Spring Has Sprung

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The birds are back! This morning I awoke to the merry sounds of chirping outside my bedroom window. Outside the kitchen window, robins were industriously searching for insects. In fact, I’ve been seeing robins everywhere. Those harbingers of spring have come out in full force as if to say, “It’s finally here!”

In front and back yards all over town, magnolias and daffodils are blossoming. I’m seeing the ubiquitous yard maintenance trucks on the village streets and hearing the sounds of mowers and blowers as gardens get back in shape. And that elusive star, the Sun, is making ever more frequent appearances.

It has been a long time coming. Just the other day, my brother-in-law from Minnesota was showing me a picture of his snow-covered yard and bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t been able to remove the thousands of Christmas lights from his trees. Meteorologists are saying that the widespread snow cover over portions of the Midwest may mean a cool spring and early summer.

My husband and I have spent the last two months huddled under blankets and wearing a full complement of winter gear as we’ve watched our daughter’s high school soccer team play at windy, cold stadiums across suburban Chicago. I’ve never been to a Chicago Bears game, but I feel as if I now know what it’s like to weather a late winter game at Soldier Field.

But the change in the weather and the signs of spring make me hopeful. I’ve resumed my walks outside with a spring in my step. I’m getting the sprinklers ready for spring planting and the air conditioner ready for warmer temps. With any luck, I will be able to sit out at a high school soccer game in my shirtsleeves.

Spring has truly sprung, and I plan to make the most of it.

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The Cruelest Month

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It has been a long, cold, depressing winter with no real end in sight. As I write this, a blizzard is burying Minnesota in snow while here in Chicagoland, we have been subjected to yet another gray, rainy and miserable day.

All this winter has caused a certain lethargy in me. My energy level is low, and the ideas that usually teem in my brain have slowed to a trickle. I realized today that the bad weather has kept me inside too much. Not being able to take my walks outside has seriously hampered my ability to think and dream.

It is known that physical activity enhances mental performance. So a brisk walk in nature has always been my prescription for writer’s block. Lately, I just feel physically and mentally lazy. It’s hard to get motivated when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind and rain pelt the windows. So I’ve been spending my free time doing crossword puzzles and watching TV, eating carbs and getting sleepy. I feel like a bear in its den surfacing briefly, only to find that it’s not time to come out of hibernation yet.

The daffodils in my front yard have just started to send green stems shooting up from the soil. They look too petrified to open and bloom. There are no leaves – or even buds – on the trees outside my window. I long for inspiration, but all I feel is a dreary heaviness of mind and body.

By now we Midwesterners should be able to expect some light and warmth, some signs of growth in our environment. Instead, April so far has been one very unfunny Fool’s joke.

 

A New Hope

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IMG_1605Over the years, my piano teacher and I have become friends. B. has always been generous – bringing cards and treats at holidays, making cakes for various occasions. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. I have known B. for over ten years.

So when B. was diagnosed with cancer last August, I was upset and concerned. With no family of her own and no means of financial support when she isn’t teaching, it was going to be a struggle for B.

Over the past six months, B. has endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She has trouble eating and drinking, and she has been in hospital or nursing home care for the better part of these past six months.  Two weeks ago, as the hospital got ready to discharge B., I was extremely concerned. She had been so frail, and I was worried that she would not be able to care for herself all alone in her apartment.

About a year ago, B. gave me an orchid plant. A lover of these notoriously finicky flowers, B. instructed me to care for the plant by putting a few ice cubes in the soil, letting them slowly water the roots. The orchid bloomed for a time and then went dormant. For the rest of the year, the plant’s large green leaves stayed glossy and alive. But the stem remained bare. Then in February, I noticed the roots climbing over the side of the pot, so I replanted the orchid in a slightly larger pot. Sure enough, large buds began to form. And just last week, the first blossom opened up in all its purple glory.

At home in her apartment, B. is also starting to get better. She is eating and drinking on her own, her hair has come back, and the color has returned to her face. As she regains her strength, I see glimpses of the fiercely intelligent and independent musician and opera singer she once was. I showed her a photo of the blossoming orchid she had given me so long ago. We agreed it is a sign of hope.

