Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas Seventh Day

Here are the pansies, those cold-defying, hope-inspiring cheerer-uppers. This photo was taken after two overnight freezes, in which they shriveled up and looked quite pitiful--and then came to life again with a warmer day. Our weather has been extremely variable lately. One morning when I checked, it was 31 degrees, with an expected high of 59, which it did reach by afternoon.

Maybe the weather has affected us.

We leave tomorrow for a rather impromptu trip to the Dallas area, to visit friends, and possibly on to Abilene.

In a way it feels like a bigger trip than flying to Europe does! We've been to Europe several times since the last time we went to Texas, so Texas seems farther away.

If we can finally be making this long-promised trip to Texas, then anything is possible.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas from Our House to Yours

As you can see, my blog supports the traditional twelve days of Christmas. As does my house decor, which will be up until January 6. Here's a little tour....Six photos for the sixth day....

The cotton boll on the left is from a field on the way to Grandmother's house. The roses in the photo behind it are some she gave me many years ago when we had been to visit. The photo on the right is us at Zadar a couple of years ago.

The tiny tree has been with us since our first Christmas in America, fourteen years ago. One of my favorite ornaments is the clay cutout with the white ribbon, made by our friend Andreja in Croatia.

"Glory to God in the highest!" He's really singing with gusto. This is from the do we say it...creche?....given to us by our friends Karen and Rich, made by a sculptor friend of theirs. Maybe I can do some more photos of it for another post. This guy is about two inches high.

A Santa container that belonged to Grandmother, which I remember being there when I was a child. To me this was the real face of Santa Claus. I don't recall ever "believing in Santa Claus," but I remember thinking this is what he ought to look like if he did exist in the way the tales told.

Front wooden door.

Front outer door.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas Gift

Look what my sweet husband gave me for Christmas!

Here is the Andy Warhol version:

And here is a more palatable version:

It is a bracelet (I think that much is obvious) that I found months and months ago and showed to him. And he remembered. Or maybe he got it way back then, I don't know because I haven't asked. But he remembered and gave it to me. And I just love it.

And I just love him, too.

(You can't quite tell, but it has the entire first part of the "prayer of St. Francis," a slightly abridged version, inscribed on it. And it is in the form of a Mobius/Moebius strip, which means there are not two "sides" to the circle, it continues continually, a symbol of infinity. I first learned about this form from Parker Palmer when he spoke at Rhodes College a few years ago, about community....anyway, it's a special gift, for many reasons.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Clouds

On Christmas Day, I spent a few hours in the kitchen making my most-authentic-I-have-ever-found, i.e., most-closely-resembling-what-I've-eaten-in-Florence, recipe for lasagne pasticciate. It takes between three and four hours, and, no, that doesn't include making your own pasta. I don't do it often, but it had been a very long time since I made it, so that's what we took to my parent's house for Christmas dinner with family. Along with a crostata di mele, something like apple pie, but not so sweet, and the crust is unlike any pie crust I've had here.

We left around 3, which meant we were driving into the sun.

And the road to Searcy does not have many trees along much of it. It's those huge fields, which I wrote about last Christmas, when I witnessed the angels in the form of geese ascending and descending....

So, that meant I was wearing two pair of sunglasses for much of the trip. (I have very sensitive eyes, perhaps fodder for a post unto itself.) Here I was trying to get a picture of that, though I'm not sure you can tell, unless perhaps you enlarge and look very closely, but I don't know that it's worth the effort if you're willing to just take my word for it.

But once the sun eased a little closer to the horizon, I was able to remove the outer pair of glasses, and eventually the other pair as well.

And it was really quite lovely. These photos are taken through the window, of course, but I think they turned out pretty well. Perhaps someday I'll learn to use Photoshop or something, but for now I enjoy taking my best shot and letting it be. I think that's actually a combination of wanting things to stay simple, and also being lazy....

You can see some of the wide fields here, and mostly the clouds, which made me feel I was witnessing an impressionistic artist at work. It made me wish we could listen to Respighi's "Clouds" while we were driving, but, alas, it was not to be found. (I don't think we even have a copy in the house.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas all' Arancia

Oh, the joys of non-traditional grocery stores, which make it possible in a big city to find the sort of thing one might find on the side of the road in less urban areas. These oranges not only looked lovely, but tasted sweet and wonderful. (But I confess, I bought them just because they looked lovely with their stems and leaves still attached.)

