It’s Snowing!

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We took this charming little book out of the library in January and seem to still have it in our possession.  It’s a very simple book with brief and repetitive prose, just right for the younger set, although my 4-year-old was entranced with it too.  I love the illustrations–familiar, yet exotic.  And what could be more familiar that the restless feeling that comes with a dark, dreary winter night before the snow has fallen, and then the magic when you see that first fleck of white drift through the air?

It’s a dark, dark,

cold, cold night.

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Mama rocks the cradle.

The cradle rocks Baby,

Baby softly sleeps.

Mama sighs and nods her head.

Baby sighs and sucks his thumb.

It’s a dark, dark,

cold, cold night.

Mama stirs the fire.

Baby rustles in his sleep.

Mama opens the heavy door.

Snowflakes spatter from the sky.

“It’s snowing!” Mama sings.

Baby wakes and blinks.

“Baby, it’s snowing!”

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“It’s snowing!” Mama sings.

Baby sings along.

“Baby see the snow!”

Baby squirms in Mama’s arms.

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Mama rocks the cradle.

The cradle rocks Baby.

Baby softly sleeps.

Mama sighs and nods her head.

Baby sighs and sucks his thumb.

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It’s a dark, dark,

cold, cold night.

It’s snowing!

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Celebrating Snow

Is it already Wednesday night–more than half way through our winter vacation?  It seems like just yesterday that I had my never-ending day of classroom observations (me being observed that is, not me observing)…followed by a night of restaurant work on Valentine’s Day…followed by that oh-so-early 5:30 AM wake-up to be back in the classroom again…followed by some quick packing and a three-hour car ride north.

Oh how I was looking forward to this sweet, sweet vacation during which I could both relax and get some much-needed work done.  Neither of these things have happened, by the way.  Both relaxation and work have been usurped by something even more satisfying than writing, more compelling than sleep.

Snow.  When it’s out there, I need to be out there too.

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I realize I probably should have spent the bulk of my snow-days beefing up for my observation, readying lesson-plans and all that, but instead, I spent them shovelling (two days to get us out of the driveway), porch-jumping, fort-making, sugar-on-snow-eating, snow-shoeing with the girls during a sleet-storm, and testing my weight on ice-islands in the middle of the stream, among other things…

Likewise, I spent my days in Vermont not sleeping, nor catching up on all the paperwork I brought from school.  I spent one day sledding on ice-glazed snow over rolling hills, until Emerson and I found the mother-of-all-sledding-hills and took a few runs before sledding back to alert the others.  I spent another day at the ski-mountain of my childhood, weathering the whipping winds and 2 degree temperature at the top of the mountain so that I could rekindle my relationship with some of my favorite trails of yore–all while the girls were in ski lessons.  We celebrated afterwards with hot-chocolates.  Mine included peppermint-schnapps.

Back home, we have just finished another day of skiing, and we have at least two more on the agenda.  Sunday we’re going to an outdoor birthday party full of scavenger-hunting and animal-tracking…and then Emerson has rehearsal for her ice-show…and then…back to school.

Maybe I’ll wish I spent a little more time catching up when Monday comes and I’m feeling the crunch again.

Maybe my priorities are a little out of wack…but to me, watching my 77 year-old mother do a face bomb at the end of a slick run on the mother-of-all-sledding-hills and come up bloody and laughing (did I mention she was wearing a heart-monitor?), or hearing my seven-year-old scream “THIS IS AWESOME!” as she whizzes past me on the ski trail, beats all that other crap.

Cheers to Winter!

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Art Therapy

As I mentioned in my last post, my family’s schedule has changed dramatically over the last two weeks.  At some point last spring–obviously when the weather was warm, the birds were singing, and anything seemed possible–I decided that I wouldn’t wait until next year to do my student-teaching.  For some reason, a full-time internship (and a couple of nights at my old job in addition) with a child still at home and a husband out of the house for eleven hours a day seemed doable to me then.  How doable does it seem now?  Go ahead…ask.  I dare you.

In all honesty, it is completely within my ability.  Over the break I met a women with four children in the midst of a nasty divorce, going to school full-time.  I also know plenty of moms, many of them single-parents, who wake up each morning at the crack of dawn and rush their kids out the door so they can make a living.  We all give up something, and what my family sacrifices isn’t that much–a half-hour of sleep in the morning (in my case, an hour and a half of sleep), Ophelia spending most of her week in school and with a babysitter instead of home with mom.  All said and done, things could be much worse, and by now, we could be trucking along steadily if the flu weren’t looming among us.  As it is–Emerson sick with various permutations of something since Christmas, Ophelia coming down with flu her third day of school, and Matty and I succumbing soon afterwards–those hours of sleep and quiet moments at home are seeming pretty precious to us all.

