I Need an Advent Calendar this Year

I think I might need an Advent calendar this year. Not those lovely ones made for adults that hold tiny bits of chocolate or miniscule bottles of wine behind each door. I mean the old-fashioned kind, with doors opening to reveal a simple toy or Christmas decoration printed on tissue thin paper—the ones that don’t provide a tangible reward for getting through another day. The kind with beautiful snow scenes showing rosy-cheeked children gathered around the village Christmas tree or manger scene.

When I was a child, Advent calendars taught me patience and the value of waiting. Now that I’m many years a grown-up, I need to be reminded of those lessons. This has been a hard year of waiting. Waiting for our political issues to resolve, waiting for relief from the terrible scourge of this virus and as the holidays approach, waiting for the time when we can once again gather with beloved family and friends to celebrate and break bread together.

This year’s holiday season looms like one long Advent. In order to be safe, we must keep our lamps lit to prepare for the coming of better times and they will come, but not as quickly as we would like. But for now, we have to rely on opening doors to the simplest pleasures—an outdoor visit with old friends on a balmy November day. An unexpected gift of freshly baked bread from neighbors we barely know. A new appreciation for having fewer places to go, although I long for the days when we can once again roam freely without fear of infecting ourselves and others.

I will cook a small Thanksgiving dinner this week, we’ll deliver it to a relative who lives nearby and then all eat together via Zoom. There will still be the smell of roasting turkey and grace said and conversation at our respective tables. We will still decorate for Christmas in our usual over-the-top way even if no one sees it except us and the pets and the neighbors. We will surround ourselves with beautiful Christmas music although the day I can once again put on choir vestments or concert attire and sing with others will be one of pure joy. We will still celebrate Christ’s birth although this year it will be from our living room in front of the TV instead of in a packed candlelit church.

I see all of these little scraps of normalcy as gifts hidden behind the Advent calendar doors. They’re just pictures and reminders of the real thing, but they are enough to get us through and give us hope. I still think I want a calendar this year, though, because every time I open a door, it feels like progress toward something better.

November Perspective

Quiet Sunday, as most of them are these days. No rushing off to church and choir practice or drum corps rehearsal. A lot to process as we trim back bushes and shrubs and clean up pots of fading annuals which have given it their all since May. As the hibiscus and mandevilla continue to push out a few token blooms in the seventy-degree weather, it’s hard to believe we’ll be hanging Christmas lights in a few short weeks.

Recent days brought stress and shock and relief and joy all co-mingled together and sometimes changing by the minute. A sleepless night glued to the television watching election results. Constant worry about the impact of this raging virus. Talking with a friend who is dealing with her elderly father’s illness from 800 miles away, after burying her mother in June. Feeling grateful for another year of normal mammogram results, over which the shadow of my mother’s death from breast cancer always looms large. Cautious optimism that there will be different and better paths ahead for our country.

When the news broke on Saturday, I was sitting with two former teaching colleagues enjoying an outdoor lunch. One of us, someone I have known and respected for many years, said truly terrible things about the election. He spoke as calmly as if he were talking about the weather, I suppose assuming that we were all on the same page. The cruelty of his words took my breath away. I wanted to get up and leave or make a scene and shout back at him, “How could you be an educated person and caring teacher and say things like that?” His remarks went way beyond disappointment that his candidate didn’t win or that his side of the issues may not be supported. His words cut deeply, making ugly and false generalizations about entire groups of people.

I immediately changed the subject and we talked about music during Covid and dealing with aging parents and, to be honest, I don’t even remember a lot of the conversation because I was in such shock. It is one thing to experience hatred on our screens but quite another when it comes at us from across the table when we least expect it. I don’t know if not engaging was the right thing to do. Looking back, I wish I would have told him how much his words hurt me personally. He needed to know that. This business of justifying any twisting of the truth along with the blanket disparagement of anyone who does not agree with us as a means to an end is not the way to heal and grow as a country. Or as human beings.  

I’m writing on the porch the way I sometimes do in the spring and summer, except it’s November. Despite the balmy weather, winter birds cluster at the feeder and the goldfinches have exchanged their bright yellow plumage for drab gray-brown. The vegetable garden is bare except for a few cauliflower plants and a stalk or two of brussels sprouts. Colorful leaves still remain on some of the trees but the majority cling to our shoes as we traipse into the house. I am glad to see this year of illness, political rhetoric, tragic loss and violence, and blatant racism creep inexorably to its end. I cling to the hope that by the time spring returns again, we will have found a better way to be with each other. We must.

Things I Learned from Cleaning Out My Closet

I put away the shorts and sandals this week and replaced them with corduroy pants, sweaters and, ugh, shoes that require socks. I’m a neat freak who needs her clothing organized—solid or print tops, dress slacks or jeans, shoes grouped by color, etc. When I do this in the spring, it’s with joyful anticipation of outdoor swimming and deck-sitting at Ocean Pines, but the fall changeover tends to depress me, because holidays aside, I’m not a big fan of the dark months.

