Tagged with " holidays"

After the Fire

Large red-orange bonfire

On the morning of May 1, I take everyone outside to wipe a bit of dew off the grass to wash our eyelids so we can’t be fooled by glamours and lying images in the year to come. I pick lilacs and iris and tulips to put explosions of color and scent on every surface in my home. I plan the bright outfit I’ll wear to the May Day Parade with its fantastical puppets and papier-mâché expressions of hope and love. I light candles to celebrate the fertile fire festival of Beltane.

On the morning of October 31, I run around to procure the last elements of our Halloween costumes. I kick through the fallen leaves, whether they’re crisp and fragrant or sodden with rain and melted snow. I luxuriate in the jewel tones of mums and pumpkins and Indian corn, the burnt-dust whoosh of the furnace first kicking on in the autumn dark. I light candles to welcome the ancestors to the fragile dangerous festival of Samhain.

A green forest with palms, ferns, and tall tree trunks in dappled sunlight.
A New Zealand forest in autumn. And spring and summer too, basically.

This year, absolutely none of this applies. Samhain is May Day Eve. The ferns and palms and conifers keep the hillsides’ emerald glow. No snap of frost threatens the extravagant pink hibiscus flowers. My body and spirit are deeply disoriented by this particular inversion of the Wheel of the Year.

There is mourning to be done this year, though. I need this Samhain to process and let go. Because the last boxes have arrived, and we finally know the scale of what we left behind and what we lost in the act of moving around the world.

The process of unburdening ourselves of possessions was incredibly difficult. Decision fatigue became decision burnout became decision trauma. I fantasized about lighting a match and throwing it into the house, turning all those decisions into cinders. It helped to see beloved things go into the hands of friends who recognized them as the treasures they are. It helped to see useful things go to places in my neighborhood where they’d be taken by people who needed and appreciated them. But getting rid of things was getting rid of possible futures, investing all that potential into a single uncertain path.

We catalogued and photographed and shrinkwrapped ninety-some boxes and pieces of small furniture. It seemed impossible that it should be so many. It seemed impossible that it could be so few.

Some boxes go straight into storage, full of papers and mementos worth keeping as a shared history. A few boxes of utensils and coffee mugs to be familiar on the new shelves. Seventy percent of the boxes are books and games, though, not just ones we want to read and play, but ones we want in the library that tells the story of what we think is important. I look at things and wonder why on earth we thought this deserved precious, limited space. Some things get a little surge of excitement and gratitude that they made the cut in those moments of frenzied elimination.

There’s pain too, though. Pain for the things that won’t ever arrive. Things it was too difficult or impractical or replaceable to justify bringing. Things we were certain we’d brought, things we would never have willingly left behind, things that are just gone without a trace. They’re as gone as they would’ve been if I’d tossed in that match.

As far as we can tell, only two things were destroyed, two blue-and-white-striped bowls I brought home from my year in France and moved safely through all the changes since. Ironically, they weren’t broken in shipping; one of my son’s hands slipped, bobbling them into a hard landing beyond the tolerance of the bubble wrap here in our new home.

Whether it was Beltane or Samhain, I’d be lighting candles tonight. I’ll do it by lighting matches the way I’d fantasized in our traumatic departure from the things and people and seasons of the familiar North. I’ll try to embrace the confusion and vertigo of this most unbalanced turn of the year’s wheel. I need to accept that the light of the bonfire only reaches so far into the deepening dark, and straining my eyes and asking questions can’t reveal where things end up beyond the veil.

Dec 31, 2013 - Psychology    1 Comment

My New Year’s Revolutions

Most of the time, autocorrect takes us further from the truth, to hilarious effect. But every once in a while, it reveals a deeper wisdom. Today, that message shows up as autocorrect turns everyone’s New Year’s resolutions into New Year’s revolutions.

That substitution may make some people uncomfortable. A resolution is a low-bar challenge. It’s self-enforced, so if (or when) you stray from your resolve, the only person let down is you.

On the other hand, revolution is naturally unsettling because it throws out the status quo, and it frequently happens on someone else’s timetable.  Revolutions have ripples that go beyond your sight—if you start a revolution, expect it to have unintended consequences. And above all, revolutions strike at the heart of the systems that oppress us.

