Raymond wants to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas. And he says he’s sorry about eating the fluffy pompom off the hat (but it was so like a bunny and he just couldn’t help himself).
I have a huge weakness for Nativity sets — I think I probably own three or four of them. It’s the dollhouse effect. You can play with them — I remember as a kid acting our elaborate nativity pageants in the days leading up to Christmas.
Patrick gave me this set when we lived in California. It was the Christmas my friend Deb came to stay with us after her marriage came apart — the Christmas of Mr. Potato Head. She was very frayed around the edges, and Patrick gave her a Mr. Potato Head. The perfect present. She’s having a tough Christmas this year too — so I took a photo of what we’ve come to call “Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus” who has come to save us all with his bulk and his Magic Red Shorts. He’s a very sturdy baby Jesus, this one. I emailed it to her to remind her that even though both our faiths have morphed into something decidedly untraditional, “baby Jesus” is still a source of hope and comfort and faith. Even if it’s just faith that somehow, some way, the current crisis will pass.
Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus has gained some company in the past few years. He’s got the lovely antique Angels my aunt sent me a couple of years ago from the set they all had as children, and many animals that my borrowed kids found when they unpacked all my old dollhouse furniture a couple of years ago. The pig I made in 3rd grade and kept because I loved the texture of the white glaze. I think of him as “marshmallow pig.” And the funny little lead draft horse that I think belonged to my grandmother. The pets from my childhood dollhouse. An elephant that either Patrick or I made as kids. I love the hodgepodge of nativity sets.
When I was little we went to Mass at the local girl’s Catholic high school, which was run by wonderful, loving lefty nuns. Christmas eve was all about the kid’s pageant. While there was always a live pageant, and one year Patrick was a magnificent wise man in a gold wrapping paper turban and a purple velour bathrobe, there was also a procession involving every kid in the church — it must have been during communion, since so many of us were too little to take communion yet. If you were a toddler, you got a china lamb to carry up and put in the manger. If you were a “big kid” you got a lighted taper. There’s still a part of me that thinks Christmas eve smells like the scent of beeswax and singed mink coats. (And then there was the year the poinsiettias on the altar caught fire — but that’s another story. Altar boys in polyester robes stomping out fire! on the altar!)
My mother believed in creativity for kids above all else, and one year we made a nativity set from clay. Somehow the pieces got fired but never glazed, so every year, we’d pull these mysterious terra-cotta lumps out of their packing, and bicker affectionately over which lump represented which character. Although that set has been long lost, it’s still sort of my favorite. For what’s the story all about if not all of us returning to it once a year, mulling it over, thinking about what it means to be young and persecuted and pregnant and homeless? Santa’s all well and good, and I realize not everyone is Christian, but there’s an enduring power to the story of kindness and light during this, the darkest part of the year. So that’s why every year, despite my heartbreak about the Catholic church to which I can no longer belong in good faith, I unpack my nativity set, and arrange all those little figures, who have travelled far to come see the miracle that is Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus.
My week in Seattle was just lovely, but I’m so glad to be home again. It takes leaving for a few days to realize that I’m sometimes unfair to those of you out there in the “real” world — the wear and tear of ordinary things like commuting, or spending all day in a building lit with florescent lights and no fresh air, and the wear and tear for those of us introverts of just being around other people and talking all day. (I know, I know — I’m what one might call a chatty introvert, since I can certainly hold my own, but like all introverts, I find being around other people essentially draining, not energizing). At any rate, it must be very wearing, and if people too often can’t manage to cook their own dinner, well, it starts to make a little more sense after a week like this last one.
It was fun putting on a cute outfit and heading out on the bus to work, and fun going to an office for a couple of days, but essentially, the life I have is the one I want. My wee quiet life. Dogs. My sweetheart. The garden and the chickens and my pink front room that serves as an office. And after years of being terrified every time I left that my entire world was going to disappear behind me à la Robert Redford Speaking French, it was nice to finally find myself over that anxiety hump as well. I went away, I worked and socialized some, and back I came. Nothing changed. There comes a time in life, when that’s the best gift of all.
