This month and next I am doing something new–participating in the Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood Winter Writing Festival. This online festival is similar to the November celebration of writing, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), only in that they both encourage author productivity. Frankly, having participated in both, I must say that the RSSWWF is as much fun as NaNoWriMo, easier to attend (it is fully online), and comes at a better time of year (after the holiday rush).
Much as I have enjoyed NaNoWriMo in the past, one has to live near writing friends to fully share the experience. With RSSWWF, I can participate from anywhere and still enjoy the camaraderie and support of my fellow writers.
I am a collector of quotations. To my mind they are the ideal collectible. They don’t take up space on your mantle or bookshelves, and they offer wisdom and encouragement when you take them out. Plus, they are easy and often useful to share. So without further explanation and in no particular order, here are ten of my current favorites:
He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail. –Abraham Maslow
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance. — e.e.cummings
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence , then, is not an act, but a habit. — Will Durant
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. — Mark Twain
Work is love made visible. –Kahlil Gibran
There are some problems you cannot solve in a million years unless you think about them for five minutes. –M.L. Goldberger
You’re never a loser until you’ve quit trying. — Mike Ditka
When a man’s willing and eager, the gods join in. — Aeschylus
Success is on the far side of failure. –T.J. Watson
Doors are interesting. They open. They close. And the doors we open and close each day decide the lives we lead. –Flora Whittemore
Tundra swans on a foggy, snowy morning. Grand Island, NE
What is the Christmas Bird Count?
As Christmas draws ever nearer, I linger over photographs of snow and recall living in Nebraska and participating in the Christmas Bird Count there. The Christmas Bird Count is just what it sounds like–an annual event in which volunteer bird watchers identify and count birds in their local areas. The counting follows a strict protocol and has been done for over 100 years, yielding an accurate bird census that gives ornithologists critical data on species abundance over time.
The whole thing is administered by the National Audubon Society, with local organizers responsible for the count within their assigned area. The specific day of the count is determined locally, but must occur between December 14thand January 5th.
All over the Western hemisphere, the Christmas Bird Count sees volunteers spending all or part of the designated day tramping around outdoors, identifying and counting birds. Every year the information gathered is compiled, turned in to the National Audubon Society and added to a database containing over a century’s worth of avian census records.
Participating in the Christmas Bird Count
To participate in the Christmas bird count is a privilege that I enjoyed when I lived “up North”. There was something vastly satisfying about seeing for myself the diversity of wildlife that persevered in eastern Nebraska despite temperatures below freezing and the lack of abundant food that characterized the winter months.
My experience was in Nebraska, but yours could easily be close to wherever you live. Find out more at the National Audubon Society webpage. You will see that the number of areas surveyed is nothing short of staggering. North America has the greatest density of census “circles”, but there are are also circles in Central and South America.
Take a closer look at the map of 2018-2019 sites here. (The Audubon map is interactive. If you click on a circle, you will see the local organizer’s name and contact information.)
Whether you watch birds or photograph clouds, do make time this season to get outdoors and enjoy the wonders of nature in the winter, wherever you live.
There are two distinct ways to approach holiday gift giving, practiced by two different sets of people. In any given family, one approach or the other will tend to predominate. Perhaps it’s genetic. The two groups are the List-makersand the I-dunno-ers.
Some families love lists. Their approach to gifting works like this: You write down a bunch of stuff that you’d like to have, covering a range of prices from small to semi-extravagant. Then, if you are male, you give it to your wife. If not, you pass it to the Keeper of Lists. Or simply mention the items on it as often as possible to anyone willing to listen. (The method used varies depending on the family in question.)
Sometimes List-makertradition can lead to conflict when a family member marries outside their gift-giving culture. Our family is entirely composed of I-dunno-ers. My older son married a lovely and energetic woman from a long line of List-makers. Those of us on this side of the family tried to provide her with lists. But coming, as she did, from a tradition where even men can produce decent potential gift lists, she must have been sorely frustrated by our feeble attempts at telling her what we want.
In her List-makerfamily, shopping was the name of the game. As a virtual non-shopper, I always found her ability in this area incredible. Her fun was not in receiving gifts. Due to her list, she knew she would get a nice selection of things that she wanted and could actually use. Her fun came from hunting for items to give others.