These statements may not seem like much to you, but each one of these things is something that defies a message or expectation I’ve received in the last year, many of them fostering doubt, shame, and worthlessness deep in my heart.

So, in these hours before 2014 begins, here are my New Year’s Revolutions:

  • I will say something out loud, to another person, about my beauty everyday.
  • I will work out more to recapture my stamina, not to lose weight.
  • I will listen without talking so I can learn from people whose lives and voices are not like my own.
  • I will answer questions fearlessly about myself and my story, so others know they are not alone.
  • I will begin to give my eldest son a comprehensive, emotionally-grounded sex education so he knows that that part of himself is not a source of mystery or shame as he grows into it.
  • I will work on yelling less.
  • I will not apologize for prioritizing self-care above overcommitment.
  • I will actively work to rewrite my unrealistic standards for self-worth.
  • I will not denigrate or be afraid to lift up my skills and accomplishments.
  • I will build stronger, more responsive connections in the groups where I work and play.
  • I will keep showing up for issues and communities outside my own.
  • I will create works of information, imagination, and enjoyment, even if they’re only for me.
  • I will make my voice and presence a powerful force in the halls of government and the streets of our community.
  • I will not accept or internalize shame for the way my family and I live, and what we value.
Dec 7, 2012 - Psychology, Social Studies    3 Comments

The Gifts That Keep On Giving

Almost every good and wonderful thing about the winter holidays is a sensory delight. The smells of cold snow and freshly cut pine and butter-rich cookies tingle in our noses. Pipe organs and French horns and jingly bells and heavenly choirs and crinkly paper delight our ears with musical sounds rarely used in the rest of the year. Velvety and satiny fabrics combine with delightfully scratchy sweaters and fuzzy hats in our special party clothes. We write ourselves dietary hall passes for the dozens of special, luscious holiday foods. And the lights…oh, the lights! Who doesn’t gasp and crane at the sight of an elaborately decorated building or brilliantly lit tree?

Now imagine all that cranked up to 11. Welcome to the holidays on autism.

Sounds amazing, right? But for autistics and their families, the holidays can be overwhelming and stressful. So many folks struggle with money and family drama and expectations about all things merry and bright, and with schedules and nerves and input jacked up on Kringle Fever. These things stress out the neurodiverse too–and they often have difficulty expressing what’s too much, especially if it feels like that’ll disappoint their loved ones. Naps, hugs (physical or otherwise), routines all go a long way to mitigate these stresses, and though you may feel like a Grinch insisting on bedtimes and dietary restrictions, you’ll be grateful later when you and your family have more spoons left over for fun.

All this is in response to a blog post I read over on Autism Daddy today (thanks to Joshua for the link!). He lamented his inability to participate in a common source of small talk among parents this time of year–what their kids want for Christmas. Every parent dreams of giving the perfect gift that makes their child light up brighter than starlight, but on autistics, that looks a bit different.

Still, you can give gifts that’ll make their lives easier and more enjoyable all year long. And I urge you all to resist the urge to jump to the conclusion that gifts for special needs kids have nothing in common with, or aren’t “as fun” as, the gifts neurotypical kids want. After all, autistics are “more human than human,” as I heard Paul Collins say on Speaking of Faith years ago. And the things that feel good to them often feel good to (or solve problems for) neurotypical folks too.

I don’t know a single kid who doesn’t love the hell out of jumping on a trampoline. If you give a kid a mini-tramp (with a handle and helmet!) that fits in their bedroom, or passes for an hour at the hangar-sized trampoline parks popping up in industrial parks, you would get a medal for Best Adult EVER from children everywhere.

And who doesn’t wish they had a chair that closes up like a clam some days? In today’s open-plan, no-doors work environment, I think these may be the Next Big Thing at the very best chair stores.

And this is just the beginning. There are loads of adaptive technologies which are practical solutions to everyday problems, and you’d be the hero for putting it under the tree. For example, kids are asked to write on whiteboards at school every day, but if you’re a lefty, you spend half your time trying not to drag your arm through what you just wrote and have to start all over again when you finish each line. This cool LCD lightboard eliminates that problem! And tags in the back collar of shirts and underwear drive everyone nuts, not just autistics, so be a hero and give a box of tagless clothes that can be worn under anything.

