Louisiana’s Very Own Peter Pan

Peter Pan
An Interview with Timothy Miller
Timothy Miller and his book, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle
Timothy Miller

Tim Miller, author of The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, writes so he doesn’t have to grow up.  I am convinced that one of the reasons that James Barry’s Peter Pan is an enduring hero is that no one really wants to grow up. We all have our little ways of hanging on to the delicious state of being children. For instance, I have a favorite pillow with which I’ve traveled the world.  I can’t sleep without it.  If I (horror of horrors) forget it, I pay good money to get it back from wherever it wandered off to.

a fantastical superpower
Guy pretending to be superhero
Photo by Craig Whitehead

Timothy, however, goes way beyond a favorite pillow. As a child, he found the world a wondrous place.  He gazed at all the marvelous things that big people did with their time and pondered what he might do when he grew up. He could be an actor, an artist, or a director of films. But what he really hoped to be was a superhero.  That dream came true when he discovered that his mutant super power — he could lie really well!

The bigger the lie he told, the more easily someone else believed it. It was just an easy slippery slope from telling lies to making up stories. Telling these “stories” was great fun, but when at six years old he learned to print, he began to move the tales out of his head and onto paper. Thus, as he began elementary school, he began his career as a writer.

writer, actor, and director
Stuffed Pandas in a Mexican Restaurant
Photo by Zach Rowlandson

 

 

 

He found it was a way to hold onto a favorite childhood pastime – playing with his stuffed animals. This menagerie had been the actors in the plays Tim wrote. He wrote the scripts, often only in his head as elaborate daydreams, assigned characters to each toy animal, and then directed them in their roles. With them as companions, Timothy entered a world every bit as fantastic as Never-never  Land itself. But the teasing of five older siblings pressured him into giving up the “baby” toys.  It could not, however, end the daydreams. His imagination continued to work on overdrive as he captured more and more narratives on paper.

i will never grow up
Little boy reflection in mirror
Photo by Johnny Cohen

 

 

 

 

 

To all outward appearances, Timothy grew up.  He finished school, took on various jobs, and lived an independent life.  His real world, however, opened when he returned home to his typewriter or later his computer.  Sitting there, he became the child Timothy again, making up stories. He became one of the Lost Boys.

While Timothy’s lively imagination is his greatest gift, it also can place obstacles in his path as a published writer.

walking a tight rope

Tim’s brain races. Images fly through his head. He has to remember to slow down as he writes because his reader doesn’t yet know what he knows.  He has to fill in the spaces – just enough, maybe just a hint. He doesn’t want to give away too much. Writing, he finds, is a balancing act.

It is also a struggle against boredom. Sometimes a story will bog down. Timothy finds he’d like to veer off.  At that point, he figures the reader must be bored as well. For both their sakes, he throws in a Molotov cocktail, knocking things off balance again.

 

Taking a new approach with each writing project, Timothy believes, keeps his writing lively. He doesn’t want to stay dependent on what he learned from the last thing he wrote as he begins a new piece. Good writing remains continually original, a childlike imagination knows no bounds.

imagination takes no vacation

Despite keeping the freshness of a child’s perspective, Timothy has a very adult work ethic. Right now, he has his first book newly published, his second book with his editor, and under contract, he’s working on a third book. He’s experiencing for the first time what it’s like to be involved in all aspects of publishing.

He finds it just a bit daunting but certainly never boring. He’s learning to step nimbly because the publishing business is changing so rapidly that no one really knows where it’s headed. He thinks we might see either a consolidation in one or two giant corporations or an evolution into the complete anarchy of self-publishing. “A writer,” Timothy warns, “has to be  ready to jump.”

Masked mystic
Photo by H. Rustall

So where is this boy ready to jump? Tim hopes to have the freedom to switch between genres and mix genres while still retaining his readership. He wants to avoid falling into what he call the Blue Dog trap—where you happen upon a money-making idea and then you’re shackled to that idea the rest of your life. “Why,” he asks, “did you become an artist if not to recreate yourself every time you turn around?” But he recognizes audiences are very resistant to change. That reality is like a reoccurring dream. It’s a problem that has to be worked on.

a thousand possibilities
Popcorn machine against muraled wall
Photo by Mark Wieder

When it comes to writing, however, he likens his mind to a popcorn machine. “I can take a scenario and play a thousand different variations on that. It’s hell for solving real-life problems, but it works pretty well for fiction.”

Follow Tim on his website: https://www.thestrangecasesofsherlock.com/

If you’re not running out to buy Timothy’s book already, this short intro should do the trick:

London is in flux. The clop of the hansom cab has given way to the madness of the motorcar. And Sherlock Holmes, safe in the bee-loud glades of the Sussex downs, is lured back to London when a problem is posed to him by Dr. Watson and Watson’s friend, Col. Higgins. Is the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from girl of the streets to duchess more than it seems?

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54303610-the-strange-case-of-eliza-doolittle

River Thames
Photo by David Monaghan

The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle is available from Seventh Street Books at https://www.seventhstreetbooks.com/

 

 

Too Old to Sing Rock ‘n Roll?

Woman hiking in wilderness
“Old age is not for wimps”

Man on exercise bikeThe woman in the photo was slender with clearly defined muscles rippling along her arms, torso and legs. Her eyes squinted fiercely, staring directly at the camera, in a face lined with wrinkles. Long grey hair pulled haphazardly into a bun at the nape of her wiry neck escaped in strands caught in the sweat pouring off her furrowed brow. Scrawled across the bottom of the poster, bold letters read, “Old Age Is Not for Wimps.”

Every time I exited my gym locker room, dragging my thirty-something self toward the weight machines, I paused mesmerized by that woman.  I was determined to be her, to be fit and ready for anything in my elder years.

“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” 
― 
Jean-Paul Sartre

Then and Now

I’m so glad she’s not here to judge me now. I bear no resemblance to my ideal. There have been times over the last thirty years when I approached my goal. There was that year I went to the gym three times a week.  And a different year when I woke in the dark to run three miles every weekday morning.  For almost five years I met a friend at 6 a.m. to walk two miles almost every morning. When my younger daughter was getting married, I hired a personal trainer and joined Weight Watchers for eight months.  I love those mother-of-the bride pictures!

More recently, I spent a spring and summer, working out three days a week, and building up my walking until I could walk 20 miles in a day. By October, I trekked 30 miles in one day as a participant in CureSearch’s Ultimate Hike program, a cause that has raised over 5 million dollars in the battle against childhood cancer.

Drinking by the fireplace
Photo by Sergio Solo

And it’s ageism, far more than the passage of time, that makes growing older harder for all of us.” 
― 
Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

But after the hike, just as before, I slipped into my old couch potato ways.

There Comes a Time

Now, I’m beginning to pay the price. I don’t stroll as quickly as I once did. I’m out of breath if I climb more than one flight of stairs. I fall more easily. And all this scares me.  Am I becoming an elder wimp?