When I shopped with her, we went from store to store as she looked for specific items from gift lists. I mainly tagged along. When she spotted a really great deal on an item from someone’s list, the hunt ended. “Score!”
By contrast, everyone in my family was an I-dunno-er. Our list-making skills were poor, and we lacked the shopping gene altogether. (Undoubtedly my fault.)
“What would you like me to get you for Christmas?” I asked my youngest son.
“I dunno,” he replied.
“How about a gift card to the home improvement store?” I thought this was a great idea. He and his bride had bought a fixer-upper.
“Cash? Then you could spend it anywhere you want,” I encouraged.
“I don’t want cash or a gift card, I want a present. Something to unwrap.”
“Okay, I’ll try to think of something,” I said, discouraged. But if he wouldn’t help me with his gift, perhaps… “Any idea what I can get your Dad? He’s so hard to buy for. When he wants something, he just gets it.”
My son didn’t grasp the enormity of the problem. “I’ll help you find a present for Dad.” He promised easily. “You don’t want something he knows he wants. You want to find something he doesn’t even know he needs or wants until he unwraps it, but then he’s like: ‘This is just what I need’ or ‘It’s just what I wanted.’ Those are the best presents.”
‘That’s easy for you to say,’ I thought. But I kept my mouth shut. When in desperate need, it didn’t do to disparage those offering assistance.
Something you don’t even know you want until you unwrap it.
A great description of the perfect gift. (It wasn’t a lot of help three days before Christmas, but still, what a goal to shoot for.)
Well, for my loving husband I finally settled on something I knew he would like, but wouldn’t buy for himself. Earlier that year, he’d bought a new robe. Loved it. The first time we washed it, it was accidentally thrown in the dryer and shrank eight inches. He is six-three, so that was a big deal. He’d been making do ever since.
So, I found a new robe—that was easy, just asked my shopper daughter-in-law where to go. No muss, no fuss. But what about my son? What did he need that he didn’t even know he wanted? I had no clue.
Three factors to consider
Shopping with my son again the next day—only two days until Christmas—he and I discussed how he’d arrived at his gift choices for his wife. (He’s good at this, just not an early-bird.) Between us, we identified three basic factors to consider when gifting someone. I found them very useful guidelines. Maybe you will also.
First, the Fun Factor—Things you can play with are better gifts than things of a more practical nature. Thus, clothing often counts as fun for women, but seldom counts for men. And while new kitchen items rank well with the chefs in the family, those of us who don’t love experimenting in the kitchen… well, you get the idea.
Second, the Memory Factor—a gift based upon something you remember your giftee said, maybe in passing, once upon a time. These items show that you listen and that you care. A winning combination.
Third, the Recognition factor—something that shows you recognize the kind of person your loved one wants to be: sexy, outdoorsy, a gourmet chef, intellectual, a techie, whatever. Note that the Memory Factor and the Recognition Factor combine to make the Romance Factor…but for purposes of analysis, it is better to keep them separate.
Three primary factors, three bases if you will. If you can tag all three in one gift, all that remains is home plate… Will your loved one unwrap it and suddenly be aware he’s wanted it all along?
The perfect gift
I think my son hit a home run that year, plus bonus points for extravagance. He bought a pair of kayaks so he and his love could go out on the water together. Maybe he’s found another bonus—his gift carried the promise of time spent together. That’s important, and melds into the Romance Factor. Like I said, he’s good at this.
So I was supposed to find something—with no help from him—for Mister Gift-master. A tall order, but I thought I might have succeeded. Their fixer-upper had a huge backyard. He’s the outdoorsy, let’s-do-something type. So I got him a nice set of Bocce balls. (Since he is male, I figured I’d have the As-seen-in-a-Godfather-movie bonus going for me as well.) The next day, I found out how I’d done.
What does it take to make Christmas happen? Holiday season commercials tell you to do MORE this year in order to make Christmas a success. Before your eyes flash pictures of things to buy or to do that, the ads imply, will make your holidays better. But must every year somehow surpass the year before? That’s a wonderful recipe for stress.
Sorry, decoration hawkers of the world. I don’t agree. I think the way to make the most of your holiday this year may be to do less.You only need to do two things to have the best Christmas ever. The first is rooted in thinking, the second in doing.
The first requirement for a great holiday is to adopt the best attitude.
