Monday, December 31, 2012

Lang Syne

Well, here it is, the last day of 2012. Remember this time last year? We had such high hopes for the coming twelve months, didn't we? Some of those high hopes were reached (yea for us!) and some were broken apart by unforeseen circumstances or dissipated through sheer neglect. But if you're reading this, you're still around to ring in the new year, and hope springs eternal.

I have wonderful memories of 2012: a reunion with friends from elementary and junior high school, revisiting the family farm and reconnecting with my Frazier relatives, a wedding in Memphis, my first opera at the Met, spending time with Jeannie in Scotland, experiencing energetic faith in South Africa, fabulous theatre (the winner: Peter & the Starcatcher), and the annual Bartow Family Christmas Gathering. Oh, and I lost 15 pounds.

But the best memories of the year center on my family, especially the time I've spent with my little grandson Liam, my daughter Kate, and my son-in-law Greg. Early in the year I got a whole week with Liam all to myself, as his parents took a much-needed vacation. Grandboy and I had a great time at the park and at Fernbank Science Museum, reading stories, and waking up with the birds. I've loved watching him grow and talk and learn. And no one can take away the times he's thrown his little arms around my neck and declared, "I love you so much, GrandMary!" Certainly, no year is bad that offers up that sort of thing, eh?

Still, I want to honor the losses of the past twelve months, too, by remembering and keeping them in my heart and prayers: a childhood friend lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, a young couple lost their baby daughter just as she was entering this world, 20 sweet children and 6 educators lost their lives in senseless violence. Yes, 2012 was a year of loss as well as a year of the wonderful, the loving, the magical. Perhaps 2013 will provide a fresh start for healing those losses.

I look forward to 2013. God willing, it will bring the safe birth of a healthy little granddaughter in May - more love, more memories to come. I look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, reading never-before-read (by me) books, re-experiencing the seasons, trying new things I never thought I'd try, going places I've never been. New lang syne, in other words.

Here's the thing. We don't just get a fresh start once every January 1. We get a fresh start every single day, every single hour, every single minute. Don't put so much pressure on the calendar or yourself. Spend January 1 nursing your hangover, putting away your Christmas decorations, and eating your black-eyed peas and greens. There are good times ahead.

While you're celebrating auld lang syne, celebrate new lang syne, too. Happy New Lang Syne!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Ex Libris . . . Me!

I got fabulous gifts for Christmas, lots of stuff that I love and will use with glee in the coming months. But one gift is a real stand-out. Daughter had her good friend Erin of Rampant Reads design bookplates especially for me.

I know in this age of books via Kindle and iPod (both of which I use religiously, by the way) that amassing hardbacks is hardly the fashion. But I do it. Nothing compares to being surrounded by solid manifestations of good reads. When I read or listen to an electronic version of a book that I really love, I add the hardback to my library.

So these lovely bookplates will come in handy. They came in a "book" box, with the original stamp - so that I can reproduce them as needed - and a fistful of the plates. And they are so me! A suitcase, a Georgia peach, an "A" for University of Alabama, NY, and an Episcopal shield are worked into the design.

Thank you, Erin, for the beautiful work. And thank you, Kate, for knowing exactly the right thing for your book-lovin' mama.

If you need a gift idea for the book-lover in your life, I highly recommend contacting Erin and employing her design talents.

Now, which books get the first run of bookplates? Decisions, decisions.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Bowl of Smoking Bishop

“A Merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!”
A few years ago I mentioned that I was concocting Smoking Bishop for our Christmas Eve feast. It's festive, has a bit of literary value (see A Christmas Carol), and goes down a treat in the warm glow of Christmas lights. For those of you who would like to duplicate this yuletide treat, here's my recipe:

  • 6 Seville oranges (if Seville oranges aren't available, use 5 sweet oranges and one yellow grapefruit)
  • 36-40 cloves
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 quart strong red wine
  • 1 bottle ruby port
  • cinnamon sticks
Place oranges in a warmed glass or pottery bowl. Stick cloves into each orange. Bake the oranges at 325 degrees F for approximately 20 minutes (until golden brown). Add the sugar and the wine (not the port). Cover the bowl and leave in a warm place for at least 24 hours. Cut oranges in half and squeeze them into the wine, then pour through a sieve. To keep, pour into sterilized bottles and seal (omitting the port); to serve immediately, pour orange/wine mixture into a pan, add the port, and heat slowly. Do not boil. Serve in warm mugs with cinnamon sticks.  (Serves 4)

So, if you plan to serve Smoking Bishop Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you need to get on the stick and get those oranges, spices, and wine doing their magic. They need to brew at least 24 hours. Let me know how yours turns out. I'm feeling merry just thinking about it. Cheers!

Great Expectations

From Episcopal Community's Advent booklet, here's my reflection for Friday, December 21:
What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”   Matthew 11:8-10 (New Revised Standard Version)

Great expectations. We all have them, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Our hopes are pinned on whatever image we’ve built up in our minds based on a picture or story or letter. In anticipation, we’ve sorted through all the information and have come up with a preconceived notion of who this person is, what the person looks like, how the person behaves.

And we’re never wrong, are we? Well, of course, we are! All the time. Whatever we’ve been told or chosen to believe before the initial meeting may be all wrong. Or a little wrong and a lot right. Or some twisted combination.

So here’s Jesus, confronted with the question (and I paraphrase), “Are you the one we’ve been looking for all these years, or should we just, you know, wait for another guy?” We don’t know the tone in which the question was asked. Sincere? Sneering? Incredulous? We do tend to assume that, “You sure don’t look like a Messiah!” is implied. Jesus responds, “Yep, it’s me all right,” and goes on to support his answer with examples of what he’s been up to—giving sight to the blind, healing to the lame and lepers, hearing to the deaf, good news to the poor.

Then he asks the crowd, “What on earth were you expecting? Fine clothes and a palace? A couple of new cars in the driveway? My own reality show Prophesying to the Stars?” Obviously, he did not stack up to the Messiah image folks had been building up over time. Managing other people’s expectations is a tough job, even for Jesus, but he did just that, plus gave credit to John for preparing the way, to boot. I picture folks dispersing, nodding their heads and saying, “OK, yeah, I get it now.” I’m sure they did not walk away disappointed.

During this season of preparation and waiting, try to keep a check on your expectations—of the people you love, of colleagues, of strangers, of the holiday, of the Christ Child. Keep your heart and mind open to glories you cannot even expect or imagine. You will not walk away disappointed.

Praise and honor to you living God for John the Baptist, and for all those voices crying in the wilderness who prepare your way. May we listen when a prophet speaks your word, and   obey. Amen. (from A New Zealand Prayer Book)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

You Can't Beat Home Sweet Home

To me, the highlight of the Christmas season is our annual Bartow Family Christmas Gathering. The locations shifts from year to year, as someone(s) bravely offers to host. The crowd varies a little from year to year, depending on who has to work or honor other obligations. But believe it or not, most of us show up, assigned dish in hand, ready to talk real loud and reconnect.

This year, we made our way up to cousins Steve and Kittie's farm in Dahlonega, Georgia. It was pouring rain, so a hayride was not on, but the weather did not stop the fun. And there was more gold crowded into that kitchen than ever was discovered in the surrounding Georgia hills.

The little kids kept themselves busy running around, up and down the stairs and out the front door to the porch swing, finding and hoarding candy and cookies. It's a wonder they weren't all pea-green and throwing up by the end of the event, but they somehow managed to ingest massive quantities of sugar and churn it around without any dire consequences. Ah, youth! Most of the guys stayed glued to the Falcons-Giants game on TV, while the preteens stayed glued to their smart phones. The rest of us settled first one place, then another, catching up on life over the past year.

And the food! You could've made a meal of the appetizers alone - cheesy dips, layered scrumptious concoctions, bite-sized tomato/mozzarella bits, and more. But, no. We don't do anything by halves. Chicken, ham, and a fabulous smoked pork loin, plus casseroles galore, were too, too tempting, even if we'd filled up on the pre-lunch cheesy stuff. And dare I mention the desserts? A fabulous multi-layered, artistically decorated cake, scrumptious cookies, and bowls of candy could not be passed up, either. And the wine and sweet tea flowed.

