Three Things, Issue Nineteen

How are those leftovers going? Turkey soup? Enchiladas? Or a straight-up, turkey/dressing/cranberry sammich? What’s your favorite? Now that Thanksgiving is in our rearview mirror, here are three things I do in the month before Christmas.

SOMETHING I’M LISTENING TO: CHRISTMAS MUSIC

Don’t you dare start playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Just don’t.

But as soon as the turkey carcass has been picked clean, bring it on. Beside politics, I’m not sure if there’s anything more polarizing than Christmas music. It’s about as personal as it gets. Often loaded with triggers–both good and bad–of holidays past. I cannot hear The Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping” song without revisiting the giddiness of young adulthood. Memories of hanging out with bands, long nights and loud music, feeling as though anything was possible. And the opening strains of the soundtrack of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” always brings a fullness to my heart and usually a lump in my throat as it floods my body with memories of my family and formative years. Music is always evocative, and no more so than during the holidays.

I wasn’t raised with a lot of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, but The Mister was. Sinatra’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “White Christmas” are now a part of our family’s regular rotation of holiday music. I’ll always be a sucker for any song from the classic “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” movie–probably the only movie I can actually quote entire lines from. Later in my teen years, my mom discovered Mannheim Steamroller and our house was soon filled with the synthesizer strains of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. And then, as my daughter and I began annual pilgrimages to The Nutcracker ballet, the music and melodies of Tchaikovsky’s score became ubiquitous with December.

But the music that I find myself reaching for the most during this month is classical choral music. It’s the stuff that sends shivers down my spine and tingles in my toes. It’s what springs tears to my eyes as I feel the vocal harmonies reverberate through my bones. It can be both as joyous and hopeful as Christmas morning and as dark and brooding as the longest, lonely night.

One of my favorite performances of classical choral music was many years ago when my niece performed with the Pacific Lutheran University choir at their annual Christmas concert. Held in an old church on Capitol Hill, the choir began in the balcony behind us. Ethereal and haunting, voices surrounded us as the choir began their procession down the church aisles, each member holding a single, lit candle. I’m pretty sure I cried. I might even be crying now as I remember it. Towards the end of their program, they encouraged the audience to join in with a few familiar carols, leaving the crowd buoyed by their uplifted voices. It was magnificent. All of PLU’s Christmas performances on their campus this year are sold out, but they will be doing one show in Seattle at Benaroya Hall. Grab your tickets here for the Seattle performance on December 4th and then tell me just how phenomenal it was. Because it will be. It might even make you cry, in the best possible way.

SOMETHING I’M COOKING: CHRISTMAS BAKING

I was ten when I was given the “Betty Crocker Cooky Book.” I still have it and I still use it.  I can page through that dog-eared, vanilla-stained, well-loved volume and still remember the Christmases I made that cookie and this one. The ones that bombed, the winners I still make today. It was as if with that book, I was bestowed the crown of Queen Cookie Baker of the family. It was a role I gladly accepted.

The cinnamony-pumpkin-spice of November naturally segues to rich chocolate and mint come December. There were years that I baked a dozen varieties of cookies for our holiday celebration. We even dubbed the dining room, laden with plates of sweets on Christmas Day, “The Cookie Room.” It is nothing short of impressive.

This is the month my weekends are spent baking and preparing. I make a list of the cookies I’ll be baking this year and plan my time accordingly. Tins upon tins of freshly baked cookies are packed and whisked away to the freezer until Christmas morning when everything gets pulled out and displayed in all its sweet glory. Guests arrive and gather around the table, searching for their perennial favorites, noticing flashy new ones to try. Later, plates of cookies are packaged and wrapped to take home to enjoy. Leftovers are shared far and wide with friends and family as we pick and nibble on the crumbs left behind.

If the act of baking is food for my soul, then December is replete with nourishment of the very marrow of me.

SOMETHING I’M DOING: GETTING OUTSIDE

Those hot, sunny days in August are wasted on me. Those are the days you can usually find me inside, draped in front of a fan wearing as few clothes as possible, trying to be very, very still and praying for rain. I spent most of my childhood learning how to manage the panic that would rise in my chest on those first few sunny summer days. It’s a Pacific Northwest thing, I think. That anxiety that comes when the sun makes an appearance after a long, wet, cool spring and no one knows if it will ever come out again. I swear it’s in my cells, that panic. Get outside! Do something! Go towards water! It’s taken me this long to embrace and accept my love of gray. It’s my love of gray days and a drizzly sky that gets me outside far more regularly in the fall and winter, than in the dog days of summer.

Pshhht–summer is for amateurs. Now it’s my time.

One of the best things about where I live is that I am a mere five-minute walk from a sprawling, wooded 84-acre park. Basically in my backyard, just a hop over one major street and a short traipse across the elementary school dumps me into miles of forested trails. It’s like another world. These woods and this park are my happy place. On those brilliant, bluebird days of spring and summer I share it (somewhat begrudgingly) with the neighborhood joggers and dog walkers. Come November and December though, I can go days without seeing another soul on the trails. And that’s just how I like it.

I’ve trekked through these woods weekly for the past twenty years. Don’t you get bored with it? a friend once asked me. No, never. Because just as the ocean beach at LaPush is different–sometimes vastly so–each year when I visit, so is the woods. Always changing. The lushness of summer (and snakes) giving way to the crunch and color of fall. There’s a section of the trail, hugged by a family of massive maple trees, that becomes a magical yellow brick road as they drop their platter-sized, golden leaves to the ground. It takes my breath away every time. And then, as the rains come more frequently, the crimsons and oranges and yellows of fall transition to, well, the dirt and mud and bareness of winter.

I love it all.

In winter, I see what was camouflaged by thick foliage in the summer. Summer, in all its razzle-dazzle, can be distracting. In winter, I see the bones of the woods. Abandoned bird’s nests high in the skeleton of a tree, felled limbs and trunks from the autumn storms, underbrush peppered with an impressive exhibit of mushrooms. In the winter, I learn the woods’ secrets. It’s quiet. I’m quiet.

I listen.

Getting outside and moving in the stillness and muck of winter has always been the perfect antidote to the slick and sparkly busyness of the commercialized holidays. The sting of frosty air on my cheeks, the soothing water sounds of swollen creeks, the invitation to draw within.

“The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” ~ Parker Palmer.

I’ve read enough of Parker Palmer’s books to know that he’s talking about more than the winter that happens outside our windows. Making a habit of getting out into the physical winter helps me navigate the internal winters of my soul. Nature is one helluva teacher.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d suggest you get out into it, too.

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