The Stealth Kid

Child in mask
When you least expected it
Boy flying high on a swing
Photo by Vika Strawberrika

Our fourth child and only son had a way of quietly disappearing just when you least expected it. So, maybe his unexpected death at age thirty shouldn’t have taken us so much by surprise. But it did and in my dreams, I keep looking for him, certain I’ll find him just as we did those many other times.

The secret to Johnny’s ability to disappear so quickly was he never gave himself away. He was simply there one minute and poof! Gone the next.

a more typical runaway
Little boy in raincoat and backpack
Photo by Daiga Ellaby

His same age cousin Danny was just the opposite. When presented with a new baby brother, Danny had told his parents he didn’t want a brother. They would have to take this squalling infant back to the hospital where they had got him.  When his parents insisted that Jamie was there to stay, his six-year-old brother proclaimed, “Okay, I’m running away from home.”

His distracted, tired mom Amy replied, “Go ahead.” Danny then packed his Spiderman backpack full of food and slammed out the back door. Fifteen minutes later their phone rang.  A neighboring mom, who lived three houses away, told Amy, “Danny is at our house, and he says that you told him it was okay to run away.  He wants to know if he can live with us.”

wandering to, not from

Johnny never announced his intention to leave.  He wasn’t running away. He was wandering to … albeit he didn’t know where. The first time I couldn’t find him he was barely six months old. I had run to kitchen to check on a stew on the stove and left him with his big sister playing on the floor in the den while she watched TV. Less than three minutes later, I returned to find him gone. A very agile baby, Johnny had been crawling since he turned five months old and lately had begun to pull himself up on pieces of furniture. But I was sure that wouldn’t take him very far.

StaircaseI ransacked the first floor, checking under tables and behind sofas and chairs seeking my baby. No luck. Suddenly, I heard thud, thud, thud, and a shrill cry from the direction of the stairs to the second floor. Betsy who had been helping me hunt raced up the steps and found her brother wailing on the second-floor landing.  He had climbed to the top of the stairs, but hadn’t known how to negotiate the downward trip. It was time to get some baby gates up – something his sisters hadn’t need until they were at least one year old.

where to now?

I learned from then on to keep a close eye on my adventurous preschooler, but there were still times he could slip out of sight if I were distracted by a phone call or engaged in making dinner.  One such evening, realizing I hadn’t caught sight of the four-year Johnny in a while, I left whatever I was preparing simmer while I did a house-wide search.

By now we had moved into a Victorian era, three-story row house on Belden 832 BeldenAvenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The home had five staircases and twelve rooms, not including the basement playroom. I made a whirlwind quest through all four floors of the house. No Johnny. Beginning to panic – just a little – after all, this wasn’t the first time he had done this. I pulled his sisters from whatever they were doing and sent them out into the immediate neighborhood to look for him, all the while telling myself I would surely have noticed if he had gone out the door.

an ingenuous perch
Upright piano with music
Photo by Sven Brandsma

Setting about a more thorough search of the house from top to bottom, I checked closets and corners of bedrooms between beds and window walls. No sign of Johnny in any nook or cranny. Just as I came down the front staircase to the first floor, Carrie and Betsy rushed in the door, saying they hadn’t been able to locate him in anyone’s yard and none of the neighbors had spotted him.

When I got halfway down the stairs, a slight movement fluttered at the corner of my eye. I turned sideways and looked down into the large, square foyer. There on the top of our enormous, upright piano sprawled my little boy, sound asleep. Laughter gurgled up from my belly and a grin tugged at the corners of my mouth.  I looked back at the girls and pointed to their brother.

“Johnny,” Betsy exclaimed.  But he didn’t stir an inch. Still, I had to wake him. It had been a miracle he hadn’t tumbled off in his sleep. Did he climb up there with a purpose in mind? We would never know. Maybe it simply looked like a nice quiet place to lay his tired head.

a challenger with challenges

Johnny plays dress-upJohnny had to overcome serious barriers in his struggle to lead a normal life. To help him cope in the best way possible, we enrolled him at age twelve at Misericordia, a residential school for children with development challenges

We felt grateful that Johnny remained ambulatory and coordinated.  His independence of spirit, however, continued to work at cross purposes to his poor grasp of reality. He had a way of going very quietly about doing his own thing whenever the adults responsible for his care let down their guard. His Misericordia caretakers gave him the nickname, “the stealth kid.” One May morning, he gave everyone involved in his care a genuine scare.

really gone this time?