There’s an extensive list of assistive and adaptive technologies (both high- and low-tech) at the Research Autism website, but many of these things aren’t only available to therapists or educators anymore. Online speciality retailers like AutismShop.com and Autism-Products.com sell everything from squeeze machines to weighted blankets to awesome fidget toys (which make excellent stocking stuffers). And a lot of the best gifts for autistics are available right in your local Walmart or Target–exercise balls, tagless shirts and underwear, blankets with lovely silky binding and nifty textures, and glasses with clear, funky-colored lenses are all fantastic fun gifts for every kid.

(Important Note: You NEVER want to be the person who gives the Toys That Make The Noise. This is exponentially more the case for families with neurodiverse kids. They will hate you forever.)

It gets tiring being the educator-in-chief, and I definitely have days when I don’t want to explain autism and how the world feels through that lens one more time. But instead of feeling left out because you aren’t having the same experience as other neurotypical parents and children, it’s more fun to focus on what makes us all feel good. That’s a wonderful gift to give and be given, any time of year.


Nov 28, 2012 - Social Studies    14 Comments

Pass the Bucket

I cringe as soon as I hear the bell ringing in front of the grocery store. My kids are primed to be generous, and immediately pester me for pocket change to put in the red bucket. I tell them “no” quietly and, to head off the inevitable “why” that follows, say, “They don’t believe they have to help everyone who comes to them in need, and I don’t want to support that.” I fast-walk the boys into the store and give the bellringer a tight smile.

This routine defies every philanthropic fiber in my being. We take things to Goodwill, we buy poppies from veterans, we buy Girl Scout cookies (okay, that one’s got side benefits). We support public radio and television, we give to our church, we buy ridiculous things from school fundraisers. Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, lumbago–we give to them all. We collect pennies in UNICEF and Guest At Your Table boxes, which fall apart under the weight of the change every time.

But I will not give one copper penny to the Salvation Army.

SA hits many criteria that appeal to folks who want to do good. They work on first-order needs–feed the starving, shelter the homeless, clothe the poor–often in emergency situations. Especially at the holidays, when so many appeals come from charitable organizations, it can be difficult to prioritize causes, and SA makes it easy: give money here, help people in need. They even use a low-pressure ask, simply ringing a bell, rather than shaking a coffee can in people’s faces.

But SA’s help is given conditionally. If you want a meal, a cot, a coat, you must attend Christian worship. These aren’t gentle ecumenical services, either. You will be told you are full of sin, that your current problems have roots in your inadequate acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, that repentance and sacrifice are needed, and that only the saving power of the Christian God can take away your temporal suffering. There is fire and there is brimstone. There is even heresy, depending on your Christian theology–SA preaches “Lordship Salvation” which requires constant human effort for salvation.

And all that assumes that they’ve let you in the doors in the first place. SA’s track record for turning away gay and lesbian people in need is well documented, even those in committed partnerships. A British chapter even turned away a naked, injured rape victim because they “only serve men” at their location, despite the organization’s stated policy to make counseling and emergency assistance available to crime victims.

If that doesn’t disturb you enough to pass the pail, consider what happens to some donations. SA has used charitable gifts to support anti-gay legislation in America and abroad. Other SA officials have seen fit to throw away brand-new, donated, Harry Potter toys and books, because they didn’t want to be complicit in turning recipients toward Satan. And still others have simply helped themselves to the largesse they collect for others. We don’t even have a clear idea how much money SA takes in, or how it moves around within the organization, because for most of their operating history, they’ve hidden behind the IRS disclosure shield for churches.

I’ll admit that a big part of my personal problem with this organization comes from our differing views on the definition of “salvation” and how you get there. Militant religion has made me queasy since the first time I understood the words of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Never forget that SA stands for Salvation Army, not Salvation Association or Salvation Achievers.

And before their symbol was this: 

it was this: 

I don’t believe anyone needs to be “saved,” and I don’t think scaring and shaming them would do it, even if they did. I believe that good acts are their own reward, and that there should never be a cost for help, especially not one that amounts to emotional extortion in a person’s most powerless moments.

