Thanksgiving Tree version 2013

I think maybe I need to take pictures with a better camera. 

Voila, the 2013 version of our Tree of Thankfulness! Isn’t it getting fancy? Dear People, long gone are the days of the taped construction paper brown tree with wonky leaves of all sizes.

We almost didn’t have a Tree of Thankfulness this year, because…to tell the truth…I was tired. And didn’t think I could muster the leaves. But this curly-cue tree was one of the few items of decor that somehow wasn’t trapped at the back of the storage unit, and it was already on the apartment wall. Because I like trees. Especially curly-cue ones.

So the tree was already there. We just needed the leaves — but as I say, I just wasn’t sure that this year I could do all that tracing and cutting. Or at least the convincing of my minions to do it. And anyway, I thought, we we’re not in our real house. Our apartment doesn’t feel like home. One year without this tradition. Maybe it won’t really matter.

But I realized that it does. It does really matter. And when you are in transition — and transition is one thing we seem to be getting a lot of practice at — little traditions can really matter. A little tradition can remind you that even though circumstances around you are in a whirlwind, you — and your family — are this kind of people, who do this kind of thing. And so our Tree of Thankfulness is a reminder that our family is the kind of people who write little things they are grateful for on leaves through the month of November to remind ourselves of all we’ve been given.

And in my opinion a tradition of thankfulness is an extremely important one! Studies have shown (now doesn’t that sound official! — don’t ask me which ones) that people who are habitually thankful are generally happier. There is so much complaining all around everywhere. What if we were the people who could find something in every situation about which to be grateful? So the Tree of Thankfulness would have a 2013 incarnation.

But there was still the problem of the leaves. With six leaves per day times thirty days plus extras for guests and extra thankful people, that adds up to a lot of tracing and cutting! But then…an inspiration. A leaf shaped punch! Why did it take me so long to figure that one out? It arrived like a flash and away we punched and thankful we were. These die-punched leaves aren’t enormous, so we can’t be super-duper thankful at a time, but we can always be thankful serially. And boy, doesn’t it look together?

I took the picture earlier in the month — don’t worry, it’s filled in quite a bit since. And at the end of Thanksgiving weekend we’ll take the leaves off and read them one by one before throwing them into the fire. And on the foundation of gratitude we can begin Advent.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Light Enough to Travel

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been engaging in the bittersweet
task of moving Grandma out of her apartment. Bitter because of the necessity
for much sorting and in doing so, trying to reconcile with many of her
decisions which while her own — it was her life — end up affecting me and
everyone else around her. 
My mother is
dying. After breaking her hip this summer, her health went into rapid free fall. We realized quickly there was no way she’d live on her own again. So she has stayed the past few months in the lovely facility where she was for rehab after her surgery. Because of her increasing decline and frailty hospice care was recommended several weeks ago. The hospice nurses are great and caring and helpful and the social
worker was very kind and listening on the day all the tears I’d been holding in
since our arrival back in the States started leaking out. And turning into a
dam break and ensuing flood. 

For the present mom is declining stably. That is my term, and I’m
not sure quite what that means. Just that after weeks of leaving the care
facility wondering if she’d be there the next day, the descent has leveled out
a bit, and I find myself wondering if she won’t outlast us all. 

So with Grandma settled into her care facility we knew the time was coming to move her things out of her apartment. And in all the hardness, here is the sweet part of the bittersweet: after countless times of moving free-spirited Grandma around, this is the last time. We won’t be sorting this stuff again. 

Anyway, Brother and I decided early in the month to give
notice for her apartment. Somehow I wasn’t sure that was what my Life Change
Stress Level Processors most needed, but let’s just deal and get it over with
we said. Okay. The kids are into the rythym of the schoolyear, I thought. I’m
not in a permanent house yet. Okay. We can do this. Yeah. Okay. By faith, We
Can Do This.
So we did. 
We didn’t try to keep it a secret from our mom, but with her state
of confusion, depending on the day it wasn’t clear how much she understood. She
just asked sweetly once if we would be really good about labeling everything.
Yes, okay. Sure.
Other times, when she asked what I’d been doing that morning, I just
couldn’t bring myself to say, “Well, I’ve been throwing all your old
magazines and newspaper clippings into the recycle bin, actually.”
Because, you see, my mother was a pack rat, a clutterer, a
hoarder. Not quite ready to go on Oprah but almost. Mom always said it was because she was
raised during the Depression when everything was scarce and you never knew when
you might just need that random little empty plastic bottle. It sounded
reasonable for years until I’d met lots of other people who’d lived through the
Depression and didn’t need to save every piece of string or the twist ties from
loaves of bread. And then she inherited all the family stuff her mother had saved
before her. And that my mom couldn’t bear to part with it. Some wonderful
things and a lot of it just junk.
I’ve heard it said that people who hoard things are unconsciously
trying to make up for a lack of real relationships in their lives. That is a
whole other topic but it does make one ponder.  What are people trying to
keep when they keep too much stuff? Is it procrastination? Lack of
organization? Or is there something else going on? When does a family item
become an historical artifact? And just because two previous generations kept
it, does that mean I have to?