So when given one of these quiet days last Sunday, what better way to spend it than…skiing! Quite naturally.

Of course Ophelia has just come down with the flu (although we didn’t know it was the flu at that point, thank you very much) on Thursday, and Emerson was still hacking her lungs out, but there is no cure like fresh mountain air, right?  (In case you were wondering, I do have a certain history with this type of reasoning.)

Here are some of the highlights of our day, in the order they happened:

After a nice drive up, with everyone excited to be there, a man in the parking lot offers us two adult lift tickets for only twenty bucks each.  Of course we decline, because we only plan on going on the magic carpet with the kids, and tickets for that only cost around ten dollars.

While I help the kids get into their gear, Matty goes to buy our lift tickets.  As I’m helping Emerson get hers on her jacket, I notice it reads $38.00, at which point I turn to Matty and ask, why does her ticket say thirty-eight dollars?, to which he replies, because that was how much it cost.  Ah-ha.  Apparently, I was confusing this ski resort with one in Vermont, where you can, in fact, purchase a ticket for only the small lift at a reduced cost.  But here, you need to pay for the whole shebang.  (Our tickets were $60 a pop.)

We get to the magic carpet area, Matt goes down once with Emerson and states that he can’t possibly ski with the boots he’s wearing–they’re too small, and he’s going in to get a refund on his ticket at once.  He leaves me alone on the hill with Ophelia, who has never skied, and Emerson, who is happily going up and down the bunny-slope with ease.

By the time Matty gets back, Ophelia is intermittently screaming about how she wants to go home, or how she wants to ski, depending on the moment.  I take her up and down a few more times, but nothing improves, so I try and bribe her with a hot chocolate if she goes inside with Matty, so that I can take Emerson up on the quad.  This fails, and I leave her, walking around in her ski boots (no skis) on the middle of the trail, screaming–full-volume–about how she wants to ski.

I take Emerson up on the quad, not realizing there are two smaller lifts open on the far end of the mountain that would be better suited for her ability.  We have a nice ride up, and upon our exit find an easy trail right in front of us.  We have a great time going down, at the beginning, but Emerson soon grows hungry (it’s lunchtime, and we haven’t eaten) and frustrated, even though she can ski the trail with ease.

The trail, although easy, is long, especially when you are with a seven-year-old who is feeling hungry and complaining that her head hurts, and then falls in a funny way and twists her ankle.  Very long, let me tell you.

After quite a long time, we see the lodge, but it is not the lodge we started at.  In order to get to that lodge, we need to take another, smaller, lift up and ski down to it…or we need to take our skis off and walk through slush.  We chose the latter, which adds even more time onto our one run.

We arrive at the lodge to Matty suffering a severe headache (the flu–it comes on suddenly) and wanting to leave.  After a quick lunch and hot chocolate, we take off our stuff and get ready to hit the road, at which point Ophelia starts screaming again about how she wants to ski.

We finally get everyone out of the lodge, but can’t find Ophelia’s skis when we get outside.  We look everywhere. (I even take a trip back to the magic-carpet and examine each child getting off the ramp to see if they accidentally grabbed her skis instead of theirs.)  After about a half-hour of this, Emerson comes back up from dropping stuff off at the car and informs me that–whoops–they were in the car the whole time.  Matty put them there earlier and forgot.

So there you have it.  Our first ski trip of the year, in a nutshell.

Luckily for us, we have a penchant for revisionist history.  We had barely left the mountain when the girls starting chatting in the backseat about how much fun they had, how well Ophelia did, and how they couldn’t wait to go back again.  And when we got home, this happened:

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Emerson has never been a verbal processor.  Her crayons (or pencils, or paints, or whatever is available), however, are in a state of constant motion.  God love her.

Snow Days

In looking through some of my old unpublished blogs over at Blogger, I stumbled upon this–written about a year ago, and with the working title, “The Suckiest Winter Ever.”