If you really want to do good–and another thing I believe is that everyone really does want to do good–there are so many places that need you. If you feel like freezing your butt off, don’t just stand there ringing a bell–take meals to the homeless and invite them into life-saving shelters on the coldest of nights. If you have a strange attraction to American coinage, collect it for your local food shelf so families can enjoy a special holiday meal. If you want to spread the message of your holy days, help your church or temple with its social justice projects. And if you just don’t know where to start, look right around you. Your neighbors, your friends, your family, you all know someone who’s hurting: a person facing a holiday alone, or hungry, or scared, or without the tools or means to give the children in their lives the wonder and joy so many of us associate with this time of year.

It doesn’t take an army to save people. We can save each other, with our own hands and hearts and wide open eyes.


Oct 31, 2012 - World Religions    1 Comment

Making Halloween Magical

I absolutely adore Halloween. I’ve been known to skip down store aisles singing “It’s the most…wonderful time…of the year!” at the first sight of skulls and crows. I collect Halloween socks and wear them all year round. I buy gothic lanterns and creepy wall hangings and ghoulish tea towels on clearance for everyday use.

Part of this is related to Halloween’s location in my favorite season, Fall. Fall is a full-sensory extravaganza for me: crunchy leaves, crisp nose-hair-tingling morning air, spices and soups, the acrid sting of a matchstrike as I begin lighting candles again after the hot, bright summer.

But Halloween holds more meaning for me than just memories of costumes and candies past. It’s also a sacred holiday for me and other pagans, marking the beginning of new turn around the wheel of the year. Because I follow the Celtic traditions of my ancestors as they intersect with modern neo-pagan practices, I call this day Samhain (pronounced SOV-han or SOW-an, NOT  SAM-HANE).

Celebrated by many ancient agrarian cultures as a cross between New Year’s and Memorial Day, Samhain acknowledges the conclusion of the harvest, the closing down of the earth in preparation for winter, and the liminality of beginnings and endings that allows us to perceive how thin the veils are that separate us from unseen worlds around us. The costumes and the lanterns play games with concepts of finding and evading spirits passing from one state of being to the next. Even trick-0r-treating, often maligned as turning kids into greedy monsters with eroding teeth and manners, reminds us of our obligations of hospitality and the sweetness of welcome on a cold night.

My own monsters, as Finn and Jake from Adventure Time!, ready to storm the neighborhood and shake it for candy.

As such, it’s a powerful time for magic in every sense of the word. The topsy-turvy nature of the night always reminds me to look to the children in my life for wisdom; they have so much to teach us about taking pleasure in the moment and finding wonder in the ordinary. And you can return the favor by taking Halloween as an excuse to open the door to simple magic so they learn the spirit behind the spirits.

If your family has experienced the death of any loved ones in the past year, Samhain allows us to commemorate their life and release them with love, rather than carry the weight of grief into the new year and prevent their spirit from crossing over peacefully. Obviously, this is a complex concept, but it can be symbolized in simple ways that teach kids that grief is natural, as is letting go. If your hands are always full of the past, there’s no room to grab the future, and a ritual of remembrance and release absolves us of the guilt that often accompanies fading memory. It’s nice to look at pictures and tell stories of the departed, then perform an act that symbolizes transition: blow out a candle, throw written messages into moving water, or break a small bowl or clay pot.

Halloween is also a good day for housecleaning magic. If a child has been having difficulty with distraction, negativity, or nightmares–or if an adult wants to banish more mature worries or problems–the energy of the new year can be a powerful “disinfectant.” Go from room to room, in counter-clockwise order from the way you would face as you walk in the front door, and pass a broom over doorways and windowsills. When you end up back at the front door, sweep all the negative energy out the door, say some creative words of banishment (e.g., “Get out of my house, you horrible no-good dreams/feelings/bills!”) , and let the kids slam the door.

Finally, it can be fun to teach kids about traditional divination magic associated with Halloween. Young boys and girls have been looking into pools of water or cutting into fruit on Halloween to tell their fortunes for centuries–that’s where bobbing for apples comes from! Spending some quiet time looking into a dish of water, mirror, or flame (safely, obviously!) often conjures hopes and fears for the future as you settle into meditation with an external focus, and talking about them works wonderful, everyday bonding magic. If you have a tarot deck, runes, or I Ching set, it can also be fun to let the child examine them and ask questions; let them offer their own interpretations and observations, and keep the atmosphere light. People are more comfortable going forward into an unknown future if they feel like they have some sort of influence over it, and even silly little scrying games can make us feel more empowered.

