Reading about the Universe on New Year’s Eve

There’s a room upstairs in my house where I store things: my old skis, high school yearbooks, family photos.  Everyone has a place like this.  I foraged around in this room and noticed my personal journals on a shelf, journals I’d written in over a life time.  I rarely reread my old journals.  Writing in them was enough.  But I leafed through a few out of curiosity and was surprised by what I found.  I knew things in 1993 and 2001 and 2010!

It occurred to me that I’d never given my younger self much credit for wisdom.

I’ve always thought wisdom and the knowledge that undergirds it takes years to acquire.  It’s the wheelhouse of the very old—but it seems I was wrong.

For example, the last day of February 1993 I was anxious for spring and the weather wasn’t cooperating.  I wrote: “The temperature outside is 20 degrees—and falling!  Forget global warming!”

Apparently, decades ago I knew about climate change.

I knew about it long before Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, or young Greta Thunberg’s climate protests.  In 1993 I was a high school reading teacher and a busy mother of four.  I remember grading papers until late in the afternoon, and then picking up my kids from after-school sports.  On the way home we ate take-out Little Caesar pizza in the car.  When did I find time to read about trapped greenhouse gases?  And, where did I read about it?

I wrote an entry in my journal in 2001, the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York.  Interestingly, my topic was life and what it meant to live.  I’d just had my first colonoscopy, and I wrote: “I’ve reacted to this colonoscopy with disabling apprehension…I barely got through it…what with fear and anxiety over cancer, tumors, polyps, biopsies.  How many times will I have to live through these horrid experiences?  And then, THEN, Dr. Williams gave my colon a clean bill of health and told me she’d see me again in ten years.  My spirits went up like a kite.

I wanted to shout to the sky, ‘I’ll live!’—as if ‘living’ is solely dependent on physical health…”

In 2010 I wrote something in my journal that reminded me of a book I’m currently reading about Einstein and physics.  I barely made it through high school physics so I was intrigued to find out if The Dancing of the Wu Li Masters could explain the universe to me.  The author, Gary Zukav, wrote, “…all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all encompassing organic pattern and …no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.”

The Wu Li Master’s book soothed my grieving spirit this fall when my brother suddenly died, and I felt permanently “separate” from him.

Weirdly, in the spring of 2010 I speculated about how the laws of the universe and the elasticity of space and time might have something to say about death and dying on earth. I wrote:

“…there (are) all kinds of stories:  the story of childhood with its myth and magic; the story of adulthood with its passion and suffering; the story of old age with its death and loss.  But the mitigating factor in old age, in all of life, is the story of the universe, of time and space.  This is comforting to me because in the face of our cruel natural world, there’s a much bigger reality: time and space…”

When I finished reading my journals I restacked them back on their shelf, glad I took the time to revisit my younger self.  My journal writings turned out to be hopeful letters to the future me, that white-haired lady living in the year 2021.

 

Image Credit:  The Universe       Image Credit:  Dancing of the Wu Li Masters         Image Credit:

 

Feeling Good this Christmas

“Do you know what’s in plum pudding?”  Andrea, my daughter-in-law, asked me as she read the recipe from her cell phone.

“Just a wild guess, plums?”

“Half a pound of kidney fat, and get this, you have to cure the pudding for a year before you eat it.”

“Yummy. Kidney fat is one of my favorite things.”

Andrea’s planning a Charles Dicken’s Christmas feast, but I have my doubts about a 150-year-old meal.  Lots of people are going “retro” this Christmas and looking to the past for holiday inspiration.  For example, I’ve read there’s been a run on live, fresh Christmas trees.  Apparently, plastic trees have lost their appeal despite the fact you can shake them open like an umbrella.  Another sign of Christmas retro: the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is currently in the top ten list of most-watched movies.  As I write this, the sixth most-streamed song this week (according to Rolling Stone magazine) is Dean Martin’s 1959 hit, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.

One oft-cited theory about our fascination with Christmases of the past is that we all long for a “simpler” time.  Not everyone agrees with this thinking though. I knew a man once who grumbled about fireplaces and wood stoves, the old-fashioned way to heat homes at Christmas.

