Friday, November 30, 2012

A seasonal battle with my conscience

Yes, I’ve already done a lot of Christmas shopping on line. And yes, I feel a little guilty about it.

But when I take a closer look at the guilt, it really just serves to remind me that there are very few ways of Christmas shopping that don’t make me feel guilty. The whole concept can just seem so self-indulgent, even if I’m shopping for other people.

At the same time, it’s so satisfying to point, click, and save myself a trip to….well, anywhere. A mall. A superstore. A plaza.

Last weekend, I was lucky to be in Portland for a couple of days.  So, having not shopped at all – on principle and by preference – on Black Friday, I actually did quite a lot of small-scale purchasing on Saturday. But that didn’t seem so bad. A far-reaching public relations campaign had dubbed the day “small business Saturday,” and it felt like that’s what I was supporting: small businesses. Even though I know many of the little unique-looking boutiques in Portland’s Old Port are actually small chains, with counterparts in other boutique-heavy communities like Edgartown, Nantucket, Chatham, and Portsmouth, I still felt like I was shopping the old-fashioned way, ducking in and out of little shops, carrying my purchases by hand rather than pushing a cart, aware that since I was car-free, I’d better not buy more than I could comfortably tote the several blocks back to the condo, on foot.

It did feel like the right way to shop, compared to the newspaper and TV images of people in line at big box stores on Black Friday. But my self-righteousness only goes so far. None of it was really necessary – not the little pieces of Christmas candy for the kids, the token gifts for friends, none of it. We could all celebrate Christmas with no gifts at all. But it was fun, and I was contributing in a very small way to local vendors and artisans, so I mollified myself with thoughts of how I was adding to the city’s economic development.

A few days later, though, I couldn’t resist plowing through most of the remainder of my gift list on line. I still had no desire to get into the car and drive anywhere to shop. And even though it pains my conscience to give so much business to Amazon rather than local businesses, it still doesn’t seem entirely wrong. I was saving carbon emissions by not driving anywhere. And, well, I was saving myself a lot of aggravation, which I would like to think benefits the world in other ways, though that may be a bit of a stretch.

But the reality is, there’s no one answer to whether it’s right or wrong to indulge in holiday shopping, and whether there are right ways or wrong ways to do it. Yes, any shopping supports employees somewhere – whether in Framingham or Bangladesh – who no doubt need the work. No, I still can’t begin to explain how buying stuff has anything whatsoever to do with the birth of Christianity. Yes, shopping on line means avoiding the environmental impact of driving. No, I don’t feel great about the often bizarre amount of disposable packaging in which each small item shipped from Amazon is swathed. Yes, I do understand that those “two-day shipping” promises exact a toll on the overworked employees required to fulfill the orders at breakneck speed.

But in a way, what I was left with was realizing, mostly, that there seldom are cut-and-dried answers when it comes to matters of the conscience. Yesterday on NPR I heard a debate about communities outlawing plastic shopping bags. A great idea, in my opinion – except the other side of it is that people end up buying plastic bags for things like lining wastebaskets and cleaning up after pets for which they previously used their old grocery bags. It’s easy to have strong opinions when you don’t give things much thought.

Last night after dinner, my ten-year-old sat down at my computer and designed a brochure advertising holiday services. According to the full-color printout she gave me, she’s willing to do tasks such as wrap presents, design cards, address cards, and “personalize gifts,” all for less than a dollar. I contracted her immediately to wrap and make cards for any gifts on my list that weren’t for her. It will run me about six dollars. That’s one form of Christmas spending I think I can do with a clear conscience. Possibly the only one, but it's something.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A little too much minimalism

Yesterday on NPR’s On Point, I heard authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, founders of the website, discuss the process that transformed them from people who actively pursued material gain to people devoted to a lifelong process of stripping down. One of them described an experiment in which he packed everything he owned into boxes, as if he was moving, although he wasn’t. Then he unpacked things only as he needed them, in order to find out what objects he really had use for in the course of a day, a week or a month.

We’re doing that experiment too, only not so much as an experiment in minimalism as just because it’s easier for the time being. When we moved here in spring of 2011, we thought we might be able to stay only a year; it turned into longer, but we still haven’t bothered to unpack all the boxes in the garage. In the past 20 months, we’ve done just what the minimalist author described: unpacked only what we needed. And so we too can tell what objects matter most to us.

