A Feast for Homeless People: If you barbecue, will they come?

There’s nothing that’ll inspire a dog to break his verbal leash like the smell of meat on a barbecue.

“Tawny! Come! COME!” I yelled. It was futile. My dog flew from the trail we were walking. He dashed a hundred or so yards across the park toward fragrant smoke arising from a barbecue grill. I chased after him, mentally rehearsing the profound apologies I would utter to the guy at the grill. By the time I got there, the chef was ready for me, waving a hotdog on the end of his fork. 

“Is it okay to give it to him?” he asked eagerly. 

“Only a small part,” I answered. “He has a delicate digestive system.”

The barbecuer, clean-cut, middle-aged, was by now petting and scratching Tawny as I surveyed the picnic area: two tables covered with all the right stuff from pickles to potato chips, but no one else around. The grill was loaded with hotdogs, chicken, ribs. A package of hamburger waited its turn. I wondered if he was preparing the feast for the high school baseball team practicing at the far end of the park.

“Who’re you cooking for?” I asked.

“Homeless people,” he said, looking me directly in the eye as he offered a paper plate with a chicken thigh, drenched in barbecue sauce.

I declined the plate but said, “My name’s Mary,” as I sat down at one of the tables. I needed to learn more. “Brandon,” he responded. 

“We have something in common,” I tried as a conversation starter. “I cook for the homeless shelter in Okanogan a couple times a week when it’s open in winter.” He was neither interested nor impressed. 

Our conversation took off in other directions, mostly odd and circuitous. At one point Brandon insisted we switch places because the barbecue smoke was blowing in my face. Ultimately I learned that he’d been released from jail that morning. He’d spent a couple hundred bucks on the picnic fare. I saw no vehicle nearby and wondered how he carted all that food — plus charcoal briquets — from the grocery store, a half-mile away on the other side of the river.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Wherever I am.” Okayyyyy.

“How are homeless people going to know you have all this food for them?”

“It worked last year.”

By this time Brandon was indeed getting worried that people weren’t showing up. I accepted the chicken thigh.

“Got any napkins?” as I licked my sauce-covered fingers. That’s the one item Brandon hadn’t thought of. He raced off to the porta potties around the corner in search of paper towels, but came back empty-handed. I wiped my fingers on the back of the paper plate, which he then took from me and neatly tossed into the garbage can. He started filling a grocery bag with a jar of pickles, an orange, the package of hamburger meat — a doggy bag, so to speak, for me to take home. I demurred; he pleaded.

“I don’t want to waste this!” he said, waving his arm at the cornucopia of food.

“Look. You can take all the stuff you haven’t opened yet to the food bank — the pickles, the potato chips, the can of cashew nuts …”

“Naw. I’ve been drinking. I don’t drink and drive,” he said solemnly. I hadn’t smelled alcohol (who could with all the barbecue aroma?) but noted a case of beer on the other table.

“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” He shrugged in a way that said it wasn’t an issue.

As I stood to leave, we compromised. I accepted an orange and a rib for Tawny — to eat later. In a sense, I brought Brandon home with me, too. He was on my mind all that evening. I remembered the many times I’ve witnessed how kind and generous people who are homeless can be with each other. I’m not suggesting that privation leads to saintliness. Yet there’s that basic human need for community, for connection. We meet that need by sharing. 

The next day I checked the picnic area. It was cleaned up. No sign of Brandon or his feast — other than one dried-up chicken thigh forgotten on the barbecue. Wherever Brandon is, I guess he’s home.

Everybody’s Business

  • Imagine a water bottle that measures your hydration level as you sip.
  • Imagine cell phone batteries that recharge off your body heat.
  • Imagine an ear piece that projects a hologram so you can read a book or watch a movie hands-free.

If you’re seventeen, these are the kinds of technological wonders you can dream up. They’re the kinds of things I was invited to invest in (virtually) during Business Week. Every year high school juniors from our two neighboring towns (Okanogan and Omak, WA) are excused from their regular class schedule for five days to sample what’s ahead for them in the realm of free enterprise. 