The time when my motivation for losing weight and getting in shape was mostly to appear more attractive has come and gone. It’s become more a matter of life and death.  Not death in the absolute sense, but the death of the freedom to be myself, to be a person who choses what she can and cannot participate in.

I’m not alone in recognizing the now or never of this proposition. The authors of “Aging with Freedom,” a fantastic website that explores multiple aspects of transitioning into the “golden years,” studied the supposed connection between early retirement and early death.  The literature clearly indicated that it’s what you do in retirement, not when you retire that makes the difference.

If you use early-retirement to exercise more and replace or improve work with other social connections and purpose, early-retirement is good for you. It can dramatically improve both longevity and quality-of-life. https://agingwithfreedom.com/2018/03/27/early-retirement-health-odds-good-or-bad/

Women doing yogaThere go my hopes that exercise doesn’t matter anymore!

I’m looking for motivators and “tricks” and best practices to pull myself away from this computer and out onto the sidewalk or into the gym.  If you know of any, please take a minute to share them in the contact box.

I promise to let you know if I try your ideas and how they work out.

Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. Billy Graham

 

 

Sisters – A Bond Like No Other

Sisters on a couch
weird sisters

In the delightful novel, The Weird Sisters, three women in their early thirties land back at their parents’ home for a summer. The twists of fate converge to bring them together when each is facing a life-changing crisis. The author Eleanor Brown transforms these ordinary moments of everyday life into a narrative so engrossing that it’s almost impossible to put down. She does this in no small measure through her vivid portrayal of each sister and of their complex relationship.

3 sisters circa 1890
Photo from Boston Public Library

A dear friend recommended I read the book because I also am one of three sisters. She thought I might find similarity between my family and the one in the book.  On the surface, the family of this novel and my own family of origin have little in common. The heroines of the book grow up in a small mid-western town where life centers around a prestigious liberal arts college. Their father is a literature professor. My sisters and I grew up in large urban centers where manufacturing was the lifeblood of the community. Our father, as intelligent as he was, had no college degree. Popular mechanics were his passion.

first, middle, last – it makes a difference
Three Nepalese sisters
Photo by Terry Boynton

Despite these differences, from the first page the story resonated with me at a deep level. What struck me right away was the influence of birth order not just on the sisters’ place within the family, but also on the choices they had made as they left the family. I could see a parallel structure in my own family.

In the past, some psychologists like Alfred Adler, a 19th- and early 20th-century Austrian psychotherapist and founder of individual psychology, suspect that birth order leads to differences in siblings. Broader twenty-first century studies have questioned this theory,   Other studies based on Myers/Briggs theory have confirmed it.

excellent writer’s tool

Psychology aside, however, this theory works well for writers as they develop their characters. As we read, we believe. When an author weaves a fine tale in which a character’s birth order influences importance aspects of the self, readers not only accept the reality on the page, they begin to look for similarities in their own life.

Like the oldest sister in The Weird Sisters, I always had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the family. I didn’t always like that role, but I knew my parents expected me to help my mother with household tasks, caring for my younger siblings, and running errand when needed.

caught in the middle
3 Sisters from Logan, Utah
Photo by Adam Winger

In the book, Bianca, the middle sister shrugs off the responsibilities of home and narrowness of small-town life.  She is the beauty of the family and she uses that beauty as a commodity. My middle sister was also the beauty of our family – a beauty with a prickly rose bush grown around her, keeping her separate from the rest of us – somehow living in another plain.

Her given name was Mary Antoinette. My mother never called her anything else. We siblings had trouble spilling that out all at once. At first, we called her “Marnette.” Later that phased in “Nanette,” the name we still use.  She herself insisted on being called “Mary.”  This was problematic because our youngest sister, the baby of the family, was Mary Elizabeth. Mom shorted that to Mary Beth, but then us older kids shortened it to simply “Beth,” which might have worked except that when she went to high school, she told all her new friends to simply call her “Mary.”

Consequently, if someone phoned our home and asked for “Mary,” we always had to ask, “Which one?” A little flustered, the caller would say “Mary De Jager,” to which we again answered “Which one?” My brothers and I were loud in our protests over the confusion that the two “Mary’s” were causing, but neither sister would give way.  Each hold her claim to “her” name.

the favored child
3 Sisters in Carterville IL
Photo by Blake Cheek

In The Weird Sisters, each of the young women is certain that she is actually her father’s favorite.  No such mistaken notion occurred in my household. Nanette was far and away the “favored child.” Her delicate features, huge blue eyes, and very curly flaxen hair mesmerized adults. More than that, she very early learned to be what she herself termed “a lady.”  And I talking about when she was just a kindergartener. For one thing, she would only wear dresses or skirts never jeans or shorts. My mother complied and dressed her like a favorite doll. Mom also spent a great deal of time fashioning Nanette’s curls into perfect spirals with some of them piled charmingly on top of her head.

My maternal grandmother doted on this beautiful granddaughter.  Our family, as a rule, never ate in restaurants unless we were traveling, but my grandmother and “Grandpa Ed,” her second husband loved eating out. They often took Nanette with them because they enjoyed the admiration and attention that other diners showered on her and because my sister had learned at a very young age that “children should be seen and not heard.”

As we grew Nanette became ever more attractive. When we got to our teens, she spent most of the day at the neighbor pool. She was the only one in the family who could tan. Her skin turned the color of honey in the summer and her hair bleached to an even lighter shade of blonde.

unanticipated metamorphosis
3 sisters in a rural area
Photo by Fabio Centeno

When she turned seventeen, a metamorphosis took us all by surprise. The Barbie Doll caterpillar spun a cocoon and disappeared, becoming uncommunicative and unsocial.  Nanette went to school, watched the television news, and read for hours. When the butterfly emerged, she was a socially conscious advocate, determined to make a difference in a world she deemed was falling apart. After high school graduation, she joined a group of lay missionaries. Their work took them to schools in Appalachia. She returned at the end of the summer and enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study social work.

briefly royal

She had, however, one more turn as the family beauty.  During Nanette’s sophomore year, our mother became very ill. She expressed to her middle child that she had been harboring high hopes for years that Nanette might someday be Miss America. When Nanette tried to laugh it off, Mom begged her to consider trying.  Seeing Mom’s desperation, my sister applied for the Miss St. Paul pageant – and won. My mother was in seventh heaven.  The next step, getting ready for the Miss Minnesota pageant meant taking time off from studies, but Nanette didn’t know how to refuse. In that contest, she became one of ten finalists.

