Wrestling with Christmas

The older I get, the more Christmas fills me with a terrible ambivalence. But please note: “ambivalent” doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It means I’m of two opposite and conflicting minds.

As a child I was torn between childish greed, a certain delight even then in the decor, music, and “specialness” of the festivities, and a very Christian desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was a devout little thing. I was on our local Romper Room show with Miss Connie for a whole week, and I created something of a ruckus on Wednesday (which was always snack day on Romper Room) after the prayer over the milk and cookies. Miss Connie led us all in saying, “God is great, God is good,/ And we thank Him for our food.” In my household, the prayer didn’t stop there. It continued: “By His hands we all are fed,/ Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” So I continued. Loudly. After everyone else had stopped. And then, as the cameras rolled, I told her in the most disapproving tones that God didn’t hear her prayer because she didn’t end the prayer with “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I remember saying it at least three times — that God doesn’t hear any prayer that isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name — each time more stridently because I thought she was ignoring me. What she was doing was gesturing wildly to the cameraman to cut to commercial. Ah, the days of live television!

When we moved to the Virgin Islands, I experienced my first Christmas there in 90 degree heat. We put our white flocked tree with its pretty blue balls (this was the 1970s, after all) on the balcony where it would be visible both when we were in the living room and when we were on the patio below, but on Christmas morning the trade winds carried the tree over the balcony and into the swimming pool, its pretty blue balls bobbing around happily in the water. Those days, when I was in high school, Christmas became just “what we did” each year. Festive and fun, but without any deeper meaning.

When I got my first apartment after college with my friend Jim, Christmas changed again. I really did Christmas up right. An eight-foot-tall fresh white pine, painstakingly decorated. My father was ill at the time, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this would be his last Christmas with us. I gave him stocking stuffers filled with wind-up walking toys. I still remember the tears of joy and laughter in his eyes.

In the years that followed, I shared a home in Maryland with my mother, and we took similar pains to decorate well and tastefully. Jim would always come over on Christmas eve and watch TV with us, then I would go to my church for our festive 10 p.m. Christmas Eve celebration; Jim was always asleep on the couch by the time I got home. In the morning my brother Dale would join us in opening the stockings and gifts, then I would make a nice breakfast (usually eggs Benedict).

These were happy times, at least until I started suffering from depression — the chronic, crushing kind, a despair that is independent of circumstance. Because these bouts lasted for months at a time, I never knew if I’d be over it before the holidays or not. On several Christmases I remember going through the motions, putting on my characteristic happy face, when I would actually have preferred to be curled in a fetal position in the dark, weeping.

When I moved back to Florida from Vermont, and lived once again with Mom, we started recreating our Maryland Christmases, after a fashion. Jim would make a trip down once a year, and we would do the whole gift exchange thing and have a great time. But as Mom became ill, she could no longer shop, and couldn’t wrap gifts. Christmas became a burden. She wanted the house decorated, and even though it taxed her greatly, she always added some special touches. In the end, she just felt guilty over the whole thing. She didn’t want us to give her any gifts, and she just gave us money in return, hoping we’d get ourselves something we’d love.

The first Christmas after her death, I drove up to visit Jim in Virginia. Last year he came down here. This will be the first year in nearly a decade that we haven’t spent Christmas together. The only nod to Christmas in my house is my Charlie Brown tree. And it’s all right. Because I am decidedly ambivalent over Christmas.

Adam hates Christmas. I don’t think that’s stating his feelings too strongly. He has a decided antipathy not so much toward the holiday itself — people can celebrate whatever they damn well please, and more power to them — but toward the exhaustive and relentless way our society (not to mention the media) pushes it in our faces. This year I saw Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween decorations, and our local Walgreens was playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. For Jews (not to mention Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists, and other non-Christians), having grocery store clerks wishing you a Merry Christmas at every turn, or having Christmas music blasted from every loudspeaker in every restaurant and store, or having televisions broadcast nothing but Christmas dreck and artificially sappy shows with at least a tangential Christmas theme for nearly a month, is offensive in the extreme. I resent government and municipal bodies, which should be steadfastly secular and nonpartisan, celebrating the most Christian of holidays as if everyone in the world believed the same things. We don’t.