After the pandemic hiatus, Business Week returned this year. I was happy to again be invited to help as a judge and “investor.” During a brief training session for judges, facilitator Chris Loftis had me nearly in tears as he described what this year’s students had missed during pandemic isolation.

“These kids have lost something,” he concluded. “We’re going to give it back to them.” The “we” is our local community. While school district sponsorship is essential, professional educators are largely absent. Pretty much all the adults are volunteers. Many are giving up a full week of work; others are retirees willing to revisit the world of work. Area businesses throw in financial support to cover the $14,000 cost. 

Students are sorted into “companies” to dream up product lines, assign corporate responsibilities, determine quality standards and work ethics, and develop marketing strategies. Sounds kind of dull, frankly, but a computer program makes it more like a game. Based on the kids’ decisions, the computer churns out two years worth of various reports like sales volumes, profit and loss, and stock value. Just as in real life, the reports produce cheers and/or teeth-gnashing. By the end of the week, the kids are excited to show off their work for a spirited IPO (initial public offering). The students aren’t graded individually, but they’re rewarded as corporate teams with stock sales. All play money, of course.

I’m not necessarily a cheerleader for capitalism, but it’s the system we live and work under. Within our system there’s space for kindness and community building — if we so choose. Business Week does. The kids experience teaming up with otherwise rivals. Ordinarily the two schools are each other’s No. 1 athletic opponent. Here, students are purposely mixed — about a dozen in each company. Some years ago one of my grandsons who participated in Business Week concluded with surprise that kids from the other school had some pretty acceptable qualities after all.

Every student has a place and a role. Inclusion and participation are highly valued and required. As we judges visited the companies, we were introduced to each student by name and their individual responsibility within the company. At week’s end, every student receives a certificate awarding a college credit — something pretty amazing for a lot of these rural kids who never consider the possibility of college.

Despite pandemic disruption, teens’ resilience was vividly on display. They’d put behind them not only Covid isolation, but inevitable setbacks from the week’s taste of business life.

“Life is more than dollars and cents,” teaches Loftis. “Life is about failure … and then you get back up.”

Getting back up was part of the week’s adventure for several companies. “509 Electronics” got into trouble with the public after marketing a low-quality product, explained their CEO. After the company decided against a recall, the public (via computer program) raised a fuss. The company apologized, offered a recall and changed its manufacturer. The lesson, said the CEO: “Don’t rely on people you don’t know.”

As a consumer of a certain age, I was smitten by another company, but as a potential investor, not so  much. “Design, Love, Virtue” had chosen to target elderly consumers. They’d done admirable research into their market audience, coming up with a simple-to-use flip phone that promised a crisp speaker, easy-to-read screen and (hallelujah!) ultra-responsive tech support. They acknowledged making “hard decisions” along the way, opting for strategies that would benefit the environment, their customers and employees. Their product was so popular, they ran out. “You never want to do that,” a fellow judge muttered out of their hearing. Flooded with back orders, they watched their stock tank. Undaunted, they were promising skeptical investors a rosy comeback. I sympathetically put in a few bucks — no more than I could afford to lose.

Business Week got its start in the 1970s as a residential summer program — something like cheerleader or basketball camp — at Central Washington University (then state college). The residential program has since spread to college and university campuses in eleven states plus Poland and Italy. Yet only a handful of school districts make it available on a local basis to all students. While the residential programs offer full scholarships, it’s still unlikely that very many of our local kids could afford a week off from summer jobs to attend. Or would even feel motivated.

 One reason the in-school program is less than popular with educators, I’m told, is that teachers are under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests. Giving up a full week away from “teaching to the test” is asking too much.

I don’t know if our students’ test scores are remarkably above or below the norm. I could research it, I suppose. But I’m satisfied with what I saw kids take away from Business Week — a few of life’s lessons that can’t be measured on any test other than life itself.

You Know You’re Old When You’ve Outlived the Trees You Planted

The chainsaw massacre was about to begin when the normally docile young woman intervened. Later, she described the episode during our Zoom call. For years she and her roommate had been ideal tenants, quiet, tidy, paying their rent on time. But when she spotted the crew preparing to remove a stately tree in front of their house, she vehemently protested to her landlord. A conference with arborist, crew and others ensued. The tree survived. Neighbors quietly praised her intervention, admitting they’d been reluctant to get involved. 