I hope you all have a wonderful, magical Halloween!

Mar 17, 2012 - Ancient History    3 Comments

A Drop of the Irish

I’m five-eighths Irish, and it shows in all kinds of ways. I don’t tan–I just burn badly, then peel back to freshly-drowned white. My complexion also blushes impressively at the first whiff of emotion or alcohol. I’ve got a decisive jaw and a stubborn chin, and the attitude to back them up. I look damn fine in any and every shade of green. I’m hard-pressed to keep my toes still if there’s a spirited jig or reel playing. I’ve got a mighty temper, which rises and falls with sometimes alarming speed and whimsy. And I’ll take a chilly, misty, drizzly day–a “soft day,” to the Irish–over a cloudless 80-degree one hands down.

And oh yes: a significant number of my relatives are alcoholics.

My Grandpa Boyle, mobbed by the grandkids as usual. I'm top right; my sister lower right; 2 of many cousins on the left. Salt of the earth, my grandpa was.

Now don’t go getting on me for pandering to an ethnic stereotype. Not all Irish are drunks, probably not even a majority. But Irish social interactions have been lubricated by smoky whiskeys and beers as thick and dark as the new moon since time immemorial. (Don’t question me when use idioms like “time immemorial;” I’ve literally read the very earliest Irish historical documents.) And for so many people with Irish blood in their veins, it’s an understatement to say their relationship with alcohol is fraught with generations of experience and emotion.

And so it was with my paternal family. I’m descended from the Boyle clan, with a side order of Higgins, and I grew up in and near Milwaukee, home of the most epically huge and enthusiastic Irish Fest in North America. Holidays, christenings, birthdays, marriages, funerals, and occasional random weekends were spent in the wood-panelled basement of my grandparents’ home in a blue-collar suburb. (If you don’t know about the Irish and wood panelling, you need to pay more attention to Denis Leary.) On every available surface, there were either food or bottles of booze; with both, quantity over quality was the byword. Both were consumed at a steady pace, with the grit and determination of long-distance runners.

What I remember most about those parties–besides my cousins and slipping around on the tiled floor in my fancy shoes–was the volatility. The growing volume level, the slightly unbalanced quality to the adults’ laughter, and the overbroad, unmeasured gestures. The sudden snap of a frayed temper, the crack of an angry outburst. The atmosphere of precariously balanced danger. The longer the nights drew on, the more I instinctively shrank into myself, made myself smaller, so I wouldn’t upset the equilibrium.

My mom and father, high school sweethearts, in better days.

If it had only been at these parties, I’d probably be writing about this with more humor. But it was at home too, with no parties, no gaiety–just a staggering, slurring father, present in so many snapshots of my childhood. He worked hard, but there were weeknights he came home so hammered, he was still drunk when he walked out the front door the following morning. He’s a big man, 6 foot 4, and thickly built. Sometimes, he came home in the mood to play, but he couldn’t control his strength when he was drunk, and his horseplay often left at least one of us kids crying. Most nights though, if he didn’t just stumble into bed, he was angry and belligerent. I’m the oldest of us three siblings, so I felt it was my responsibility to protect us. We spent nervous hours crouched in the bathtub; the bathroom was the only door in the house with a lock.

My brother, sister, and I, right around the age when we all grew up very fast.

I was a pretty precocious kid, so when my mom finally demanded that he leave when I was about 8 years old, I was all for it. The next two years were hard, really hard, as my mom worked to support us on just her secretary’s salary–I shudder to think of what it would’ve been like if her parents hadn’t lived a mile away and been so generous with their time and resources. She knew the man who would become our stepdad from church–he was the Minister of Music, and she sang in the choir. She knew he’d been raised a teetotaler. Sure, he was 20 years older than her, but he’s a good man, and she knew he’d take better care of us all.

The rest of the Boyles knew my mom had given my father chance after chance after chance, but he refused to admit he had a problem, and they blamed the breakup on him. We’ve maintained very good relations with them all along, even after my father decided it was easier to think of us as dead for a while there. They supplied us with pictures of our new half-brothers from his second marriage, and they sent representatives to important events, like graduations and my wedding. I saw my father at a family reunion when I was 17. We hadn’t spoken for 8 years at that point; we wouldn’t speak again for another 17 after that.

