For Christmas this year, and for the sanity of the adults involved, we decided to buy my nephews presents as usual but draw names for each other. My dad was the lucky soul who drew me, and he won the day by getting me exactly what I most wanted: a camping hammock.
The only problem with getting a hammock for Christmas is that there’s still a lot of winter to wait through before you can use it. But, thanks to the temperate nature of the mid-Atlantic, my own temperance soon paid off, and I was able to set up my present last weekend during a hiking trip my partner and I took on Sugarloaf Mountain.
If you don’t have a hammock, get one. You can easily find inexpensive ones that do the job well; no need to get a super fancy one. Then all you have to do is learn a good knot or two, let tension and gravity do the rest, and you’ll be swinging in paradise in under five minutes.
Sharp scissors scraping
Endlessly to make blazing
Christmas ribbon curls
* * *
Christmas at my grandmother’s house was an over-the-top, magical miracle for us grandkids (my adult family would perhaps agree with only the first descriptor). You cannot even dream of the number of Christmas-themed stuffed animals and nutcrackers that littered the house. I have yet to see as many presents addressed to me sitting under a tree as I did for many years as a child, nor have I helped wrap as many.
You see, Nanny loved to cook and decorate and shop for her family, securing a line of brilliant hostesses behind her, but she tended to take on more than she could carry. So, she would employ her young granddaughters in the wrapping of all the gifts she hadn’t quite gotten to by the time Christmas night rolled around. We would sit together on the big bed in the Red Bedroom (so called after the solid scarlet hue of the 70s-style full carpeting in those quarters), surrounded by gifts, paper, and ribbons, and we would get to work.
It occurs to me now that this must have been a thought-through strategy. I’m pretty sure she always wrapped our presents first, so that when she ran out of time for wrapping, only the boys’ gifts were left, and we could finish the job without spoiling our own surprises.
Nanny’s big claim to fame is ribbon curls. Each present had dozens and dozens of ribbon curls, and there were dozens and dozens of presents, so you do the math. She taught us at a very early age how to do it, carefully tying many ribbon pieces of different colors in a crisscross pattern, and then one-by-one sliding the blade of a pair of scissors along the bottom of each piece, until you were left with an explosion of shiny, colorful curlicues – often dwarfing the present underneath.
With so many beautifully wrapped presents (and, let’s be honest, some badly wrapped ones done by a few eight year olds), perhaps the most striking thing about the whole event was not the sheer number of packages, but the love, beauty, and detail put into the wrapping itself.
When I was in middle school, my youth group signed up for a four hour shift to ring the Salvation Army bell outside the local Walmart one December night. It was particularly bitter that evening – in the teens – and so we took turns singing carols outside and running into the store to warm up for a few minutes. My parents bought us all mitten warmer packets from inside.
Despite having been in choruses and choir productions from the earliest age, no one had ever told me explicitly that you are not supposed to sing in the cold, for danger of injuring your vocal cords. I didn’t imagine that the singing term “to warm-up” might actually mean to warm up your vocal cords (something which is near impossible to do if with every breath you’re sucking in frigid northern air).
After four hours of hoarsely projecting Christmas songs at the top of my lungs (according to my logic, so as to have the greatest effect on the generosity of shoppers entering and exiting the store), I fully expected to suffer mild laryngitis the following day. What I did not expect was that my voice would still be suffering negative effects over a decade later.
Once the initial discomfort was over, a few months later, my main complaint was that my voice – speaking and singing – got tired very quickly. Words would thicken and stick in my tonsils. Reading even short things aloud became difficult. I could start out singing strong and clearly, but after about one song a hoarseness and fatigue would creep into my voice. This was not for lack of practice. I regularly participated in my school chorus, choral productions at church, and the church band on Sundays. I never had any medical confirmation of a condition, as it was only a persistent annoyance and frustration, but I knew that something had changed that night, for the worse.
Fastforward several years. Being an aunt is one of my greatest joys. Although I don’t get to see my nephews more than two or three times a year, time spent with them is very precious to me. I would do pretty much anything for them, but one thing that used to make me cringe during my visits was story time. They would request me to read book after book, and my voice would get smaller and grainier with every page. I dreaded when they brought out the books, because I knew I would have to curtail this important developmental activity. I wanted nothing more than to read aloud to them for hours (reading was pretty much the only way I could get these little boys to cuddle with me for a good amount of time), but my voice would not cooperate. I admit I was relieved (and impressed!) when the older one started reading for himself.
Only in the last few months have I noticed a marked improvement in my voice endurance. When I found out that my partner had never read Roald Dahl’s BFG as a child, it could not stand. Seeing this as a huge oversight in his education, I began to read it aloud to him, voices and all. I was surprised to find that, after a little warming up, my voice performed much better than I had expected and than historically it had. I drank a lot of water throughout, but I could easily make it through a whole chapter without my voice feeling too strained to continue.
Encouraged by this and by the fact that my partner only fell asleep a couple of times during the reading, reading aloud has become a hobby of ours, and an excellent alternative to watching TV. We are currently rereading A Wrinkle in Time together (honestly, slow going because I keep falling asleep to his calming intonations), and I imagine we’ll even one day emerge into adult fiction.