Every year I find myself wanting to pick fights with the Salvation Army bell-ringers: “Don’t you realize,” I want to shout, “that this organization you’re volunteering for actively discriminates against gays and lesbians? In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City instead of following an ordinance requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners. Discriminating against gays was more important to them than helping the poor. On top of that, they refuse to give needy children any Harry Potter toys that have been donated because they’re ‘satanic.’ Is that the kind of ‘good’ you want to do in the world?” But I don’t shout. I drop in a Kettle Voucher, nod and give a tight little smile to the bell-ringer, and go about my shopping feeling rather Grinchlike.

One of the biggest reasons I am ambivalent is because Christmas is a fake. Jesus was not born on December 25, or anywhere near it. Assuming we’re using the gospels as our source material on the birth of Jesus, Luke clearly says the birth took place when shepherds were “living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.” This means Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field.

December 25, in the older Julian calendar, was the date on which the winter solstice usually fell. Romans celebrated it as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Many scholars believe the 4th century church selected the winter solstice as the celebration of Jesus’ birth to appropriate and co-opt a pagan holiday that already had a long history and huge fan base. Others, like S.E. Hijmans in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, disagree: “It is cosmic symbolism [that] inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus is not the reason for the season. The reason for the season is the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the ecliptic.

And the decidedly pagan winter solstice celebrations are the source for most of our hallowed Christmas traditions:

■   Gift-giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th through the 23rd — in fact, Christmas gift-giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. Christians point to the gifts the magi gave to the infant Jesus, but forget that the magoi were Zoroastrian astrologers. Seleucus II Callinicusis, king of Syria, offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BCE; this was likely the precedent for the mention of these particular gifts in Matthew’s gospel.

■   The Christmas tree was first seen in northern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but winter solstice celebrations, especially in Europe, have always included the use of evergreen boughs as a symbol of life in the season of death, and as an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

■   Santa Claus. He may have been loosely based on St. Nicholas — Nikolaos of Myra, 4th century bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey — but his feast day is December 6, and he really wasn’t much like our modern Santa or even like the more ancient Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas but was neither a gift-bringer nor particularly associated with children. He has been identified with the old belief in Woden or Odin. And as we noted a few years ago, Santa was a shaman.

■   And then there’s the feasting. One reason the winter solstice was so important the world over was because communities were not certain of living through the winter — starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Wikipedia has a fascinating compilation of different winter solstice observances, from nearly every culture imaginable.

When someone asks me about my religious beliefs, I never have a great answer. At times I am a Christian, though certainly a theologically liberal one. But by the same token I often feel Jewish, or Buddhist, or Hindu, even though my adherence to any of those religious traditions is tangential at best. I am a postmodern shaman and most decidedly a syncretist. I am, depending on what day you ask me, an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, and occasionally even a monotheist. And I am generally a pagan, caught somewhere between Paganism and Neopaganism, though I don’t seem to find much in common with the neopagan community at large.

As at least a nominal Christian, I must wrestle with what Christmas means. I certainly believe in the mythos behind the story of Jesus’ birth. Countless gods and salvific figures had miraculous births, and many of them were born of a virgin (though of course the word ‘alma in the Hebrew prophecy upon which the story of Mary’s virgin birth is based described not a technical virgin all but simply a young woman). All the infancy stories of Jesus are mythic: the angelic annunciation, the slaughter of the innocents, shepherds as witnesses, magi traveling to do homage. I like feeling that I’m somehow part of one of the Great Myths of humankind.

My annoyance about the date of Jesus’ birth won’t change the fact that it’s been celebrated this way for sixteen centuries. And while I don’t hide my irritation at the way our society celebrates Christmas (last night someone on television said, “Christmas is about giving! It’s about friendship!!” as if that were the perfect summation of the symbolism of the holiday), this doesn’t seem to affect my need to sing Christmas carols for a few weeks every year — the ancient, modal ones that most people don’t sing or have never heard, the ones that evoke cold winters, or the eternal struggle of light against a pervasive darkness, or joyful dancing and revelry.