My personal reaction to the alcoholism I saw rampant in that branch of the family tree was unusual, I guess. I decided as a child that I would never even taste alcohol until I was old enough to be sure that my personality was fully formed, and that it didn’t have addictive tendencies. Lots of my friends didn’t understand my adamant refusal to drink in a small town where drinking, having sex, and renting movies were the primary forms of entertainment, often performed in combination. But I’ve been fortunate to have a happy assortment of offbeat friends who took that quirk in stride.

I went to France my senior year of college–I would turn 21 while I was over there–and I went with the attitude that, if the occasion rose and I felt comfortable, I’d try a drink that year. But I wasn’t ready when I first got there, and the French college students just shrugged off my refusal of beer-based hospitality, and pointed me to the Coca-Cola. The real problem was with the French adults. “BWAH?!?!?” they would exclaim. “But you are in France! Everyone drinks in France! You can’t not have wine!”

Oops. Magic word: can’t. See, I’ve got this anti-authoritarian button that pops out when someone tells me I can’t, and it sounds like this: “Oh, I can’t, can I? Well, that cinches it. Just watch me.” And I didn’t drink the entire year–not on my birthday, not at any of the outrageously good meals, not in any of the charming cafés or brasseries, even though my hot chocolates and Cokes cost me 12 francs, and a beer would’ve cost me 7. That’s some fine Irish stubbornness for you there.

I had my first drink of alcohol on my wedding night, a champagne toast with my friends. The friends who’d been with me all through college and the year in France couldn’t stop exclaiming how mind-bendingly odd it was to see me drink. Some knew why I’d waited; they were happiest to see me let go of that shackle. Funnily enough, because I’d waited until I was a fully grown adult to start drinking, I’ve never been drunk. Between my Irish/German constitution, my plus-size physique, and my unwillingness to drink any alcoholic crap that comes along, getting me drunk is a damned expensive proposition, and I’d so much rather spend that money on books.

I reconnected with my father when we moved back to Wisconsin for a few years. I’m the mother of his only two biological grandchildren, and I felt it would be stingy and petty of me not to let him get to know them, and them him. He hasn’t aged particularly well, but when he grows out his beard and hair, he looks like a rather jolly Irish Santa. They send us gift cards at Christmas; I send them cards and drawings from the boys. I don’t like to think how I would’ve turned out if my mom hadn’t had the steel in her spine to leave him, and when it’s time to talk to my boys about drinking and drugs, I’ll tell them what my first 8 years were like, and why I’ve made the choices I have.

Family and history–they’re the most Irish things I have to share with them.

Feb 3, 2012 - World Religions    4 Comments

The Groundhog Whisperer


Here is an important but little-known fact about me:

I am the Groundhog Whisperer.

No, really–I am. They come out for me, even here in groundhog-deficient Minnesota. They make themselves known. They sit up on fence posts so I can see them as I drive by. They allow me to witness their majestic gallumphing across verdant swaths of meadow and lawn. They are my totem animal, my heartbeast.

But they’re pests, you protest! They feast on my bulbs all winter, depriving me of the spring bounty I broke my back and dented my knees for in the crisp November soil! They’re just overgrown rats!

Au contraire, mes amis. Clearly, you have not considered the nobility of this wee little beastie.

He is full of dignity, though his chubby little body and stumpy legs do not speak of elegance and wit to the casual observer.


He is fierce and brave in his defense of the familial burrow.

He is tender and nurturing toward his young.

And he accurately forecasts weather, which is no mean feat.

Though I lived in Pennsylvania for ten years, I never went to the circus at Punxatawny. If it were just Phil, I’d have been there in a heartbeat.

But Groundhog Day in Punxatawny is all this:

and none of this:

But when I was in Pennsylvania, truly, every day was Groundhog Day, and not in the recursive morally didactic time loop sense (although there were days when that seemed the only logical explanation). Every time I needed to see my funny, furry friends, they were there for me. I saw a groundhog on my way to the hospital before the births of both my sons. I even saw them out of season, when any sane creature should’ve been fast asleep, which cheered me in the cold winter of depression that followed my fibromyalgia diagnosis.

And when I left Pennsylvania, they were angered.