“This was so unlike me,” she told her Zoom audience. The chat box filled with congratulatory notes and emoji applause. My emotions were mixed. Trees tend to live a long time and deservedly so, for all the benefits they offer. Yet just like us, trees have a life cycle, an inevitable end.

 I once was that young woman, what the cynical call a “tree hugger.” A love for trees is still deeply rooted in my heart. No pun there; a simple truth. I also know — even without seeing this particular  tree — that its reprieve is temporary. The USDA says urban trees tend to live only twenty-eight years at most — about twenty percent of a normal tree life span. Their congested environment makes them susceptible to pests, disease, inadequate care, inappropriate placement, improper planting, asphalt generated heat, etc., etc.

Living where I do, in a rural, desert-like shrub steppe environment, I’ve been a rabid defender of trees. While I was still editing the local newspaper, the city superintendent knew me well enough to call in advance whenever a tree had to be removed from the public domain. He’d explain the detection of disease and consequent threat to human health should the tree keel over on its own or topple in a windstorm. 

My town boasts a luxurious canopy of green, none of it native, and has been officially declared a “Tree City U.S.A.” by the Arbor Day Foundation. This small urban forest is a legacy of pioneer women, who a century or more ago planted the first deciduous trees, hauling water in buckets to nurture them in this arid country. More recently, volunteers tore up sidewalks to provide irrigation for trees along Main Street.

I’ve planted my share of trees over the years. I remember how eager I was the day we planted red maples in the front yard — anxious for them to grow and give luxurious shade. What I hadn’t figured on was that I’d be aging right along with those trees.

Once, my husband and I made an impulse buy in support of a newly established nursery. We brought home the tiny pine and scouted the yard for a place to plant it. While I looked around for available open space in the lawn, my wiser husband looked upward. He nixed my first choice because eventually the tree would get tangled in wires. Pines generally live at least fifty and often hundreds of years. This one gave us three beautiful decades before it became mortally diseased. 

Even as I mourned, I marveled at the skill of the sawyer who limb by limb denuded the tree and finally sawed off the naked trunk. He was, I hate to admit, graceful.

“I make it look easy, don’t I,” he boasted with a grin. I witnessed the deafening process as tree limbs and trunk were chopped into chips that would become mulch that would eventually fade back into Mother Earth. All is temporary, yet circular.

My diseased pine on his way back to Mother Earth

A question of location

“How did she end up there?!” (Read the word “there” with a tone of disbelief and possible disdain.) The question — more of an exclamation — was relayed to me by a friend. He was recounting a conversation he’d had with a long-ago mutual acquaintance who, when informed of my whereabouts after all these years, posed the very question I ask myself frequently.

The average American relocates about a dozen times over their life span. At some point do they, like me at age 77, wonder if this is the last stop. If so, how did I end up here (a tone of disbelief? disdain? delight?).

“Here” in my case is Omak, Washington, a gritty small town that wrestled itself into existence a little more than a century ago, smack-dab in the middle of a shrubsteppe valley — the Okanogan — where natives thrived for at least ten thousand years. Romance brought me here more than forty years ago — love for a man and our mutual love for small-town newspapers. My expectations were clear. We’d have fun running a newspaper until retirement, when we’d move to somewhere more, uh, civilized. Then karma happened, and here I am. Still.

The why-here question arises this gloomy morning with no glint of sun, with dingy snowbanks likely in place until June’s 100-plus temperatures, with memories of the many choices I’ve made in a lifetime. What about those roads not taken? Where else might I be now? Just then, an eagle soars past at eye level, scanning the river for fish, disrupting the ducks that have been quietly meditating just a few yards from my back door. 

The river is why I’m here. Not a raging, white-water river nor a large channel with ships and barges. Just a pleasant, hard-working stream, remnant of the Pleistocene-era glacial movement that shaped this valley’s cragged walls. The Okanogan River waters crops and wildlife, nurtures fish and fowl, and entertains folks who float aboard inflatable vessels on a hot summer’s day. 