The trouble is, I have the same underlying keeping-things gene
going on.

My grandmother (on the right) with her older sister.  Grandma, why did you keep so much stuff??

But I draw the line some places. In my mom’s stuff, I found two
copies of my great grandmother’s will. I believe she died when my mother was a
girl, so….that puts us in the 1940s or early 50s. Odds are good that any questions of
inheritance have been cleared up by now—since two other generations have also
come and nearly gone. Why are we keeping this??
But now of course, it’s old. And kind of cool. And I am tempted just
to put it back in the box…
But my kids look at me with a kind of wildness behind their eyes: NO, Mama! We ain’t dealing with all that
later on! Do NOT pass it on to us!
So…(sigh)… the buck will stop here.

I think my mom kept a lot of this stuff because her mother – who was
the family historian – kept it. Not necessarily because mom really liked it or
used it. Oh my, no. Most of it just stayed in boxes or Rubbermaid tubs. (My mind has begun working on a short story about some ancestral tea cups…) And I
think my mother always thought she was going to do something big and wonderful
with it all. But she never did, because it wasn’t her dream. It was her mother’s.
And too much of that hanging on to family stuff just because it is family stuff
can make you feel obliged to live in that other person’s life and not live your
And now it’s my turn to make decisions about it all. 
And you know
what? I want to honor those who have gone before me and have made the effort to
preserve these things and the family history with them. I write this sitting at
my grandmother’s writing desk, probably built around the 1890s, and it’s a sweet thing to imagine her sitting here writing her letters to my mother (which I’ve also found.)
But you know what else? I want to live my own life.
A little family history can give you ground to stand on. A little
more can tell you something about who you are. And too much can feel like being
buried alive.
I want to live my own life. And I want my kids to live their own
lives. And that means parting with some things in order to make room for
Several years ago, a friend sang while packing to move, “Gotta keep it
light enough to travel.” When we packed up our house three years ago before our
Swiss adventure, that refrain kept running through my head. I can’t say I’ve
always lived it – we shipped back a container load of an Awful Lot of Stuff. But the refrain is back now.
The Now is a new adventure. For the sake of everyone, gonna try to
keep it light enough to travel.

I am worried that this post might sound angry or bitter or something. It’s really not. And maybe if you’ve haven’t sorted mom’s newspaper clippings yourself, it just can’t be understood. But here is the real point of the matter: 

We gave the keys to mom’s apartment back on Monday.  Three days early. I’m grateful that now I get
to spend less time with her stuff and more time with her. 

Salmon Migration

Last week Zarli and I visited the Salmon Hatchery in Issaquah and were treated with seeing the first returns of this year’s Chinook Salmon run. In the video you can see them jumping, but less well visible are the dozens of fish just hanging out in the water below the falls gathering strength for their turn.

We were a little discouraged at the lack of progress for these particular salmon until we got to join a tour and learn about how the hatchery manages the runs in order to promote the best possible conditions for spawning. It’s better in the long haul for the salmon to remain in the well oxygenated creek jumping vainly than to go up the hatchery ladder too soon and hang out too long in the less oxygenated tank. It was very interesting and exciting to get splashed by strong salmon hopping up the ladder.

But being around creatures that struggle so hard to go upstream just to spawn and die makes one philosophical, if one is of a philosophical bent, and it made me think of a poem I wrote a few years ago.

