Monday, December 29, 2008

Grace in small things: five

1. Being grown-up enough to initiate an amicable parting from the four noisy employees of [nameless-large-environmental-organization] who sat behind me for the 9 hours it took my Amtrak train to get from Seattle to Portland on December 20th.

2. Finding a box full of free cheese-and-cracker packets in the bistro car of my Amtrak train to stave off hunger during the 9 hours my train sat motionless, locked, and apparently abandoned at the Portland station on the night of December 20th.

3. Encountering a sympathetic Amtrak bistro car steward who gave passengers free hot cocoa on the morning of December 21st (since I had only brought enough cash to pay for meals during a 7-hour trip, not one three times that long).

4. Snickering at the snarky commentary made by the two teenaged girls across the aisle from me during our epic 21-hour train ride from Seattle to Eugene.

5. Realizing that even having an Amtrak train delayed by 14 hours and abandoned by all Amtrak staff overnight is preferable to being stuck in an airport for several days.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Tannenbaum

Thursday I mentioned that I had a chance to put up the Christmas "tree" I created last year.

When I was growing up, one of our holiday traditions was a growing collection of ornaments for each of us kids. Every Christmas we would get an ornament or two from our parents and grandparents. Usually our name and the year got written or taped somewhere hidden on each ornament. Our ornaments were stored with all of the other Christmas decorations in a grand old wooden chest, painted green, which had been in the family for two or three generations. The chest was stored away in my parents' bedroom through the rest of the year, only brought out when it was time to decorate the Christmas tree.

This ornament always makes me think of my sister. Oddly, the smaller girl's smile reminds me of my mom's.

I can still recall the exact piney scent that wafted out when the chest was opened each December, the slightly musty smell of old tinsel and holiday candles and garlands. My mom and dad would untangle the knotted strands of Christmas lights and wind them carefully around the tree. Mom always made sure the last light on the strand got tucked into the hand of the angel that topped the tree, so that light had to be yellow or white for extra realism.

This is one of my oldest ornaments, a figurine from the Nutcracker from long before I ever saw the Nutcracker ballet.

Finally, when the lights were arranged evenly, the ornamentation could begin. Mom would open tiny boxes and unwind tissue paper to reveal the little treasures we only saw this one month per year. We oohed as each familiar ornament was presented, as delighted as if they were brand new.

The three of us had to take turns hanging our ornaments, although as the eldest I had the advantage of a slightly larger collection. A lot of thought had to go into tree placement: the sturdiest twigs should be saved for the heaviest ornaments, but who could remember whether there were more heavy ornaments to come? My sister and I had several nearly identical ornaments, and those had to be spaced far apart on the tree for visual variety. And although nobody could really see the back of the tree, some things still had to be hung there so the tree didn't look lopsided.

A middle-school favorite, this elaborate tiny clock was a gift from my Gran.

When I graduated from high school, my ornaments remained at my parents' house, and the same ritual was repeated every year when I went home for Christmas. When I finished college, though, it was deemed time that I take my ornaments for my own house. My sister took hers shortly thereafter when she got married, and my brother followed suit a few years later.

This is another of the oldest ornaments in my collection. I love these older wooden ones.

Now each winter when I take them out and hang my ornaments, alone, I am a little overwhelmed with the sense of glad nostalgia that wafts out of the box with them. These are some of the few things that I have known my entire life. Bringing them out of their tissue-paper wrappings and boxes is like greeting old friends. I can't decorate my own "tree" without hearing echoes of small squabbles with my sister and brother, seeing little ghosts reverently placing their pretties on a tree, and smelling that musty, piney old chest. It's honestly the only time that I ever miss being a kid, lost in the annual excitement of decorating for Christmas.

Christmas lights on the windowsill with an unusual Seattle snowfall in the background outside.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Open Letter Without Apology

To the woman I bumped into downtown this evening around 7:15, who gasped in audible terror at my touch:

I had been running for two blocks when my path crossed yours, my friend. You couldn't have known, but I had stood outside waiting for a bus for an hour and a half earlier in the afternoon. My toes had gone numb, my fingers were cold even inside their mittens, and my nose had nearly developed its own tiny icicle. When I left work this evening I was dreading the chance of repeating the experience to get back home, so when I saw my bus pulling away just as I turned the corner to the bus stop, I could not allow it to escape me.

I trotted awkwardly down the iced-over sidewalk after the departing bus. The right combination of traffic lights would let me catch the bus at its next stop in three blocks. The bus was still in view, so I ran across the first cross street as my pedestrian signal changed. Clumsily, I galloped on down 3rd. Most people kept to the ice-free sidewalk next to the buildings, so I veered precariously onto the icy outer walkway several times to pass other pedestrians. Wheezing in the cold air, I crossed the second cross street with time to spare. My bus was stopped at the end of the block, and I did my best to speed up.

It was at that moment, my friend, that you and your male companion ambled out onto the sidewalk. You were strolling slowly, your well-layered arms sticking out at angles, much like those of the little brother in the movie A Christmas Story. My bus was still stopped, but its line of boarders was shrinking. You and your companion spread out to meander past other folks. A small gap between you and another walker presented itself. I darted through, and I bumped your elbow as I did so.