Of course, 20 months with a family of four makes for a fairly broad range of material needs, or at least material uses. Dishes and kitchen appliances were unpacked within hours of the move; clothes and linens too. Over the next several weeks, the kids brought out games and books and craft supplies. Now that we’ve been here well over a year, any decorations we own for any particular holiday have been uncovered, and so has just about all of our athletic equipment and computer accessories. Last Labor Day weekend, we unearthed the lobster steamer and lobster crackers for the first time since moving.

So in a way, the author is right; this is a great way to see what you really need. When we do move again, we’ll have to take a very critical look at anything that has stayed boxed all this time. The only problem is that there’s one large category of items we never unpacked but that I still can’t think of as superfluous: sentimental objects. We don’t have a single wedding photo in our current house; it didn’t seem worth unwrapping them from their protective casing. In fact, we don’t have any framed photos at all here, except for the kids’ school photos, taken earlier this fall. Last summer I pulled out a few vases, but we have other knickknacks – some heirlooms passed down, some collectibles from our travels, others wedding gifts – that we haven’t bothered to pull out.

And for me, that’s a source of struggle when I contemplate the issue of minimalism. Doing without piles of, say, cloth placemats in different patterns, or CDs no one listens to, or old high school notebooks, or any of the other things that people typically accumulate in their attics or basements is definitely a positive thing. But not having any family photos around? That seems sort of sad.

So next time we move, we might try the same thing, but this time I’m determined to find that box of wedding photos and other framed pictures and unpack that box early on. Minimalism is good, but living without sentimental objects seems a little too abstemious. I miss our photos and collectibles, and I look forward to seeing them again, whenever the next round of unpacking occurs.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The quiet at the end of Thanksgiving Day

I really love Thanksgiving. I love the menu-planning. I enjoy the cooking prep that begins the weekend before and extends right through Thursday midday (my very last culinary act yesterday was to assemble an apple crisp and slide it into the oven at 2 p.m., just as Rick finished carving the turkey). I even relish the supermarket trips that take me to three or four stores in place of the usual one or two in order to find exactly what I have in mind (produce from Whole Foods, staples from Market Basket, cheese – of remarkably high quality at remarkably low prices – from Trader Joe’s, and fowl – turkey, duck and chicken for the legendary dish known as turducken – from Roche Brothers, because that was the only butcher I could find willing to debone all three for me the week of Thanksgiving). I love the way everyone in my husband’s family of origin praises my cooking throughout the meal because they’re glad I hosted and they didn’t, and I appreciate the fact that my sisters-in-law and my nieces are always up for a walk after we eat.
But I always forget that one of the best parts of the day comes after the guests leave, when the table is cleared, the dishwasher is running, the leftovers are in the fridge, and for at least an hour or so, no one is asking me what they can have to eat.

It’s such a peaceful time. Darkness falls early on Thanksgiving; our guests left yesterday at around 4:30, and by 5 it was dark. I hadn’t had time to read the newspaper that morning, having gone for a run and then started in on the remaining cooking and kitchen preparation tasks, so I sat down with the kids and my Kindle. I read; Tim watched football; Holly worked on her Christmas wish list. Rick was already sound asleep, explaining to me that a long nap was critical since he’d be up late watching the Patriots game.

The sense of peace came from more than just having it be the end of a busy day. There’s something about Thanksgiving that feels like the deep cleansing breath before the holiday season kicks off. We’re not big holiday shoppers; we won’t be at any malls or department stores on Black Friday or quite possibly for the entire holiday season, but there’s still a lot to do once December begins. And even though most of it is a lot of fun – concerts, pageants, parties – it’s still good to have a conscious moment of rest before the calendar dates start filling in.

My family of origin likes to have Thanksgiving dinner at night; when we were growing up, we’d do other things all day – those who weren’t cooking, anyway – and then get into feast mode at about 6 p.m. It took me a while to get used to an early afternoon Thanksgiving meal; the first few years we celebrated on that schedule, which is more traditional in my husband’s family, I felt like we’d missed out on all the other possibilities of a free day. But I’ve come to like the schedule, eating a big holiday meal and then having the late afternoon and evening free.

So Thursday evening was blissfully serene. By a little after six, the kids were starting to ask me what they could have to eat, but even that was easy; they were happy with reheated mashed potatoes, leftover cooked carrots, a small slice of pie. All I felt like eating by that time was cottage cheese on crackers. I wish there were more nights with the hushed calm of Thanksgiving night. I felt thankful for a lot this year: health, happiness, security of various kinds. But as night fell, I also felt thankful for that particular moment: the quiet after the storm, even though it’s a good storm.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Comfort foods

Tonight a group of my high school friends will be coming over for appetizers and desserts, just as they did the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year. Thursday, we’ll host Thanksgiving dinner for thirteen (a thought that would have horrified my maternal grandmother, who was superstitious and never seated thirteen at the table. But I’m hoping the fact that we’re actually dividing the group between two tables mitigates the potential for bad luck). In early December, it will be time for the annual cookie exchange, an evening of food, wine and conversation, at the end of which we all take home dozens of Christmas cookies made by each other. And once that party is over, we’ll start our yearly candy-making for Christmas gifts.

