Friday, December 21, 2018

Once Upon a Homesick Christmas

Oberammergau Nativity Scene circa 1956
When I was a junior in high school, our family hosted the school's 'official' exchange student. Sigrid was sixteen and from Braunschweig, West Germany (yes, the wall was still up in 1956). She arrived in Seattle in time for the first day of school in September. She was shy, still struggling with English, and the first few months were a tough adjustment for her. My ever-gracious mother did her very best to provide the nurturing care that Sigrid had grown accustomed to, but sometimes nothing Mother did could alleviate the extreme homesickness that afflicted her. If only someone in our family spoke German! (My sister had studied a lot of German, but she was in college and not home much.)

It was really hard on my mother because she felt like she couldn't find a way to truly comfort Sigrid. I wasn't much help, as much as I wanted to. Sigrid didn't jive with my friends--she was really very shy--so I led a divided life that semester: time with Sigrid vs. time with my friends. She and I walked to school together every day and I tried everything I could think of to help to integrate with the social and academic scenes, but I failed as much as my mom. The difference is I didn't take it quite as personally.

But we kept trying--and definitely had some good times, despite the stress of hosting an unhappy and sad girl living with us. She made a beautiful Advent Wreath from a coat hanger and fresh evergreens, then led us in her Lutheran Advent prayers each Sunday evening in December. When Sigrid gave my mother a gift on Christmas Day, little did anyone in the family suspect it would still be part of our Christmas decor these sixty-two years later. The Christmas box sent by Sigrid's mother to be shared with her host family made for a memorable day.

This lovely hand carved and crafted nativity scene was tagged as a special thank-you gift for my mother, who was properly impressed. "Exquisite," Mother said over and over. "Oh, Sigrid, that is so kind of your mother."  I was sixteen and had never even heard of Oberammergau, but the miniature scene enchanted everyone our family.

This photo doesn't do it justice, and it is definitely the worse for wear with tiny pieces of the carving having broken off over the many years it's been part of the Johnsone/Glerum Christmas tradition. But I still love it. Usually surrounded by my collection of eclectic angels, it has only a few angels paying homage this year. Still . . . it evokes all kinds of wonderful memories, one of the joys of the season. Thank you, Sigrid.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Mother Nature Decks the Halls (outside)

I'm scurrying around, trying to stay ahead of all the things I need or want to do this time of year, but getting nowhere fast. I've all but given up the idea of setting out anything Christmassy in the way of decor.

 In the last few days, Mother Nature has taken it upon herself to decorate the out-of-doors. It's been spectacular, and more than makes up for what there's no time for inside the house. How lucky I am to be able to walk outside in the morning to admire this incredible beauty.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Who isn't "In Search of Lost Time"?

Two months ago I set myself a literary goal to accomplish by the time I am eighty. Granted, I'm nearly four months shy of seventy-nine, so why did I need so much time? Because I've set out to read Marcel Proust's entire work, now known as In Search of Lost Time, not by its older translation, Remembrance of Things Past. Today I reached my first milestone for my goal: I finished Volume 1 (of 7), Swann's Way!

When I decided to push myself to read Proust before my next decade, I wasn't sure my timeline was realistic. Like many people I know, I had tried reading Proust multiple times in the past, rarely getting beyond the first twenty pages before flinging it aside in frustration and annoyance. What a boring, dry, long-winded work, I'd think to myself. But something kept niggling inside me over the years. If it really is the greatest work of fiction written in the twentieth century (as it is frequently called), there must be some way I could make it accessible. And that's when I thought about reading it out loud to myself. Why not! I live alone, and at least I wouldn't fall asleep reading! That turned out to be a fantastic breakthrough.