You sucked in air like a drowning person, like somebody in a bus about to crash through a guardrail onto a freeway below, like a seer of ghosts and demons and woe. Your enormous lungs seemed capable of inhaling more air than the cold city contained in all its core. Perhaps you were terrified, dear lady, of the clear threat I presented in my slacks and wool jacket. I do stand an imposing five-foot-six, while you were but a diminutive five-foot-five, so I understand your fright at my looming height. Or maybe you saw only the paper bag in my hand, full of leftover snacks, and panicked at the thought that I might bludgeon you to death with a Wheat Thin and a cookie.

In any case, your desperate gasp lasted so long you may not have heard me cry, "Excuse me!" as I passed. But in case you missed what followed, I want you to know this: with barely a second to spare, I caught up to my bus. I boarded and sat wheezing, my lungs aching from the cold. Oh, my voluminously-lunged friend, my haste in our encounter had rewarded my joints with a blessed reprieve from another long wait in the cold.

And so you see why I am not even slightly sorry for bumping into your own elbow joint in order to do so. Your overly dramatic inhalation was wholly without result. I am free of remorse, my friend. Free of remorse--and warm.

Ta, and happy holidays,


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow day

I went to bed last night cynical. Seattle had sat in the hole of the "snow doughnut" all day yesterday, and I tried not to believe the forecasters' insistence that snow would arrive in town overnight.

This morning I woke up before the alarm when Chloe the timid German Shepherd started pacing in agitation, perhaps because of the brief loud thunder that hadn't awakened me. As we woke up, Mr. Thel looked out the window and gasped. "Oh wow!"

I squinted suspiciously. "You're full of it." I peeked through the blinds and hey, look at that white stuff!

My supervisor called at 6:15 to notify me that our office would be closed today, so I had a lovely unexpected day off to finally put up my "tree." It was the perfect gift.

Chloe hates thunder, but loves the snow.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grace in small things: four

1. Chapstick.

2. Conversations with unexpectedly kind people on the phone.

3. A delicious free lunch at work.

4. Free delicious leftovers from a lunch at work.

5. A fresh haircut.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Grace in small things: three

1. Being able to breathe through my nose.

2. The man with white hair who set up his battered upright piano at a corner outside Pike Place Market and plunked merrily away in the cold on Saturday afternoon.

3. The puppylike glee which led Chloe to sprint and roll around in the field next to Chief Sealth Trail yesterday morning, a manic black blur against the bright white snow.

4. Sky-blue hand-knitted mittens.

5. Anticipating the train trip to Oregon on Saturday. Hooray for trains!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Seattle snow adventures

We went to bed last night while the snow was still falling thick outside--huge snowflakes illuminated in the glow of the streetlight, so many of them blowing sideways in the wind that we could hardly see the houses across MLK. When we awoke this morning, we had an inch or so of snow on our block, and the sheet of ice coating our street gleamed.

It's not much by the standards of many wintry locales, but for Seattle it was stupendous. Any little thing seems more glorious, in this Pacific Northwest native's experience, when it takes place against an icy, snowy backdrop. So today I had two "adventures" in the snow:

1. Having run out of time during our busy day yesterday, this morning my best-beloved and I still had some basic grocery needs. Eyeing the slick little hill of our street, we opted to walk to the grocery store, about a mile and a half round trip. We each wore a little backpack for hauling home our supplies. Sidewalks proved treacherous for most of the way, so we tramped along their margins in the snow where footing was more secure. Mittens and scarves proved useful, and wearing my bicycling headband under my knit cap helped keep my ears safe from the bitter wind that was blowing. We were out for about an hour in the cold, and although it was just a little jaunt, the setting made it feel like a true expedition.

2. Coming home from work tonight I had two bus routes to choose from. I hopped on the first one that came along, forgetting that it was probably rerouted at the hill behind my house. Sure enough, the bus stopped short of its descent back into the valley. "This is it," the driver said; "they aren't sending us down that hill."

We last three passengers disembarked and began trudging down the steep-ish hill. The roadway was clear and dry, while the sidewalk was frozen over; keeping an eye out for cars, I opted to walk in the street instead of skidding down the sidewalk. The newly waning moon loomed in the clear sky above us. We paused to let a couple of police cars go wailing and blazing up the hill past us to calls unknown.

We all had made it about two blocks down the hill when we saw a different bus heading up our very hill. I grumbled under my breath about the apparent contradiction between drivers' attitudes, but I should have had more faith. The next thing I knew, the bus we had just left made the turn and headed downhill after us.

When she caught up to us, she stopped and opened the door to let us back on. "I guess we can make it down after all!" she said. "They told me before just to stop at Cloverdale, but I saw that other bus coming up and I went, 'All right, I'm going to go get my people.'" Chains rattling all the way, the bus inched down the hill. The lovely driver let me off just a block from home, and I walked back to coziness and warm food waiting.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Tonight we went to a friend's dinner party in Tacoma. There was much laughter and easy conversation with friends and brand-new acquaintances. As the twelve of us sat around the dinner table eating dessert, I looked at the faces around me, at these women whose decisions to live their lives with authenticity have taken more courage and grace than I can imagine or summon. These are some of my heroines, I realized: women who have been through the wringer and faced uncountable experiences of ugliness and discrimination, and who yet are able to be present with grace and joy, laughing and telling stories over an apple tart.