The eagle having lifted my spirits upon her mighty wing span, I turn to breakfast — a few strips of beefsteak over toast. I eat meat only occasionally. These slices of steak originated from an animal raised on friends’ ranch, up-valley, where cattle really do live out their days beneath blue skies, never see a feedlot and are humanely butchered. The toast is artisan bread, baked locally, sold at the Okanogan Farm Stand, where I also buy local organic produce and eggs.

Still, I have an appetite for the world beyond. I open the Feb. 7, 2022, issue of “The New Yorker” magazine as I cut into my breakfast. And there, on page 28, in an essay by the esteemed John McPhee, I’m right back here, in the Okanogan. (Spoiler alert: I plan to give away McPhee’s punch line. If you want to read his version first, go here and scroll to “Citrus, Booze, and Ah Bing.”) An Easterner and aficionado of fruit (he wrote the book “Oranges” among many), McPhee and his wife were touring Washington state in 1982, hungering for cherries. He exults that “the Okanogan Valley is the Oxford and Cambridge of the Bing cherry.”

He describes crossing the North Cascade Mountains on famed Highway 20 with nary a comment about that breathtaking route. His description upon descending into the Okanogan: “Dessicated. Lovely. Irrigated green. Trees punctuated with deep-red dots.”

He didn’t stop at the newspaper office, which was just as well. We were probably busy and would’ve given the famous author short shrift unless he had local news to report. Turned out he did. He’d been given directions to an orchard owned and operated by “a knowledgeable married couple who will prefer to remain nameless.”

Too bad. In small-town newspapers, the rule is, “Names are news.” McPhee tells of arriving at the orchard, finding an abundance of cherries along with “shouting, angry shouting, more shouting, and the married owners appeared, on the apron of their barn, in a fistfight.”

Forty years later, the Okanogan cannot claim to be more civilized, but we are exotic enough to make it into the pages of “The New Yorker.” Could be, that’s why I’m here.

Winter ice turns the Okanogan River into a jigsaw puzzle

The Emoji Explosion: Do we understand each other any better?

To emoji or not to emoji? Just asking the question tags me as — without apology — old.

“When I encounter someone who doesn’t use emojis, I immediately sense they are either significantly older than me, or it is work and I have to be extremely professional,” says a Gen-X public relations specialist in an online article about the meaning of emojis. (Never mind that she hasn’t mastered personal pronouns. She has emojis.)

I confess to both her accusations: I’m “significantly older” and, I hope, professional. Having earned my living for decades by stringing words together, I’ve long considered emojis to be interlopers. The English language already has more words than any other — an estimated 170,000 in current use. For most of us, our working vocabulary is a tiny percentage of available words — around twenty thousand, or up to thirty-five thousand for the most erudite. 

From Chaucer to Shakespeare (the latter required only about thirty thousand words), through the centuries, writers and poets have painted glorious images with mere words. Why throw emojis into the mix? Just imagine “To be or not to be …” followed by a frowning, quizzical orb. 

My resistance began with emojis’ predecessors: emoticons — rearranged punctuation marks. I figured if I couldn’t make it clear that I was being humorous, contorted punctuation wasn’t going to help. Kinda like having to explain a joke. : )

Emojis supposedly save time and add feeling. With just one or two you quickly express a panoply of, well, emotion. Nearly a quarter of all global Tweets contain at least one emoji. Nine hundred million are sent daily on Facebook Messenger — with no accompanying text! The Oxford English Dictionary chose the emoji “Face With Tears of Joy” as the word of the year for 2015. That one alone has been used more than two billion times.

Emoji use exploded (the emoji for “exploded” is a brilliant red-orange-yellow starburst) after they became universally available in 2010. Initially, engineers proposed 625 emojis to Unicode, the international consortium that sets standards for computer languages. As of last year, 3,633 emojis were approved with more to come all the time: most recently a pregnant man! (An exclamation point suffices. I really don’t want to see a pregnant man.)

What’s it say to you?

Because of their universal use, emojis might give us a clue as to how humanity is feeling. Last March, “Loudly Crying,” outpaced “Tears of Joy” as the No. 1 emoji used globally. Makes sense amidst the pandemic, but here’s the problem. There isn’t universal agreement on the meaning of emojis. The loudly crying face “may convey inconsolable grief but also other intense feelings, such as uncontrollable laughter, pride or overwhelming joy,” says Emojipedia.