Jay and I both took the “L” train to the Loop, Jay to his office and me to the DePaul downtown campus. When Jay arrived at his office, his secretary greeted him saying Johnny’s school needed him to call right away. He phoned the administrator of Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia.  She was extremely anxious. That morning at Misericordia, Johnny had gotten on his school bus as usual, but his teacher called his apartment to ask why they hadn’t reported that he would be absent. Johnny’s house mother told them, “Because he got on the bus this morning.”

“That’s very strange,” the teacher replied. “He didn’t arrive here.”

Johnny’s bus would have ordinarily dropped him at school at nine o’clock. By now it was nine-thirty and no one knew where Johnny might be.  When I later heard the story, I thanked my lucky stars that for once it wasn’t my heart being twisted in knots. By the time Jay was able to reach me later in the day, Johnny had been found and was on the school bus on his way back to Misericordia.

found again
Parked school buses
Photo by Robert Bunabandi

He had been discovered asleep on the back seat of the bus in the parking lot in which the bus driver stationed it in during the day. Thankfully the day was mild neither hot nor cold. It seemed that as the bus aide had lowered the lift from the bus’s side door to allow the children in wheelchairs to exit, the ambulatory kids usually went out the front door. That day, however, Johnny slipped to the back of the bus earlier. When the driver and the aide looked over the bus, it appeared empty. The aide went into school and the driver parked the bus and went home.

Once again Johnny was fine, but the people that cared most about him felt like they’d been put through a wringer. Sadly, the bus driver, a woman I really loved for her kindness to the special kids she worked with every day was suspended from her job. While in some way, I knew that she and the aide weren’t as responsible as they should have been, I could personally testify that the “stealth kid” could act in ways that were very hard to anticipate. Because he stayed so quiet, it could be hard to catch him when he chose to go his own way.

with gratitude to angels
Angles against a dark sky
Photo by James Handley

Through the years I could only accept that angels walked with Johnny. He so easily could have wandered into certain danger and never did. Even though a sudden expected brain bleed took him from us shortly before his thirtieth birthday, he slipped away quickly. He was in no pain. He wasn’t afraid.  Nothing would ever fill the empty place he left in my heart. I was grateful, though, for the deep assurance that he was as safe now as he’d always been, guided home by angels.

“But where do you live mostly now?”
With the lost boys.”
Who are they?”
They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expanses. I’m captain.”
What fun it must be!”
Yes,” said cunning Peter, “but we are rather lonely. You see we have no female companionship.”
Are none of the others girls?”
Oh no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/lost-boys

 

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

 

 

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.

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!

 

Seasonal Ambiguity

Snowy December Night
advent dilemma
Advent Wreath
Photo by Grant Whitty

In my heart of hearts, if I could wish away the season of Advent, I would.  I have never been able to “make it work.” Within my faith tradition, Christianity, Advent is one of the holiest seasons of the year. During the month before Christmas, our church calls us to fast and pray, to give alms and burn candles as we await the coming of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Although Jesus came into human history over 2,000 years ago, every year on the date, designated to celebrated his birth, Christians all over the world prepare to welcome him into their lives once again.

So, why would I vanquish such a sacred time? Because I live in a time and place where my culture overwhelms the spiritual meaning of the season with rampant worldly festivities, ones that lift me up and carry me through the dark, cold days of winter. Sadly, although most of this merrymaking has a tentative connection to the Nativity of Jesus, it has lost its solemn mode of quiet reflective waiting. And in truth, I don’t want to go back. As guilty as it makes me feel, I revel in our modern Christmas celebrations.

believe in santa claus

Toy department Marshall Field's

When I was a child, guilt about secular tradition never bothered me at all. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself, that the remorse set in and dogged my footsteps, taking little nibbles out of my joy, as I followed the traditions of my culture. Early in December, my husband Jay and I trekked through the snow-filled alleys of our Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago to the Fullerton “L” stop with all four children in tow. We rode the train to Randolph Avenue, getting off right in the basement of Marshall Field’s Department Store. We squeezed into a crowded elevator with other families and sped up to the sixth floor, a veritable children’s paradise, a square block of toys for sale.

The line to see Santa Claus usually stretched all the way back to the elevators themselves. My job, whether I cared to take it or not, was to hold a place in that slowly inching river of people. Jay had the equally challenging task of weaving with the children through the various display aisles as they concocted Christmas wish lists. Finally, it would be their turn to march up to “Santa” and sit on his (or one year her) lap and recite this list while a bored young photographer captured the less than memorable moment.

fine dining with kids!
Tree in Walnut Room
Photo by Claudio Schwarz

Next, we paraded up the escalator to the eighth floor so that we could admire the gigantic tree that stood in the center of the store’s premier restaurant, the Walnut Room, a carpeted, paneled space, reminiscent of the Victorian era.    The height of the tree always loomed far over our heads, and each year it had a different theme. By now almost exhausted and very hungry, we happily took our reserved place in the restaurant.  This experience tended to be a bit on the stressful side because fine dining and multiple children under the age of ten don’t make for a good mix.