Goth sisterss
Photo by Angello Pro

Then in an interview with the judges, each young woman was asked what she wanted to do with her life. Nanette laid out for them her plan to get a Master’s in Social Work and to then go to areas of the country that were under served to help those struggling with poverty and lack of supportive services.  One of the judges nodded. Then he said, “You have the talent to win this contest, but most of the girls either have no concrete plan for their life or want to go into show business.  Being Miss Minnesota would take a year out of your life.  You have a great vision. We don’t think you should waste a year of your life being a beauty queen. Go follow your dream.”

the rainbow ends here

Nanette not only understood she was relived.  She had done her best. It wasn’t meant to be.  Our mom still had her photos to display with Nanette wearing the Miss St. Paul crown.  Her daughter had done her duty as the “favored child.”

Mary Antoinette followed her own yellow brick road and became a high school counselor, devoted to helping young teens find a way to transform their most authentic dreams into reality.

“And I felt closer to you. Because you knew me so much better than I’d realized – and still loved me.”
Rosamund lupton, Sister

Three Sisters Peaks Oregon

Erin Donley: Hidden Force

book, glasses, computer

With this first post of March, 2021, I add a new feature to my website. From today forward, each month, I’ll be offering a story about a contemporary authors — how they came to this avocation and what it means to them. We begin with Erin Donley of Portland, Oregon.

brand new graduate
Radio station
Photo by Fringer Cat

Erin Donley (contact Erin at erin@erindonley.com), the force behind fourteen non-fiction books, did not set out to be a writer. Following college graduation, Erin felt unsure what field to pursue. Then, out of the blue, she landed a position at an advertising agency, which created radio commercials. Her job – sell the commercials to local businesses. Almost from the first day she began, Erin noticed an interesting discrepancy. She had much better success selling through email than in person. She went over her presentations, looking for an answer. Two facts jumped out. One, as a young, blonde, woman, she didn’t have the same credibility as her peers. And, two, on the more positive side, she excelled at written communication. This new understanding of her own potential planted a tiny seed, the one that would later lead her to seek a career as a writer.

self discovery
Girl at bookstore
Photo by John Michael Thomson

Unfortunately, it felt to her like her job demanded that she pretend to be someone not quite her true self. As much as she enjoyed business and sales, her most abiding interests were personal and professional development.  To pursue these interests, she left marketing and began working for a bookstore, where the titles focused on personal growth and self-help.

Soon after she began her new position, Erin approached the owners. “I believe,” she told them, “that I can make a positive impact on your sales and your reputation through writing a column in your newsletter.” She laid out for them her writing credentials and proposed a weekly feature, which reviewed books and interviewed authors.

a project takes off
Girl with lots of books
Photo by Annie Spratt

They accepted her proposal.  Erin let her own personality shine through in those weekly columns. She reviewed books on controversial topics.  She drew authors out about the most fascinating aspects of their lives and careers. Every week, her column had a high open rate, the response to the reviews and the interviews were numerous, and the books she featured flew off the shelves.

The writer’s seed sprouted and pushed out of the depth of Erin’s soul and discovered the sun of a satisfied audience. Erin came to know that audience intimately and to recognize that no occupation gave her as much personal satisfaction as writing.

Questions about how she could possible support herself as a writer cropped up even as she continued to enjoy her work at the bookstore. She could, she knew, write her own book, but the topics about which she was passionate were, she suspected, too controversial to attract the corporate sponsorship she might need to be successful.  In the field of personal growth literature, an author’s true income comes from teaching courses in their topic and speaking engagements before large audiences.

to be or not to be . . . a personality
Grafitti about Social media
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

Erin also had to face that publishers in the 21th century are seldom willing to take a chance on any author who does not already have a huge social media following.  They prefer writers who are “personalities.”  “Being a personality” was at odds with her true goal.  She didn’t want to be “on stage.” Earning a living and contributing to society and culture through writing were her dreams. Having a readership for Erin was quite different than having a “following.”

a happy medium

The more she pondered her quandary, the clearer it became that the best way for her to do work that satisfied her and make a living doing it was to become a ghostwriter in the field she knew best, personal-growth books. She already knew the readers, what they were seeking, what they wanted more of, what topics were getting tired, what would hit home again. The authors were close to her heart. She had seen the heartbreak and disappointment of too many when their books would be published, but wouldn’t sell. Erin knew with certainty that she could help such authors write better books.

Collaborators
Photo by Kraken Images

Fortunately, she had built up a plethora of contacts, colleagues in other bookstores and people in the book selling industry, and marketing and design experts. Also, in the seventeen years since college graduation, Erin had met industry experts and leaders in many different fields of business. Within an amazing short time, she landed a first contract. (Erin cannot reveal the names of books she ghost-writes; nondisclosure agreements are built into all her contracts.)

Her first author/client, a wealthy, impulsive individual, actually bailed while they were writing the final chapter of the book! But the process convinced her that she could keep find-tuning not only her writing, but her interaction with aspiring authors, that she was, indeed, on the road to earning a living as a writer.

where was erin?
Erin with her book
Finally she had to write her own book.

After a while, however, she sensed a “problem” in her work with her clients. She found herself saying things like, “What about this idea? Or “How about including…?” Erin realized she had to write her own book and get her passions, beliefs, and ideas into the world and out of her system. In January, 2019, she published, Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down: Face Your Power and Find Your Peace.

Being an author, she found was a much more arduous journey than being a ghost writer. It was emotionally, intellectually, and financially taxing. She felt humbled by all the help she needed to bring the book to completion. It’s not a process she wants to repeat, but in the end, it was exciting to hold in her hand the book that was truly hers, that took her own ideas out into the world. She does not, however, feel any need to “scream from the rooftops” about it.  The ideas and causes she advocates are valuable and she will continue working for them.  In the meantime, she’s more than happy to return to the anonymity of ghost writing, where she can be the hidden force behind her client’s message.

a voyage of discovery

She loves her work. Through her writing she gets to dig deep into many different subjects, becoming a mini-expert at those topics, but she’s not hemmed in by any one field. Every new book is an adventure into an exciting new area of discovery.

Although she’s completed fourteen books, Erin still feels every completed manuscript is like a small miracle. She loves the way the whole publishing team works together to bring a new work into the world. She compares it to having a child. “The moment when you first hold the book in your hands is like the moment when they first place your baby in your arms.”  All the hard work and long weeks of waiting has produced this thing of beauty!

Girl reading in sunset
Photo by Max

Knowing that the book changes the author’s life and the lives of its readers feels “absolutely wonderful.”  She knows with conviction that she is on the right path for her.  Presently, along with working on her ghost-writing projects, Erin edits work for other writers and coaches aspiring authors.  She is, however, building toward a time when instead of ghostwriting two to three books per year, she can be hired for one single, lucrative project per year. That’s her dream, and I’m convinced she’ll make it come true.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and you’ve been dreaming for a long time of writing your own non-fiction book, but just don’t know where to start, reach out to Erin.  She has co-authored memoirs, personal growth books, how-to books in fields of business, activism and other fields.  And she would love to hear from you at erin@erindonley.com.Erin with her book

 

 

 

Like a Rainbow

Rainbow over Waverly

Over the last several post, I’ve been sharing memories with my readers.  Some have been stories from my childhood. Others are tales shared with me about my parents’ or my grandparents’ lives.

