Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Combating Seasonal Exhaustion

The days are long now, and our summer has officially begun. Weeds crowd crops in the garden, and the harvest of spring fruits and vegetables is in full swing.

End of the school year events crowd people’s schedules, and children are restive and eager for the upcoming summer holidays.

Retailers remind us there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. The house still lacks decorations.

The 2020 goals list dares me to get just a few more tasks ticked off, and everyone wants things done and dusted in the next two weeks.

There’s hardly a moment to sleep, and the long summer days encourage us to stay up late and get up early to accomplish our ever-lengthening to-do list.

Add the stress of a year of chaos, disruption and fear, and everyone is suffering from seasonal exhaustion.

I sit down to compose a blog post, and am distracted by an incoming e-mail with an urgent request. I write the day’s to-do list, and promptly lose it in the shuffle of random items cluttering my desk. I have to set alarms on my phone so I don’t forget meetings. I try to do a little editing, and can hardly keep my eyes open.

I see fatigue in the eyes of coworkers and students, of friends and family. I hear it in e-mails from colleagues. We’re all suffering from seasonal exhaustion compounded by a dumpster-fire of a year.

We all need kindness and understanding right now.

Which is why I’ve decided to go on a pay-it-forward spree until Christmas. I’m sure that in the next few weeks at work, I’m going to visit the cafe next door more frequently than usual for a pick-me-up coffee. I’ve decided that every time I get a coffee for myself, I’ll buy one for the next person in line. Hopefully, it will make them smile. Maybe it will inspire them to do the same. Maybe a whole string of exhausted coffee-drinkers will get more than a caffeine hit, but a lift to their spirits as well, as they both receive a gift from the person before them and give one in return. 

And with smiles on their faces, maybe they’ll say a kind word to someone, and that person will pass on the kindness to someone else, who will in turn pass it on to another person.

And maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the impact of giving a cup of coffee to a stranger.

But maybe I’m not.

I’m willing to take that risk and do my best to spread kindness. We could all use it right now.

Reap What You Sow

I started my pandemic poems—written with a Sharpie on scraps of building wrap and posted on the fence out front—to keep myself sane and connect with the new neighbours I’ve never met while we were in lockdown. Forty-nine days, forty-nine poems.

I wanted all the poems to be positive—a more difficult challenge than I’d hoped. Some days I wrote half a dozen poems, only to reject every one because they were grim and dark reflections of my mood. I would write until I found the light of good thoughts … sometimes I thought the positive poems would never come.

But they did. And by forcing myself to focus on the positive, I began to feel it.

And the neighbours must have felt it too. They stopped and read them silently to themselves. They read them aloud to their children. They laughed. They came by every day specifically to read the next instalment.

And I listened to them from the shed and smiled.

On Saturday I took them all down—symbolically freeing us from lockdown.

On Sunday I found this lovely note pinned to the gate. I’m still smiling.

They say you reap what you sow. Well, I’ve harvested two months of smiles from those silly poems. Almost makes me want to go back into lockdown and do it all again …

Or maybe not …

Appreciating the Small Things

The cat has settled in and seems to enjoy the stacks of furniture.

So far I have ignored the elephant in the room in my blog posts. I’ve focused on the little joys—canning vegetable soup, baking cakes, making pasta. It has been a struggle to do so, some weeks, and today, hours from New Zealand’s total lockdown, it is impossible.

Today our house sale was finalised. Today we officially moved to our new home. Except our new home sits unfinished in the midst of a muddy, rubbish-strewn construction site. It will likely remain so for some time. We have crammed ourselves and all our possessions into the shed we built on the property last winter (when we foolishly believed we might have a new house by February). 

As you can imagine, it is cramped, a bit smelly, and very cold (last night was down to 4ºC). We had hoped to alleviate our stay in the shed by going out for dinner a lot, traveling a lot, spending time visiting fun places. That won’t be happening now. I had planned on doing my laundry once a week at the laundromat not far from work. That won’t be happening either. Today I hauled the washing machine to the back yard and hooked it up to the garden hose and an extension cord in order to wash a load. Every meal will be cooked on a camp stove outside.

We will spend the entirety of our lockdown essentially camping as we edge towards winter.

Much of the time it will not be fun.

And yet …

Nearly thirty years ago, my husband and I lived in rural Panama with no running water, no electricity. To get to the nearest phone took a half hour of walking and an hour’s bus ride. Our roof leaked, and and the cockroaches and rats living with us in our one-room mud house were legendary in size and number. I washed clothes in a 20-litre bucket, and used the same vessel to carry water to a small palm-leaf-and-stick stall for bathing. We cooked our meals in one pot over a three-rock fire. We dug our own latrine. The weekly shopping run took an entire day. By the end of each week, we were down to eating nothing but rice and whatever vegetables were coming out of the garden. In the evenings, I would write letters to family back home. Sometimes the letters didn’t make it to their destination, sometimes they were delayed by weeks. If I was lucky, the letters took a week to arrive, once I’d managed to post them. A full conversation could take months, and was usually irrelevant by the time the first letter arrived.