Our friends, the Valentines, had a very nice Volkswagon Passat. It really hadn’t given them a lick of trouble, but shortly after we moved to Wisconsin, the car wouldn’t start. They took it in to the shop, where they discovered a frayed wire at the root of the problem. Wire replaced, they took the car home. A few days later, it happened again. Another frayed wire.

Curious if there were perhaps some mechanical problem involved–perhaps a belt or flywheel rubbing up against the wire–Clark cracked open the box around the engine. Nestled inside was a small family of groundhogs.

Clearly, this was a protest.

The groundhogs’ displeasure was communicated to me. Sacrifices were made, appeasements were offered, and the Great Groundhog Spirit communed with mine. And they visited their displeasure on the Valentine-mobile no more.

The goddess Brigid, in her three aspects

Next to Halloween, Groundhog Day is my favorite day of the year. It helps that it’s also adjacent to a particularly meaningful religious holiday: Imbolc, a fire feast celebrating the first point in the winter when you can appreciably notice the lengthening days. As a fire feast, it was dedicated in the British Isles to Brigid, daughter of the all-father Dagda, patroness of poets, blacksmiths, mothers, cattle, home, and hearth. When Christianity took over both the date and the goddess, it became both the Feast of St. Brigid, and Candlemas, the day on which the Catholic Church blesses all the candles to be used for liturgical purposes for the coming year. It’s a moment of brightness and optimism that buoys the spirit just before that last, long stretch to Spring.

And today was an exceptionally good Groundhog Day for me. I chaperoned a field trip for my fourth-grader’s class to hear the Minnesota Orchestra. I knew we would hear Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which I adore–I’m rather fond of all the Russians, truth be told–but the conductor sprang a little surprise Debussy on us, which put me right over the moon (“The Submerged Cathedral,” if it matters to you). The kids were fantastically well behaved, and we were seated only about five rows from the stage, directly in front of the cellos and basses, which bathed me in glorious bass-clef sounds for over an hour. After I left the school, I went to a fancy-pants girly tea with a good friend I see too seldom, and we talked and talked and practically floated away on pots of tea.

It all felt very fitting. Just like my beloved groundhogs, I too was a dignified, cultured, well informed, free spirited creature today… all stuffed into a rather ungainly, overweight, slightly too hairy package. 

Dec 28, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    No Comments

The gifts that keep giving: Reverb Broads 2011 #24 & 25

Reverb Broads 2011, December 24: Name your top 5 best holiday gifts given or received. Who gave it to you? Who were you giving it to? Why was it memorable? (courtesy of Kassie at http://bravelyobey.blogspot.com) and December 25: Silent Sunday–Just post a picture that represents your day.

It’s not that I don’t love getting presents, or that I don’t get awesome ones from the folks who love me. But the most memorable Christmases have been the ones when I really nailed it with a gift for someone else. Those moments are the Holy Grail of gift giving for me, and I’ve drunk from the cup a time or two.

My most triumphant moment as a gift giver was my first Christmas home from college. Lawrence, KS is a great, quirky town with an awesome downtown shopping and eating district on Massachusetts Avenue. And for the first time, since I was living away from home, I didn’t have to worry about hiding presents–I was practically drunk with the freedom. That year, I found the perfect things for absolutely everyone in my family. They weren’t big or extravagant, but they were Exactly Right.

My grandpa used to take us for nature walks in the birch woods on the cliffs along Lake Michigan, so I got him a little birch bark box. I filled it with the kind of jelly beans he used to eat by the pound on all the road trips we took. I got my grandma gorgeous smelling handmade soaps. She liked them so much, she announced to everyone that she “would keep them with her undies” so they smelled nice; they stayed in that drawer for years.

I’d found a picture of Brandon Lee as The Crow at an on-campus art sale earlier that fall, and I picked up a silver frame with cutouts that showed through the black velvet backing board in a cool geometric pattern around the photo. My hardcore little sister practically swooned. I got my mom a special release Enya Christmas CD that she played all vacation. And I’m sure the presents for my brother and my dad were awesome too, but the snot monsters occupying my brain at the moment are blocking my recall.

I just remember smiling nonstop and basking in the glow of everyone’s enjoyment. They were clever, thoughtful gifts that let them know I’d been thinking of them, even while I was away in the exciting whirl of my first college semester, and I knew they would think of me when they saw those things after I’d gone back to school.