I no longer have a long list of people to shop for. I won’t be alone on Christmas day, but otherwise I won’t be celebrating much. I’ll listen to my lovely, relatively unknown carols, but I’ll turn off the TV when the Christmas specials come on. And in a couple of days, on the 21st, I’ll light a candle at 6:38 p.m., the moment the winter solstice occurs where I live. Ambivalence may not be a comfortable place to live, but it’s the best I can do for the time being.

Categories: Christianity, Depression, Earth-based Religions, Family, Holidays, Judaism, Spirituality | 7 Comments

Ella Hoyle

In a fit of I-don’t-wanna-cook-dom, I brought home one of those supermarket rotisserie chickens this afternoon. It was, to quote my great grandmother, “cooked to a fair-thee-well.” I suppose they must be overcooked to satisfy regulations, even though the most heat-resistant strain of Salmonella dies at 140°F, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare. Ignoring the research, the USDA mandates that chicken be cooked to 165°, and many restaurants and grocery stores ensure compliance by cooking it to 170°, which also ensures dry white meat.

And for all that, it’s still better than cooking.

My great grandmother, a tiny, incredibly energetic woman named Ella, cooked everything to a fair-thee-well. Chickens (whose necks she would wring herself, before beheading them on the old tree stump out back). Green beans. Corn. Potatoes. Nothing was burned, but everything needed to be anointed with gravy or butter to restore some modicum of flavor. Her Sunday dinners were full of laughter and stories, fresh iced tea with an inch of sugar sitting in the bottom (which we would never stir, lest it become undrinkable), and Grandma Hoyle, hopping up every five minutes to get something new from the kitchen.

I loved my Grandma Hoyle. On her 99th birthday, she told us that her dream was for some young man to pick her up in a little red convertible, and she’d make him speed down the road with her head scarf flying in the breeze. She lived on a tiny country lane in Boyds, Maryland—I believe her street has become part of the historic district, so the lane is still just as tiny as it used to be—a block from the tiny white Presbyterian church she attended so faithfully, and in whose century-old cemetery she is now buried. A bit further down the road is the historic Boyds Negro School, a one-room 22 x 30 foot wooden building that served as the only public school for African Americans in central Montgomery County from 1895 to 1936. It contained some desks, a blackboard, a potbelly stove, and a framed picture of abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Subjects taught in the school included spelling, cooking, reading, singing, and weaving. Grandma Hoyle had proudly served on its board of directors when she was younger. I believe the Underground Railroad ran through Boyds.

Her husband, who founded the local mill, died before I was born (fell off a chicken coop that he was repairing at the age of 86). She had two children, my maternal grandmother, and “Poor Little Russell,” whom she cared for until he died, which was only a couple of years before she did. Russell had severe birth defects, though in that era nothing could be done for him, so what precisely his condition was, I never learned. His limbs and facial muscles were twisted, his body wasted, and he was incapable of articulate speech. We assumed he was also mentally disabled, though it now occurs to me that he may have lived his life with an unimpaired mind trapped in that tomb of a body, and no one would have been the wiser. Grandma Hoyle was his sole nurse, and she was wonderfully patient and tender with him. We would go upstairs to pay our respects each time we’d come for a visit. I never knew if he understood we were in the room, or if he knew and was angry or upset by my discomfort, even though I tried to pretend he was “normal” and exchange pleasantries with him.

Grandma Hoyle’s sister was Vinnie. Her husband, a man named Hicks, founded the town’s general store, and even forty years after his death, Hicks’ General Store was still open for business under that name, despite the presence of a handsome new supermarket less than a mile away. For years my taciturn uncle (or was it their strange adult son, about whom I know next to nothing?) kept raccoons in a large cage, just at the edge of the woods that surrounded their property. After my uncle died, and the son either died or disappeared, I never learned which, Aunt Vinnie came to live with Grandma Hoyle, and the atmosphere at that little home changed dramatically.