Emoji interpretations vary widely between generations. A millennial who texts “Sorry I’m late” and gets a smiley response will feel forgiven. Gen-X is more nuanced, ironic. That same smile is understood as snarky, not at all forgiving. 

I can only suggest what I’ve heard young parents advise their language-learning tots: “Use your words.”

When Time Speeds Up

I’m tired of hearing the weary maxim that old age is not for the “faint-hearted” (attributed to Mae West) or “sissies” (Bette Davis). Could we of a certain age show a modicum of gratitude?

Most studies on aging set the boundary for being old at sixty-five. I know of no one who feels old at sixty-five. If they do, they probably felt old at thirty-five. But something — something — happens in our seventies. A friend, seven years older, alerted me on my seventieth birthday that major changes were ahead, and soon. 

That was just recently … No, wait! That was nearly eight years ago. Or, as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad observes at age seventy-two: Time “actually speeds up as you get older. It speeds up exponentially every month, every day, every hour.” She was quoted in New Yorker magazine’s review of the podcast, “70 Over 70.” Reviewer Rachel Syme observed we might seek wisdom from the old but not always find it. “[W]e’re all works in progress,” she concluded, “up to the very last moment.”

That “very last moment” once was so far distant I couldn’t see it over the horizon. Now it’s visible, flying fast in my direction. Life expectancy is declining in the United States — by one-and-a-half years in 2020. The average life span fell from 78.8 to 77.3 years. Looking at it another way, if you’ve made it past age seventy-seven, you’re into the bonus years!

Also on that seventieth birthday I was given a book, “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70.” I haven’t had time to read it yet. Flipping through, I spotted an essay by a social justice activist, Sandy Warshaw. She wrote: “My seventies have been a time of self-realization and self-actualization built on the foundation of the three decades before.” 

For most of us bonus-year recipients, those “decades before” produced scar tissue — physical and emotional. We’ve been there, done that, don’t need to any longer. We’re free to let go of stuff, of attitudes, judgments, grudges and fears.

“When you age, you become wiser in so many ways,” said the late Coretta Scott King at age seventy-four. “You make adjustments for having less stamina, but you know in your mind what you can achieve.”

Living fully in the bonus years is not the same as retirement. Many retired folks think they’ve “earned” a particular lifestyle, so charmingly illustrated in AARP magazine ads. All that golfing; traveling; sunny climes; and electrically powered, multi-position recliners. Bonus years are not what we’ve earned but what we’re given as a matter of grace.

Years ago, my late husband was studying life expectancy charts. Given the difference in our ages, he predicted I would live another twenty-two years after he died. He lived to age seventy-five, “graduating” (as a friend refers to death) in 2007. You do the math, because I won’t bother. All I need to know is, I’m alive and feeling good today. With grace, tomorrow will bring the same.

Looking Out

Covid has not impacted socializing among my neighbors all that much. Truth is, we don’t socialize all that much. In this quiet neighborhood of modest homes, we simply look out for each other.

I’ve lived here by the river for thirty-eight years. All the neighbors who were here when I arrived have moved on or passed on. I even moved: from the house I lived in for thirty years to a smaller one next door. The population change has not changed the culture: no block parties, no multi-family yard sales. We mind our own business but pay attention.

One time neighbors noticed a side door to my house was wide open. I was out of town. They called police, who entered the premises with guns drawn and found no intruders. I’d apparently not latched the door adequately and it blew open. I was embarrassed when I heard about it later, and at the same time gratified that neighbors were paying attention.

Usually, looking out is more simple, like watering plants for vacationers, or picking up their mail. At this time of year, especially after a snowstorm, my neighbors not only look out but help out.

In the 1990s, after my husband was paralyzed by stroke, neighbor Doug cleared our driveway after each snowfall. Neighbor Jerry shoveled the front walk. One winter, Doug was recuperating from surgery and realized he couldn’t handle both his driveway and mine. He found a snowblower for me. I never did as meticulous a job as Doug, but I felt so macho, so in control running that little single-stage blower. By that time, Jerry was slowing down. After clearing my driveway, I happily steered my snow-blower to his place, clearing out the entry to his carport, which is now my carport.