In my idea of an aim for “less” in 2012, less blogging was not on my list.  In fact, I was hoping that less of everything else would grant me the time and space to do the things I really enjoy—be with my family, work on projects that interest me, enjoy nature and the outside world, write… 

The year started out okay…it’s easy when everyone is on vacation and there is plenty of time for exploring.  My first conscious “less” choice this year was to quit my YMCA membership in order to spend more time outdoors.  Although I would dearly miss swimming, I wouldn’t miss having to schedule a visit to the gym around school and pool schedules, nor would I miss leaving Ophelia at the YMCA “childwatch”, which she feels tepid about, at best.  No…I would wait to enjoy swimming in the summer months, and spend my winter in the elements: skiing, sledding, shovelling, snowshoeing, building snowmen–all great fun and much better quality exercise than I could ever get in an artificial environment. 

 Before school vacation ended (and maybe after it started) I was granted some of these winter days.  I was able to reacquaint myself with the contours of our very long driveway during a few meditative shovel sessions, we took some good runs on the sled hill, the girls and I took to the great outdoors (the backyard really) on our snowshoes, looking for animal tracks in the snow…

It was a pittance of snow, barely enough to get a taste of, but I’m glad we did, because a week later it was gone…forever.

I’ve never been one to complain about the weather, but this season has been really difficult for me.  After all the bikes were put away and the sleds, skis, snowshoes and skates taken out all we did was…

What did we do?  None of those winter sports, I can assure you that.  In a New England winter, we need snow–that nice coat of white primer painted over everything making it fresh and new.  Otherwise, our rotten, decaying past lies on display for us all winter long, sealed under a glass window of ice.  It’s depressing; it really is.

With January more than half over, this winter has not been the best for us either.  A new busy schedule and the flu have knocked us down repeatedly, no matter how many times we have tried to stand up again…but at least we’ve had snow.  Glorious snow has come and melted, but somehow managed to leave a covering for most of the month, so that we can explore when we are feeling well and look out at the reflection of the low winter sun off the ice when we are needing rest.  The first-graders in my new class at school (twenty-three strong!) come in with renewed focus when they are able to sled during recess, and I am able to maintain a center and patience–despite said twenty-three children, and my own two–when I am allowed the meditative act of shovelling our long driveway.

This weekend, the rest of my family is up at Camp Glen Brook on a second-grade class trip, while I sit at home nursing my near epic head and body aches (of course, mama was the last one to fall…), and each time I look out the window at the snow-piles–melting, but still present–lining our driveway, I hope that Matty and the girls are filling themselves with outdoor air, pond-skating, sledding, star-gazing in the cold night air, and winter bonfires.

As for me, I will don sunglasses (the glare off the snow is a bit much for a flu headache), look out the window and bask in this beautiful white, this new beginning, this stillness that is offered us.  I will be thankful, but I will also be a little greedy as I pray for more.

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A Christmas Like Helen’s

It’s a new year, and I am about to embark on an entirely new existence in (gulp) three days, but because Christmas technically lasts until the 6th, I am going to give myself a few more days to write about the books we read this time of year.

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Recently, my family (the family I made) moved to a small farming town in Western Massachusetts.  Although we have integrated ourselves completely into the broader community surrounding this little town, we are far, far away (hundreds of years away) from being accepted to town-folk as “local”.  This idea of being forever an outsider in our adopted town may seem frustrating to some, but not to me.  As someone who grew up in a small town in northern Vermont, founded by one of my ancestors, where my grandmother and father graduated from the same high-school as I did, I get it.  My family (the family who made me), what’s left of them, still live in Vermont, and when I go there, no matter how long I’ve been away, I’ll always be considered a “local”.  More local, in fact, than people who have spent the last twenty years of their lives there (something I certainly have not done).

Being as it is–the place that has been claimed for me by my ancestors is a small town in northern Vermont, whether I like it or not–Mary Azarian’s art has always been, and will always be, a mainstay in my life.  Her hand-painted, wood-cut prints have graced the walls of my childhood and travelled with me here, to my new home, so that no matter where I am, I will always remember where I have come from.  Her art is stunning to any eye, but having an intimate relationship with the land and culture from whence it came makes it all the more powerful.  It makes it feel like home.

It is not surprising then, that I consistently choose her books to share with my children.  Also not surprising is the fact that the book is written by another multi-generational Vermonter, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock (whose familial history in Vermont makes Mary Azarian look like a fresh-off-the-train city-slicker).  In A Christmas Like Helen’s, Kinsey-Warnock tells the story of a Vermont Christmas in the time of her grandmother, Helen–a time when community, giving, and simple living were not just hallmarks of Christmas, but present in all aspects of life throughout the year.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s

you’ll need to be born on a Vermont hill farm,

before cars, or telephones, or electricity,

and be the youngest of seven children.

