Jan 29 2013

A Love(?) Letter

Dear 2012,


I know, I know, it’s hard to say goodbye.  I don’t want you to feel slighted, now that I’m welcoming 2013 so warmly.  After all, you and I certainly had some good times.

2011 was like a bad relationship:  Dramatically fun, terrifically dangerous, and all-consuming.  That year was wrought with change and loneliness, and it presented the crippling task of facing some hard truths in my life.  I loved it in many ways and for many reasons, and I rode that wave with everything that I had.  But it’s a miracle that I made it through alive.

So you were a healthy change of pace, 2012.  If you were a novel, your theme would be “recovery”.  If you were a song, your tempo would be gentle and light.  If you were a painting, you’d be filled with frothy purples and creamy yellows.

You brought me to a new house in a thriving part of Austin.  You gave me a new roommate – another writer/divorcee/teacher whose talent in the kitchen has helped me pack (back) on a couple of those pounds that I’d lost, and whose thoughtful conversation has provided yet more insight into my life and the world.  You carried me into my second year at a new school, where I found my groove and set the tone in my classroom.  A dear friend moved away this year.  Others had babies and got married.  Some reinvented themselves, while others still searched for answers that may or may not exist.

Alas, your even-handedness led to some pretty considerable writer’s block.  There’s truth, in my case, that the poet needs the pain, and my pain was far less acute for the twelve months we had together.  But as December drew to a close, I started to work through that.  I found the inspiration you were subtly, quietly granting me.  So you and I finished on a creative high note.

2012, You offered me a new love.  And without getting into the mushy details there, let me just say – Thank you.  Like, a whole lot.  I’m taking him with me to meet 2013, FYI.

You provided me with the opportunity to breathe again; to assess and reset and settle into a newly-renovated life; to apply the lessons I’d learned (albeit messily) in 2011.  You weren’t free of conflict and struggle, but I came to you older and wiser.  I wasn’t the Colleen of 2010 or 2011.  I was changed, and I think for the better.

So cheers, 2012.  You were pretty great, and I’m sorry to see you go.  Thanks for the memories.




Jan 18 2013

Layovers and Standbyes

I was halfway to the airport in Boston, on my last day of Winter Break, when I realized that I’d screwed up the flight time.  I was going to miss it by minutes.

It was entirely my own fault.  I just hadn’t paid close enough attention.  I’d been on vacation for two weeks, and forgot what it was like to be on a schedule.  To have to worry about things like, I don’t know, time and responsibilites.

So it was that I found myself stuck in Logan International Airport, on standby, unsure when I’d be back in Austin.  I found a quiet spot to set down my dog (yes, the poor pup was traveling with me), dug my cell phone out of my bag, and tried to slow my breathing.

I could have spent the day beating myself up, wallowing in teary-eyed boredom.  And in all honesty, I almost did.  I started out with some very watery minutes on the phone with my boyfriend.  After all, I look forward to things with such fervor and enthusiasm, and the letdown when they’re over can be pretty devastating for me.  I always have to fight against a sinking feeling of loss, as if I should have somehow bottled the moments of carol-singing and fireside-sitting.  Like now that they’re over, they never existed.  Like they were only a sepia-toned, nostalgic series of good dreams.

Missing a flight on my last day on the east coast certainly didn’t help take the sting out of my looming sadness.  But Bonesaw encouraged me not to be too hard on myself.

After all, I’d just spent two full weeks on blissful vacation.  I ate well.  Drank too much.  Watched movies and sipped tea by the fire.  Went sledding (SLEDDING!) during a perfect, gentle snowstorm.  I took a walk around a frosty horse farm.  Did yoga with my very first instructor.  Worked out with my mom.  Went out to my favorite hometown restaurant.  Took photos with Santa and rode on a train through twinkly lights.  Made new friends and connected with old.

This trip was as close to perfect as it could get.  If a few long hours in a chilly airport are the worst of my problems, I have it shamefully good.

Soothed by the sound of Bonesaw’s voice, I bought a coffee and a pastry.  Settling back into my chair, I tackled the next obstacle:  How would I get to my house in Austin?  There was no telling when I’d arrive back in Texas.  It’s Friday night, I lamented silently.  Surely people will have plans!  Who’ll be available to wait around and then pick me up at a moment’s notice?