Snow removal becomes particularly daunting after the city snowplow clears our street, leaving densely-packed snow berms that block our driveways. My snowblower cannot chew through that stuff. A couple winters ago, I was attacking the berm when a neighbor I’d  never really met — a single mom — pulled up in her truck. Leaving the motor running with heater on for her toddler strapped inside, she ran home, grabbed her shovel and had the berm cleared within minutes. 

As we grow older, we find ourselves more often on the receiving rather than the giving end of kindness. It’s humbling, and a little uncomfortable, an acknowledgment that our independence is waning.

After the first snowfall this year, Doug called to say his son Josh was on his way and instructed: “Do. Not. Pay. Him.” Josh has been on the job, gratis, all winter. I remember how Jerry used to venture out to the carport while I blew away his snow. He too must have felt humble, uncomfortable. He compensated with his penchant for irony. “I’ll send you a bill!” he’d call after I’d finished. I’d laugh.

I doubt Josh would understand if I tried Jerry’s line. I compensate with a humble thank you.

A great teacher was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Here’s one of mine

How’s This for a New Year’s Resolution: Share less; shred more

It’s so tempting, so easy. Just click “share” or point your cursor to “forward” and you poison your universe with derogatory satire, derisive cartoons, contemptuous commentary that seemed so funny when they initially appeared on your screen. Gleefully you pollute the screens of those you call friends. And they share with others who in turn share, and we all share ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Entertainment? Self-expression? Really? Does the world need more snarkiness?

We common, everyday folk have more opportunity to join the global conversation than ever before in human history. In the 1970s I was an editor for the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering agency in the world. Yet I had nowhere near the unchecked power that I hold now as an old lady in a remote town with a computer and high-speed internet. 

What can I, what should I, be sharing with the world? We have infinite opportunities to  share beauty, extend love. That also means each one of us is individually responsible for taming this wild internet beast. It’s a responsibility we dare not cede to politicians or corporate executives.

Indulge me. Next time you’re tempted to click, sit on your hands for a moment. Ask yourself three questions inspired by mystery writer Louise Penny’s fictional character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Before speaking, the admirable Gamache asks himself:

  • Is it kind?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?

The first question would eliminate a lot of sharing right off the bat. The second is trickier in an era when so many get to choose what flavor of “truth” they prefer; you can “prove” anything online. But if the first two don’t stop you, the third one probably will.

But I’m so angry! Well you should be. There’s much to be angry about. Mental health counselors and self-help experts tell us that anger is a natural, normal emotion. What we do with it makes all the difference.

A Seattle orthopedic surgeon prescribes a pain-free, cost-free treatment for addressing anger and negativity. Dr. David Hanscom, author of Back In Control, calls his treatment “expressive writing.” Take paper and pen and let the words flow: all the challenges, the doubts, the frustrations, irritations, the “insurmountable problems.” He suggests about fifteen minutes of writing every day. Not all that much time away from the screen. 

Ah yes, writing is to be done by hand, not on the computer. Clutching that pen or pencil and pushing it across the page fires up a broader spectrum of neurons in your brain. You’re getting more bang for your buck. Plus, the really important part of the treatment is the next step: shredding what you’ve written. Ripping it up and throwing it away is liberating, says the doc. Clicking that scowling emoji on Facebook won’t give you near the relief.

“It is that physical act of squashing, tearing, destroying negativity that makes all the difference,” Hanscom declares. For 2022: share less, shred more.

P.S. Feel free to share this post.

Simply Christmas

Old folks, I decided as a child, don’t know how to celebrate Christmas. I occasionally accompanied my parents visiting elderly church members, most of whom had no Christmas trees or decorations, no apparent interest in presents. Cookies, if offered, came from a tin and tasted weird.

Now after nearly eight decades of Christmases, I get it. At a certain age (varies for each of us), we let go of futile attempts to recreate the Christmas magic that can happen only when we’re children. 