Ringing the Salvation Army bellThe day’s rituals were not, however, quite complete.  After lunch, we joined the throng outside Field’s, sometimes in absolutely frigid weather, to circle around the store and admire that year’s Christmas windows, which most often depicted a favorite children’s story. Always, the children loved this part of the day best.  Before descending to the subway station, we performed the only authentically Advent action of the day, we each dropped several coins in the bucket of the Salvation Army bell ringer. When the children were older, we all volunteered bell ringers ourselves.

choosing the perfect tree

Christmas tree in a Victorian House

Most families have their specific ways of doing a Christmas tree. Jay had grown up with a flocked one.  To me that wasn’t quite authentic, but we weren’t die-hard enough to drive out to the country to cut down our own tree.  Rather we had our favorite close by our house, where all six of us milled around the lot, each choosing a different tree and then the negotiations began. Once we brought it home, of course, everyone agreed that we found the perfect tree.  Then the rest of us got out of the way while Jay with much under his breath cussing put up the lights.

There was one bad year. The kids had moved out of the house for college or residential living. I decided that we had decorated long enough with the ornaments that the children had made in preschool. I boxed these up and got rid of them. Then I proceeded to decorate the tree in shiny new ornaments. When the kids came home for Christmas, there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth. As far as they were concerned, I might as well have given away the family cat.

what does christmas truly mean?
Holy Family with Mary nursing and Joseph sleeping
Photo from Birmingham Museums Trust

If all this sounds to you like delightful, if exhausting celebration of annual traditions, your response is natural.  Why then did every step of the way drive virtual, yet painful, stones into my soul? There was always some part of me, that famous Catholic guilt, that chided me that I shouldn’t be giving into these materialistic rituals.  Why, I would ask myself, couldn’t I focus my children’s attention more explicitly on the religious meaning of the season.

Clip art nativity scene

We did attend Mass each Sunday, but that was no more than we did the rest of the year. I always put out an Advent Wreath, but we didn’t always remember to light the candles. Somehow writing dozens of Christmas cards seemed more important. On Christmas Eve, when the children were in grade school, they took part in the enactment of the birth of Jesus, usually as an angel or shepherd.  None of them ever quite made it to Mary or Joseph.  But our family, like many other families, gathered at the Christmas Eve afternoon Mass because Christmas morning would be completely given over to discovering what “Santa” had left under the tree – always more than there “should” have been.

let it go
Lit-up JOY
Photo by Tai Captures

Finally, however, as I matured and the children grew, I let go of my guilt and brought a sense of humor to the season. Humor is not only a necessary ingredient of any successful committed partnership, it is a great asset for all of family life. Sure this season gets a little out of control at times, a lot over the top, but at the same time, it can be so much fun! When I can take a more relaxed approach to this “happiest time of the year,” it has a better chance of fulfilling its promise.

How do you balance the sacred and the secular aspect of the winter holidays?

“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.” – Dave Barry

Laugh Together. Stay Together: Side Effect of Grape Stomping

Vineyard
Laughter: the secret of staying married
Hands filled with grapes
Photo by Labros Lyrakoris

Pretty often, Jay and I field the question, “How have you managed to stay happily married for over fifty years?” Usually we laugh because we know the questioner is looking for some deep wisdom and not expecting the response that we like to give, “grape stomping.” But we love to tell stories about driving our four kids, all under age ten to Michigan. Once there, we tossed them into a half barrel of ripe fruit and encouraged them to “smash those grapes.”

 

a tumultuous decade

2020 has been a really rough year for just about every person in the world. That’s why it vividly brings back my memories of the 1970s. In that decade our

Protestors amid fire
Photo by Hasan Almasi

children were born, grew into sturdy toddlers, and started elementary school. At the same time grand-scale tumultuous events tumbled over each other with such rapidity that we wondered if we would survive the chaos. Everything we believed in as children was called into question – our nation’s standing in the world and its ideals, our religion and its practices, our society and its standards, our culture and its aesthetic. To keep one’s balance on such shaky ground demanded not only a commitment to love, but also an ability to embrace good times when they offered themselves. Grape stomping was just such an opportunity.