Like many of us, I don’t wear a lot of what’s in my closet because there’s no place to go. Not that my husband and I were living a high-end social life, but at least there were concerts and theater, dinners at nice restaurants, and the occasional party. But now, it’s mostly just jeans and tops for puttering around the house and watching Netflix at night. However, you will never, ever find me in pj’s after 8 AM, wearing sweats in public, or appearing on a zoom meeting without at least a touch of make-up.

Memories cling to our clothing like lint. I got rid of both the shirt I wore when we had to put Vinnie down in June and the one I had on when we found a friend in a serious medical crisis. The fuzzy purple robe from when I had my back surgery ten years ago still hangs in my closet, but I haven’t worn it since. On the flip side, I keep and still wear an ancient sweatshirt that was one of my last pieces of Dallastown swag and a pair of boots permanently stained with candlewax from a wonderful holiday dinner party with friends.

Clothing purchased at outlets tends to have a short shelf-life. Cutting corners never really pays in the long run.

Plain, boring, Land’s End squall coats and jackets literally last forever. I open the closet and think, “You’re still here after how many trips through the washer?” There’s something to be said for being a plugger, for just getting a job done without a lot of bells and whistles.

Clothing from a store that went out of business in 2014 (or before) needs to go. Now. No questions asked, no Marie Kondo does-it-bring-me-joy-stuff. Sometimes we have to move on and accept that what worked in the past no longer does.

Know thyself. I dressed casually when I was teaching because I was on the floor adjusting cello endpins or schlepping instruments from one school to another. Heels and dresses weren’t practical for my job or my body. I have a friend who can perfectly style an outfit and wear linen without it wrinkling. I admire her fashion gifts just like I do someone who can paint pictures or design cars, but that’s not who I am, and that’s okay.

You can never have enough good quality solid cotton tee-shirts and colorful scarves, (although Dr. Birx almost ruined me on scarves.) I also recommend those Skechers that you can wear without socks which will ease the transition from your beloved sandals to the rigid confines of winter shoes and boots.

Do not let well-meaning friends talk you into clothing you’ll never wear. I finally got rid of a wool jacket purchased on a shopping trip with friends who ooh-ed and aah-ed when I tried it on. Just looking at it makes me itch and the thing generates so much heat, I can’t imagine wearing it in above-freezing temperatures.

Most importantly, take stock every now and then. Examine what still works and what doesn’t. Get rid of the excess, the worn-out, the no-longer-fits. Perhaps give something you bought and never wore, another chance. Accept the current reality of your life and plan how you’re going to dress for it. Weigh what you want against what you already have, although the occasional splurge on something new feels so good and is absolutely necessary. And remember that in six months, the light will return and, once again, it will be time for flip-flops.

We Were a Team

You and I were a team. We were the yin and yang, the passion and the patience. You pushed me when I needed it. (“Let’s do a strings festival with every kid in the program.”) I pulled back when you needed it. (“No, you cannot send that letter to the school board.”) I was your enabler—the one who made sure the permission slips were sent and that the printed program was not only finished on time but grammatically perfect. You were my musical inspiration and my go-to person for all things strings. If I wasn’t sure about a bowing or stylistic approach for a piece, you had the answers, and they were spot-on. I watched you get squirmy middle-schoolers absolutely lit up about Mozart and Beethoven, and I learned a thing or two about what to do when you step on a podium.

We built a program where there had been none. We made music and we created art, and although other wonderful people joined us later, you and I started it. So many lives are better because of the lessons we taught in elementary school hallways and storage closets. Because of endless rehearsals and orchestra trips with long bus rides and because we fought so hard for music to be valued at a time when all that mattered were standardized test scores. And the product– from little fiddlers scratching out Twinkle, Twinkle, to the high school orchestra playing a full-blown original symphony– was second to none.

Working with someone who’s passionate about what they do isn’t always easy. I remember the frequent drama, the frustration, the texts and emails written in all caps, and that you made the F-word part of the music department’s own private mission statement. But there was always humor and laughter. The cone of silence in the stairwell for the latest juicy gossip. The stories you’d tell at our Lion’s Pride lunches. The third-grader who looked up at you after a recruiting demo and said, “Nice hair.” The comments you’d make to your high school kids that they would write down and then read back to you at the spring concert. Kids remember things that make them feel something and no one could sit in your orchestra or be around you and not feel something, even if it was occasionally fear.

Few people get to have a work relationship like ours. Back in the early days, you propped me up through my divorce and I did the same when things were rocky for you. And when we were walking down the hall a few years later and I said, “I’m in love,” you said, “Well, my God, Anne, it’s about time you got it right.” Our work together spilled over into a mutual love of church music and choral singing. What a gift it was to sing that glorious cantata last Christmas with your wonderful choir and others who were like friends and family from our teaching careers. And despite being in treatment, you still demanded the very best of the musicians in front of you.

I know these are terrible days, but I hope that hearing how you touched others brings a little comfort. I remember sitting in the auditorium with your colleagues watching you rehearse the high school orchestra. We would mutter to each other, “That music is too hard. He’s making them play it too fast, they’ll never get that right.” And yet, in the concert, your kids always came through. They got it right. You showed all of us that we can play it better than we think we can. For that, and for being such a wonderful part of my life—the annoying brother I never had, thank you, my friend.