Let's talk about those bowls of candy. Several weeks before the event, Kittie, the party-planning Queen, had asked those of us of a certain age to let her know our favorite childhood candy. To our delight - and the delight of small children decades removed from our own childhoods - the bowls were full of those little wax bottles, Zero candy bars, Bit-o-Honey (my personal fav), and Double-Bubble. Of course, that got the subsequent generations talking about Laffy Taffy and Jolly Ranchers, as we all dipped into the candy bowls.

But the thing about these annual gatherings isn't the food or the weather or the location. It's the love and the laughter. It's remembering those Bully Bartow sisters (my mother and my aunts) who ran the show for most of our lives. It's knowing that we do, truly, have each other, no matter what. Yes, the weather kept us inside most of the day, but we never ran out of things to talk and laugh about.

The rain did let up every now and then. At one of these breaks, GrandBoy and I took a little walk down the road to see if we could find any cows out and about. We made it down to the gate across from the big red barn, and there, across the field taking shelter under some trees, were the cows. It delighted Liam to no end.

Yes, that's memorable. But the whole day was memorable. For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Loud and Deep

I honestly do not know how to write about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. When the story first broke, I followed it closely on the internet, watching live reports and President Obama's first response. But as the news piled in, it became more than I could take. As a parent and grandparent, I just can't get my head around it. I certainly can't get my heart around it.

So I stopped watching. And I stopped reading. I want to pray, but I can't. I just don't know what to pray for. Yes, I could pray for the loved ones of the children and teachers lost - for their comfort, for their peace, for their release from pain - and I did that in the beginning.

But as the reality of those little lives and the lives of their teachers sank in, those prayers didn't seem to cover it. Briefly, very briefly, I tried to put myself in the place of the parents who lost their babies. Too, too painful, if you go beyond the surface. I had to back off. So prayers about comfort and peace can't begin cover it. I'm struggling with that. And so, my friends of faith, please do not inundate me with prayer suggestions. Whatever's working for you - great. Keep doin' it. As for me, I must find a way to get back to a prayer-place on my own.

That said, I am fed up with people saying that the reason this happened is that God has been taken out of schools. Really? Oh, ye of little faith. I believe that God is everywhere, even in the midst of Sandy Hook last Friday morning. If you choose to believe that God is not present within our secular society, perhaps you need to re-examine your own faith. Prayer in schools has not been outlawed. If you believe, pray. If you don't believe, don't pray. I choose to believe that God was right there with the children and their teachers.

I will find a way to work through this, knowing I can never make sense of it. One thing I can pray for is that my country finds a way to stop or slow down this madness. We have so many gifts to offer a hurting world, but we continue to set the worst example imaginable when these mass killings take place with such regularity. Yeah, I can pray for that.

One of my favorite Christmas carols was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the middle of the Civil War. I suggest you read the original poem for yourself, because some folks have found it necessary to re-write some of the verses to suit their own views. But two of the original verses strike home to me right now:

And in despair I bowed my head; 
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
    "For hate is strong, 
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
    The Wrong shall fail, 
    The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Now, there's another something I can pray for. May God have mercy.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Dolce Domum

One of my favorite Christmas stories comes from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. In "Dolce Domum," Mole and Rat are trying to make their way back to River Bank in a fierce, mid-December  snowstorm. They're hungry and tired and a little lost. Mole - he of superior nose - is sniffing out the way, when he catches a whiff of something else. Home.

Mole had abandoned his old underground home, Mole End, to live in the upper world with his good friends Rat, Badger, and Toad. But struggling through the snowstorm, the familiar scent of his own home proves too much for him. After a heart-wrenching struggle and some tears, Rat realizes that Mole needs to get back to his home, if just for this night.

You'll have to read the story for yourself (and I suggest you do, especially if you only know the Mr. Toad part of the book), but it involves everything that home means to the heart and the senses. Everything that is the special pull of home. The stone, the wood, the doorknob, the floorboards. The chair that fits just you. And, of course, the memories.