Today, I return to my earliest post. This one was published over two years ago. It asks readers to join me, to share their stories and to share photographs that illustrate those stories.  It’s a BIG ASK. But, boldly, I do it again.

somewhere over the rainbow

Yellow brickroad to OzLike a rainbow, families begin and end in misty places we never actually see.  Some of its colors we perceive quite clearly. Others are not so easily defined. But together all these hues represent who we are and what we can be.

Every known human society has had distinctive ways of constructing family relationships.  All have recognized this web of intimate inter-connection as essential to human survival.

Our own contemporary Western culture is no different.  The turmoil of immigration and mobility has severed our links to our ancestors. Feeling uprooted, yearning for connection, we turn to genealogists to find out who our great-grandparents were and where they came from.

That only gets us names and dates.  It doesn’t connect people to one another.  Even if I unearth some photos to go with the names,  I mostly find myself staring at …..strangers.

Back to the Future

Old photosI cannot undo the past. But there’s another impossibility I may be able to pull off. I can travel “Back to the Future.”  Before you start calling in the guys with the straight jackets, let me assure you that I am not planning on building a Time Machine.

Rather through memory and imagination, I will visit the past as I knew it and bring back stories of those times and those people, preserving them for today’s children and also for the children at the other end of the rainbow.

I invite you to companion me on my quest.  Share your stories of our families’ past adventures and everyday events. Send me photos that illustrate those tales. Don’t limit yourself to the past. Today will soon be yesterday. So let’s hear what’s happening in the family right now, especially the funny stories that will tickle the ribs of future grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews as well.

sundays at nana’s house

Jay having dinner with Terrence's familyMany of us remember a time when almost every Sunday, the extended family gathered at a grandmother’s or great-aunt’s home for Sunday dinner.  It takes events of great joy or deep sadness to bring us all together today.  This blog will be a virtual “Dinner at Nana’s House,” a place and time to celebrate that in some way everyone here is family.

I am reaching out to everyone I have been fortunate enough to call “family.” Here we’ll ask real questions, not fill in some fantasy quiz. We ask because we truly want to know the answers.

Asking is not probing.  There will still be secrets.  Every family has them. But we will so much more about each other than we do now. Day by day we’ll be more and more connected. Knowing will enable caring. Caring will engender a tradition of support. This will be our legacy.

abundance of connection
At my father's Wisconsin cabin
John DeJager’s Lake Cabin

My life’s journey began in the midst of abundant family. On the day I was born my four grandparents lived nearby, my two uncles were fighting in World War II, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. As the first child of two oldest children, I did not, as yet, have any aunts, siblings, or cousins.  Those would come later. I was, however, blessed with an abundance of great-aunts and  great-uncles, a slew of second and third cousins, and best of all, two lovely great-grandmothers.  It is my great hope that all these wonderful folks will star somewhere in the dramas to appear on these pages.

No more photos without names. No more names without faces. Future children of the clans will inherit the rich narrative of their origins.  knowing where they come from will give them true direction as to where they can go.

“Families are like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.” https://www.treasurequotes.com/quotes/families-are-like-branches-on-a-tree-we-grow

Might Southern Oak
Photo by Andrew Shelley

Let the Clan Gathering Begin.

 

The Sky Is The Limit!

Irises

Over the last two blog posts, I’ve shared two events in my own “coming-of-age” experiences when my world suddenly became much wider.

This week a guest blogger, Nancy Louise, weaves a tale similar and yet very different than those stories of a time in her childhood when the door to a possible new life opened up for her.

Hitting Rock Bottom

Huge family of young childrenRight before my ninth birthday my Daddy was killed in a car accident in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the many towns I’d lived in over the course of my short life. His death left my Mama with six young’uns, under the age of ten to raise on her own. I was the second oldest. Unable to consider employment and with no means of support, Mama moved us into ‘The Projects,” free housing for indigent families. We froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer, but we stayed together with a roof over our head.

Housing project
Photo by Joel Muriz

The Federal Housing Projects of the 1950’s was very basic. Everything was concrete and hard metal. And HOT! Hard Edged. Teaming with kids. And noisy. Always very, very noisy. I loved to escape—if only for a little while, if only in my imagination.

a trick of the imagination
Girl in African dress
Photo by Magdalena Manchee

Of course, we had no car. We lugged our groceries home on foot. As the oldest girl —that task frequently fell to me. From our apartment house, in one direction on Southern Avenue stood the A&P, the source of most of our groceries. But in my fantasy world, I trekked not to a supermarket, but to deepest Africa. On my way home, I strode down Southern Avenue precariously balancing dry goods, such as a 25-pound sack of flour on my head. As I bounced along, I swayed my hips and sang nonsense words what I told myself was “jungle language.” I was no longer a Southern school girl; I had morphed into a bearer on Safari! The blessing of a great imagination lit up my dull, everyday life!

In the other direction on Southern was “The Cotton Boll”—an early convenience store with higher prices and, therefore, only used for “emergencies” —like when we ran out the baby’s milk a.k.a. a can of Pet.

secret garden
Deserted lot by railroad tracks
Photo by Wil Steward

One fine spring day Mama sent me up to the Cotton Boll to fetch something-or-other—she probably hoped quickly! On the four-block walk, I passed by a huge empty lot that backed up to a ridge with the railroad tracks on top. The lot looked nasty, filled with high weeds, scrubby bushes, rusted out car parts and trash.

Girl picking blackberriesAlways a curious child, I forgot my mother’s urgency, and I decided to “explore” the lot, just as any self-respecting adventurer would do.  Also, I was in search of blackberry bushes, which I knew grew plentifully along the top of that ridge on the rail road tracks. Blackberries were the only fresh fruit we could afford growing up because they were free for the picking. But I didn’t find any blackberries.

Instead, there in the back corner of the lot I found something I never expected to see. An enormous patch of purple irises in full bloom! I have no idea how they got there. Perhaps in the far distant past there had been a house on the lot and had irises graced the back yard. Or perhaps one bulb floated in on a strong wind one day, took root and multiplied as irises are wont to do.

a place for dreaming
Irises under blue sky
Photo by Roberta Guillen

But for whatever reason…there they were. Totally unknown to the world. . .except me! I got down on all fours, crawled past the brambles and weeds into the patch, I carefully turned over on my back in such a way that all I could see was a wide, open sky framed by the purple blooms. As I lay in total quiet of my hidden garden, my heart swelled and out of nowhere, as though spoken by the wind, words swept into my head, “THE SKY’S THE LIMIT”.