It feels good to be welcoming back these seasonal rituals. Their sameness is soothing. When I told Holly on Saturday that the annual gathering of high school friends was in just a few days, she responded, “Yay, chocolate chip cheesecake!” She remembers correctly. I’ll make chocolate chip cheesecake for that gathering, pumpkin pie and apple crisp for Thanksgiving, eggnog cheesecake and a peppermint chocolate layer cake for the cookie exchange.

All of these are foods we don’t eat the rest of the year, and there’s no particular reason that each recipe came to be assigned to one particular event. But I appreciate the sense of tradition behind it. There’s no reason to associate chocolate chip cheesecake with my high school friends and chocolate peppermint cake with the cookie exchange group. It just took hold that way.

Cooking traditions can be such a welcome ritual in uncertain times. We host Thanksgiving every year; most years I try to experiment with one or two new dishes, but I never worry about it, knowing the old favorites will always be, well, the favorites; and yet there’s always room for something different. The roasted squash salad tradition dates back to 2006, when my friend Nicole gave me the recipe, and everyone has come to expect it, but the idea of making turducken rather than traditional turkey is one Tim came up with just this year. We’ll find out if it sticks or not.

I’m finding it reassuring to pull out the annual recipes: the apple crisp recipe in my mother’s handwriting on a tattered recipe card; the recipe for chocolate mousse pie (which is always another choice for Thanksgiving dessert, alongside the apple crisp and pumpkin pie) printed out from an email address I haven’t had in seven years.

At every party and get-together, everyone is appreciative of the food no matter what I make; sometimes I worry that I wouldn’t even know if no one liked my cooking because they’re just glad I’m willing to host these events. And that could be true; they could be thinking “Oh please, not the roasted squash salad again!” But unless I ever hear that, I’ll turn back once again to the familiar favorites. It’s part of what makes this time of year feel so familiar, so ritualistic, and so dear.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Just soup

My friend Rebecca emailed me Wednesday morning. A mutual friend of ours who not long ago went through a terrible trauma had, in the wake of everything else, come down with the flu, Rebecca said in the email. Was there any chance I could bring her some chicken soup?

Yes, I emailed back. Soup is something I know how to do. And I would be happy to do it.

Happy, in a way, combined with a sense of general insufficiency, was how I felt over the next couple of hours as I poached chicken parts, chopped carrots, washed celery, measured seasonings. Soup, I know how to do. And sometimes it seems soup is about all I know how to do. Well, not just soup. Casseroles. Baked pasta dishes. Meaty or vegetarian entrees. Sweets, to bring a little extra cheer.

Which seems like very little to offer sometimes. We’ve had such an unusual number of unexpected losses around us recently, and it seems all I ever do to help anyone is make soup or drop off a bag of groceries. I know so little about how to try to console people. I have so little to offer in terms of solace or emotional sustenance.

And so I make soup.

When my sisters and I were young, we used to read a classic picture book about a bunny who raised dozens of offspring. Each young bunny had a specific job to do in the bunny warren: washing clothes, polishing silver, mending, making beds. Two bunnies even had the “job” of singing and dancing to keep the rest entertained. Sometimes I feel as singularly capable as those bunnies. When things go wrong for people, all I ever seem to be able to do for them is bring dinner.

But yesterday, our friend had the flu and wanted chicken soup. It doesn’t solve anything else beyond what to have for dinner, not for her and not for any of the other people we know suffering losses. It’s one tiny trivial thing: one day, one meal. I wish I knew more about how to help people.
But for now, I’ll bring dinner over, just because I can.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The woods are calling

It was a productive Sunday afternoon. I’d just finished dusting and was about to sort two baskets of laundry when I glanced out the window. With so many leaves off the trees now, the view from the kitchen to the state park hiking trail that runs behind our back yard was unobstructed. Words floated into my head: “I cannot bear the fact that I am not walking in the woods right now.”