Aunt Vinnie was as irascible as one of the raccoons they had caged. She could find fault in anything: the temperature of the tea or its strength; the sound of the television, even when it was tuned to her favorite show; the feel of the lace doilies my grandmother had tatted to be used as antimacassars. She never paid a dollar in rent, never cooked a bite of food, never lifted a finger to help clean up, but spent all her time bedeviling my sweet-hearted and longsuffering Grandma Hoyle. Vinnie was two or three years younger than Ella; we assumed she had been spoiled at a very early age and never grew out of it.

Poor Little Russell died first. Vinnie died a couple of months after that, of the flu, I think. Grandma Hoyle had two very pleasant and untroubled years at the end of her life, which she spent receiving visitors, telling stories, and watching her beloved Lawrence Welk Show. She didn’t cook Sunday dinner any longer, but would enjoy whatever we brought in. But to this day I miss those meals with the chicken and vegetables cooked to a fair-thee-well, and that amazing bundle of energy that was Ella Hoyle.

Categories: Family | 5 Comments

Happy Birthday, Mom


November 21, 1920—November 11, 2008


Categories: Family | 2 Comments


Marguerite Louise Russell Bachman Smith died one year ago today, ten days shy of her eighty-eighth birthday.

It was a decent day. I’m tired, but not emotionally exhausted. My brother Darryl came by today, and I gave him Mom’s jewelry to be parceled out between his wife, my brother Dale’s wife, and their various kids. Or sold, if they don’t find anything they want to wear, or anything of sentimental value they want to keep.

Yahrtzeit means “time of [one] year” in Yiddish, and refers to the anniversary of a loved one’s death. It is customary for Jews to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I learned today is literally the “Orphan’s Kaddish.” Lighting a yahrtzeit candle in memory of a loved one is a minhag, or custom, that is deeply ingrained in Jewish life to honor the memory and souls of the deceased.

I didn’t have a yahrtzeit candle to light, but I had some quiet time with Mom’s spirit, as I often do in the evenings. We used to watch many of the same TV programs together, and we knew each other’s reactions so well that as we watched, we’d glance over for the expected frown or listen for the laugh.

It’s been a year of being stuck, and of getting unstuck. Mourning, at least this time, is not at all what I expected. It was a full-body experience, not so much an emotional one (though there were certainly moments . . . ).

The strangest change, I think, has been in realizing the weight of Mom’s illness, how profoundly it limited her and how she hated being limited, how she struggled against it even as she was trying to let go. In her last year, I found myself reproving her for not struggling harder; now I see that she fought harder and struggled more bravely than I ever realized, and probably more than I ever could.

I love her and miss her, certainly, but most of all I admire her and thank her.

I think W.S. Merwin said it best in his brief poem, “Separation”:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Categories: Death, Family, Judaism | 9 Comments


My parents are appearing in my dreams with disturbing frequency now.

After my father died in 1982, I saw him in dreams and dream-states only once in a while. He was about 3/4 the height he was when alive, and he was often mute or had a gag over his mouth.

Then he went away. Couldn’t access him through dreams or journeys. This phase lasted a good dozen years. When he reappeared, he was (a) of a “normal” age, neither young nor old, (b) relatively healthy, and (c) almost without exception not married to Mom. In many dreams they had been married once, but they had divorced or separated. (In waking reality, they had a three-month discussion of separation, but then he became ill, and they reconciled and were very close again.)

In the the ten months (exactly) since Mom’s death, she has appeared uniformly strong and healthy and vigorous and independent, just as I believe she always wanted to be. Sometimes she was much younger and prettier than I knew her, sometimes she was like herself in her 60s, which were a vibrant time for her.

For the last month or two, Mom and Dad have both been showing up in my dreams. When they appear in the same dream, Mom is tired but healthy, while Dad is extremely ill, walks with a cane, can’t see well, and has balance problems. They are usually long divorced, but have come together for some event or over some situation in their lives where they need to work together.

Last night Dad was cold and arrogant, listed to the left when he walked, and his left eye didn’t seem to work well. I was trying to help Mom get ready for a visit from some old friends of theirs. They were best man and matron of honor at my parents’ wedding, and remained fairly close emotionally to my parents throughout their lives, even if they weren’t always in close contact. These friends died in the early 1990s. Now last night they’re all alive, and I’m helping Mom prepare drinks and food for the party, while Dad is doing his best to annoy people.