In the meantime, this hobby is good practice for when I see my nephews over New Year’s.
The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.
Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.
In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.
One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.
This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.
Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)
On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.
A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.
Sweating through sweatshirt
But shivering in shadows
That October sun
* * *
Today I stood in line to vote. It’s chilly – when in the summer we kept the door between the kitchen and the rest of the apartment closed to keep the heat out, now we’ve started closing it to keep out the cold. I didn’t wear a coat, but it was brisk enough for a sweatshirt. While I was standing in line outside the senior center where early voting is being held, the strong autumn sun beat down on our civically-minded heads. My upper body started to sweat, and I heard a couple older ladies talking behind me. I began counting syllables. “It’s hot out!” and, “That October sun… I like it.”
* * *
waiting for Ginkgo’s
bright yellow Autumn display –
lemon drop cascade
* * *
Last week a friend and I took an extended afternoon walk together around the residential areas of town, down by the water. Despite having lived here for about five years, he showed me some streets I had never walked down before. We spent quite some time sitting at a quiet little park at the end of one of the roads, watching ducks and other birds take off and land on the water, and judging the architectural successes and failures of the expensive waterfront houses.
One of the roads I had been down before. I remember it because there’s a house with an enormous ginkgo tree in its back yard. A couple years back my partner and I came across it right during its turning time, probably sometime in November. A strange thing about ginkgoes is that their leaves turn all at once from dark, deep green, to slightly paler green, to brilliant yellow. It’s very easy to miss, but we caught it that year at the optimal time. The branches of this tree extend over the entire yard, and its leaves, once entirely yellow, fell in a solid yellow carpet over the yard, the road, and even a few roads over.
But when my friend and I walked by last week, the leaves were only just turning an anemic sort of green. I tried to describe the golden scene to him, and I think I failed, as I am failing now, so I’ll leave you all with an encouragement to find a ginkgo tree in your area this fall, or at the very least google “ginkgo yellow”, and you will see what I can’t seem to describe. Perhaps rereading the haiku will help.
Yesterday, my partner and I took a day trip to Shenandoah National Park. I usually work Saturdays and often work Sundays, but I had this Sunday off and spent all week stalking the weather, hoping it would be a good day to drive through the mountains. We had rain earlier in the weekend, but Sunday’s forecast was perfect: sunny, windy (to keep the clouds away), and 50s.
The last time we made a trip to check out Shenandoah was last October. I mentioned before that this was our “hurricamping” trip – one very cold, wet, and gusty night at the Lewis Mountain campground, followed by about 60 miles of driving and stopping at every scenic overlook just to see a breathtaking wall of solid, white fog.
Here is a taste of what hurricamping looks like:
The one brilliant thing about hurricamping is that very few people want to do it. And that’s enough make me want to do it. However, most people do want to enjoy natural beauty when it’s sunny and clear (you know, when you can actually see what’s surrounding you), so we had to mentally prepare ourselves for a much more populated experience. But I was determined to see the vistas we had missed last year, so I got up (relatively) early, made coffee, packed a couple tuna sandwiches, and layered up, though not quite as dramatically this time.
Despite my best intentions and a moderate amount of effort, we didn’t arrive until nearly 11:00. By then, we had already been following a line of cars with the same day trip idea for about ten minutes. Within the first few miles, most of those cars had pulled off at one of the scenic overlooks, but we cruised by, hoping to find a spot with fewer people. Our plan worked fairly well, and we soon found some overlooks with enough wiggle room.I don’t want to sound snobby, but I honestly was disappointed. The drastic drops were pretty cool, but there was not nearly as much color as I expected for late October, and most of the overlooks overlooked shitty Virginian houses instead of wild land. The map said that there were rivers running throughout, but we didn’t see any water except a couple of irrigation ponds.
We decided swallow our distaste for crowds and find somewhere to take a short hike. We ended up at the Upper Hawksbill trail and parked in the grass on the side of the road because the lot was full. The hike really was short, and it should’ve been easy too, but being accustomed to the oxygen-rich life at around 39 feet above sea level, we huffed and puffed our way to the highest peak in the park, elevation 4,049′. Despite the lack of oxygen, the air was clean and smelled sweetly of decaying leaves. The view at the summit was nice, although again, disappointing foliage, but I pretended the town below was covered in a big lake, and that made it really quite beautiful. A daring Bichon Frise walked right up to the edge of the mountain and sniffed its approval.
Although I was generally unimpressed with the vistas, I must admit the drive itself was lovely. We saw many trees with bright yellow leaves along the way, and when the sun hit them just right, the effect was stunning. The sky was blue, the air was cold and fresh, and the ground wasn’t flat. There was ledge, there were trees, the milkweed was silky and putting to seed.
I refuse to lower my expectations for beauty, mostly because I do know it is out there, because I’ve seen it and I know others have, too. If it were at every turn, I would probably stop chasing it. But I don’t mind looking around, seeing the failures of what’s before me, but also accepting the triumphs.