A long weekend, a big snowstorm, my sweetheart’s delightful cabin (available as a vacation rental!) with a woodstove and snow outside and two deer in the yard in the morning, which meant I had a lovely, unplugged stretch of time to catch up on some reading.
Somehow I’d missed Nicole Krauss these past couple of years, probably because I had been dismissive of the Brooklyn writers. They seemed like emo music to me, one of those things I’m too old to find charming, or deep, or meaningful. But there was a New Yorker story I liked, and her new book, Great House, was getting such good reviews that a few weeks ago I got The History of Love out of the library. While I didn’t think it was as groundbreaking as the reviews and the gushing articles about Krauss and her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, the “golden couple” of the New York writing scene, would have one believe, it seemed to me like a very fine novel — there were interesting characters, the sentences are lovely without being show-offy, and even the inevitable coincidental connections between the seemingly-disparate characters were handled with grace. Like I said, I thought it was a very fine novel.
And so, I put myself on the list for Great House, and even tucked it in my backpack for the ski up the hill to the cabin. Again, it is beautifully written by an author who clearly shows great talent. Again, there are seemingly-disconnected characters who turn out to have connections between them, although this time I found that structure less delightful. Again, there are writers, and writing which connects these characters, as does their Jewishness (which I found far less irritating than the Dedication to Art aspect). The Holocaust looms once more, but the characters are all Jews, so that was far less irritating than was the fact that all of these characters are writers, except for the ones who supportively orbit the writers, or those who have dedicated their pale lives to some other art, like playing the piano. (The exception is Aaron, the furious father of the mysterious Dov, whose life might be ruined by the fact that he didn’t become a writer? Although to me, becoming a successful London judge sounds more interesting, but that’s a profession Dov mysteriously quits when his mother dies in order to return to Jeruselem and languish in his childhood bedroom, much to the concern and irritation of his father, and of this reader).
The book was lovely, it was beautifully written, but it made me want to shake Krauss, made me want to tell her to go get a job and to write about something, anything, other than writers. This is the second book in which writers and books and writing are the only subject. Enough already. Maybe it’s that I live in a town rotten with writers, I know plenty of writers and believe me, most of them are not romantic figures in the least (especially the ones who think they are). The “romance” and “mystery” of the two, count them, two women writers in this book who continually shut out their spouses, who stop arguments in mid shout and stalk silently, remotely, coolly, off to the mysterious and enormous and magnetic desk at the center of this tale wore thin early in the story. Krauss is very young. She has only ever been a writer (except for being a daughter, a wife and a mother). She is married to a writer. I get the sense she only hangs around with writers. And it is clear from her recent, and widely-mocked blurb for Daniel Grossman’s new book that she is a true Romantic when it comes to writing, one who believes that it is a High Calling, and that Art is something worth dedicating one’s life to.
All of which makes me want to run off and read someone bracing, like Anne Dillard or Margaret Atwood. Years ago, when I was in grad school at UC Davis, Atwood came for the standard weekend of lectures and meetings with students. I’ll never forget her chastising the graduate students who were studying her work. “You’re all clearly very bright,” she said. “You should go do something more useful with those brains than this. Go figure out how to stop global warming or something.” They were crestfallen, but I always thought she was right.
That these hermetically sealed books about upper-class white people in America keep getting praised to the high heavens is an ongoing concern of mine. While the hype surrounding her book is no more Krauss’s doing than the circus Jonathan Franzen seems to unleash with each book is his own, I do find it problematic that books about “white people’s problems” — the difficulty of creating Art, the woes of suburban life and marriage — are the ones being chosen by publishers, then hyped by them and every reviewer out there. I don’t want to read books about the people just like me (or like the me I might have been had I not left my publishing job in NYC in 1988, or like the me I might have been had I gotten an academic job after grad school). I want to read books about people who struggle with something real — who worry about their jobs, and putting a roof over their heads, and who are, perhaps up against something terrifyingly real like the death of their loved ones. Which means someone will probably complain in my next book about the body count, and that I keep killing people off for cheap effect. We all have our personal obsessions, and that Krauss’s are writing and Art and Jewishness are less worrisome to me than the idea that a two-book contract, and the success of her first book, might have led to pressure to “do it again” — the sort of pressure that leads to a second book which contains so many of the pleasures of the first one that this reader, at least, became frustrated. Krauss is clearly very talented. Now I just want to see her stretch that talent, and do something new with it.