“Why would anyone want to chop wood when we’ve got central heating?” he asked me.

Every time I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life I want to live in that quaint,1940’s town of Bedford Falls where everyone knows everyone else, and predictably, there’s a good guy, George Bailey, and a bad guy, the deceitful banker, Mr. Potter.  Though people and life are much more complex than that, at Christmas especially, we still look for a hero, someone as pure and good as a babe in a manger. We want to BELIEVE. We don’t want to deal with ambiguous leaders who lie worse than Mr. Potter.

Christmases of the past have a certain aura. They always seem so gilded with joy. Maybe because the ones we remember the best, are those of our childhood.  My mother tells the story in the 1930’s of wishing for a doll she saw advertised on a can of Clabber Girl baking powder. With enough Clabber Girl coupons, the doll was free. Mom told me she was thrilled when she discovered the Clabber Girl doll under the Christmas tree.  I remember being five-years-old and excited for Christmas.  I lay on my top bunk straining to hear Santa’s sleigh bells. One of my husband’s fondest memories is the Christmas he got an erector set. Happiness is such a bright, twinkling star. We want to follow that star no matter how distant and unreachable.

Our nostalgia this Christmas probably has a lot to do with the current pandemic.  We relate to Dean Martin crooning: “Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” –because with Covid, the weather’s not the only frightful thing. The pandemic has left many of us craving a safer, more comforting past.  But, that’s our fantasy.  Charles Dickens lived before antibiotics when a simple cold could mean death.  It’s a Wonderful Life was made during WWII.  And, Dean Martin was popular when Russia threatened the U.S. with nuclear attacks.  Even that first Christmas was not safe.  Mary and Joseph, like all Jews, lived under Roman oppression.

No matter what happens in the world, it’s good to remember that Christmas really happens inside of us, in our heart and our head.  For some, it only takes a old movie or a song to get into the Christmas spirit.  For others, it’s a kidney-fat pudding from the 19th century–and to the pudding crowd I say, “Bon appetit!”

Image Credit:  It’s a Wonderful Life  Image credit: Christmas Past      Image credit:  Plum Pudding

Night skies at Christmas: all is calm, all is bright

I live on the Snake River where there’s little light pollution at night to dim the stars of a December sky.  Night skies are so black here, our area is under consideration for designation as an IDSP (International Dark Sky Place).  Sometimes, after supper when the sun’s set, I like to take a walk down the gravel road near my home.  I slip a miner’s light around the top of my head to help me see in the dark.  Usually at least once on my walk, I’ll reach up and click the headlight off to stare at the spray of stars in the sky overhead. As the song says, all is calm, all is bright.

One night many years ago I was watching the sky and saw a remarkable thing. All the stars were twinkling except one. It looked like a small white smudge on a dark canvas.  I went back inside the house to get a jacket and my binoculars. Through the binoculars I could easily see the tail of this “star.” The year was 1986, and I was viewing something people see only once every 75 or so years:  Halley’s Comet.

We miss so much in the night sky asleep in our beds. 

Ten or so years after viewing Halley’s Comet, I was jogging in the early morning dark, and suddenly the sky lit up like it was broad daylight.  It was so bright I could see our neighbor’s house a quarter of a mile away.  I stopped jogging a moment and just stood there in the middle of the road, awestruck.  The natural world took notice of the sudden light too. The perennial rustling of ducks, birds, and other wild life along the river hushed, and the only sound I heard was the gentle lapping of water.

At first I thought this strange phenomenon was an aurora borealis, but the Snake River flood plain is not really in the auroral zone.  Later I realized it was most likely another meteor streaking through space and blazing out above me in earth’s outer atmosphere.

If I was from an ancient civilization, a nomadic culture for example, living somewhere in the Middle East, I might have thought this flaming star—a sign.  

Others have noticed the spectacular night sky here on the Snake River.  In the next valley over, the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park has a public observatory and hosts star shows March through October.  I’ve seen the rings of Saturn and fantastical nebulae formations through their big “Obsession” telescope.  But much can be seen with just the naked eye.  Every morning now, around 5 o’clock, Mars rises in the east.  It’s a distinctive-looking planet with its ochre color.  Could we ever live on Mars, I wonder?