I never shared the secret of the irises with anyone. But each spring for years after, I would make a pilgrimage to “my garden,” lie in the blooms, and dream – very big dreams of a life that would take me far beyond “the projects.”

the journey begins
Painting of nuns singing
@Eurpeana

As a first step toward the dream, at sixteen I entered the convent. While I prepared for a life of dedicated sisterhood, “progress” came to my old neighborhood. Southern Avenue was ripped up.  The A&P and the Cotton Boll were torn down to make room for the Interstate. My irises disappeared forever.

After four years, I left the convent, a good, but heartbreaking decision. The move thrust me unawares into the American 60s.  New things were “Blowing’ in the Wind”. I couldn’t go back home. My dreams still tugged at me. I went into training to become an airline stewardess. (Never a “flight attendant” mind you. But that’s another story!) My “stew” job launched me into a career in travel.

Airplane wing w sunset
Photo by Nick Pryde

Just as I dreamed in my garden, I left the projects far behind. I spent my life leading tour groups to every corners of the world. With each and every trip, I grew more and more aware of that God always walked with me, showing me those Limitless Skies.

In the Driver’s Seat

Young girl adjusts car mirror

On the February day I turned fifteen years and six months, “Let’s get Jule driving,” became a rallying cry of my family.

a family project
Cowboy boots
Photo by Jon Siler

My mother and all my siblings had a stake in the endeavor. Mom wanted to delegate some of the responsibility for errand running. She also planned that I would help to ferry the other kids to and from their many activities. My brother John, just twenty months my junior, knew if I had a little more freedom to come and go from our far-flung ex-urban ranch house than he could hitch a ride on those forays.

My grade-school age brother and sister plotted visits to our small- town cinema for the Saturday cowboy matinees. They went so far as to hope to swing through the drive-in for a milkshake after the movie. If Mom didn’t have to drive us herself, she might be less reluctant to watch our allowance go for such frivolities. My toddler sister caught the enthusiasm from the rest of us.  She knew from experience that Mom expected me to take her with me wherever I went.

a nervous dad
Little girl crosses river on a log
Photo by Morgan de Lossy

The only one not wholeheartedly cheering on the project was my dad.  And with good reason. Between the fifteen and a half-year old who didn’t know the first thing about piloting an automobile and a sixteen year old, who could pass her driver’s test, was a gigantic void. It would be his job to fill that void, if not with expertise, then with enough skills that I could get around without killing myself or anyone else. He didn’t relish the opportunity.

Dad himself was a self-taught driver. Neither his parents nor my mother’s drove. Dad had lived on a farm as a teen during the Great Depression.  He learned to drive, starting with farm vehicles before moving on to cars. At first, he had mostly driven around the farm or just as far as a neighbor’s place. By the time his family moved to Detroit, he had several years of driving under his belt and didn’t find the city quite as daunting as it might have been.  That is, until he had to teach his new wife to drive.  Memories of those harrowing weeks haunted him as he contemplated teaching his eldest daughter the rudiments of the road.

here we go
Vintage Station Wagon
Photo by Tyler Nix

On the plus side, he had moved his family to a small Indiana city two years before. I would not have to learn to drive in Detroit.  He had also built a home for us at the far edges of that city, Muncie. So, there were relatively quiet roads for me to practice driving.

That didn’t make it a piece of cake.  For one thing, my mom refused to let him to use the family station wagon as my learning vehicle. A beautiful scarlet model with wooden paneling and tons of chrome, it was only slightly less fragile than a china tea set. Jeopardizing its sleek looks by letting a young teen get behind the wheel wasn’t happening on her watch.

built to take it
1940s car
Photo by Brett Jordan

Instead, I learned to drive behind the gigantic wheel of a 1948 Chevrolet four-door sedan. The color of an Army tank, it highly resembled a military vehicle with its blunt lines and no-nonsense massive proportions. I felt like a midget as I crawled behind the wheel for the first time as my dad slid into the passenger seat.

A serious problem presented immediately. I couldn’t see over the wheel. There was no way to adjust the height of the seat. So, Dad got an old guilder cushion from the garage and propped it under me.  Okay, now I could see out the windshield, but I could barely reach the accelerator.  Another cushion wedged behind me somewhat corrected that difficulty.  And we were off to the races.

hours spent going nowhere
Vintage dashboard
Photo by Eric Marty

Not literally, of course, because that first afternoon we never left the driveway. For hours, I simply practiced turning on the lights and windshield wipers, learning the correct signals for a right turn or a left turn, and learning to read the many gauges on the dashboard. The whole time my siblings formed a semi-circle around the hood of the car as though I was a circus act. After a long two hours, I thankfully ended the show, ran into our house, and flung myself across my bed in tears. I felt certain I’d never learn to drive such a complicated machine.

Bit by bit, however, I mastered the basics of driving although the other lessons weren’t burnt into my memory like that one. I do remember the struggle with shifting gears. Because he was a pretty smart guy, my dad had backed into the driveway so I could drive out. After all, backing out before I knew how to go forward would have been a formula for disaster.  At first, I couldn’t even get out of the driveway because coordinating the shifting of the gears with alternating my feet between pedals felt like juggling on a unicycle – impossible for someone with so little synergy. When I did make it out of the driveway, it took several days’ practice before I could drive around our sparsely- populated block without stalling.

uphill and down
Curvy country roads
Photo by Apollo Photography

The elation I felt when I finally achieved it was short lived.  Now, pointed out, I needed to learn how to change gears going up and down hills.  Is there anything scarier than feeling the car you are driving start to roll inexorably backwards because you can’t get it into gear?  At almost sixteen, I didn’t think so.  Fortunately, my father knew a lot of the less-trafficked hills in the area.

After the longest six months of my life came my sixteenth birthday.  I had already completely memorized the state driving manual.  Dad felt he’d taught me all he could. It was time for the test.  Despite a wildly beating heart and sweating hands, I passed! When we returned home and I held up my license for all to behold, my brother John gave a wild cheer and the little kids clapped. My dad collapsed into an easy chair and Mom brought him a ginger ale.

maiden voyage
Statue of Education
Photo by Adam Bouse

The next morning, Mom suggested I drive John to church with me because she wanted to go to a later Mass.  I almost didn’t understand her, but my brother did.  He grabbed the keys off the mantle where my Dad had flung them the night before, “Let’s go before she changes her mind,” he called. We were late for service because I couldn’t quite get myself to go over thirty miles an hour even on the rural roads, but we got there in one piece. Thus, when we headed home, I was feeling pretty confident that I’d turned a new corner in my life. We rode past Ball State College on our way to home.  My eyes were on the road straight ahead as I maneuvered between the cars parked at the curb and the oncoming traffic.