So I put out a frantic call to half a dozen friends, who responded with universal support and reassurance.  It became utterly clear that I wouldn’t be stranded at the airport after a grueling day of travel.  They’d take care of me; make the drive so that my poor dog and I could get home.  I started to feel guilty, in fact, for asking all of them in such a panic.  But I also felt overwhelmingly loved and buoyed by their replies…which caused a mild round of weepy gratitude.  Abby even reminded me that “Alcoholic drinks at airport bars often help with travel stress,” prompting a much-needed laugh.

Over the next few hours I wrote a letter to Bonesaw and scribbled away in my journal.  I touched base with a few close friends in a series of random Friday-morning text messages.  I plugged in my headphones and watched Netflix Streaming on my iPhone, contentedly whittling away the time.

The minutes passed quickly, and then I was going through security, hoping to catch a flight on standby.  Once again, I took stock:  I have a great job and even better friends.  I have a boyfriend I adore.  I have the resources, the skills, and the means to get myself out of difficult situations.  I have love in my life beyond measure.

I didn’t know if I’d make that first flight.  But I knew that the flight was a minor detail; a variable; an inconsequential matter.  The significant was rarely more clear.

Jan 11 2013

…And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Anyone who knows me is aware that I have a bit of an addiction.  To Christmas.

(Yeah, yeah…I realize that I’m a few weeks late on this post, but cut me a break.  I was busy celebrating!)

It isn’t just about the specific Christian holiday for me – it’s about the season altogether.  I was raised in a Norman-Rockwell postcard-perfect New England town, and my college was much the same.  For me, December has always meant warmth and togetherness and love.  I make potato latkes, homey soups and stews, trade gifts with friends, and avidly decorate my house.  I start planning my Christmas Day meal in October.  I’m just as happy to curl up by the fire on New Year’s Eve as I am to party in downtown Boston (or Austin, depending on the year).

This year, I was happy to make it back to Amherst for the kind of holiday that I remember with my family.  I spent one of my days in New England traveling to Connecticut, where I met some new family members.  The afternoon was filled with festive foods, games, sock puppet construction, mischievous dogs, and carol-singing.  It was my idea of the perfect Christmas party in so many ways.

That crew sang a raucous version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” … which got me thinking about all of the many things that I love about the holidays.  Some of those things are personal and specific to me.  Others are traditions for other families, too.  In honor of that song, here are just twelve of my favorite holiday traditions:

#1:  Working out with my mom

When I come home from Austin, I’m thrown off my fitness routine.  What to do without a gym membership?  My yoga studio?  Texas temperatures?  My boyfriend’s backyard weights?  My ultimate games?  But in truth, I often get a better workout back in Massachusetts, going to my mom’s gym for her intervals and cardio classes.  I always look around at the post-menopausal group and think, with no small amount of hubris, “I got this.”  And without fail, I’m dead wrong.  So wrong that I find myself bent over now and then, hands on my knees, struggling to catch my breath, feeling my groin muscles scream at me during squat after squat.

My mom is a true athlete.  She’s a rock star.  I should know better than to underestimate her fitness – and that of her friends.  But most of all, I love the example that she sets and the togetherness that these workouts provide.  Sure, I still go for runs alone, hit up my old yoga instructor for a class or two, and head to the Amherst College gym with my dad.  But there’s something fun and special about those morning classes with my mom.

#2:  Watching my younger brother open presents

I’ve heard parents say that they get to experience the wonder of Christmas through the eyes of their young children.  My family has much the same experience with my 28-year-old brother, Brendan.

Brendan was born with a rare syndrome that’s made him developmentally disabled.  He’s intelligent and social, humorous and fun, but he still maintains some of the innocence and joy that we usually only see in kids.  Brendan doesn’t care what’s inside the gifts; he just wants the experience of tearing into the paper.  He laughs out loud, signing “more” immediately after he’s finished tossing each box aside.  (This inevitably leads to all of us allowing him to open our remaining presents.)

It was the same deal this year when my parents and I took Brendan to a local park to see a display of model trains, visit Santa and Mrs. Claus, and ride on a real train that drove us through holiday lights set up along the  grounds.  The four of us linked arms against the cold, sang along with the Christmas music playing on the ride, and watched B light up just as much as the displays.

#3:  Yankee Candles

It’s a store where it’s Christmas year-round!  And they have candles with scents like “Cookies for Santa” and “Home for the Holidays” and “Christmas Eve”!

‘Nuff said.

#4 & #5:  Twilight Runs and Twinkly Lights

On Christmas day, I took a light run around my parents’ neighborhood at twilight.  My family was waiting on me to watch a movie, and the darkness was rapidly encroaching on the faux Victorians.  There was no time to spare.