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You’ll have to have four clever brothers

who make snow rollers and bobsleds,

who sometimes hitch themselves to a sled

and let you drive them like horses.

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You’ll have to like animals:…

…especially a big black-and-white tom

that lets you dress him up

and push him around in a doll carriage.

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You’ll hold your sister’s hand

going to the one-room schoolhouse

that’s a mile from home,

and you’ll walk there even on days

when it’s forty degrees below zero.

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You’ll have to not mind

living in a place

where winter lasts nearly eight months.

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You won’t be thinking of Christmas

when spring finally rolls around

and the sap rises in the trees,

but the syrup you’ll have

on your Christmas breakfast

must be made now.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s,

your family will keep the spirit of Christmas all year long.

Your father and brothers will hay fields and cut wood

for an injured neighbor,

and when another neighbor’s barn burns,

you’ll help him build a new barn.

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When winter blankets the hills in white,

you’ll harvest ice from the pond in the woods

and snowshoe up and over every hill

to find the perfect balsam fir

and help drag it home.

After supper,

someone will suggest skating in the moonlight,

and even though it’s late,

and cold,

and you’re the youngest,

your mother lets you go,

because it’s Christmas.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s,

you’ll go to church on Christmas Eve in a hay-filled pung,

under buffalo robes and wool blankets.

The church will glow

with a candle in every window.

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…someone will start singing

“O Holy Night,”

while overhead

the cold stars will be thick enough

to scoop up with a spoon.

At the end of the book, Kinsey-Warnock admits, “our Christmases aren’t exactly like Helen’s.”  Our aren’t either, but there are so many things in this book that cause memories to stir–sugaring, haying, the candle-lit Christmas Eve service at church, pond-skating, my ten-year-old brother and his friends pulling me to first grade in a sled up a steep hill at least a mile long, my grandmother being one of seven children (although not the youngest) with four clever brothers, a certain moonlit toboggan ride…

I’m not sure what stirs inside my children when we read this book–whether it’s the recognition of the change of light in Azarian’s pictures, the author’s inviting second-person prose, or Helen’s father looking remarkably akin to their pediatrician.  I’d like to think they are sensing the history that is a part of them, even though they can’t conceptualize it yet.

Tomorrow,

there will be peppermint sticks and popcorn balls,

toy trucks and sleds for your brothers, and dolls for your sisters,

and the last box under the tree

will be a pair of skates just for you. 

But tonight,

before the stockings and gifts under the tree,

when you’re still in that barn,

tucked in the crook of your father’s arm,

you know that everything you ever wanted,

or ever will want,

is right there on that farm.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

With all the children’s books available today, it is nearly impossible to choose one, single illustrator I like the most.  If pressed, however, Barabara Cooney would be near the top of the list–if not at the pinnacle–so it is fitting that one of my favorite Christmas books features Cooney’s paintings and takes place high on the rocky craigs up near heaven where only a venturesome man will go.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, is a beautifully written story set in the Appalachian mountains of the author’s grandmother’s youth–1918, when across the ocean the Great War raged, but in the valley all was at peace.

It was getting on toward the Christmas Ruthie would never forget.  The Christmas when the village almost did not have a Christmas tree.  It happened this way. Ruthie told me so.

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So begins the story of Ruthie’s special Christmas–special because that year was her family’s year to offer a tree to their rural Appalachian community, and  her year to be the angel in the the village’s Christmas pageant.

Come, my pretty youg’un,” Papa said one day early in the spring.  “It is time to choose the Christmas tree for the village church.”

“But, Papa, Christmas will not come for a long while,” said Ruthie.  “The sarvice trees are just now in bloom.”

“We must choose a special tree and mark it for the coming year.  It is the custom in our village,” said Papa, “for one family to give to all the folk in the village and up every hill and hollar a Christmas tree for Pine Grove Church.  This year is our turn.

“Some years a timbering man will give a fat round laurel from the northy coves, the kind the outlanders call rhododendron.  Other years the holler folk may bring a cedar to spread its fragrance throughout the village church.”

“What kind of tree shall we have, Papa?” said Ruthie.