One of the biggest surprises for me this Christmas was finding in another store, without even looking for it, this box of Pandoro, the traditional Italian cake I like so much. "Pandoro" means "bread of gold." It's a simple, buttery, Christmas-tree-shaped cake that you coat with powdered sugar by shaking it in the plastic bag it comes in. At least that's the way the boxed version is done. I've now found a recipe for it that I think I'll try, so probably won't include the plastic bag part.

The first time I came home from Italy while living there, I tied a big box--bigger than this one, probably about 12x8x8--to my backpack and carried that cake all the way home for Christmas. It wasn't easy! That was before planes were so space-conscious, though, so aside from the awkwardness, it wasn't really a problem.

Most years I try to remember to look for these at a small store called Mantia's. If I don't think of it early on, they are sold out by the time I get there, and all they have is Panettone, which I've never cared for because of the candied fruit it has.

This year I was so distracted by the job situation and various weekend activities, that I completely forgot to go by Mantia's until I knew it was too late, and there was no point.

And then, standing in line at Fresh Market, I looked and beheld these beautiful boxes! And of course brought one home. And it was delicious. But as with the oranges, as you see, the visual treat was just as fulfilling as the treat for the tongue:

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Once in royal David's city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.

For he is our childhood's pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that Child who seemed so helpless
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high;
Christ revealed to faithful eye,
set at God's right hand on high.

Just as in King's College, Cambridge, this is the way we begin our Lessons and Carols here with the boychoir. It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm singing it while processing into St. John's church, or listening to it on the radio in my kitchen--I always end up with tears in my eyes. It's a combination of text, music, tradition, little boys' voices joined by adults' and then those of the whole congregation, the simplest words describing the most amazing story ever told--and the fact that I believe what the song is saying--and I think glorious descants have something to do with it, also!

This little stained glass piece, attached to a votive candle holder, was Grandmother's. For a long time she kept it on her kitchen windowsill; that's where I always remember seeing it. I wonder where it came from. Maybe a friend gave it to her? Maybe she found it herself and bought it? Maybe she got it in Bethelehem when they were there in the early 70's? (I still wear the cross she brought me from that trip.)

I suppose I'll never know. And I don't know if she ever heard or sang "Once in Royal David's City." But this year I decided that sitting looking at this candle was the best way to listen to the song while it played on the radio.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Winter Window

This was on our window yesterday morning, bringing in a day even colder than the one before, I think. I love the contrast between the cold frost and the sunshine on the trees across the way.

Winter seems to me lately to be a time of contrasts. I've had unexpected contrast-type moments lately when shopping, especially.

Saturday I was out and had four separate stops. I tend not to shop on Saturdays in general for the reason that many other people do shop on that day! I don't enjoy the crowds and the lines. So of course the Saturday before Christmas is about the worst time to go, and I was not disapointed. Traffic was crazy and stressful. Parking lots were full. People were not at their friendliest.

Even so, I had three unexpected contrasts on Saturday. I was third in line at the post office, of all places! Hardly had to wait a bit.

Then I went to buy Christmas cards in a little Catholic bookshop, and it was not crowded at all, and they still had plenty of cards remaining. (I was afraid I would find only the dregs, so to speak, or that they would all be gone.)

And then, when I was walking from my car across the grocery store parking lot, it was all getting to me. I was tired, and hungry, and thinking all kinds of thoughts about what a mess our culture is, with the commercialization and the inequity among people, the rudeness, etc.

I looked up at just the right time and saw a hawk riding the thermals. I just stopped and watched for as long as I could, until he disappeared into the thick clouds. Three minutes at the most, I suppose it was. But three minutes that changed my interior landscape, as three minutes can often do.

That hawk soaring up above the commercialized chaos down below was a powerful reminder of how short-sighted we can be. It's largely my not looking far enough that leads me to feeling stressed, or seeing only the bleaker parts of the scene. There's always more, whether I see it or not. Like the sunlight beyond the frost. Which I didn't see when I took the photo, only later as I was putting it here on my blog.