I felt and heard the sickening crunch at the same time. I had sideswiped a parked car. My brother let out a string of words I didn’t realize that a fourteen year old knew. We both jumped, leaving our doors wide open. Horns started to blare. John slammed his door.  I jumped back in and tried to pull forward. More loud crunching of steel on steel. I stopped. Leaving the keys in the ignition, I turned off the engine and slid out once more, closing the door behind me as I sidled along the driver’s side of the Chevy.

beginner’s misfortune
Pink vintage car tail fins
Photo by Sergei Wing

John stood gaping at a long-slung, gleaming white and pink auto with huge tail fins. The lines of burnished chrome that minutes before had detailed its classy styling, were now scrunched, torn and tattered in front of my car’s front wheel bumper.

My head whirled, my mind blanked, for a moment the world was silent. Then suddenly a string of profanity erupted behind me. The college student, into whose car I had plowed, had been dragged from his bed by friends to come survey the wreckage.

unforeseen rescue

I shrank back against the protection of our Chevy and started sobbing. A police siren cut through the shouts of the college student and his friends as a cruiser pulled alongside us. An older uniformed officer jumped out. When he saw the big guy towering over me and shaking his fist, the policeman strode over grabbed the college guy by his shoulder and pulled him away from me. He patted my shoulder, “It’s okay. Calm down. We’ll figure this out.”

“So, what happened?” He addressed the crowd at large.

My brother, never at a loss for words, piped right up and gave his version. “My sister was driving very slowly and carefully, but this is a pretty narrow street and there was a lot of traffic coming at her and just a little bit of room between them and the parked cars. I guess she misjudged it a little bit. It’s her first time driving by herself.”

The officer surveyed the scene and scowled. Then he took out his ticket book Policeman writing ticketsand scribbled furiously, tore off the ticket and shoved it at the irate college student.

“What the…!” the kid yelled.

town over gown

“You students have been told time again to park in the school parking lots. This street is a no parking after 6 p.m. Looks like you got what was coming to you for flaunting the law.” He turned to me. “I’ll get in and maneuver your car so we can get it unhooked and you can be on your way.

Once he’d freed the Chevy, we could see it had a couple of scratches, nothing more. The Impala was a disaster. “I’m going to drive you and your brother home,” he told me. “My partner will pick me up after I get things straight with your folks. These college frat boys come to town with money and fancy cars and think they own the place.  Maybe this will make them think twice.”

University in a medieval city
Photo by Sidharth Bhatia

I had just been introduced to the town-and-gown rivalry that goes back to the middle ages. Town and gown rivalries have existed ever since formal institutions of higher education were formed, and they continue to be a very serious issue in some communities.

My first encounter with the phenomenon left me somewhat bewildered, but mostly relieved. It didn’t hurt at all to have an officer of the law assuring my parents that the accident was totally the fault of “those irresponsible frat boys.”

“Academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”
Werner Herzog

I would love to hear about your first forays into driving.

NOT ALL UGLY DUCKLINGS ARE IN FAIRY TALES

Ducklings
coming of age
1960s teenage girl holding school books
Photo by Alamy

As I turned thirteen on September 8, 1955, I was still pretty much a child, taller and heavier than I had been at ten, but with much the same perspective on life, a proverbial “late-bloomer.” Within twelve months, my life would be turned upside down, but I had no hint of such a transformation on my birthday. As far back as my memory could take me, my life had followed a set pattern.

The way I lived mirrored the lives of my peers, the children of my neighborhood and my grade school.  Ours was a working-class neighborhood of Detroit during a time of relative prosperity and rigid roles. Every father I knew had a job. Every mother remained at home keeping house and watching over the children. The only diversity in our community was religious. Some families were Catholic; others were Protestant, but everyone attended one Christian church or another.

life under a shadow

This life, I had been taught to believe, was one of great fortune. As long as I could remember, my parents’ and my grandparents told my sibling and me stories about life during the Great Depression and World War II. Both my parents’ fathers had lost their jobs at one point. Each family had struggled to afford even the basic necessities.

Each of my parents saw a younger brother join the armed forces during World

Devestation of WW II
Photo from National Geographic Archives

War II. My mother’s brother was killed in Belgium. Scarred as they were by the traumas of their own youth, my mom and dad felt it imperative that their own children realize how privileged they were. We were lucky, they said, to carry lunch boxes filled with food and come home to a full dinner every night. Even when we weren’t hungry, we were expected to eat because it was a “sin” to pass up good food.

The one glitch in these secure lives were the regular school drills in which we practiced crouching beneath our desks in case of an enemy bombing. While we know now that such precautions would have been little protection against a nuclear attack, in the mid-1950s our true sense of security came from living in Detroit, Michigan. We felt far away from the range of Russian bombers. If anything, we worried more about invasions from Mars.

That autumn, however, I was about to experience three turning points much more unsettling than mere Martian landings.

out of the shadows

Girls in the 1960s dress upFirst, my acne began to clear up, to gradually fade away without leaving any scars. At the time I firmly believed that this wonderful development resulted from the strict diet my dermatologist has prescribed. This diet forbid chocolate, “fried foods,” gravy and butter. I followed it religiously. Believing as I did that it had cured my acne, I stuck to that food regime all through high school. As a result, not only did my skin clear up, but I slimmed down.  I didn’t actually lose any weight, but I grew several inches without gaining a single pound.

Following this physical transformation came a social one. The upper-grade girls of my school, St. Brigid’s, elected me President of the Sodality of Our Lady. This school organization, composed of all the girls from grades five through eight, met regularly to say the Rosary and dedicate our lives to the service of Mary. The election had no campaign. On a given day, all the eligible girls wrote the name of a girl they thought to be the model of a good Catholic, on a ballot. The nuns, our teachers, collected the ballots and counted them that night. In the morning they announced the new President.  I had not known that many girls knew my name, let alone that they would vote for me. The election caused me to reframe my understanding of my own potential.

crowning achievement
May crowning
Photo by Marites Allen

The best part of being elected to this presidency came in May. It meant I would crown the statue of Mary with roses at the end of the Marian Procession. For that occasion, my mother tailored her wedding dress so that it fit me. I felt truly beautiful as I marched solemnly down the aisle behind a double row of choir boys. But my trip up the ladder to place Our Lady’s crown over her carved stone veil was absolutely terrifying.