Thinking refers to our attitude. The first requirement for a great holiday is to adopt the best attitude. Children can teach up how.
When my grandkids were six and seven, everything was the best ever.
“This was the best day of my whole life.”
“This is the best dinner ever.”
There was no limit to how many things could be best. This became clear to me one day when, for no good reason really, I challenged my seven-year-old granddaughter when, for the second day in a row, she declared “This was the best day ever.”
“You said that yesterday,” I observed. “So which really was the best?”
“Both,” she replied. “Yesterday was the best, and today is the best.”
“So on tomorrow, which will be the best: today or yesterday?”
“Both. They were both the best.”
After a while, I got it. In her mind, once a day is the best, it stays the best, and it can be followed by another best day without being superseded.
We should all be as smart as seven-year-olds. The attitude that makes Christmas the best ever, includes understanding that we are allowed more than one “best”. In fact, we can have as many as we choose.
The second requirement for a great holiday is to do something to celebrate.
So let me tell you about one of my many best Christmases. We were newlyweds, my husband and I, living in an efficiency flat situated in an old, but well-kept area of Chicago. That meant we had a bathroom, a kitchen with a small dining area, and a living room with a Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day. (Yes, really!)
Being young, foolish and broke, we decided the smart thing to do would be to buy gifts at the after-Christmas sales and, of course, we weren’t going to spend money on a tree or decorations. My mother and his had always made Christmas happen without much help from the rest of the family, and we honestly didn’t realize that some effort on our part would be required. Consequently, our Christmas spirit was sadly lacking that year, and we weren’t really sure why.
When my parents came to visit on the day after Christmas my brother, a high school senior, was scandalized. No tree, no decorations, no presents…it wasn’t to be borne. When my husband and I went with my parents to shop the sales, he stayed home.
Hours later we returned, tired and cranky, and found the apartment transformed. Our first clue was a small rectangle of green construction paper taped to the front door. On it was written: WREATH (big and beautiful). We opened the door and dangling from a long strip of tape hanging from the high ceiling was a construction paper square—yellow, this time. It was labeled in black ink, similar to the sign on the front door, as MISTLETOE.
As we stepped into the apartment, a strange and wonderful sight met our eyes. In one corner of the room, the old army cot that was my brother’s bed had been upended, and the upper legs collapsed in to make a point, of sorts. The cot was covered with a bright green thermal blanket and hanging from the blanket were a dozen or more of the construction paper signs.
At the tip-top was a yellow rectangle: STAR (big and beautiful). Below that one could find ORNAMENT (gold), ORNAMENT (striped), ORNAMENT (sparkly) and ORNAMENT (red), plus TINSEL (lots of). On the floor next to the one straggling corner of green blanket was the inevitable… ORNAMENT (broken).
Sitting at the base of the “tree,” a yellow sign proclaimed itself to be the MANGER SCENE (Mary, Joseph, and Babe included).
You’ve guessed it. The second requirement for a great holiday is to do something to celebrate. And money is no object. My brother didn’t spend any money, but he took action. The effect was immediate and dramatic.
Suddenly it was Christmas.
Of all the Christmases I remember, even the wonderful ones when our children were young, there is none that taught me as much as the Christmas my brother gave us that year. I learned that it isn’t about the lights, or the candles, or the tree—though those are all good things. It’s about the love that puts them there. And it doesn’t matter if the ornaments are fancy, or homemade, or even just construction paper signs. It is caring enough to make the season special—with some sign of celebration, however small—that wakes the Christmas spirit in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be bigger than last year. It doesn’t have to be brighter. It doesn’t have to be shiny or new. But someone has to care enough to make an effort to set the scene.
This year I will be traveling in mid-December, to spend Christmas with family. I wasn’t going to decorate the house…it seemed a silly waste of effort. But you know, I think I will. Not the boxes and boxes of things I enjoy hauling out and putting up most years, but something. Something small, put up with love, to celebrate the season. Maybe even a few construction paper signs, though they are brittle now, and yellowed with age. Something to make Christmas happen.
Remember when Thanksgiving was a holiday all on its own, instead of a mere pause for breath during the rush toward Christmas?