I thought for a moment about all the reasons someone might look out this window and say those words. Because they were too ill or injured to leave the house and reach the walking trail. Because they were taking care of someone else – someone ill, injured or simply too young to be left alone -- who needed their presence. Because there was an impending hurricane or tornado that would make woods-walking too dangerous. Because night had fallen and there was a risk of getting lost in the dark.
But none of those was the case. I was experiencing a physical yearning to be out walking in the woods, and instead I was…dusting and doing laundry. In short, nothing that really needed to be done.

And at that moment, the decision I’d made earlier in the day to focus on housework and my To Do list reversed itself. I put on boots and retrieved the dog’s leash. The dog herself needed no summoning; she was at my heels as soon as she saw the leash in my hand. We headed out.

I told myself it would be just a short walk, the easy twenty-minute loop from our yard down to the brook, across the esker and back. But once I was heading down the trail with the house behind me, dusting and laundry seemed a lot less important than they had ten minutes earlier. It was warm out, and despite last weekend’s time change, there was still plenty of light in the sky. An owl somewhere overhead hooted repeatedly. I’ve learned since moving to this house near the state park that I was wrong all my life in believing owls were solely nocturnal; we hear them throughout the day.

There was something so compelling about the urge to get out into the woods as I looked out the window to the trail. Maybe my sense of urgency had to do with the awareness that this option is temporary – we’re renters with less than a year left on our lease, and might not be able to walk through our back yard and into the state park much longer – and, of course, on the larger scale, any number of twists of fate could end my ability to go walking in the woods of Great Brook Farm State Park. Or maybe it was because I’ve been reading a lot of Thoreau lately and noticing, time and again, that Thoreau and I have in common a passion for walking equal to (in his case) or much greater than (in mine) our interest in nature itself. Thoreau had no family at home to take care of; he didn’t worry much about dusting and laundry. But he’s not here anymore to walk through the woods of New England, as far as I know (though I concede I could be wrong about that). I felt like I needed to do it for him as well as for myself.
Robert Frost said that the woods are lovely, dark and deep; my feeling yesterday was that the woods are also unconditionally welcoming. They didn’t make me feel guilty for not visiting them sooner, or for considering briefly that something else – housework – might be more important. They didn’t make demands or ask questions. They just welcomed me.

And after forty-five minutes, I was back home, free to dust and sort laundry for the rest of the afternoon, just as I’d wanted. Except I wasn’t even sure why I’d wanted that anymore, when the woods provided so much more solace than the housework.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Yoga and butter

On Monday morning, I dropped by my parents’ house after going running, just as I do nearly every weekday of the school year. I stayed for about twenty minutes. During that time, my mother told me a story about how sometimes she can hear easily her yoga teacher easily during the Buddhist meditation component of the class, and other times she has trouble. (It seems to depend where in the room my mother has positioned herself for the class.) Then my father announced that after fifty years of marriage, he only that very morning understood for the first time why my mother puts sticks of butter atop the refrigerator. (She does this because the faint heat that emanates from the coils brings the butter to just the right consistency for baking. Previously – for five full decades – Dad had thought she just considered it a convenient storage spot.)

It was mundane even by the usual standards of our weekday morning get-togethers. But while driving home, I thought about some of the other women I know and the recent discussions they’ve described with their parents. One friend is desperately – and unsuccessfully – trying to convince her mother to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. Another friend has to determine the best placement for her father after his upcoming heart surgery. And another worries that her mother, who is diabetic, doesn’t seem to care enough about her own health to eat the foods that will keep her out of a coma.

 And suddenly it seemed like a tremendous gift that on that particular morning, my parents and I had nothing more important to discuss than butter storage and yoga acoustics.

I don’t mean to suggest we haven’t had our share of serious concerns. Like all families, we too deal with health problems, intrafamilial conflicts, financial decision-making, and other emotionally demanding topics. But not on this particular morning. This time, it was all trivial.

 And that seemed like something for which to be particularly grateful, as I thought of my various friends. Over lunch the same day, my friend Lisa and I were discussing some of the more difficult situations going on with the friends and family members around us. “Why does it all seem so difficult right now?” Lisa finally asked.

“It’s not all so difficult,” I corrected her. “We’re just focusing on the things that are. We forget about the things that aren’t. But let me tell you about this morning’s visit with my parents.”

She understood. (And she also thought that warming butter to room temperature on top of the fridge was a great idea.) She saw what I meant, that it’s easy to overlook the non-demanding encounters and relationships rather than recognize what a welcome break they can be.