We’ve had about ten days of snow and temperatures, sometime daytime as well as nightime, in the single digits. We’ve had over two feet of new snow, which is good, because it insulated my one experimental hoop house where I planted cold-hardy greens. There’s one row each of chard, laccinato kale, bok choi, and arugula, plus I started komatsuna seedlings in mid-October (they’re tiny). I also transplanted a row of scallions between each row of greens, since they’re the one thing I buy most often during the winter.
Here’s what the hoop house looked like before I dug up the edge of the plastic on the far side to take the photo above. I really did not expect anything to be green in there. It was zero or below for three or four days straight. In my past experience, even the most cold-hardy greens succumb at that point. So it was a delightful surprise to find things still looking green and alive in there when I peeled back the cover.
We’ll have to see whether they survive. Everything is green, but the soil is frozen, and so are the bok choi. I cut a few bok choi this morning, as well as some arugula and chard leaves, and managed to pull a couple of scallions. I still don’t know if this is going to work over the course of the whole winter, but so far, things are green, if not necessarily available. The experiment continues ….
Six years ago today Vivi and Lola arrived in our world. It was the first good thing that had happened in a while — both for me, and for my friend Nina, their mom. We’d both had a rough couple of years — people we loved had died, and we were both sort of losing our faith in the universe.
And then this unlikely, and terrifying pregnancy Nina went through worked out. Two squalling babies with full heads of hair emerged, biting the doctors on their way out, and dropped into our world. They were so tiny that they scared me to death. But there we were, four writers in a room in the Billings Hospital trying to name two babies — there was a lot of talk about syllabics, and sounds we liked next to one another. The men both insisted that one of them was going to be Lola, and so she is, while the big sisters wanted Violet.
So we have Vivi and Lola, and today they are six years old. First graders. And as much as I love their older sisters, and their little brother, it was those two twins, who needed someone to hold them during the two years when I needed someone to hold as I came out of the depths of my grief, who will always hold a specific place in my heart. I never thought one of my happiest memories would be sitting on a white couch, watching Barefoot Contessa while it snowed outside and Vivi or Lola howled herself to sleep.
And now they are six, and going to the American Girl store to pick out a present and playing tennis and going to first grade and reading and writing and having opinions. Which is certainly something to be thankful for, and I am …
Winter has arrived with a bang here in southern Montana. That’s my patio furniture which is suddenly buried.
The storm came in yesterday, but the real snow seems to have fallen overnight. I shoveled yesterday, and it was a only a couple of inches of powdery fluff; this morning, nearly a foot, and a little heavier (but I think that’s because the ground was still warm).
I don’t dare peek in the hoop house, because it’s supposed to go down below zero tonight, and I’m hoping the snow will insulate. We’ll see if anything survives. It’s slated to run a degree or two either side of zero tonight, and to be even colder tomorrow night. The experiment gets an early test.
Time to make soup.
Funny, this summer, while the garden was in progress, I found myself uninspired, and not actually eating that much from it. Perhaps its because the season was so strange — once my early success with spring greens under hoops burned out (because it got hot, and the plants burned up), I wound up in this long odd period when there wasn’t much out there a person could eat right now, most of it was things like carrots and beets and tomatoes and peppers and beans that took a long long time this summer to ripen.