All of which makes months living in an unheated shed during a global pandemic seem like glamping, rather than a real hardship. Rather than thinking about what I don’t have, I’m enjoying what I do have—a vermin-free home with a concrete floor and sound roof, electricity (even if it is limited by what we can do with an extension cord), instant communication with loved ones far away, nearby grocery stores for when the rice and vegetables run out, and a mobile bathroom with a real shower and flush toilet.

And that is how I intend to pass every day as I navigate through the chaos of the next 12 months or so—thinking of what I have, counting my blessings, being thankful for those little things.

Fixing Mistakes

Last week I started making a new pair of trousers. Because I used a tried and true pattern, I didn’t test the fit until near the end.

That was a mistake.

I couldn’t zip them up, they were so small around the hips. 

That can’t be, I thought. I’m still wearing the last two pairs of trousers I made with that pattern. What have I done wrong? They needed extra fabric in the side seams. But I’d installed a welt pocket over one of the seams, and I’d trimmed all the seam allowances—there wasn’t enough fabric there to let out the seams.

I thought about all the hours I’d put into them—how carefully I’d set the fly zip, how beautifully the welt pocket had gone in, how I’d only bought just enough fabric, how much I really needed a new pair of pants.

Thoroughly discouraged, I nearly chucked the garment into the bin. 

But I didn’t.

I put everything away and made myself a t-shirt instead. Then I made a lovely button-down tunic with slightly quirky buttons. Then I sewed a new laundry bag. 

Finally, I was ready to face the trousers again. There had to be a way to salvage them, if only I was creative enough.

I remembered my first pair of zip-off pants, in which I didn’t allow enough ease for energetic hiking. They’d had pockets over the side seams too. I’d split the legs right up the front and back from waist to knee and put in long triangular gussets that ended up looking quite sporty.

Maybe I could do something similar with these trousers. I drafted several inserts of various shapes. I didn’t like any of them, because they all destroyed the look I wanted. But the alternative was to throw the garment away.

With nothing to lose, I carefully sliced my beautiful trousers into pieces. I tried not to worry about why I’d made such a bad mistake in the first place, but to focus on making the fix as perfect as possible.

To my relief, the adjusted trousers fit. To my surprise, the inserts don’t look bad at all. 

It reminds me of how far I have come since my youth—an easily frustrated 20-year-old me would probably have tossed those trousers in anger (in fact, I can recall doing just that to more than one garment). But I’ve learned that most mistakes can be fixed once I let go of the frustration and move on to the problem-solving. It’s probably a good lesson for the rest of life too.

Time Travel over a Cup of Coffee

I had every intention of blogging something cheerful about springtime this week, but when I sat down in my usual cafe to write the week’s blog, I was confronted with my future … still hopefully many years away, but it reminded me to appreciate today and make the most of every day.

I ordered my coffee and tucked myself into a seat, determined to get some writing done.

Seconds later, she sat down at the table next to me, appropriating my attention before I’d even pulled out my pen.

How her hip hurt her! Up at three AM with the pain. Cup of tea to help her get back to sleep. Lemon in her tea, not milk—she wouldn’t drink something that looked like dirty dishwater. But, then, you know what happens after a cuppa. Up an hour later to pee, and then, well, you may as well get up.

She rattled on for twenty minutes—a live blog post of the worst kind—rambling, comprehensive and incomprehensible, exposing her loneliness, her sense of purpose lost in deteriorating hips and retired life.

She grasped at relationships—her neighbours who looked after one another, as all neighbours need to do.The old woman at the grocery store who needed help with her bags. But she needed no help, not yet, while she watched her friends fail.

Her friend in a nursing home who had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

She visited her friend in a nursing home. Younger than her but needing help. She had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

But when she’d visited her friend in a nursing home, she’d had a kitchen. It was like a wee flat. Had I seen those before?

A scratch in the vinyl record of her memory—she skipped like an old 45. By the third repeat, I saw the despair deep in her eyes. How much longer could she fool herself, her children? How much longer could she cling to autonomy, freedom, purpose? How long before she joined her friends in the incarceration of age?

Lessons from a Stone Plant

It was a silly little gift, perched at the top of my stocking on Christmas morning—a tiny stone plant. It wasn’t much to look at—a few fleshy leaves and that was it. I put it on my office windowsill, where I could watch it grow.

But it didn’t do much—just sat there looking like a pebble.