So strange. When Mom was in her last stages, she’d talk about reuniting with Dad, and it was always with great longing and affection, as if this would be rest and home to her. By the time Dad died, they were close and loving, and he and I had the best relationship we had ever had, which has made his post-death appearances all the more confusing.

I have no doubt whatsoever that these dreams are all very Freudian or Jungian, and mean very dark things about me, me, me, but I’m fascinated at how visceral it all is: I wake up feeling terribly disturbed at seeing them together again, changed, uncomfortable, when both my hope and my honest belief is that they are happy and whole and free.

Categories: Body and Mind, Death, Dreams, Family, Spirituality | 1 Comment


Yesterday was my grand-niece Jillian’s first birthday. Six weeks after she was born, Mom got a visit from the whole tribe: my brother Darryl and his wife Janet; my niece Jenny and her husband Mike (I performed their marriage ceremony); my other niece, Tracy; and my other brother, Dale, and his wife Nilda. All so Mom could meet little Jillian. Jillie, as everyone calls her.

Mom was already starting to fade by this time last year. Dale and Nilda had tried to visit every other week, but sometimes Mom didn’t feel up to letting them come, and when they did visit, often she felt she needed to “tune out.” I think family visits just overwhelmed her.

The day everyone brought Jillie to see her great-grandma, Mom wasn’t feeling at all well, but she wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip by. I think she had willed herself to hold on until after she met this precious gift of a child. Everyone crowded into Mom’s bedroom, and we all oohed and cooed and made baby noises, and then Mom got to hold her: Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, First Nations, The Medicine Wheel | 5 Comments

Colorforms Sunshine

Today, Judge Judy was eviscerating a teenager who was lying about breaking the window of a pizza shop. She called him a fool, and accused his mother of raising him without a shred of moral inclination. “You shouldn’t be standing up for him!” she told the mother. “You should be making him take responsibility for his actions!”

Suddenly I’m five, maybe six years old again, and I’m sitting on my bedroom floor in Takoma Park, Maryland. I had saved up my allowance and bought a Colorforms set.

I had loved the Howdy Doody Show, and was devastated when in 1960 it was canceled and replaced by a perky ventriloquist. I was fully prepared to hate this interloper, but the Shari Lewis Show stole my heart. After that, my Saturday mornings—and the days leading up to them—revolved around Shari and dear Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse. And my Shari Lewis Show Colorforms set was one of my prized possessions.

Alas, my allowance would only allow the purchase of the Basic set. It had most of the important characters and images, but the Deluxe set was twice as large.

The best toystore in the world, and conveniently within walking distance, was Juvenile Sales Co., rival of the burgeoning Toys “R” Us (which actually began a couple of towns over). Chockablock with fascinating toys, it wasn’t as vast and spacious and bright as Toys “R” Us, but it was much more fun. But even caves filled with gold must have a dragon hanging around somewhere, and Juvenile Sales’s dragon was a rather grumpy fellow, prematurely old and stooped, named Robert Roberts. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Humor, Psychology | 13 Comments

Off to Africa?

In two days I’m heading out of town for the holidays. When Dad died in 1982, Mom and I couldn’t bear to celebrate that first Christmas without him surrounded by the same old familiar things, having to put on a brave face and either be endlessly consoled or, worse, not consoled. So we decided to leave town. We drove down to Williamsburg, Virginia, and did the whole Colonial America thing. They have quite a lovely holiday celebration, and it was just so odd and so different that we thought it would be just the thing. We could be quiet and mourn in our own way, talk or not talk as we wish, and broaden our horizons just a bit.

So I thought it was an appropriate thing to do for the first Christmas without Mom. No, not Colonial Williamsburg, but a road trip. I’m heading up to Norfolk, Virginia, to spend the holidays with my old, old, old friend Jim (he’s only half a year older than I; it’s just that we’ve been friends since the age of three). He would always come over to our house in Maryland on Christmas eve and spend the night, and then we’d all open prezzies in our robes the next morning. When we moved to Florida, he spent most Christmases down here with us.