“We shall have a balsam Christmas tree, my pretty young’un,” said Papa. “The balsam grows up the rocky criags where only a venturesome man may go.  The balsam is a perfect tree.  It grows up high, near to heaven.”

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So that spring, Ruthie and her father climb up into the mountains in search of the perfect balsam Christmas tree.  “And as is the custom, the selfsame year you shall be the heavenly angel in the village Christmas play.  It is fitting that you should mark the Christmas tree.”

What Ruthie doesn’t know on this fresh spring day–although her father must suspect it–is that shortly after they mark their perfect Christmas tree, her father will be called to fight in the war, and that she and her mother will have to work hard and make do with very little until he returns.  What neither of them know, is that her father will not return in time to fulfill his promise to the village and deliver the perfect Christmas tree to the church in time for the Christmas Eve service.  Fortunately, none of these circumstances is enough to deter one venturesome woman and her equally venturesome little girl as they climb into the high craigs one moonlit evening…

That night the preacher from Pine Grove Church knocked at the door.

“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, Miz Green,” he said. “And Tom is not yet home from the war. Chad McKinney has been saving a prime cedar on his bottom land for Christmas next.  He’d as leave cut the tree this year.”

“This is the year our family gives the tree,” said Mama.  “Tom chose it before he went away to war.”

“I had hoped you would heed my wish,” said the preacher.  “The church must have a Christmas tree when the morrow comes.”

“Tom is as good as his word.  Our family will give the tree this year,” said Mama.

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As they came to the dark woods the winter moon made strange shadows on the snow.

“Mama, I’m afraid,” said Ruthie.

“No need to be afraid,” said Mama.  “We’re off to get the perfect balsam Christmas tree.”

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Mama pulled.  Ruthie pulled.  Pull. Pull. Back and forth until the perfect balsam Christmas tree fell softly into the snow.

Then they made their way down the ridge.  “I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning,” they sang.

Through the soft snow they led old Piedy to the church.  Together they lifted the perfect balsam Christmas tree from the sled and stood it in the corner near the belfry wall.  Just as the sun was rising over Doe Hill, they hurried home.

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“The folk shall have their Christmas tree, and you shall be the heavenly angel this year.”

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Ruthie fell fast asleep, but Mama sat long by the firelight sewing as fast as her nimble fingers could move.

As the sun rises in the sky, Mama makes a dress for Ruthie from her wedding dress–for lack of any other material, or money to buy it–and a doll out of silk stockings that Papa had sent to Mama as a special gift from overseas.

In the morning it is a mystery how the perfect balsam Christmas tree arrived at the church, although “it’s being told hereabouts that folks who live up the holler heard the angels singing high up on the ridge late into the night…”

And of course it was an angel…

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…a heavenly angel whose whispered the same prayer throughout the year: “Please send my papa home for Christmas…and please have old St. Nicholas bring me a doll with a beautiful dress, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.”

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For Ruthie, both these prayers were answered.  Her father returns as the Christmas Eve service is ending, just as she is hugging her tiny doll, which felt just like the silk stockings Papa had sent to Mama. 

Innocence, tenacity, hope, love…the perfect ingredients for a perfect Christmas.

And since that time, every year for more than sixty years, a tiny angel has stood on top of a perfect balsam Christmas tree.  She wears a dress of softest silk, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.  The sleeves are long and flowing, and it looks as if she has wings.  The angel has coal-black curls and a dimple in each cheek.

That’s how it happened.  The Christmas of the heavenly angel and the perfect balsam Christmas tree.

Grandma Ruthie told me so.

Who Is Coming To Our House?

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“Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

I bought this book when Emerson was a toddler because of its simplicity (both words and images), and it’s still a favorite at our house at Christmas-time.  It is a board book, and although I generally don’t like board books, this is an exception, as I think the clear illustrations (they look like wood-cuts, but I may be wrong) and simple poem are perfect for little hands, eyes, and ears.  Ophelia loves to look at this one by herself and “read” it to others–the rhythm of the poem makes it easy for pre-readers to memorize.

Along with being esthetically pleasing, I also chose this book way back when because I was looking for a way to slowly introduce the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a way that was meaningful for a young child, and what better way to do that than through animals.  Here, the animals of the stable are cleaning and preparing for the arrival of Mary and Joseph, all the while wondering who these people are and if they will really come.  The story is written in poem, and held together by the gentle, assuring refrain, “someone, someone,” says Mouse.

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Animals and babies–what could be sweeter?