It's always worth looking up, and remembering, remembering, remembering, that our immediate experience is only that. There is always more that we don't, and often can't, see in the moment.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

After Barbizon

This afternoon we went to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, where they are showing paintings from the Barbizon painters, predecessors to the full-blown impressionists. I loved it. Lots of landscapes, amazing light effects. Not being a painter, I am just amazed by what people can do with paint.

And then we went outside for our own view of the landscape and light. Today was a welcome sunny day, freezing cold, but with a very blue sky. The Dixon Gardens are one of my favorite places in Memphis. Maybe with my new work schedule, I'll be able to spend more time there, but until now it has mostly been on weekends.

These camelias were about the only thing surviving the cold. They always surprise me with their gentle beauty in the harshness of winter weather.

A view of the south side of the museum, which was originally a residence. I'm dying to come in warmer weather and sit on that porch and read a book.

I understand that some of the oldest trees in Memphis are in this area. Some of them are very, very tall!

Here is Drazen with Ceres in the background. He is pretty tall himself!

In warmer weather, these archways are covered in several varieties of clematis and remind me of gardens in Europe. As you see by the coats both of us are wearing, it really is cold here right now. By this time my ears were really feeling the cold.

But it was warm in the greenhouses, and fun to see little green things thriving there with their bamboo support system.

Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky....

If you're interested, you can see lovely things on the museum/garden website, I'm still not doing links, and I'll explain why in a later post, so you'll have to copy and paste that. Or be old-fashioned and just remember it and type it; it isn't long!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Prednisone, Paolo, and the Piano

Accidenti, I've nearly lost my voice. I've made it this far into fall with no noticeable allergic reactions. I've refrained from raking leaves, I've taken Claritin, I even stopped taking morning walks once the leaves covered the ground.

Except we did go for a walk last Sunday. Maybe that's what did it. I don't know. I just know that two evenings ago I noticed a scratchiness in my throat, yesterday my head felt congested, and this afternoon I began to sound like an alto who can't speak much above a whisper.

And tomorrow is Lessons and Carols. The "Hallelujah Chorus." "Lux Arumque." "O Holy Night." And many more. And I don't know if I'll be able to sing or not. I'm so very scocciata.

I called a kind doctor friend and asked if it would be safe to try taking our dog's Prednisone, as I had taken Prednisone in the past to get my voice back quickly. Kind doctor friend did not recommend taking Paolo's pills, but did call in a prescription for me. It all happened just in time for me to get to the pharmacy before they closed. We shall see if it has enough time to work its magic by 4pm tomorrow, 3pm for warming up....

Oh, how I hope so. The stuff tastes absolutely horrible. I took the first pills with warm tea, and then had a spoonful of sorghum, and still could taste that awful bitterness in my mouth. Bleah. I hope my sacrifice is worth it.

It will be rather a let-down if I don't get to sing, though I'm trying to just imagine how lovely it will be to sit in the pews and soak up the music. It will be lovely, if I'm not coughing!

It is something of a consolation that we had our piano tuned today. Our piano tuner is such a kind and friendly man that just having him here probably boosts the immune system.

And it's so nice to have the piano tuned! I've been having it tuned every six months, so it doesn't get terribly out of tune. But it is in a room with a sliding glass door, so I know the humidity and temperature changes affect it a good deal, and it does need that six-month tuning. I don't have perfect pitch, but I do have a quite sensitive sense of pitch. So my ears are happy each time the piano gets a tune-up.

Moreover (don't use that word very often!), something has been wrong with the damper pedal for quite some time. I thought I mentioned it last time the tuner came, but maybe not. At any rate, it was still the same after he left. Which caused me to fear that perhaps it was something so slight that he hadn't noticed it, or that I was imagining it, or that perhaps it was something that nothing could be done for.

But it was driving me crazy.

When I used the damper pedal, I could feel something with my foot that just felt funny, like it was catching or something. And it seemed that it was causing the keys to stick, and the sound to blur, but not terribly. Just enough to make me wonder if I were imagining it.

But I didn't think so.

So today I made a point of telling him about this, describing it as best I could, and making sure he checked on it.

And, yea! He did check it, and found that somehow the damper pedal dowel was getting mixed up with the mechanism of the sostenuto pedal....blah, blah, blah....I know this means nothing to anyone who doesn't play piano.