I remember a time when a few days after Halloween my elementary school classmates and I would make a seamless switch from drawing Halloween pictures to constructing dioramas of turkeys and pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower. All across the country students put on plays telling the story of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrim boys wearing black poster board hats adorned with big yellow buckles solemnly marched onstage where they were welcomed by classmates wearing headdresses thick with multi-colored construction paper feathers and offering dried corn cobs. A pantomime of friendly conversation followed, until a group of girls in white pinafores and oversized white paper collars entered carrying papier-mâché turkeys and pies. These were carefully arranged on a table (borrowed from the lunchroom) and as a finale all would sit down, amid enthusiastic applause, to the feast.
A day or two later, school would be over for a whole week! Back then, the Powers-That-Were scheduled Teacher Conferences—what would be called Continuing Education or In-Service days today—for the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving.
At home, my mother would keep me busy gathering brightly-colored leaves to arrange between two sheets of waxed paper. Mom would use a warm iron to melt the wax so the two sheets stuck together, making a placemat. We needed lots of these to take to Grandma’s house, where my family and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins would eat Thanksgiving dinner.
When Thursday came, we got up early, dressed and went to church. Afterwards, Mom busied herself in the kitchen making side-dishes for the feast to come. Dad watched football and I would read or play checkers with my brother. A few hours later it was time to go. Back in our Sunday best, we piled into the car and drove the fifteen minutes back into town, to Grandma’s house. There usually wasn’t snow, but none-the-less my brother and I sang Over the River and Through the Wood and Jingle Bells all the way there. In retrospect, I realize my parents had the patience of saints.
When we arrived, just after dusk, Grandma and Grandpa’s little two-story frame house was outlined against the darkening sky, with light pouring out of each wood-framed window. We stepped from the car into crispy-cold air and tromped up the steps to the screened front porch, past the porch swing sitting lonely in the cold, and into the enveloping warmth of the house. Oh, the scents that filled the air! Instead of pulling off my coat and gloves, I always stood for a moment, just breathing them in. Cloves, apples, cinnamon, and of course the rich scent of turkey and gravy.
In the kitchen, final preparations were underway. My mother joined her sisters there while the men made quick work of adding all the leaves to the dining room table, extending it to the fullest, then joined Grandpa in the cramped living room to watch television. The aunts pulled the good china from behind the cupboard doors in Grandma’s walnut sideboard and spread her white linin tablecloth over the table. My cousin Trudy and I arranged dishes and silverware on the placemats we’d made, and then the feast would be spread atop Grandma’s walnut sideboard.
The grownups filled their plates and chivvied the littlest cousins through the line. Then, at last, it was our turn. First would be the gelatin salads—two kinds, at least—followed by cranberry gel and pickles and olives—the green ones stuffed with red pimento. Then, in the center of the sideboard, the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and green beans cooked with onion and bacon. Plates overflowing, we’d grab a crescent roll or two and head for the kitchen to talk and eat.
Eventually, when plates were looking empty and we were getting tired of sitting, the aunts would begin bringing some of the serving dishes into the kitchen. Pickles and olives and cranberry gel would get moved to the center of the dining room table. The mashed potatoes and turkey would be placed on the drainboard of grandmas big cast iron sink, and the pies would move from atop the unlit burners of the big gas stove to pride of place on the sideboard. This time we kids got served first. One of the aunts would dole out slices of pie…”Pumpkin or apple?”…while another would top each slice with whipped cream. At the table, other grownups relaxed and talked, seemingly in no hurry to get to the best part of the meal. I can still feel the texture of those flaky crusts. No one ate only the filling!
When the aunts began clearing away the rest of the meal, they shooed us from the kitchen until it was time to dry silverware. No one minded being called back—the kitchen was where the action was! The aunts would talk, and laugh, and if we asked they would sing. This was when we learned songs written to boost people’s spirits during the war years—Three Little Fishies (1939), Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (1942), You Are My Sunshine (1940), and the unanimous favorite of all the kids, Mairzy Doats (1943). If you don’t recognize the names, check Youtube. They’re all there.
The final event of the evening was drawing names for Christmas gifts. And it was not until then, after Thanksgiving dishes were done and the kitchen and dining room put back to rights…until Thanksgiving had been fully and richly celebrated… that the focus shifted to Christmas, and the prelude to the next holiday season began.
May your Thanksgiving be celebrated with joy and significance.