I’ve scored a few more precise hits over the years, and I love pulling off the “but how I didn’t I can’t even” surprises. My kids are incredibly gratifying recipients, too–all the manners and graciousness that eludes them in most of their day-to-day life flows freely as they gush and hug and adore every little thing, even the duplicates and the obviously lame. But never since have I managed such a perfect storm of intention and execution. How I love to keep trying, though.

This year's entry for Memorable Gift: Connor and his create-your-own-Sonic Screwdriver kit

10 Wonderful Things For Which I’m Giving Thanks

I like Thanksgiving fine as a holiday, but I work hard all year long to give my thanks in the moment; saving it up for a day- or month-long burst of gratitude is too hard. But I don’t always tell people who aren’t there each day all the things I’m grateful for, so I suppose if you’re not with me all the time, you might just hear the whinging. So here are ten things I’m grateful for, right now today:

1) I’m grateful it’s going to be in the 50s today, which is warm enough to send the kids outside to play when the Macy’s parade is over, but dinner isn’t ready yet.

2) I’m grateful that the turkey we bought yesterday thawed overnight, and fits in my nice old spackleware roasting pan. I’m also grateful that it didn’t come with giblets inside, because ick.

3) I’m really grateful that my mom came all the way up from Florida to be with us. Money’s too tight (and our car is too small) for us to make it down there comfortably for the holidays, so it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen her, and she’s seen the boys. It’s not easy for her to take off work, or be away from my dad and brother, but here she is, and that’s awesome. My mom and I never went through that awkward phase when I was a teenager and was supposed to hate her and the world, and though motherhood has changed our relationship in ways neither of us could’ve predicted, she’s still one of my best friends.

4) I’m grateful that the new Muppet movie was so completely awesome. I’m a hardcore Muppet fan (the Onion t-shirt that says, “I understand the Muppets on a much deeper level than you do” was practically made for me), and I’ve awaited the movie with a mix of wild anticipation and stomach-clenching dread. Knowing Jason Segel, as much a mega-fan as I am, was helming the project was a comfort, and the movie was everything I hoped it would be. I smiled until my cheeks hurt. I am content.

5) I’m wildly grateful for my job. I work on cool products and projects, with awesome creative bosses who value my contributions, serving customers who really appreciate the efforts I make. And the money doesn’t hurt either.

6) I’m beyond grateful for Jill Gebeke, Kim Hwang, Lori Brown, Kris Christensen, Melanie Hjelm, Nicole Tschohl, Alicia Liddle, and all the fantastic teachers and staff at Chelsea Heights Elementary. From the moment we walked into that school last year, they embraced Connor and Griffin with love, compassion, and understanding. They really want every kid to be happy and fulfilled, and they appreciate our efforts as parents to support their education. We could’ve moved Connor to the gifted magnet school after he blew the top off his aptitude tests last year, but we really couldn’t imagine a better school for our boys.

7) I’m so very grateful for our fantastic church home, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s further away than other UU churches in the community, but completely worth the hike to hear our phenomenal minister Victoria Safford, to have our boys in the hands of the wonderful Religious Education coordinator Janet Hanson and her dedicated volunteers, and to sit in the beautiful sanctuary and watch the seasons pass outside the gorgeous wall of windows. It’s a place that feeds our souls in ways we never even knew we needed.

8) I’m crazy-grateful for the outrageously cool friends I have all over the world, and the magic of Facebook and Twitter and email and Skype that make it possible to feel close to them every day. I revel in the successes they enjoy, and marvel that so many diverse, smart, and brilliantly creative people would lavish their time and attention on little me.

9) I’m intensely grateful for the roof over our heads. We live in a safe neighborhood, with neighbors who love our kids and share theirs with us. It takes a village, and we’ve knit a little one among these apartment buildings. Our community looks out for one another, and forms a safety net we haven’t enjoyed almost anywhere we’ve lived since the boys were first born.

10) And finally, today and every minute of every day, I’m grateful for my husband. I’ve already enumerated some of the awesomeness that is our marriage, but I can never say enough how lucky I am to have a partner in all my earthly endeavors.

May your bellies be full, your hearts be light, and gratitude settle into your bones and move you to lift up those thanks to the people who bring love and light into your life.