I think about this sometimes, star gazing Idaho skies, whether mankind could exist on other planets.  I’ve never wanted to leave earth, but I worry about the devastating effects of climate change. There is no “Planet B” though.  Scientific and international reports on the environment have made this very clear. We need to take better care of the planet we live on: this beautiful blue globe, this special Christmas ornament hanging in space we call earth.

Image Credit:  Night skies         Image Credit:  Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park telescope      Image Credit:  Earth in space

Costumes of Christmas past: bathrobes and a worn-out farm jacket

(Some Christmas humor: ho! ho! ho!)

When someone talks about holidays and costumes, it’s natural to assume they’re talking about Halloween.  Few consider that Christmas is really the costume “time of year.”  But I’ve had several personal experiences with Christmas costumes.  I’ve worn a white sheet and been an angel (a totally different look for me).  I’ve also dressed up as Santa’s reindeer (until my antlers slid forward and turned me into Santa’s bull).  And then there was the time I attempted holiday glamour.  The toy soldier earrings and glittery blouse that shed like a North Pole husky, sort of dampened the effect.

I’ve seen others wear interesting Christmas costumes too.  One Christmas, the little country church near our farm staged a children’s nativity.  The lead characters were my 3-year-old twin, niece and nephew.  They wore bathrobes and scarves tied around their little heads.  Tucker played Joseph and Macy was Mary.  Baby Jesus was a doll placed in a wooden box with some straw peeking out the edges to simulate a manger.

For a while all went as planned.  Up on the stage, Macy and Tucker made a miniature still-life of the holy family.  Off to the side, the pastor wearing a cowboy hat (a Christmas costume known only to males living out West) held a mike as he narrated the Christmas story.  Everyone in the audience was enchanted until Macy and Tucker got into a fight (twins do that from time to time).  After a little shoving, Macy’s budding acting career came to a crying halt.

Somewhere in the narration, maybe the part about the Prince of Peace coming as a babe, Macy, tear-streaked and angry, reached in the box and grabbed baby Jesus by the arm.

Then she walloped Tucker with the holy child, and stomped off the stage, tripping on her too-big bathrobe.  Moments later she was in her mother’s arms, a nativity pose of another sort.

Each year though, probably the most ubiquitous Christmas costume is the Santa Claus costume.  This is the only outfit I know of guaranteed to look great on plus-size figures.  Some would say Santa comes in all sizes and shapes.  I’ve seen garden gnomes dressed up as Santa, and dogs dressed up as Santa, and Santas on surfboards in Hawaii.  Naturally drawn to costumes and cover-ups, bank robbers make the most ironic Santas.  Most are too skinny though.  Still, my husband, though not a bank robber but definitely skinny, played Santa Clause for our children one Christmas—and they were completely fooled.

At the time, we lived in a little farm house with a wood stove planted in the center of the kitchen.  I’d have preferred a grand home with a fireplace, but at that economic juncture of our young marriage, we were more hillbilly than nobility.

Leading up to Christmas, I’d read to my children Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas several times, so they knew the way Santa’s visit was supposed to go down—and that was literally through the chimney.

Without a fireplace, I told the kids to gather around the wood stove.  The narrow pipe leading from the stove through the roof was technically a chimney.  I opened the stove door and we all peered into the cold, blackened wood of a dead fire.  Then we heard a muffled, “Ho! Ho! Ho!  Merry Christmas!  Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Annie’s eyes grew wide and Aubrey jumped up and down begging, “I want to see Santa!  Can we go outside and look on the roof?”

With a lot of coaxing I managed to steer my children toward bed.  My best argument was Moore’s poem.  Santa couldn’t come until, “The children were nestled all snug in their beds.”  Also, I knew my kids would be disappointed to see Santa straddling the peak of the roof wearing Levi’s and a worn-out farm jacket.  If there ever was a time where clothes made (or unmade) the man—this was the time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley’s son Sammy as reindeer Santa

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley’s son John, center as sheep at nativity scene

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley’s daughter Annie and Son John with cat in front of wood stove