In March, it grew two new leaves, and I expected it to get bigger, but two old leaves shrank in time with the new ones’ expansion. A month later it looked exactly as it had before.

I’d nearly given up on it ever doing anything interesting, when a bud emerged from the centre of the plant. It was different from the new leaves that had sprouted earlier. The sprout grew into an unmistakable flower bud, and I wondered if the stone plant’s flower would be as unassuming as the plant itself.

Then it opened. It was only one, but it was spectacular, coming from such a nothing of a plant.

It reminded me of some people I know—unassuming at first, but capable of spectacular things if nurtured and given time. A good reminder to always be patient and nurture those around us—you never know what they may blossom into.

Footstool Everlasting

Few items from my childhood survive today. No surprise. At age 49, having moved nearly a dozen times as an adult, and ending up half a world away from my hometown, it’s surprising anything remains.

My footstool, however, not only remains, but is still in daily use.

I don’t recall how old I was when it was given to me, but I don’t think I could have been more than four or five.

My grandmother painted it, and I seem to recall some other family member—a great uncle perhaps—had built it years before. So it wasn’t new when I got it, only newly painted with my name and one of my favourite animals. I doubt Grandma ever suspected I’d grow up to get a master’s degree in entomology (and chances are she wouldn’t have encouraged it had she suspected). But I was clearly already headed that way as a preschooler.

I remember using the stool as a table, back when my legs fit neatly underneath it. I remember setting up tea parties on it, doing artwork on it, turning it upside down and pretending it was a boat, setting it on its side to form a battlement for some imaginary fortress.

When I was a teen, it served to give me access to the top shelf in my closet and as a handy homework table.

The stool moved with me when I left home. My husband has employed it in the bottling of beer, and my kids remember standing on it to work at the kitchen counter or workshop bench. Today, I’m the only one in the family who still needs a footstool, but it continues to come in handy as a low computer stand for those of us who like to work on the floor.

After more than fifty years, the footstool is as solid as ever, and just as functional as it was the day it was built. The paint is sadly worn, gone completely from the often-banged edges and corners.

But someday, when I can no longer sit cross-legged on the floor to work on the computer, perhaps I’ll repaint it for one of my grandchildren, so it can have another life as a boat, battlement and art table.

A Bird in the Bush

bellbird

photo: Sid Mosell (CCBY2.0)

Last Thursday was frenetic—I had a challenging work day and then ran errands in heavy afternoon traffic. By the time I arrived at my husband’s work to pick him up, I was tired, and my brain restlessly analysed the day’s events.

The day was warm, and I sat in the car with the windows down waiting for my husband. Time to catch up on my e-mail …

Twee-dle … A lone bellbird called lazily from a nearby tree, cutting through the sounds of the city and the clamour inside my head.

Twee-dle

I pocketed my phone and closed my eyes as the sound transported me to the bush where I lay in a tent listening to the forest wake up. The clamour in my head stilled. Somehow my email no longer seemed important. The conundrums of the day lost their urgency. My shoulders relaxed and I took a deep breath.

Twee-dle

There was time to savour. No need to worry.

Twee-dle

Trouble could wait. I needed a few minutes in the bush.

Twee-dle

All I needed to do was listen.

Wear Your Hair with Pride

“Why do you have white hair?” asked the young girl, impertinent as only a seven-year-old can be.

“Because I’m getting old,” I replied.

“No, I mean why don’t you dye it?”

“Because my white hair is beautiful–it’s actually silver and sparkly.”

She wrinkled her nose. “It’s not silver. It’s white.” She snorted and stroked her own hair, brown and straight. “When I get that old, I’ll dye my hair.”

There was no point arguing with her. Silver hair is a beauty a seven-year-old can’t possibly appreciate.

But even beyond the fact that my silver hair has come in with body and curl that my youthful hair never had (it sat on my head like a wet dish rag), my silver hair is beautiful for what it represents.

Like ANZAC poppies that remind us to never forget those who died for our freedom, each silver hair is a reminder.

Lest we forget the struggles over which we have triumphed:

• As a parent, the screaming newborns, toddler tantrums and teenage rebellion
• Mental health lows
• Physical pain and illness
• Emotional pain—loved ones lost, relationships shattered
• Natural disasters and those made by humans
• The acts of violence against ourselves, against those we love, against our neighbours.

Every silver hair reminds me I have not only survived, but thrived. Every silver hair is a badge of honour, a challenge met, a goal surpassed.

Dye my hair?

Why would I ever hide my hard-won medals?

Strength.
Bravery.
Perseverance.
Patience.
Sheer bloody-minded stubbornness.

I wear these badges of honour with pride—my silver sparkling medals that streak my hair and remind me what I’m made of.