But it means a lot to me, and it is corrected, and I sat and played through Brahms' Rhapsodie in G minor, with all its fire and passion and sonority, and all that pedaling, and all my mistakes....and everything responded the way it was supposed to, and it's in wonderful tune, and that was enough to make me forget my stuffy, achy head and voice-gone-missing for a while.

In fact, as soon as I finished the piece and stood up, I noticed how cold it was. That's pretty cool, that playing piano can keep you from noticing that your body is cold. The brain is a fascinating thing.

Hmmm. I wonder if could manage to take the prednisone while playing piano, and see if that distracted me from the bitter taste....

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I Miss Real Mail

For some reason it has hit me the past two days how much I miss getting real mail. Maybe because it's so cold outside, so just walking the extra steps to the mailbox is a stretch for the will. And I do it, because you don't want the mailbox just getting filled up. So I go.

And I do still have that little bit of a sense of anticipation.

"What might be in there?"

"Who might I hear from?"

"I wonder if there might be something from...."

But the truth is that mail with handwriting on the envelope is so rare, that little anticipatory rise is becoming less and less noticeable. Envelopes with what looks like handwriting are often fake, some stupid company's attempt to get your attention.

I'm not sure why this has hit me so hard lately. It's been a few months now that I find myself thinking about it, grieving the loss of real mail.

The mail used to be such an important part of my life. When I was growing up, there were cards from Grandmother, letters from cousins, letters from penpals. In high school it was letters from people I'd met at camp or Governor's School.

In college, campus mail was a lifeline. We sent mail like crazy. Checking mail each day was just fun.

And then of course I moved overseas. And back when there was no email, and phonecalls were beyond my budget and that of most people I knew, mail was the way to stay in touch. Letters from home, from friends or family, were part of the glue that held me together during homesick times and just hard times.

When I lived in Croatia, and the war was going on, one dear friend made a commitment to write me weekly, and she did it for much of the worst part of my time there.

And there used to be letters, or pictures, from children. And thank-you notes from time to time. Sending something in the mail used to be an exciting thing for children, I think. But it has been eclipsed by faster, more fascinating ways of communicating, I guess.

And of course most of my life, there were cards and letters from Grandmother. I'm sure I inherited a letter-writing gene from her. It was so much a part of her, not only birthday and anniversary cards, but just little notes to say "thinking of you," sharing news from her life, sending a newspaper article she'd read and thought I would enjoy.

I have tended to be a letter-writer myself, and I do try hard not to miss important dates for sending cards to people I love. But the computer, and the American way of life, have changed me. I have way more stationery than I can use at any given time. I'm often writing notes to people in my head, but much less often do I actually sit and put the pen to paper, and stamp to envelope, and the whole thing in the mailbox.

But I miss it. I miss writing more letters, and I miss receiving them. I'm glad for email, because it does make some things more doable.

But twenty years from now, it's the cards from Grandmother and the letters that were sent to me in Croatia, and the sweet notes from my young nieces in their oh-so-carefully-attempted handwriting, that will be in a scrapbook or a special box that I will, I imagine, open up and look at now and then. I don't know where the emails will be....even the special ones that say important things, they just aren't the sort of thing you put in a box to treasure.

Well, the season of Christmas cards is soon to be upon us. We'll get more "real mail" in one month than we do in all the rest of the year. Even though more and more people are sending computer-generated letters (and we may this year), at least the envelopes will have that little part of the person, the handwriting. And it will be fun to see the writing on the envelope, to open it up and hear from friends and family, and have something pretty hanging all around the kitchen where we display them all.

And then January will come and go, and the mailbox will become again a conduit for the omniumgatherum of catalogues and bills and computer-generated blather, some requested by us, much destined for the recycling bin. Sigh.....

Oh, but then there is my birthday not far off, so the anticipation will be heightened again, I suppose.

I just wonder if there will come a day when I'll go the mailbox with no hope at all.

I don't know. I don't know how much it matters. I don't know if it bothers anyone else the way it bothers me. What about you, gentle readers? Am I an old fogey already, or do other people miss the mail the way I do?

Let me hear from you....and if you want to respond by real mail, we're in the White Pages. :-)

Sunday, December 07, 2008


This shamrock was a gift from dear friends over eight years ago. It currently resides in our bedroom, on a plant stand that belonged to Grandmother.