As Easter approaches, we celebrate resurrection. And I feel hopeful for B. and the new life that seems to be slowly unfurling for her. And I pray for all those struggling that they find a new hope in this Easter season.

Ice Queens*

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

*Postscript: Alina Zagitova edged out her Russian teammate Yevgenia Medvedeva to win the gold in the figure skating finals yesterday. The 15-year-old Zagitova bested her “elder” and the reigning champ in Russia. She will be one to watch in 2022.

 

 

 

 

Early Riser

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There are two types of people: those who get up at the crack of dawn and those who don’t. I have always been in the former category. Even as a teenager, that notorious somnolent period of life, my idea of sleeping in was rising around 8 am. And in college, I hated that all the bar-hopping and party action began well after 10 pm. I wanted to go out at 7:30 and be home and tucked in before midnight.

One of my problems is that I do not nap. As a little girl, I remember lying on my bed in the bright afternoons and trying to will myself to sleep. But I would toss and turn and get incredibly bored until my mom decided it was okay for my sister and me to get up. The only time I can recall longing for a nap was when I had small children whose sleep schedules kept me up half the night.

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“The early bird catches the worm” is a famous aphorism. I don’t know about the worm, but I do feel more productive when I wake up early and get a few things done. I like to write in the morning, and morning is when I am most likely to go for a walk, do chores around the house, pay bills, make phone calls.

There’s something lovely about being awake when most of the world around you is asleep. I love rising at dawn and watching the vague outlines of nature come into focus as the sun makes its way into the sky, trailing orange and pink hues. The stillness of morning is a quiet and prayerful time for me. Being a naturally ruminative person, I find the stillness and freshness of a new day inspiring.

As I write this, the sun is brightening the world around me. Some vestiges of snow sprinkle the lawn. They will be gone by late afternoon as temperatures improbably climb into the 50s on a January day. On mornings like this, I notice the sleeping buds on the magnolia tree outside my window, waiting for spring. A gentle breeze stirs the stalks of dry and brittle flowers.

Amid all the tensions and drama of my life and the world outside, it’s heartening to see the sun’s reliable trajectory in the sky. It’s a new day, and I’m happy to be awake and alive.

 

Winter Solstice

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A few days ago, I arose at 4:30 in the morning. My head was spinning with holiday to-dos, and I just couldn’t sleep. At 6:45, I went up to my daughter’s room to wake her for school. But it was so incredibly dark in the hallway that I had to check the clock again to make sure I had the correct time.

As we approach the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness seems to envelop us. Night comes swiftly and lingers into our morning awakenings. We are approaching the day of shortest daylight and longest night.

Early cultures marked this winter solstice with festivals of light, such as the Scandinavian Jul, from which we derive the Christmas word “Yule.” It is no coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas, two festivals of light, are celebrated around the time of the solstice.

We are a people afraid of darkness. At the holidays, this darkness can take the form not only of physical night, but of sadness, loneliness, and depression. Loss of loved ones feels more keen at this cold, dark time of the year. The holidays themselves, of course, can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Hence my 4:30 am awakenings.

But for me, the winter solstice is a time for rejoicing. Not only is the great feast of Christmas around the corner, but the days will begin to lengthen again. In the midst of January’s sometimes bitter cold is the reality that the brilliant sun shines more often and lasts longer into our days. The New Year will give us new resolve and hope for a better life.

The whole season of Advent is one of waiting in darkness for the coming of the light of Christ. HuffPost writer Caroline Oakes sees the meaning of Advent enriched by the ancient pagan traditions surrounding the solstice. In them, she recognizes the Celtic culture for “its keen awareness of humanity’s deep, inner connections with the rhythms of the natural world.” (HuffPost, December 21, 2012)

So we wait in the darkness. In Oakes’ words, “This is Advent — when, as sleepers, we awaken to our own light of love, deep within us, waiting to be reborn again in the dark stables of our own souls.”

 

Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.