necessary escapism
Grape vines in autumn
Photo by Herbert Ritsch

We found our chance to jump into this activity in southern Michigan. When most people thought of American wine in those days, they thought “California.” It’s easy to associate the growing of grapes and the production of their juice with milder climates. Today, Oregon has as wide a reputation for fine wine as her southern sister. But fifty years ago, Michigan was the third largest producer of wine in the United States.

tabor hill winery

In 1968 two twenty-something Chicagoans, Carl Banholzer and Len Olson, bought forty-five acres of farmland in Buchanan, Michigan. Totally inexperienced, they relied on knowledge gleaned from a book called American Wine and Winemaking by Phillip M. Wagner. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/03/us/philip-m-wagner-92-wine-maker-who-introduced-hybrids.html

Olsen and his wife Ellen moved into the farmhouse in November plowing

Plowing through snow
Photo by Richard Ciraulo

through a nineteen-inch snowfall to get to their new front door. The next fall the young vintners bought two tons of Delaware grapes from another local vineyard. They produced two and a half tons from the fourteen acres of young vines they had planted the year before. Now it was time to make some wine.

crushing grapes – the old-fashioned way

That’s where our family, along with dozens of other Olson and Banholzer friends, came into the picture. The two men decided to crush their first grapes the old-fashioned way, finding it easier to stomp the grapes than hand crank the grape presser. Grapes were placed in sawed-in-half wine barrels. Off came our shoes and socks and into the barrels we went. That first year we foot-stomped 400 gallons of juice for wine. Although the first bottle of wine would not be sold for two more years.

Children stomping grapesI’m not sure whether it was more fun to feel the grapes squish between our toes as the juice splashed up to our knees or to watch the delight on our children faces as they stomped merrily around in the barrels, turning shades of purple and dying their clothes with grape juice.  This was adults gone completely berserk. They were being encouraged to get “dirty,” and their parents were joining in. Adding to the merriment, the vintners hired local musicians to play upbeat jazz and country music while we stomped.  Grape crushing turned into dancing and many of us continued stomping even out of the barrels.

just recompense

When the last grape had been squished into oblivion, we ushered the children into the barn, where big tubs of warm water waited.

Cheese, grapes, wine
Photo by Jasmine Bartel

Getting rid of the purple stains had to wait until we got home.  Instead, we rubbed the kids with old towels and got them into warm clothes. Then we joined the small crowd who’d gathered to relax after the day’s labors – grape juice for kids and wine for adults. Then to say thank you, Ellen Olson treated us to a gourmet picnic spread.

A number of the people at the stomp had also helped with the work of planting and harvesting the vineyard. Olson would later say that he believed the labor-intensive work and the camaraderie it entailed helped many of his friends adjust to life during and after the Vietnam war – both those who had served and those who had struggled at home. https://silo.tips/download/michigan-wine-industry-research-state-of-michigan-department-of-agriculture-7

lifetime of laughter

Although not as deeply involved with the vineyard as those friends, Jay and I shared some of the same benefits.

feet in purple grapesJay’s work as an environmental attorney at a time when the national and international standards for the protection of the environment had only begun to be developed meant long hours, difficult briefs, and tense negotiations. It didn’t leave him with much energy or time to spend with family. During those carefree days in the vineyards, he could completely leave his worries back in Chicago. Stomping to music beats banging your fist on the table while demanding that the northern Indiana steel companies stop belching black acrid smoke into the air over the dunes.

Wine picnic
Photo by Ariel Vanessa Valdez

What I loved most was letting go of civilized standards.  I never realized until it happened to me that you give birth to stone-age humans and have only five years to transform them into citizens of the twentieth century. Those times when I could not only allow, but actually encourage my children, to be carefree and silly were few and far between.  The need to break the confines of civilized behavior made Halloween my children’s favorite holiday. Grape stomping fit into that same set of rituals, harking back to times before Victorian rigidity and contemporary rationality.

Laughter: The Cheapest Medicine

Laughter ruled the day. Everything was funny. Nothing felt forbidden. We would all be laughing in the car on the way back as we recalled various moments during the day. Of all the ties that bind Jay and me laughing together is one of the best. The silly laughter we shared during the grape stomping drew us together then. We laugh again when we remember those days and the ties become even stronger. https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/marriage/new-year-new-beginnings/

If this sounded like fun to you, you can still get in on the merriment. https://www.harborcountry-news.com/features/a-decade-of-grape-stomping-at-baroda-founders/article_5a408380-d4ba-11e9-bb5d-eb685c3388da.html

Grapes hanging on the vine
Photo by Jeremy Lwanga

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. — Friedrich Nietzsche

https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/quotes-about-laughter/