I love the way it leans into the light, grows toward the light, orients itself to the light. The window faces south, and the plant reminds me of those who always pray facing a certain direction--just that it's usually east, not south.

Hmmmm, is there a verb for that? Perhaps sudient, rather than orient....

Today I took a much-needed nap and while lying down was captivated by the light coming through the sheers and the new little white flowers heading toward that light.

Contented sighhhh....job security or not, winter light is lovely, green plants are beautiful, Sunday afternoon naps are wonderful, and it is good to be alive.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Officialness of It All

I wondered all week, when I let myself think about it, how this news of our program ending was supposed to be made known to everyone else at work. Or was it going to be made known? Would I walk around for the next month or so seeing people in the hallways, wondering if they knew, wondering how to tell them?

I even went earlier in the day to our HR man, a lovely soul, and said, "I don't know whose job this is, but when you're laying a number of people off, shouldn't something be done in terms of communicating that to everyone? And shouldn't some form of support be offered to them? Or does the organization expect everyone to just walk all around the elephant in the room and all the emotions that come along with the elephant?"

(My reasoning was that this is a Christian organization that frequently invokes the terms "family" and "team" to describe the way it sees itself, and it ought therefore to treat people somewhat differently from the way any old organization does. And while I didn't know anything specific, I knew some others were losing their jobs.)

I'd never been through this before. But I knew the news had to get made known pretty quickly, because we had three new referrals this morning, and we needed to stop those referrals as soon as possible. It was an exercise in humility to realize that the decision that would change my life and that of my co-worker and those of our clients, wasn't even on the radar screen of the social workers and medical providers making the referrals.

A quick conversation with my manager informed me that there would be an official announcement made at some point during the day.

I was very curious to see how this would look.

And so, at 3:45, everyone gathered in the large meeting room. Ben and I sat together, knowing what was ahead. I have no idea who else in the room knew. Everyone sat there chatting until the CEO walked in. My back was to the door, so I only knew he'd come in because of the silence that descended upon the group of 30 or so employees around the table.

It was surreal. He didn't say a thing, just started passing out white papers. Two sheets of paper stapled together. The ominous silence continued as people began reading the document. I'm a quick reader, so I was through with it before they were all even passed out, I think. People just sat there reading, and no one said a thing.

Finally the CEO broke the eerie silence and began going over what the papers said. We and eight others are being cut. It was all presented in terms of the bigger financial picture, though that wasn't given as the determining factor regarding cutting the counseling program. That has more to do with "strategic factors."

(I'm still waiting for a clear rationale behind this "strategic decision." Not saying there isn't a good one, but I would like to hear it communicated articulately, if for no other reason than so that we can pass it on to our clients.)

Anyway, our truly good-natured CEO said nice things about everyone, assured that the layoffs have nothing to do with quality of work, made sure people didn't blame the CFO for the financial state of things, said there were no plans to let anyone else go at this time, and led a prayer.

(It was so quiet and serious. Heavy. When he mentioned our names, I was tempted to smile and raise my hand in a Queen Elizabeth sort of wave, just to break through the weirdness of it all. But I figured that might make people think that I was weird, and since I have to stay on another few weeks, decided against it.)

The meeting adjourned.

I have no idea how this sort of thing happens in other places. I don't know what I even expected. But that is what happened.

And it felt like a funeral or something, with that ominous quiet beforehand, the words spoken, and then no one said a thing to me as we walked out of the room. No one. I guess maybe people either think counselors don't need help dealing with emotional issues, or they think we're not bothered by it. More likely they just didn't know what to say, as people often don't at funerals.

The rest of the day was nice. Good talk with my manager. Session with a client I love meeting with. Short visit with the CFO. And oddly enough, on my way out, both of the MDs behind the decision (or at least present for the meeting in which the decision was made) came out, so I wound up holding the door open for them.

Which just now hit me as a really paradoxical moment. I almost never see these guys at work, almost never. But on this very day there I was, holding the door open for them when they have just shut the door on me. And yet even in the shutting of that door, other doors are opening.

I still don't have a pink slip, though. The one pictured above is so cute, I'm thinking I might just ask for one. To make it really official, you know.