut down a giant chunk of wood. “Take that, stupid CNN!” I said it out loud as the huge lump of brush fell at my feet. “Go away, idiot elected officials who think we’re all stupid!”

I may have shouted that last one as I clipped back one twisted limb. I was picturing the image of an actual elected Congressperson using a giant gun to blow up a car labeled “socialism”.

My rage grew as my clippers snipped.

I was panting and furious by the time I stepped back and surveyed the damage.

I felt good.

I felt strong.

I felt vindicated.

I know that next spring there will be no lovely yellow flowers surrounding my fence. I understand that it will take some time for these bushes to reform and reassert themselves along the fenceline.

Just as I know that my mind will soon be crowded once again with the annoying buzz of political lies, endless ‘spin’, self-serving opinions and all the rest.

I don’t care.

For now, my muscles and I feel both exhausted and exhilarated. We have seized control of at least one of our foes. We have asserted our power over one small piece of our chaotic world.

The forsythia will be back, but for now, they must bow to the woman with the clippers.

It might not be much, but it’s enough for me.

Adjusting My Focus


Photo by Matthieu Pétiard on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling increasingly hopeless these days. I have been struggling with the realization that I have virtually no control over what will happen in my life in the next few years.

I can’t stop the climate crisis, no matter how many “plastic free” soaps I buy. I don’t have a way to slow or stop the Covid pandemic, other than wearing my mask and getting my shot. I can’t control the flow of lies that is sweeping the country, or the twisting of reality that I see every day on social media.

I can’t stop myself from aging. I can’t control the growth of the microscopic cancer cells in my breast. I can’t control the weather or the midterm elections or the price of gas or the supply chain.

I feel as if I am in the middle of a vortex of terrible outcomes, and that leaves me breathless with fear and sorrow.

So I am trying my best to adjust my focus. I am trying every day to look at life as if I were peering through the lens of an old 35 millimeter camera.

And I am finding that this shifting focus is both encouraging and enlightening.

Last night, at the end of a beautiful clear September day, I sat outside on my deck. I rested my head against the back of my chair, aware that we are in the waning days of summer. I lifted my eyes to the bright blue sky above me, and watched a line of clouds, beautiful and gentle, as they slowly drifted over our house.

And I started to think about the fact that those clouds look just exactly the same as the clouds that have drifted over my head for all of my 65 years. I have no doubt that they look just the same as the clouds that floated lightly over my parents and my grandparents and the grandparents who came before them.

No matter what wars rage below them, clouds continue to slip from west to east across this continent. In spite of the anger and fighting that goes on below them, clouds are formed and clouds are lifted and clouds are moved along the current of earth’s winds.

As my head rested on the back of my deck chair, I found myself comforted by the serene and distant movement of those clouds.

“When I die, ” I realized, “those clouds will not mourn. They will not react. They will continue to coalesce, and form and rise and float along the path that earth has created for them.”

I love that thought.

My focus had shifted, away from myself and my little life, to a wider and more expansive view, in which the survival of the earth seemed assured.

I was relieved and calmed by this wider focus.

This morning, after a night of intense thunderstorms and heavy rain, I went out onto my deck once again. I stood leaning on the bannister, a cup of hot coffee in one hand.

My yard is overgrown, slightly unkempt, and looking more like an emerging forest than a suburban garden.

It made me feel bad. It made me feel as if my world is out of control.

I stood there for a minute, feeling sad.

And then I noticed that one of my overgrown bushes was shaking. The branches were moving up and down, although there was no wind.

As I watched, a tiny chipmunk emerged from under the drooping leaves of a daylily. It’s nose was twitching rapidly, and it’s little hands were moving up and down. I leaned in a bit, to see what the little creature was doing.

I realized that as I stood watching, this bitty little animal was happily gorging on the berries of a sapling that I had considered to be a pest. I smiled a bit, and settled against the warm wood to watch.

As my eyes adjusted, I realized that most of the newly grown “forest” was shaking, and I saw chipmunks, squirrels and even one teensy mouse working swiftly and efficiently in my overgrown garden. They were gathering seeds, gathering berries, clearly feeling wonderful about life in general.

I had to smile.

My unrestrained and overgrown garden bed, which had seemed to me to be nothing more than an eyesore and a condemnation of my laziness, was actually a wonderfully stocked pantry for the many lives that share this bit of land with us.

My focus shifted again, from myself and other humans, to the tiny creatures with which we share our space.

So I am calmed. I am encouraged.

While I mourn for the struggles that we humans are enduring, my fear that life itself is meaningless has been assuaged.

I may be helpless to change the course of events around me, but the clouds will continue to float. The mice will continue to gather seeds.

Life beyond our reach will go on, and I find that to be enormously encouraging.