When it comes to remembering childhood Christmases, no writer can outdo Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My memories of a child’s Christmas in Minnesota echo Thomas’s opening passage: “One Christmas was so  much like another … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

Probably both.

In my childhood, certain traditions were sacrosanct. The main course on Christmas Eve, in deference to my Swedish father, was the notorious Scandinavian seafood dish, lutefisk. It was the only meal of the year when we children were allowed to pass up what was placed on the table. As an adult, I finally developed a taste for the pickled-in-lye white fish, but where I live, it’s impossible to find.

My memories of unique Christmases have to do with presents — which for a child is the whole point. There was the year I was given a Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer lapel pin for my coat. His nose lighted up — a handy way to illuminate the hymnbook during our candlelight worship service. 

There was the year I received a much-longed-for doll with REAL hair. I immediately gave her a shampoo and set. As a result, every day was a bad-hair day for the rest of her existence.

There was the year the gift from my mother’s “rich” aunt arrived in a large carton, too heavy for just one person to lift. We kids were intoxicated with anticipation: it was the size of a TV console, and we were the only home in town without a TV. Or so it seemed. Finally, the moment arrived. As the carton was slit open, we spotted a lovely mahogany case, containing? 

An entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Even my adult Christmas memories have a childlike flavor, such as watching my husband meticulously place his favorite, bubbling lights on the lower branches of our tree where his tiny grandchildren could enjoy them.

Now my favorite Christmas present is the presence of Christmas. We open that gift simply by opening our hearts. Because my late husband was born on Christmas day, the high point of my celebration is laying a blanket of greens on his grave. Any self-respecting kid would roll her eyes, but that’s okay. Kids have important work to do, living the magic that will become precious Christmas memories decades from now.

The Joy of Solitude

A friend asked if I went on a silent retreat during Thanksgiving. True, I spent the week at Holden Village, a spiritual retreat center where I lived from 2011-2014. A former mining town high in the North Cascade Mountains, Holden was once described by a former director as “a retreat for extroverts.”

Holden Village dining hall decked out for the Christmas feast. (File photo from a previous year.)

I, like most people who live alone, have been on pretty much of a silent retreat since spring of 2020. I generally read during my silent, solo meals. Thanksgiving dinner in the Holden dining hall was served to about a hundred folks, all masked unless fork was en route to mouth. Masks did little to muffle the crowd’s chatter and musical laughter, accompanied by the percussion of clanging pots and pans in the kitchen and metronomic beat from the ping pong table in a corner of the large hall. Music less symphonic, more heavy metal rock to my ears. Unnerving, which is exactly why I needed to be there. Solitude had been getting altogether too comfortable. 

Last summer a few friends and I, gathered outdoors, admitted to each other that we were thriving in social isolation. We felt almost guilty, enjoying ourselves when many people are suffering and grieving. All of us in that group live close to nature. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I were stuck in an urban apartment with a view of concrete and asphalt. I know I’d feel differently if I didn’t have the companionship of my dog.

“Don’t fear solitude,” advised writer Paulo Coelho. “If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. But don’t get too attached to it — it may become an addiction.”

Besides which, snarked another writer, Erica Jong, “Solitude is un-American.” Indeed, we loners are under a lot of pressure not to enjoy solitude on that thoroughly American holiday, Thanksgiving. The pressure will only increase as we move toward Christmas, a day not even Scrooge was allowed to spend alone.

Being alone does not equate with loneliness, and loneliness is not the same as solitude, noted a lovely essay in Psychology Today — in 2003! That was long before “social distancing” became common to our vocabulary.

“Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation,” the magazine explained. “Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.” 

If solitude were to have a patron saint, a likely candidate would be Henry David Thoreau who observed, “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”

Even during my un-retreat, in between meals and various gatherings, I’d seek refuge in the solitude of my room, curled up with a good book. Much as I enjoyed meeting up with old friends at Holden and making new ones, I’ve gotta admit: the best part of the week was reuniting with my dog (he’d spent the week at the pet resort) and stepping into my house, embraced once again by my silent retreat. 

Thank you to Maxime Lagacé, whose web site, “Wisdom Quotes,” provided a few of the above quotes. Visit the site to read more pithy observations about wisdom.