I feel that way whenever I pass Strathmore Drive in Atlanta. I've only turned down the street a couple of times since I sold my little house in 2006, but I feel the pull every time I drive down Lindbergh and pass the street sign. I really thought that the only way I'd leave the house was feet-first, but the call to work in New York came out of the blue and so quickly, that I didn't have time to think about what I was leaving behind. Which, of course, was a good thing and the absolute right decision. I love New York, and I love my job. No regrets whatsoever. Just like Mole, who left his underground home to live in the upper world, his version of New York City.

But places that mean home to us - and "home" can mean more than one place throughout a lifetime - still claim a part of us. Sometimes we can go back for a visit. Usually, not. Mole is given a special gift that night, being able to return to Mole End, warm the place up, invite the field mouse carolers in for food and drink, and finally, sleep in his own little bed, all the while knowing that he will leave the place and return to his new, thoroughly enjoyable life in the upper world.
But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
 Do you have a home that calls to you, pulls you?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Holiday Mug

For 11 whole months you hide like a slug,
Collecting dust and a weird dried up bug.
But when December rolls ‘round,
From your shelf you’re brought down,
O wonderful holiday mug.

Like holiday sweaters, your style may be risky,
With Santas and snowmen and reindeer so frisky.
But for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa cheer,
There’s no cup so dear
For our coffee or tea or wee drop o’ whiskey.

Short-lived is your glory, a brief time for smugness.
We’ll dust out your innards and toss out the bug-ness.
To your festive appearance
For one month each year-ance -
Three cheers to Your Holiday Mug-ness!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Haul Out the Holly

One of the hardest things about living in a tiny apartment in Manhattan is figuring out how to make the place look festive without a Christmas tree. Before moving from Atlanta, I had always gone all out with decorating the tree (sometimes more than one), stringing lights, and covering every flat surface in the house with Christmas frippery. But now, I’ve no space for a tree - even a little one - plus, I go home to Atlanta for Christmas, and I suppose there’s no reason to drag a tree in and out of the place.

So I have to make do with other ways to festoon my living space. Usually, this involves stringing lights around book cases and treading them through the blinds, setting out a few favorite ornaments, lighting a candles that evoke Christmas aromas, and hanging a wreath on my door. A few years back I created my famous book-tree, but as charming as it was, it’s a poor substitute for a wonderfully-scented evergreen. Sigh.

I miss my Christmas tree, so fresh and welcoming and such a thrill to the senses when the lights are plugged in. Each tree different from year to year - some tall and thin, some short and fat, almost all with a side best suited for facing the wall. With every ornament holding memories of past-times, a tree provides endless opportunity for reflection and remembrance throughout the season. I miss all of these things.

But the time has come to trick out my SpaHa abode as best I can, without a tree. Let’s see what I come up with this year. It’s time to haul out the holly and get this season started!

The Pregnant Season

A woman in her last month of pregnancy knows more about the waiting game than anyone on earth. She's been through the first few months of morning sickness, grown into walking/sitting/working/sleeping with an ever-increasing bundle resting underneath her heart and smack on her bladder, and finally arrives at the big countdown. Waiting, waiting for the first twinges that announce the big event is about to happen.

Waiting, waiting is a lot of what we do in December. Advent tells us to wait, expect, hope, get things in order for the big event, specifically the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. I try to set aside time to wait and expect every day. But it's hard to wait. And I'm impatient, just like a pregnant woman at the end of her 9th month. I'm ready for the birth, ready for the celebration. Let's get this show on the road, as my daddy used to say.

So like a nesting mama, I decorate, lay in supplies, send out announcements and greetings. I can prepare and celebrate, as well as wait and hope. I can appreciate the rich, deep blue of Advent and the bright red, green, and gold of Christmas. I can count down the days by following Advent meditations and reflections, but I can also watch my favorite Christmas movies and hum carols.

Advent is a very pregnant season. Full up. Expectant. Joyous. Bulging with stories of then and now and what's to be. So put your feet up and have a little snack. You'll need all your energy for what's to come.