Soon after the May crowning, a third event set my whole life on a different course.  My father asked me, my sister, and my two brothers to remain at the dinner table after dessert one night in April. This was highly unprecedented since ordinarily I would have been expected to immediately start clearing plates and begin doing the dishes. Dad announced that we were going to be moving as soon as I graduated from the eighth grade in June. He had accepted a new job in Indiana.

mixed emotions
Quiet residential street
Photo by Juvnsky Maksimov

The announcement left us first in shock and then full of questions. My mother, we quickly learned, was deeply unhappy about the move. Her widowed mother lived across the street from us, and she didn’t want to leave her behind. Mom had moved to Detroit from Pittsburgh with her family and remembered how hard it was to settle into a new city. But my father’s opportunity was a chance to move up in his career beyond anything he had ever expected.  He couldn’t fathom turning the opportunity down.

dreams of enchantment

For me, the whole idea of leaving Detroit and starting life in a new state was

Basketball area
Photo by Hannah Gibbs

beyond exciting.  I had expected to attend a nearby Catholic all-girls school. Indiana sounded much more adventurous. We were leaving a neighborhood where over half the families were Catholic and moving a small city with no Catholic high school and only one Catholic church. I had begun to change internally. This move would allow me to try out my new wings away from my old roots.

Swan with wing spin
Photo by Gabriel Miklos

 

Dreams of becoming a nun slipped away as visions of enchanted evenings and tall dark strangers took their  place.

 

Dear Readers, Share a time when your life changed abruptly and for the better.

“Don’t worry if people think you’re crazy. You are crazy. You have that kind of intoxicating insanity that lets other people dream outside of the lines and become who they’re destined to be.”
Jennifer Elisabeth, Born Ready: Unleash Your Inner Dream Girl

Learning to Love Unconditionally

Couple looking over horizon
From one generation to the next
Grandmother in kitchen w grandson
Photo by CDC

Almost from our first meeting, my husband Jay and I recognized each other as steadfast, loyal people who held deep affection for family members and friends.  We both enjoyed sharing stories with one another about our families. We could not help but admire the authentic fondness we each felt toward our parents, our siblings, and the many members of our extended families. One of our favorite ways to spend time then and now is to reminiscence about our grandparents.

Our grandparents had helped to mold the persons we had become. We treasured them individually. Yet, we didn’t realize how fortunate we were that between us, we had six living grandparents, all of whom attended our wedding. They had just always been there for us. So, it seemed perfectly natural that they should share this important moment.  I regret that neither we nor anyone else took a photo of all six of them together that day.  We do, however, love the various shots of all of them joyfully celebrating the marriage of their oldest grandchildren.

a legacy of great worth
Couple grasping arms
Photo by Elahe Motamed

Now, a grandmother myself, I fondly reflect upon the hours and days I spent with my grandparents as I grew up. I realize now that our grandparents’ lives taught Jay and me the very traits that drew us together – steadfast loyalty and devoted affection. When Jay and I lost our grandparents to death, they left no monetary inheritance, but the legacy they left us was far richer than any financial gain. They left their stamp on our character.

The deep affection we received from our grandparents, we quite naturally pass along to our grandchildren.  Through sharing their stories in my writing, I also hope to leave a legacy not only for our grandchildren but also for their children. I want them to know how greatly they were loved even before they existed.

leaving an old world for a new one
Cattle Ranch
Photo by Lukas Gachter

In planning my blog post for the next year, I chose as a theme, “Leave a Legacy.” I begin today with one of my favorite memories of my Grandmother Wilhelmina DeJager. I know only the vaguest outlines of my Grandma Minnie’s life before she became my grandmother. What I do know is fascinating enough to make me wish I could uncover more. As a teenager, she migrated from The Netherlands with her parents and siblings to Alberta, Canada, in the early 20th century. They left behind city life in Amsterdam to settle on a cattle ranch.  It sounds so much like the “Little House on the Prairie” stories that fairly breaks my heart that the story of those days is nowhere recorded.

Minnie met my grandfather, Ted, also a Dutch immigrant, when he was working on building the trans-Canadian railroad. They fell so deeply in love that when Ted migrated to the Detroit, Michigan, and wrote to ask her to come and marry him, she did. Imagine trusting love that much!

a twentieth century dutch homemaker
Braided rug
Photo by Viktor Fopgacs

Only twenty years old when she gave birth to my father John, Minnie had every skill needed to be an accomplished homemaker and mother. She could sew clothes for her whole family. The braided rugs for the floors, the curtains on the windows, and all the bed linens were also her creations.

Grandma planted a garden. At the beginning of every winter, she canned fruits and vegetables to last until spring. When I was a child, she canned enough for our family as well. And, of course, she cooked. I loved sitting in her kitchen and dreamed of having one that would look just like it someday because the white cabinets with red trim entranced me and the smells of stews and roasts made my mouth water.

a favored grandchild

Patterns for little girls' dresses in the 1950sAbove and beyond all else, Grandma Minnie loved me unconditionally. She had only had sons and thrilled to the fact that her first grandchild was a girl.  She’d been waiting twenty-five years to make like girl clothes! The lovely thing was since she was a grandmother, there was no subtle rule that kept her from making me her favorite. Those restrictions apply to parents, but grandparents needn’t abide by them. Thus, many times during the year I had the chance to skip out on my role of “mother’s helper” in my family of five siblings and become the “one and only” pet child of my grandmother.

These opportunities would usually begin following Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ home. Instead of going home with my parents, brothers and sisters, I would stay at Grandma’s house until the next Sunday. Those weeks were truly magical. My grandmother never gave me chores to do. Although she kept busy all day long with gardening, cooking and sewing, I was free to either tag along and chat or I could entertain myself however I chose.  Both alternatives were heavenly.

a magically ordinary household
Bright kitchen
Photo by Douglas Bagg

I loved watching her feet pumping the wheel on the sewing machine and marveled at the garments that arose from under the needles. My imagination took me back in time when she covered my head with a sunbonnet and gave me a basket to hold strawberries from the garden.  She didn’t mind at all if I became bored and dug for worms instead. If she was canning, I stood on a kitchen chair right at the stove – something my mother never allowed.

Carpentry shop
Photo by Adam Patterson

My grandfather had an enormous workshop in their garage.  Despite working all day as a ship builder, he still loved crafting with his tools once he was home. For me, he created a dollhouse with four rooms of furniture. He also built a child-size hutch to house my doll dishes and doll clothes.  I had a full wardrobe of clothes for my two favorite dolls because every time my grandmother made an outfit for me, she would make identical ones for my dolls.  Grandpa also crafted a dolls’ bunk bed for them for which my grandmother made mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, and quilts.

total belonging
Furnished dollhouse
Photo by Krysztof Kowalik

Often, I would wander away from my grandmother’s activity to curl up on her cushy sofa to read a book.  Sometimes, I’d turn her whole living room into a stage for my paper dolls. At home, my play was relegated to a basement playroom.  Children were not allowed in the living room. Most weekdays, at five-thirty, I’d walk to the end of their block to wait for the city bus that brought my grandfather home from work. Neither of my grandparents drove a car. Then, as we headed home, he’d tell me stories about the ships he was building. How I wish I could have written those stories down! At home, he strode into the kitchen and encircled Grandma’s waist and kissed the back of her neck.  She always said, “Oh, go on with you, Ted. Mind the child.” He would turn to me and wink.