Falling and golden, the leaves and the light
As streaming below, silver streaks, bright.
The flick of a fin on a red taillight
And we swerve to join the flow.
Upstream with the crowd up 405
We’re worn and weary but still alive
Called by instinct, driven by drive
To pass on what we know.
We swam in the deep, in the blue, crazy sea
Gorging ourselves on modernity
When somewhere inside us rang mystery
and we knew it was time to go.
We each find the road that smells of our birth
Of the very first time we swam on earth
Aching to know in the end it was worth
This arduous journey home.
At night in our houses, we lie in the sand
Dreaming of everything else we had planned
And dying beginning to understand
The delicate seeds we sow.

Lilies and Windows

Spring was late but it has now finally arrived. The Lily-of-the-Valley flowers – the muguets – are finally showing out of the ground and their tiny bells are turning white. On May Day, when people were out on the French roadsides selling a meagre bouquet for 3 euros, they were like premature babes, snatched from their beds before their time. I was tempted to stop and buy some just for the love of the traditional, but looking at them I knew that they would have no perfume, which is the whole point behind Lilies-of-the-Valley. So I didn’t stop. But today, when I went to get the mail, I stooped down to the one that’s finally gotten brave enough to bloom despite the chilly weather and was rewarded with the faintest hint of that delicious odor of spring. I was tempted to pick it and bring it inside, my own bouquet, ten days late and 3 euros cheaper, but it seemed kind of unfair. So it’s still blooming out there, and I’ll stoop to sniff again when I get the mail tomorrow.

In other news, today we visited the town of Besancon, which has a lovely old town built on an oxbow of the Doubs river, which reportedly was first scoped out as a good spot by Julius Caesar way back when. Then Louis XIV had a massive fort built there to protect the city. The fort now holds a bunch of museums and a small zoo with monkeys galore. The girls visited the museums and the boys and their parents visited the animals. Then on the way back down we saw this:

Maybe someday, in my dreamland, I will build a house and it will have a window like this one.

6:30 Train

When I was in college, and even
later, when newly married, this train ride filled me with expectation, with
promise. Either the coming here to the valley of l’Allaine or leaving it. Now,
this morning, riding the rails through a frosty valley along a steaming river
under a crystalline sky of promise, I feel it again. Going off somewhere on an
adventure, off to chase something. While hopefully having learned the lesson
that the best adventures are also found close to home, hidden in the packaging
of everyday life.
But sometimes, it is a good thing
to see something familiar from an unexpected perspective. And that is why I
like the train. The villages are all the same ones I drive through, but seen
from a different angle they take on a new charm. The sweep of the white touched
fields up to the neat rows of sleepy-eyed houses, smoke lining up out of
chimneys, and the gray tall forests beyond. Gray now and looking like if I
could brush my hand over the tops the trees would be soft, like the fuzz left
on a dandelion blossom, or the soft gray fur of my rabbit. 
In Courchavon there
is the cemetery chapel, perched up on the hill, three stories high, unlike any
other cemetery chapel I’ve ever seen, looking for all the world like a small
child craning up on his tip-toes to insist, don’t forget about me!  I want to draw it each time I pass. This is
the closest I’ve gotten to that.
In a few weeks all the mole hills
in the field will be plowed under, replaced instead by furrows as deep and dark
as chocolate cake that always make me hungry when I see them. The docile forest
will sprout springtime from the tips of its fingers and the soft gray give way
to green, first shy then in-your-face, in a “I am springtime, hear me roar”
kind of way.
In Porrentruy even the half-torn up
railway barn looks beautiful in this light, and it makes me wonder why I don’t
opt for early morning all the time. The people getting off the train and
walking to their lives seem purposeful and beautiful too. Of course, the
weather helps. The world, and everything here has mutually agreed to begin
again. Not that we have much say in the matter, actually. Perhaps  better said that God begins us again today
and we are closest to His intentions when we go along with it with an expectant
So I am expectant right now, for
this day, for my life. Despite my last minute dready thing that I always do, I am
joyfully expectant about  connecting to
my tribe of writers today in Geneva and trusting it will be worth the long haul and expense to get
The sun is now just peeking through
a gap in the mountains (I’ve learned to call them) behind Cornol. It’s going to
be a gorgeous day.  The contrails of early
morning jets reflect the light and glow like pond skimmers on water’s surface. Funny to think of the people
on those flights — Flying from where to where? Not, obviously, to here, but travelling
like me, but with a completely different agenda. I could almost feel sad for
them because they won’t see the frosty Allaine in the morning light just before
sunrise, but it’s silly I know. They’ll see something else, and maybe today
their praise is in the grand, while mine will be in the small.