Jim bought a house a few years ago, but Mom had been too sick for me to leave her for an out-of-town visit with him. Now that he’s trying to sell it (and with the housing market the way it is, you know that’s going well!), I wanted to see it at least once, and this seemed like the perfect time to do it. We’ll have our quiet little get-together, we’ll lift a glass to Mom, and we’ll find a balance between the old and the new.

On the way up I had already decided to stop at the Waffle House my brother Darryl and I so enjoyed on the funeral trip. But as I was planning, I ran across two new potential adventures. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Spirituality | 6 Comments

Ghost in the Machine

I blame Adam. First he told me about Woot! and then he told me about the Wootalyzer. So it’s all his fault. And if it’s not his fault, then it’s Mom’s. Or Alton Brown’s. It’s definitely not mine.

Those of us who are not into Internet jargon may not be aware that “w00t!” (with zeros instead of Os) is an expression of joy, an Internet hurrah. A few days ago Adam told me about a website,, that sells overstocked items at amazingly low prices, usually one new item per day, posted at midnight Central time. When it sells out, that’s it, nothing more until the next midnight rolls around. But once every month or so they have something called a Woot-Off, in which they have smaller numbers of each item in stock, so they run them back to back. Some items, either because they have very few of them or because they’re very hot items or both, sell out in seconds. Others hang around for several minutes or, for big-ticket items, for an hour or more until they sell out.

The Wootalizer is a small program that connects to the Woot! website and sounds an alarm each time a new item is posted. This is particularly helpful during Woot-Offs when you might have something precious disappear in the time it takes the web page to reload.

The Woot-Off that started yesterday is still running today. My Wootalizer has been sounding its alarm at distressingly frequent intervals, and I’m about to silence it when up pops this set of knives by the masters of Japanese knife-making, Shun (marketed in the U.S. by Kershaw). Six knives and a bamboo knife block for $249 plus $5 shipping.

Now, I’ve been lusting after these particular knives ever since I saw Alton Brown (of Good Eats fame) extol their virtues; they were for years the only knives he would use, and he met with Shun and asked them to make a series with the blades angled for easier cutting. They made them, and he put his name (and face) on them. Together these knives regularly sell for $527 (not counting the knife block or shipping), so Woot’s price was way less than half.

Now for the weird part. Continue reading

Categories: Cooking, Death, Family | 10 Comments

The Edge of a Storm

I am not a particularly heavy sleeper. You could say I sleep like a dog, or a wolf; that is, with one ear nearly always awake, ready to pull the rest of me to alertness should the need arise. That came in handy, of course, during the years Mom was sick. We had a baby monitor in her room so I could hear her calls (or falls) in the night. But even before I became her caregiver, I would wake frequently in the night to turn over or occasionally pee (the curse of middle age), usually falling back to sleep quickly.

But this habit also means I tend to remember my dreams more easily than other people, because I, like others whose brains are similarly hardwired, go through life with a brain wave pattern significantly slower than most people (Alpha rather than the normal Beta); I’m closer to the dream state when I’m waking, and I slip into the trance or deeply meditative state (Theta) more easily. I assume that I sleep closer to Theta, whereas most people go from Delta (complete unconsciousness) to Beta (which is found in both normal REM sleep, when dreaming usually occurs, and states of extreme alertness) and back again, making dream recollection a bit more problematic.

Two nights ago I went through a rather bad patch. I encountered some familial stressors—something to do with Mom’s will and probate—and I was suddenly a young boy unable to cope. It was not so much the specter of death, or the anxiety and sadness over loss, but rather that all the months and years of exhaustion came rushing back. I found myself, once I had gotten off the phone, weeping uncontrollably, making animal noises and wailing like a professional mourner in the Middle East. When there were words, it was “Leave me ’lone!” and “Go ’way!” as if I were a battered child afraid of more abuse. It was the strangest bit of grieving I have ever experienced. I went to bed utterly spent, and woke up much saner.