I admit, when my mother finished telling me the story about yoga and Buddhist acoustics, my first thought wasn’t gratitude for her well-being; it was a more prosaic “Well, there’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back.” But as I thought about it more, I recognized it as the gift it was. I'm lucky that I live five minutes away from my parents and can drop in to visit with them every morning. But I’m even luckier that as often as not, all we need to talk about on any given day are the simplest details of life. Serious conversations matter too, and shouldn’t be avoided or dreaded. But quotidian details can sometimes be the best possible marker that for the moment, all is well.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Nothing much to say about it

Just a little less than three months ago, on August 15, I passed the five-year mark of my daily running streak. Shortly after that date, the director of the United States Running Streak Association wrote to me to ask if I wanted to write something about meeting this milestone for the association’s quarterly magazine.

“When’s the deadline?” I asked. At that moment, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say about hitting the five-year mark.

He told me it was November 15. That sounded far away, a whole season away, the difference between summer vacation and the middle of the fall semester for the kids, the distance between watching the sun set long after an outdoor cookout and commuting home at 5 p.m. in the dark.

But, as so often happens, it was here before I knew it. And I still don’t really have anything.

I’m accustomed to writing on deadline. Weekly articles, monthly newspaper columns, twice-weekly blog posts, regular assignments for a medical website: having to produce copy, whether or not I have anything important to communicate, is truly second nature for me.

 Except for this time. Five years of daily running? I just can’t think of a thing to say about it.

I know that may sound improbable. Yes, there’s been some challenging weather, of both the frigid and scorching variety as well as snowstorms and hurricanes. Yes, there have been a couple of migraines and stomach viruses through which I had to run. Early days, late nights, pre-dawn running. High altitude, unfamiliar neighborhoods, hotel parking lots.

But when you run every day, it all kind of blurs together. As I’ve said before, I don’t think about running any more than I think about taking a shower. Which is to say now and then I have to set my alarm extra early or push myself to fit in in, but most of the time, it’s just an inevitable part of my day, one that happens without thinking.

A few weeks ago, I came across this passage on a blog called The Logic of Long Distance. It summarized my feelings about running better than I could.

"Running doesn't offer a coherent plan or life strategy; it doesn't pretend to completeness or offer the secrets to a well-lived life. What it gives us is a way out of the plans and meanings and senses that have begun to seem virtual and hollow. A run gives life no meaning. It simply reminds us that beyond the sense that life makes, there is so much more life."

Yes. Maybe the reason I don’t have anything to say about my five-year running streak anniversary is that there just isn’t really anything to say. It has no special meaning. It’s just….running. For the sake of running. And in a way that I can’t explain, that’s reason enough.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Crossing my fingers for a boring weekend

I’m hoping for a boring weekend.
I need a weekend with no community events, no harvest fairs, no costume parties, no parades, no sporting events, no dinner parties, no concerts, no soirees, and no storm preparedness to do.
I need a plain dull weekend at home. I need to fold laundry, three basketsful. I want to do some cooking and baking. I should vacuum and dust and mop. There are light bulbs to change, plants to water, Halloween decorations to put away. The kids’ rooms are a mess. (Yes, that should be their responsibility. No, it’s not going to get done unless I’m standing in the room waving my arms like a semaphore.)
All of the things that can start to seem so tedious if you do them too many weekends in a row are starting to seem like something to be coveted, now that it’s been so long since I’ve taken the time for those tasks. The idea of vacuuming the house top to bottom actually appeals to me, and not only because I have a fabulous new vacuum cleaner. Just because I haven’t had enough time to devote to my house lately.
It’s been a busy fall, the way fall always is; my workload was heavier the past couple of months than I anticipated, and a few unexpected responsibilities popped up as well. Such as, for example, preparing for this week’s storm, which ate up several hours last weekend.
So this weekend I’m not going to invite anyone to do anything. I’m not going to suggest any cultural excursions to my family. I’m not even going to implore anyone to go for a walk with me. (Okay, that’s a little bit inaccurate; my friend Jane and I already have plans for a Sunday walk. But I promise I’ll try to keep it to just an hour.)
A day away from the weekend, it still all seems like a novelty, all those mundane cleaning and cooking and housekeeping chores that I’ve neglected these past few months. A few hours into Saturday, I’ll probably remember exactly why I’ve let myself get so easily distracted by community events, parties and cultural excursions instead lately – because they are all a lot more fun than vacuuming.
But not this weekend, or so I keep telling myself. My house needs attention, and for the time being, I feel like lavishing it on. Setting the clocks back means I’ll even have an extra hour to do it.
It might be months before this kind of mood strikes again. It’s a rare thing to get a craving for housework, and I don’t expect it to happen soon again. But as long as it lasts, I plan to work it.