On Sunday morning, although my grandmother was a staunch Presbyterian, she would walk me to St. Peter’s Catholic church several blocks away to attend Mass. My father had converted to Catholicism when he married my mother.  A stipulation of allowing my grandmother to have me at her home was that she promised to take me to Mass on Sunday.  My grandfather would pick me up when services were over. As a child, I often sought solitude and actually loved being able to attend church all on my own.

being loved for being you

I have no memories of anxiously awaiting my family at dinner time.  Mostly I felt sad that I was leaving my grandmother.  These visits stretched out from the time I was five until I was thirteen. Even when I was little, I suffered pangs of guilt at being so happy to be away from home and felt bad that I got my grandparents all to myself so often.  But the joy I experienced in my grandmother’s home more than compensated for any remorse I felt over my lack of homesickness.

Not for one moment of my childhood did I doubt that I was the light of my grandmother’s life. As sure I was of this truth, I realized that she loved my siblings and my cousins very deeply as well.  It didn’t diminish our relationship in the least.  At home my parents tried to be even-handed in their treatment of five very different children. I didn’t feel cherished as “Jule,” someone unique. My parents, I felt, most valued me as the oldest, the one who could help.

John and Jule at Latrouelle FallsMy grandmother’s unconditional love had no strings attached. I did not have to earn it. Experiencing such love taught be to be openly affectionate without fear. This is a trait my husband recognized early and treasures still.

“Grandparents hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever.”

Please share a favorite memory of your grandparents?

 

The Light Returns and We Are Glad

Northern Lights in Norway
My Favorite Day of the Year
Christmas tree in Scandinavia
Photo by Samuel Bryngelsson

Today is Winter Solstice. The winter solstice is the moment in the year when Earth is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be all year. For the northern half of the planet, the winter solstice results in the shortest day of the year, meaning it has the longest period of darkness.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved this day, loved the whole idea that the light that slowly seeped away from us over the last six months is about to return.  The darkness cannot overtake us. I rejoice to know that I, along with millions of other earthly creatures, am tilting back toward the sun. At the same time, I delight in the grand array of artificial light my own species threads throughout the habitats of humanity. These cheerful beacons do not deny the darkness. Rather they proclaim that we recognize the allure of sparking light against velvet darkness. This magic combination lifts spirits and call us to make merry. Every couple must, I claimed at the beginning of this series of posts, grasp every possible reason to celebrate that comes their way.  This time of year is one of the best.

Introducing Jul
Norwegian town in winter
Photo by Vidar Nordi Mathisen

I have an odd but intent affinity for the season. My name, Jule, is an Anglicized version of the Norwegian word for Christmas, “Jul.” In Nordic tradition “Jul” stretches out for weeks. In pre-Christian times, it began around what would be for us today, mid-December and lasted until mid-January.  The time period was a month called “Ylir.” It was associated with the god, Odin. One of his many names is Jólnir which comes from the word Jól. In those ancient days, Odin traveled around Midearth more than usual visiting the locals. The children will fill socks with hay for his horse Sleipnir, and Odin might give them a small gift in return.

julenisse
Photo by j pellegen

Even today Santa Claus is not the most common Christmas icon in Norway. That honour goes to julenisse. A creation from Scandinavian folklore, a nisse (tomte in Sweden) is a short creature with a long white beard and a red hat. Julenisse means the gift-bearing nisse at Christmas time.

The real yule log

You may be more familiar with another Anglicized version of “Jul,” which is Yule. This pronunciation most likely came about because the letter “J” in Norwegian and Swedish sounds more like the English “Y” than the English “J.”  This means that while all my life the sound of my name has been identical to the word, “Jewel,” it would be more properly pronounced “Yoo-laa.” But I’ll save the whole story of how I came to be named one name and called another for another day.

The total abandonment to merriment that is the focus of the “Jul” entrances

Extra large burning log
Photo by elijah Hiett

me. There are so very many ways these people of the far north have of pushing back against the dark and the cold it can be breath taking just to read about them. We’ve all heard of the Yule Log.  For many of us, it’s a kind log-shaped cake, one of many mouth-watering sweets in which we indulge at this time of year.

The cake, however, takes its name from a very special Norse ritual. Their tradition calls for a whole tree (not just a log!) to be brought into the home to burn for the entire 12 days of Christmas. I feel all soft and fuzzy inside writing about that single tree giving Yule-Log Cakeits whole life to bring light and warmth to a family in the midst of the frigid darkness. Humans could do well to emulate the tree. Just in case you don’t have a whole tree to burn, here’s a recipe for the cake.

now that’s a party!

Those hearty Nordic folk are not, however, spending their time curled up on cozy sofas staring into the fire. No way.  They are off celebrating at multiple julebord. I have to admit – it’s super cool to share a name with such a spectacular tradition. These communal gatherings serve up trays ladened with traditional food. The most common popular dish Christmas Eve dish is ribbe,

Pork belly roast
Photo by Sebastian Coman

or seasoned pork belly. It’s usually served with sauerkraut and redcurrant sauce. Christmas sausages, cranberry sauce, and fried apple slices with honey are other common accompaniments. Here’s one that might not sound wonderful to you, but 70% of Norwegians feast on pinnekjøtt sometime over the  season. Pinnekjøtt, which translates literally into English as ‘stick meat.’ is dried and salted sheep ribs. https://www.lifeinnorway.net/christmas-food/

Clinking beer glasses
Photo by Yutacar

Usually guests and hosts consume large amounts of alcohol and then head out to a late-night party. With true festive fervor, every company, school, sports club and social group hosts their own julebord. Over the season, one most Norwegians attend two or more of these events. So, it’s no wonder that after the somewhat quieter family celebration of Julaften (Christmas Eve), the day when Norwegians exchange gifts, Norwegians welcome romjul.

time in between times

Romjul is their name for the period between Christmas and New Year’s. It roughly translates to mean a time when no one knows what to do. I can totally relate to that. If any of you have ever been at work, as I have in the past, during this particular week, you probably know what the Scandinavians mean.  Doldrums set in at work.  By Christmas, we’ve wrapped up most big project.  There’s not enough time to launch a new venture. Everyone’s still a little hung over from all that Christmas cheer while gearing up to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

And that’s just at work. At home the Christmas bubble deflates as the letdown of no more gifts sets in for the kids and diet regret takes over the adults. No one wants to watch their favorite Christmas movies any more. Going out to play is a major process of gearing up and doesn’t last for long. Yes, I have to go along with the Norwegians.  That week deserves its own name and romjul sounds just right.

year end for julewardwrites

When it comes to this blog, I think it’s only fair to let you know, I’ll be observing romjul and giving you a break from reading it for a week.  See you in 2021. Until then – –

Gingerbread house cake
Photo by Bruna Branco

God Jul! & Godt nytt år

What’s your favorite Holiday tradition?  I’d love to hear!