Reading it aloud has made ALL the difference. Instead of being daunted by Proust infamously lengthy sentences running upwards of a hundred words with minimal punctuation and maximum divergence from the first topic the sentence introduces, I was gripped by them. (See? I can write a long sentence, too.) Reading aloud made sense of the words and let me hear them, the bursts of thought with all the asides and deviations of a manic conversationalist. By the time I was a few dozen pages into Swann's Way, I was weeping from the pure ability of one man to express the inexpressible, to elicit emotions and reactions with thoughts and phrases and words and descriptions that come together to smash open closed places in the reader's own heart, life, psyche. Within a week of my project's undertaking, instead of setting a timer for ten minutes of reading aloud, I just read until I'd absorbed all I could. Sometimes it was only ten minutes; other times almost half-an hour. Occasionally I reverted to silent reading, becoming so swept up in the narrative.

It wasn't the storyline that kept me going. It was Proust's words drilling into my own internal blockages that made this book so memorable. My own experience and memories continued to open and reveal themselves to me. As the fictional narrator's memories explode and pour forth, they resonate on an almost unconscious level. Just when the storyline gets thin . . . so wispy it's hard to grasp, there's another aha moment  that speaks so loudly it literally takes my breath away. It's weepingly wonderful! I am beginning to understand why Proust is so esteemed. No doubt it's partly my own lifelong experience that has let me get to a place where I can let his words in and really hear the truths transmitted through this work. Am I "In Search of Lost Time?" Most definitely, in the Proustian sense. And I'm grateful to be old . . . old enough for Proust.

 As soon as I get to the bookstore, I'll get started on Volume II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. I'm optimistic I will reach my goal by March of 2020. I'm also thankful for the newish translation of all 
seven volumes from Penguin Books, which has probably helped me more than I realize.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Don't 'leaf it' to others

My walk was so pretty recently, I couldn't help but grab the trusty cell-phone camera.  As I passed by the grove of cedar trees and saw the fledgling Big Leaf Maple tree with its few remaining leaves, I was struck by how the tiny tree had giant leaves, and the giant tree had the smallest  leaves--needles.

Maybe that's a lesson for humans. The size of the impact--whether it's action-based or visual--isn't commenserate with the height, weight, age, or education of the person. It isn't how loud you shout because you can make a huge difference with a quiet voice . . . but you do need to exercise it.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Looking around on a sunny day

In the autumn it's fairly easy to see evidence of insect and arachnid activity, such as the lovely web (slightly the worse for wear, but still functional) that practically shouted at me on my morning walk recently. Because of our beautiful, sunny days and cool nights that we've been having in the Seattle area, the morning's condensing mist tends to highlight the intricate work done by spiders.

An amazing sight was right by my garage today when I drove in. I've been watching this particular spider for several weeks because she dives behind the garage door molding each time I activate the garage door opener. It's clear she's greatly disrupted whenever I use my car. But today she was too busy binding up her latest ensnarement--an insect as big, if not bigger, than she is--to even be phased by my car passing close-by.

Last, but not least, is a leaf I saw on the ground, which caused me to do a double take. Some insect had eaten it in such as way as to make me to wonder if it might hold a hidden message from an alien. Maybe if I spent enough time, I'd be able to decode a wise phrase (maybe even a complete sentence), or a formula holding the answer to some big scientific mystery.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Ok, already, it's autumn

"Yeah, I know, it's getting cooler.
The angle of the sun is lower.
The party is winding down. I've
heard it all before. So?"
 At first, there seems to be a resistance.

" All right, already--just a few more days, OK?
 It's gonna be awhile before I get back here."

"There's always one hanger-oner,
someone who doesn't want to leave the party."
"It's over! Don't you get it?"

"But it was so much fun, I don't want to leave."
Sometime soon, the hostess will turn out the lights and go to bed.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Leaning tower of cedar


Sometimes we take for granted how seriously a city takes public safety. We can rail about shortcomings of a city, but we need to notice the good stuff, too. These pictures were taken very near my house. 

They are a testimony to my city's responsiveness when a formerly healthy looking tree toppled onto a local, city-owned trail.

Thank you, City of Bothell. First, you blocked off the trail so unwitting walkers and bikers wouldn't be traveling under the unstable tree's trajectory, and then you had the worst of it removed. Let's hope the remaining section is removed before it falls of its own accord. Between the lack of rain and summer heat, a great many of our local trees are stressed.