After dinner we drove home through the falling snow that was just beginning to accumulate on the grass and trees, and I hoped I could look back someday and be satisfied that I had lived my life with that kind of grace and bravery--to be ready to name hatred for what it is when I see it; to be able to know and manifest my true, core self; to be willing to laugh as heartily as ever at the end of any day.

Later we let Chloe out to snuffle, surprised, in the skiff of snow that had gathered in the yard. We watched the snow fall fast and heavy outside. The arctic chill was beginning to deepen, but we turned up the furnace and put an extra blanket on the bed. Maybe if I practice meeting this prosaic challenge with grace and good cheer, it will become easier to do the same with more serious challenges.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Grace in small things: Two

1. Once again being able to toss my heaviest hand-knit scarf around my neck.

2. Lightly scented candles.

3. Reconnecting with long-estranged friends over birthday drinks.

4. Cilantro chive yogurt dip.

5. Finding, deep in a pocket of my backpack, the tiny Obama flag that adorned one of the celebratory mini-muffins I ate on election night.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Grace in small things: One

Because I have been excreting truly impressive quantities of snot from my nose, and working two jobs, and only being at home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., I haven't been a consistent Holidailies contributor this year. Still, I remain determined to participate!

Perhaps, if nothing else, I can join Schmutzie in recognizing the grace in small things in my life during a season of challenges.

1. Coming home late from a long day working two jobs to find fresh, hot, homemade chicken noodle soup ready.

2. A large German Shepherd resting her triangle head on my foot.

3. The bright red pocket-sized Moleskine 2009 weekly calendar that I bought last month is already improving my organizational skills.

4. The plastic Avon figurines--Scamper Lily, Blossom, and Daisy Dreamer--that my siblings and I received for presents long ago. They each stood on a leaf-shaped base, which was perfect for tucking between your index and middle finger while you grasped a My Little Pony in the rest of your hand, so the doll could stand gracefully atop the horse while you galloped them through the wilderness of the back hallway.

5. The childlike quiver of anticipation I get at the merest possibility of lowland snow.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Day 2

I was looking forward to Holidailies. I'm working two jobs right now and only home for an hour in the evenings, but I figured that would just hone my speedy stream-of-consciousness writing. Everybody likes poorly constructed navel-gazing at the holidays, right? Plus, I rationalized, at least on the weekends I could construct nice long posts.

Then I woke up yesterday morning with what felt like a tennis ball in my throat. A tennis ball covered in velcro. And phlegm. I managed, barely, to get out of the house for a little bit of gift shopping, and then I came home and pretty much collapsed for the day. I did a bit of knitting, but after an hour or so even that took too much effort.

Today was pretty much the same way: all couch and blanket and whimpering. Man, I hate cold season. I'd had grand plans of putting up the Christmas "tree" and hanging ornaments this weekend. I suppose they can wait until next weekend.

Since this is such a lame non-entry, here, have a picture from happier, healthier times. This was taken on one of our recent Port Angeles trips.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Today at work I was putting together a project using artwork made by children. Children who had used a lot of glitter. I'd been working on it for half an hour or so when my co-worker stopped by with a question about a different task. I stepped away from the project to answer her, pontificating on the topic for a few moments. "So I think it should work out fairly well," I concluded.

She nodded gravely and said, "Yes, I think you're right, Glitter Bear."

So I guessed a lot of glitter had transferred from the artwork to, well, all over myself. This was confirmed later when another friend asked to use my cheek as a mirror so she could touch up her lipstick. I don't know, is that better or worse than surreptitiously checking yourself out in somebody's glasses while they talk to you about TPS reports?

When I was a kid there was this area in our house, right off the living room, which served as my dad's den. He had his comfy chair in there, and the record player and stereo and speakers, and cupboards full of tools and things. The wall with the cupboards had this huge mirror that ran all along the wall between the lower and upper cabinets. For some reason my sister and I had the bad habit of focusing on the reflection of my dad in that mirror when we were talking to him, instead of looking directly at him. Looking back, this seems odd (and also, ooo, kind of foreshadowing of my later tendency to prefer email and internet interaction over face-to-face relationships!), but at the time we seemed unable to break ourselves of the habit, no matter how much it irritated my dad.

And it irritated him endlessly. I'd go in to ask him a question about homework, and as he started to explain the difference between the distributive property and the commutative property of numbers I'd watch him and pay close attention at first. But then, irresistibly, my gaze would drift over to watch the reflection of my dad explaining the math properties instead. As soon as he noticed, he'd launch into his frustrated rant. "You look people in the eye when they're talking to you! I swear I'm gonna get a hammer and smash that goddam mirror if you kids don't stop staring at it all the time!"

You know, that rant was always much more interesting the way it was delivered by my dad's reflection in the mirror. I could have watched that distant red-faced image wave its arms for hours.