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Of red birds and light

Cardinals on my treeMy girls and I put up the Christmas tree the other day, and I love to sit in its gentle glow.   Ever since I was a kid, I loved decorating the tree, finding favorite ornaments, telling the stories behind them.

Our tree has some ornaments that came from my childhood home—felt animals sewed in a childish hand, the delicate glass snowman and balloon a teacher gave me, a simple red ball with my name and the year of my birth.

Our tree has ornaments I’ve given to my husband or our family over the years—a geologic survey marker for Mount Washington, a wheelbarrow for all the gardening we do together, a green canoe and a toboggan from the years we bought those items to enjoy.

There are ornaments I’ve made for my girls, like the ladybugs from when they turned four and two with corresponding spots and the felt hearts with their names.

If you look, you will find a lot of cardinals. Glass balls with painted red birds, plump birds sewn from felt, a felt heart with a cardinal cut out of birch bark overlay. And the red birds from other babyloss mamas: the needle felted ball from Jenni, the paper circle from Amy, the cookie cutter tree with a reddish feather from a bird nicknamed “the desert cardinal.” It’s not surprising to find cardinals at Christmas, but mine are for Henry.Red bird from Amy

When Henry was in the hospital, somebody gave us a stuffed cardinal, the kind you squeeze to hear its call. My dad still talks about how it got Henry’s attention, whether the news or the bright color. The cardinal link started there, but it was seeing a cardinal, all red, streak across the bleak landscape that solidified it for me. That sudden brightness reminded me of Henry’s smile, the way it lit everything up, the way it made me smile.

People tell me about their cardinal sightings and let me know they’re thinking of Henry. That makes me smile too. Some days, just when I need it, I catch a glimpse of that flash of red. so bright on a dark day.

***

Last night, after stories, we turned off the light and sat in front of the fire looking at the tree. I sang my girls their songs, my chin resting on a blond head, my cheek against a nearly five-year-old cheek.

I thought the dark was going to rise up: the missing, the would-be eight year old not here. But instead what bubbled up was love, stretching me tight, expanding me. For a moment, it wasn’t dark and light, here and not, life and death, all those forces that pull me in two directions through this month. I thought it would be, but instead I expanded with just fullness, just love.

Just when . . .

Just when you feel you are going to break,
when the light-dark of this month

and all that you do to embrace the light:

the tree
the presents
the birthday party planning
figuring out when you will go see the trains and the Christmas lights
and is there time to make cookies?

starts to feel like too many to dos,
when you wonder what else you can peel off,

you get a reminder to go for a run.

You get a reminder to slow down.

You take a walk, feel the bright sun, and notice the silver-white frost still furring the shade.

Just when you don’t know what to do next,
your neighbor says, “Pulled pork for dinner—with stuffed jalapenos and beer?”

Just when you are cursing this month and wishing again that you could jump ahead to January,
you get a message from a friend. “It’s December. How are you?”

Just when the darkness is settling,
the lights on the tree you did put up, joyfully, thoughtfully
with the stories of each ornament,
glimmer and set the room aglow.

Sometimes, just when, you need help, a hand, a smile, it comes.

Simple Gifts

I think my favorite gift this Christmas season is wrapped up here. It isn’t for me or even from me. It’s from my big girl to her great-grandmother.

simplegiftsIt’s a crudely sewn cardinal crafted of felt because as she told me earnestly, “Big Nana loves birds, and I think a cardinal is her favorite.”

Big Nana who taught me patiently to sew many, many years ago. Big Nana who sews so neatly you’d think a machine did it—front and back, inside and out. I can’t wait to see her open this little stuffed bird with it’s big, uneven, loving stitches.

We’ve had a flurry of projects here lately. Some were done before Christmas, but since we celebrate with my family closer to New Year’s, we had extra time to wrap up some of this gift making.

I didn’t direct any of it. I offered suggestions when asked and helped locate materials. I threaded needles and knotted the ends of seams. I spelled words and read recipes. And when I found myself frustrated by the frequent requests, I reminded myself that this is the spirit of Christmas, thinking of others, offering something you think they will love, giving of yourself.

So there’s been sewing—a penguin for her cousin because it’s her favorite animal and two pillows because my little girl wanted to get in on all this present making too and felt pillows are what she can do right now. We’ve made a book, molded and baked a clay ornament, braided fleece into a snake, and baked coffee bread.

Quietly one day, by herself, my big girl found one of the pearl beads leftover from her birthday party and a scrap of gold ribbon. She used a glue stick and some clear tape an made me a bracelet.

My bracelet makes me smile with the remembrance her excitement watching me open it. The coffee bread, a favorite family recipe, was received with enthusiasm. I don’t know how they the other gifts will be received. I do know they were made with love and thoughtfulness and care, and there was great joy in making and the giving.

May these simple gifts—the love and caring, thoughtfulness and joy—find you in the new year.


What was your favorite gift this year? What simple gifts do you cherish?

 

Follow up:

Not surprisingly, Big Nana loved her cardinal. She was impressed with the sewing. “You can teach her the overcast stitch next.” I remembered suddenly learning the overcast stitch myself, the word sticking with me. I don’t remember what I was sewing, but I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room and carrying my project into the dining room so she could rethread my needle for me.