Then last night, a very odd little dream. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Brain, Death, Dreams, Family | 1 Comment

Family Feast

My nephew makes a mean Bloody Mary. Everyone loved this year’s Craignog (which, after years of perfecting, I tweaked once again), but sometimes you want something less dreamy and pillowy, something to make your eyebrows stand up and take notice. Erik’s Bloody Mary, with the best swizzle stick (a skewer with small bites of celery alternating with stuffed green olives) and a boatload of ingredients, a couple of them secret, was amazing.

As was his turkey. Erik has, in the past few years, been bitten by the gourmet bug. He runs a successful pawn shop, then goes home to make schnitzel with chanterelles in a cream sauce. We compared notes on braised short ribs and osso bucco, and discussed his plans for a turkey stock once the carcass had been stripped, more or less.

It was a huge turkey, which often isn’t advised because they tend to be dry. He brined it for a day, and then stuffed it with herbs and lemons and oranges and apples and . . . I lost track, it’s a long list. And it was perfect: juicy, tender, richly flavored. It was masterful. I carved. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Shamanism | 5 Comments

Two Weddings and Two Funerals

I was emailing a friend this morning about the first funeral, and then the second funeral, but both times I typed “first wedding” and “second wedding”—only when I was proofreading did I catch my mistake. Certainly these ceremonies felt celebratory, not at all the lugubrious affairs that most funerals are; the second funeral had only close family and a couple of close friends in attendance, and all but one of us went out to an Italian restaurant together afterward. We laughed and reminisced for almost two and a half hours; the restaurant was good enough to give us a big table in their banquet room, so we could carry on by ourselves without being disturbed.

The family matriarch is now Mom’s sister, my Aunt Shirley, who at 84 is not in terrific health herself. But yesterday, though she was a little frail and unsure on her feet and her words no longer tumble crisply from her lips, her mind and her great wit were sharp and delicious. Her two children, my cousins Julie and Chris, are sharp-witted themselves, and their banter has always engaged the whole family. We all talk over one another constantly, and we talk too loudly because no one is really listening to one another and everyone wants to be heard, but enough gets through that we choke with laughter on our iced tea and drink our fill of the affection being flung to and fro. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family | 3 Comments

A Decent Funeral

Lots of family and family-of-family; a couple of neighbors; a few very dear friends of mine; a few family friends of my brothers. Flowers were tasteful, but (in keeping with my mother’s wish, who always said, “If they didn’t care enough to send me flowers when I was alive, I sure as heck don’t want them after I’m dead and can’t appreciate them!”) not overabundant.

The embalmer did as good a job as humanly possible, but she still looked nothing like herself. Which was just fine: that simply wasn’t her, there in that casket. I put a few items into the casket that she wanted to be buried with — a stuffed polar bear, a photo, a birthday card my niece had already bought her — and brought her wedding ring, which she wanted to be buried with. I thought it would be no big deal getting the ring on, but her hands were nicely locked together, so it was as if she were being particularly obstreperous when I was struggling with them. Once the ring was on, her hands wouldn’t go back together properly — one arm kept flopping to her side after a few moments, which was both ghastly and hysterically funny. It was a Chuckles the Clown moment for those of us standing around the casket.

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Categories: Death, Family, Healing, Nature, Spirituality | 4 Comments

Thursday Cuteness

My new great niece, Jillian, in costume with her mother and father, Jenny and Mike, at her first Halloween party. I thought Jillie might be dressed as Curious George, but he was found by a Man in a Yellow Hat, and I don’t see any yellow hats there.

Categories: Family | 2 Comments

Jillian Rose

I’m a great uncle. (No, not great in that sense—though I am rather fabulous.) My niece Jenny’s firstborn. Entered the world ten days ago. Met her in person for the first time yesterday, and she’s absolutely gorgeous, as you can see. Soft, fine hair. Tiniest hands on earth. And a perfect, perfect face.

Obviously I’m so dizzy that I can no longer speak in complete sentences.

Here’s the lovely Jilly:

Proud great uncle (good Lord, look how gray my beard has gotten!):

And happy great grandma:

Categories: Family | 7 Comments

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