“Hope is the Thing With Feathers”


Some people say that millennials are lazy. They say that this generation wants everything simply handed to them, that they lack a work ethic, that they are naive and irresponsible.

Every generation seems to look on the one before it as archaic and uninformed, and the one after it as somehow less worthy than their parents.

I’ve never understood this tendency, and have often shrugged it off as a natural human need to believe that “we” are better than “they” are. Just one more self serving attempt to feel good about ourselves by criticizing anyone who is not in our tribe.

But I’ll tell you something, dear boomer team, it is the next generation of young adults that is my lifeline to a sense of hope for humanity.

We spent this past weekend at our son’s wedding to his wonderful life partner. It was a glorious event, in every possible way. We have already loved and cherished our daughter-in-law for a decade, long before she and our son progressed from good friends to lovers. The wedding itself was like a magical dream, complete with delicious and abundant food, a gorgeous lawn setting and lots of loving family.

But it was the unique and uplifting presence of the community of young friends that has restored my badly damaged faith in the human species.

Like a lot of you, I find myself overwhelmed with frustration every time I read the news or look at social media. “How have humans managed to last for so long,” I keep asking myself. “And do we deserve to keep going?”

It feels like the End of Days.

So let me describe my impressions and interactions with these amazing young people. Because after this weekend, I don’t think we are quite yet on the edge of doom.

My first thought is this: in spite of the fact that these kids are well educated and highly creative, there doesn’t seem to be a giant ego anywhere to be found. ALL of them cheer each other’s successes and share in each other’s achievements. They mourn each other’s losses. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of jealousy or envy or begrudging among them. That astonishes me.

My second impression is that they have a self-confidence and assurance that our generation mostly lacked at that young age. Here’s what I mean; we have known most of these kids for about ten years. We’ve seen them go through college, move into the work force or start careers in the arts. We’ve been there at musical festivals with them, at barbecues, at various birthdays and holidays. From the very first, all of them have been completely welcoming and non-judgmental of the “old folks”. They have been open in a way that has always surprised and delighted me. They talk to us with great sincerity about their dreams and hopes and about their fears, too. They hug us with so much warmth, and they are all quick to say, “I love you, Mamma Shiebs!”

It takes a great deal of self awareness to do that in your twenties, especially with people you see only a few times a year. Nevertheless, as soon as we arrive at any place where they are gathered, we are immediately embraced and taken into the heart of the group. When I’m with them, I feel profoundly respected, profoundly cared for and immensely safe.

That is an indescribable gift, don’t you think?

But the most impressive and inspiring feeling about spending time with these people is that when I am with them, I am able to let go of my fear that humanity will never learn from its mistakes, and that we will continue on the dangerous path that has lead to such dark times.

I say that because I watch these kids work so. hard. every. day; but I watch them do it with a mindfulness that we older folks lack. Some of them have professional careers as teachers or therapists. Some run small local businesses. Many of them have launched careers as artists which they supplement with part time jobs.

Unlike us, they don’t seem to feel that their self-worth comes from a big paycheck. They don’t measure their success by the number of “things” they buy or by the cost of those “things.” They work to pay for their lives, which they live mindfully and frugally.

They ask for nothing. Seriously. Birthdays and Christmases are about small, homemade gifts of food, or music or plants or hand knit scarves. They are about warmly worded letters and shared meals and laughing. They don’t want things. What items they do need, they mostly get second hand, proud of the money saved, the trash prevented and the environmental damage avoided.

Unlike us, they value people above material things. They grow a lot of their own food, share what they have with each other and with the community, make things for themselves and fix what is broken.

I don’t know how they do it, but they seem to understand that life is precious and that it’s meant to be enjoyed. They know that it is as important to recharge as it is to charge onward. They keep journals, write songs, paint and sculpt their feelings. I can’t imagine any of them working 60 hours a week at jobs they hate while missing time with the families they love. They have more sense than we do!

They are natural teachers, and they share their gentle wisdom with old folks like me, who learn from every interaction.

They are kind. When I am ranting about my personal or political opinions, they are quick to point out that everyone is allowed their own point of view. They listen to each other, and to everyone else, even when it’s hard. They speak up, even when it feels risky.

They are humble, and they remind us to be that way, too.

They have come of age in a time of war, a time of global climate crisis, a time of pandemics and racism and increasing poverty. They have come of age at a time in history when it is clear that the generation before them has failed to light the way. They are unlikely to find the level of financial security that many of us have, but instead of letting that lead them to despair, it has lead them to view life differently.

They give me such hope!

Last week I thought that humankind had run its course, and that we’d soon be descending into chaos.

This week I have hope that if they are given just the slightest chance, the next generation will provide the reset that our species so desperately needs.

“Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul……”

Thank you, young friends from North Adams, Massachusetts! You are the hope that my soul needed so much.