After the presents and breakfast, I’d spent most of the day preparing dinner items, talking to my family, and napping by the fire.  So far, it had been perfect.  And that trend continued as I realized that twilight was actually the perfect time for some private moments of activity.  The lights were coming on in the neighborhood houses, making the snow and ice on the trees sparkle with a pre-sunset glow.  The air was chilly without being freezing.  I passed a few people, but for the most part it was a quiet, peaceful thirty (okay, twenty) minutes of alone time.  Just me, my iPod, and my thoughts.  I felt fast and healthy.  I watched my breath billow out in front of me.  I soaked in the brisk Christmas spirit amidst the growing dusk, the temperature, and the calm.

# 6, #7, and #8:  Sleeping in, Waking up early, and Naps by the Fire

I’m a teacher.  We work long hours for little pay and even less thanks and understanding.  My school begins its day extra-early, so most of us wake before 6:00am and stay up late grading papers.

Despite the difficult hours, I really love my job.  But when it’s winter break, and the hours stretch into days, and I have two weeks to visit my family…I’m even more thankful for what I do.  Because during those days, I can sleep in with my puppy, or lie in bed with my book until noon.  I can wake up early (like I did on Christmas) to make the dough for the dinner rolls.  I can stay up late watching movies or writing blog posts, knowing that there’s always time for an afternoon nap by the fire.

I wouldn’t want to go without a schedule all the time.  But during the days of Christmas break, I relish the lack of structure.

#9:  FOOD

I’m a pretty healthy person.  I try to practice portion control, and I really do love fruits and veggies.  I rarely touch fried food, and although I love cheese I’m attempting to cut back.  I love to cook, but I make an effort to balance my diet with exercise.

So when I do indulge, I go big.

At my house on Christmas, I make the dessert.  This year it was pumpkin pie and chocolate bourbon pecan.

On Christmas morning, my family eats a sausage-egg casserole that my mom prepares the night before.  We usually open our presents while it bakes, sipping coffee and listening to our growling stomachs.

Around ten years ago, we lost a good friend to cancer.  We spent many holidays with her, and she always made the best rolls.  Before she died, I got the recipe.  Ever since, Betsy’s rolls have been an important contribution to my Thanksgiving and Christmas tables.

This year we made turkey, but there’s also been ham and roast beef in the past.  My dad insists on mashed potatoes, and my brother usually eats a plate-load of stuffing.  If we can manage, we take a cold walk post-dinner to try and work off our food baby bellies.

#10:  Crowded Churches

I admit, this one is a little silly.

My family is notoriously late.  To everything.  It’s, like, a thing with us.  And we all know that Christmas Eve mass is popular and generally packed.  Add to that the fact that my brother is in a wheelchair and limited to where he sits, and you have a recipe for family grumpiness, frustration, and (inevitably) standing in the aisle rather than sitting comfortably through the service.  One year my middle brother and I even played hookie and got a drink at the bar down the street to avoid standing for 90 minutes in the choir loft.  (Not my proudest moment, but it was pretty damn fun.)

So as much as the whole will-we-get-a-seat thing can cause stress, it also brings us together in some kind of dysfunctional way.  We squeeze in close to each other; help with everyone’s jackets; whisper a little to loudly; critique the sermon; pick up Chinese food afterward.  It isn’t always pretty, and sometimes one of us gets a little impatient or short-tempered with the rest, but it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without it.

#11 and #12:  Cookie Parties and Gift Exchanges

Growing up, I watched my mom come home from cookie parties with her friends all through December.  She’d come through the door with a tray covered in treats: chocolate mint squares and molasses chews; pumpkin bars and peanut brittle; jam thumbprints and peanut butter drops.

So what was I to do but start my own tradition when I got to college?

I started hosting my own cookie exchanges with my field hockey teammates around junior year, when we all got apartments and actually had working kitchens.  The gatherings were a hit.  (I still dream about Kelly’s 7-Layer bars and compare my own snowball cookies to Megan’s.)  Now that I’m in Austin, I’ve taken the tradition with me and added a gift exchange to the mix.  This year we had almost thirty people packed into Amanda’s kitchen, and we filled the house with the smell of mulled cider.  For the first time, we had the next generation there when Molly brought her daughter, Adelaide.  The five-year-old squealed (nay, screamed) with delight when she – quite miraculously – selected a gift that included a Dora the Explorer Santa hat.

I occasionally share the spoils with my students, but it isn’t even about the sweets anymore.  Now it’s a tradition that simply rings of friendship and urban family, and helps make Austin feel like home…even if it doesn’t have snow.