The other gifts were met with kind enthusiasm from the cousins. The kitty ornament my big girl made for her little sister was not met with such kindness. The little one pouted that she wanted a sewn cat, not a clay one. “I’m going to color on it,” she scowled. She hadn’t changed her tune by the time we put away the tree. One of the things I love about putting up the tree is telling the stories behind or different ornaments. This kitty in tea cup has a story to it.

Winter oranges + cookies for breakfast

Double-chocolate orange cookiesI just had a cookie for breakfast. Second breakfast, and it had orange in it, so that counts right?

As we’ve been reading our Christmas stories, so many times there is an orange in the toe or the top of the stocking, something juicy and sweet and just right this time of year.

My kids often find an orange or a clementine in their stocking, and I remember my older daughter pulling hers out one year, “A real orange!” In the midst of toys and candy, she still noticed that orange.

We’ve been eating oranges lately. I picked up a few at the store to make those chocolate-orange cookies I had for breakfast and had to go back to pick up some more because my girls ate them in smiles for snack at school and dessert before I got to baking. I ate some too, and I wondered why I never buy oranges. It’s time for oranges now, that splash of color, burst of juice, vitamin C, and natural sweetness.

So go get some oranges, and if you don’t eat them all first, make these cookies. (You really only need the zest, so you can still eat that orange as long as you zest it first.)

Double Chocolate-Orange Cookies

Cookies

1 c. sugar
2/3 c. butter, softened
1 Tbsp. grated orange peel*
1 egg
1 1/2 c. flour
1/3 c. baking cocoa
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chocolate chips (bittersweet or semisweet)

Coating

1/3 c. sugar (or a little more as needed)
1 tsp. grated orange peel*

* The peel of one orange should work out just about right for both the cookies and the coating.

  1. Preheat oven to350º F.
  2. Mix 1/3 cup sugar and 1 tsp. grated orange peel. Set aside.
  3. Cream 1 cup sugar with the butter and 1 Tbsp. grated orange peel in a large bowl. Beat in the egg until well combined.
  4. Add your dry ingredients: flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. (You can mix them together in a separate bowl if you like, but I’m lazy and never do.)
  5. Mix in the chocolate chips. (Go ahead and do this in the mixer. It doesn’t matter if the chips break up a little.)
  6. Shape dough into small balls balls. (Sometimes I do 1 1/2–inch balls, sometimes I go a little smaller if I want to stretch the batch or know the cookies will be out with lots of other cookie types.)
  7. Roll balls in sugar-orange coating mixture. If it looks like you will run out, just add a little more sugar and mix it up with the remaining coating. (If you end up with some extra, it’s yummy sprinkled on top of blueberry muffins.)
  8. Place coated balls on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Flatten to about 1/2-inch thickness with bottom of glass.
  9. Bake 9–11 minutes or until cookies appear set.
  10. Cool slightly before moving from cookie sheet. If you are eating them soon, serve with the pieces of the orange you zested to make the cookies.

 

 

What don’t you need this December?

What don’t you need this December?

Three kids went home sick from my daughter’s class yesterday. One threw up at school. I’m obsessively washing my hands, reminding the kids to wash theirs, and trying to remember not to eat scraps off their plate.

Still, this morning, my stomach felt off. I don’t know if I’m on the verge of something or if I’m just fearful of getting a stomach bug.

I’ve been thinking about fear and the trepidation with which I approach December every year, and wondering if some of that is just habit.

December pulls me hard between dark and light, joy and sorrow, birth and death. All year I hold these things together, but in December, the tension is strong.

Next week I will celebrate my older daughter’s birthday. A few days later, her little sister will blow out her own candles.

And on the 17th, we mark the day Henry died.Simple traditions

I still feel trepidation when this month rolls around. My body tenses as we move into December, wrapping tighter as we move closer to that day.I feel the pressure of birthdays and holidays on either side of Henry’s day. I feel that weight sinking in the center between them.

I have slowly reclaimed this month. I moved from having no tree to putting up a mini tree to telling my girls the stories of the ornaments as we hang them together on a big tree. I’ve slowly reintroduced traditions like baking cookies and making ornaments. I’ve added new traditions like our Christmas story advent calendar.

Along the way, I’ve found light again and joy. My girls have helped a lot with that, their enthusiasm and excitement lighting my way. I want to follow their light, bask in it’s glow.

I want to let go of the trepidation this month brings.The weight, the darkness, the sorrow may come—surely will—but I don’t want to give it extra time.

The past few Decembers have been about building—adding in traditions and celebrations. This year, I want to start to let go of  anxiety and anticipation, so even more light can come in.


 What can you let go of this December? What can you make room for?

Maybe you’ll let go of a tradition you never liked or an event you grumble about every year to make room for a new tradition that brings you peace or joy.

Maybe you’ll let go of getting “perfect” gift and enjoy spending time with loved ones instead.

Maybe you’ll cull your Christmas card list and write a note to a few friends.

Maybe you’ll throw out the to do list and sit by the fire and sip your eggnog.

Not sure? Try journaling about what you love most about the holidays.

Whatever you do, I hope you find more joy and peace and light in this season.

Share in the comments what you want to make room for this month and one thing you can let go of to get there.