However, I did put in some time as the season went on putting things up. The beets, for example. I harvested beets three or four times this summer, roasted them off, peeled them and froze them on cookie sheets in the freezer. Then I just popped them into ziploc bags (like the tomatoes in this photo — I just stuck them in a bag and froze them). So now, I can pull a few out, and have beets ready to throw in a salad or in some pasta. The tomatoes too — I’ve been thawing them in by the pyrex dish load, and throwing them in a burrito or using them when I sautee chard. They’re a little watery sometimes, but still so much better than a grocery store tomato. And then there are the pickled peppers. I love those pickled peppers and I’ve been eating them on everything.
For instance, breakfast lately has been burritos made with beans I cooked and froze in pint jars, cheese, chard (one of the few things still growing well in the garden), pickled peppers, previously-frozen tomatoes, and onion. The only things I have to buy in that meal are the tortillas and the cheese. Why this makes me as ridiculously happy as it does, is something of a mystery. I’m working again, so it’s not even like the money I save is that significant. I think it’s just the plain old pleasure of doing something oneself.
What I love about this part of the year, after the garden is over, and after the work of putting things up, is the pleasure inherent in that old phrase, “the fruits of one’s labor.” I’m eating the fruits of my labor — which means that I can find a wide variety of yummy things to eat for days on end without having to go to the grocery store. And that makes me very happy, especially when it’s cold and blustery and snowy outside.
Run, do not walk (well, in internet terms) to the London Review of Books and read Hilary Mantel’s Diary of being ill. It’s by turns hilarious and hallucinogenic and scary (and probably not for the squeamish) and brilliant. Especially her take on Virgina Woolf’s On Being Ill. (Although I feel a little bad for enjoying her ad feminiem attack on Woolf, since it wasn’t until I became chronically ill in grad school that Woolf’s work started to open up for me.) Nonetheless, I loved this essay.
This time of year the only safe place to hike is Yellowstone, so since it was a gorgeous day yesterday, off we went.
It was the last day that the roads are open, so we headed down to Swan Lake flats and took off to the west. About an hour in, we saw two grizzlies, high on a ridge to the south of us, eating grubs or something. I don’t have a photo, but they were unbelievably beautiful up on the high ridge with the sunlight gleaming off their guard hairs. They were illuminated. Meanwhile, a couple of magpies were making a big noise in the gully just below us — which usually means someone is afoot. I’m always a little nervous about bears, especially this time of year, but it turned out to be two big bull elk, who picked their way out of the gully, and went to hide in another glade one ridge over from us.
We had our eye out for antlers, because my sweetie is a dedicated horn hunter, although in Yellowstone you’re not allowed to collect them. We’d been hiking about an hour and a half when we found this festive pile, which some other frustrated horn hunter had left behind.
The weather was spectacular. There was a big storm system moving in from the southwest, but we lucked out and spent the entire day in a doughnut hole of sunshine. This is the view to the southwest — by the end of the day those big peaks were all engulfed in snow showers.
We tend not to hike on trails, but rather just take off across country. We spent a lot of time yesterday on a big exposed ridge like this one, hiking from elk antler to elk antler. We also saw a couple of buffalo — solitary bulls — who kept a wary eye on us from afar. And one funny little group of young bull elk who we later figured out had been spooked up from the bottom by a couple of hikers on the trail, then were really freaked out to find us coming down from the ridgetop. There were maybe seven or eight of them — mostly four- and five-point bucks, with weirdly enough, a couple of cows mixed in, as well as a spike or two. They were quite beautiful.
Finally, way up on a high ridge, we found another, even bigger, festive horn assemblage. This was at the top of a ridge, and you could just see the white tines sticking up from below.
On the way out of the park, we encountered four big bison on the road, just ambling along, owning the road. My camera ran out of batteries so I didn’t get a photo of them, but they passed maybe five feet from the open driver’s window, and they’d clearly come out of the timber, because they were festooned with sticks.
All in all, a gorgeous day in the park. Animals, beautiful views, piles of horns, and aside from the two people we saw over there on the trail, we didn’t see any other people all day. Then home, slighly sore, to a beer and dinner and a fire in the woodstove. A perfect day.