Posts tagged: christmas
December 15, 2013

The Measure of My Powers, 2014

This post was contributed by Katy McColl.


I stole that title from an MFK Fisher memoir, in which nearly every chapter is titled, The Measure of My Powers. The best thing about the book, in my opinion, is the epigraph:

“To be happy, you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.”

Sarah hasn’t come out and said so, but we’ve been feeling unusually powerless this year because our mom is sick.

Our mom’s a farmer’s daughter who grew up riding her bike, reading Nancy Drew novels, and teaching herself to sew upstairs in her bedroom in a 19th century house on an 18th century farm. High times were celebrated with spaghetti and juice glasses of beer (kids included!); low times meant the family survived on the cream-topped milk straight from their cows. College advising? Not so much. I hate to see you waste all your babysitting money applying and end up disappointed… said my grandmother, without acknowledging that insulating yourself from disappointment often staves off greatness, too.

Then in 1967, Procter & Gamble awarded my mother a 4-year scholarship to Smith College—petty cash and book money included! And just like that, she changed her fate. “Did you hear about the farmer’s daughter,” the owner of a feed store 20 miles away asked my grandfather, marveling. Imagine the pride he must have felt in saying she was his.

Imagine the pride I feel now that she’s mine, too. Among other things, she introduced Great Books to our elementary school and raised four children—encouraging us to dream big and mess up as often as necessary. A full year into chemo, my beloved mom can’t walk, but she spends her days running an organization dedicated to ending child poverty.

So the best I can do from my sometimes powerless perch is to invest in the next generation of problem solvers. Women like Shirley Lemus, who grew up in a remote Guatemalan village and was ostracized by relatives for not dropping out of school to support the family. She’s gone on to work with Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus to offer microcredit, healthcare, and other life-changing opportunities for the poor. She won a gifted and talented scholarship from Guatemala’s prestigious UFM university—where everyone studies economics and everyone learns how to be an entrepreneur. The school’s run on a shoestring—they’re quite proud of that—but scholarships are offered to the poorest, smartest, and most motivated students in the country. Including women intent on making the jump from the 3rd world to the 1st world—and dedicating their lives to helping other women make that jump, too.

I’m going to make a donation to the ITA Scholarship (Spanish for gifted and talented).

If you’d like to join me, I’d be very touched. More than that, actually—I’ll double your donation myself. (Just make a note of your gift in the comments section so I can be sure to match it.) Because I want us all to feel the measure of our powers grow exponentially from here on out.


p.s. I vetted this myself, but you can also read more about the scholars here, if you like.

December 6, 2012

A Simple Christmas

We have more evergreen branches and pine cones in our little apartment than we have surfaces to put them on. After Thanksgiving I carried a pair of clippers into the woods behind my mom’s house to snap off the fragrant, feathery branches of a fallen white pine. They went into a garbage bag, then into my brother’s trunk, then into a taxi cab, and then were slung over my shoulder and carried up the steps to our second-floor apartment. They are draped on top of a mirror (still holding some of last year’s Christmas cards tucked around its edges), on windowsills, and in vases on the dining table and the bedroom, with a line of pine cones in front of the television. They are a very long way from home.

In that sweet week after Thanksgiving before December hit, I caught the same “make things!” bug Molly did. I bought cheapo squat candles from the grocery store and wrapped them in brown paper bags. I had been inspired at an overpriced restaurant. The candles on our table stood inside slim glass holders wrapped in thin brown paper. The light was pure warmth and the idea was dead simple, just my kind. I made them one afternoon while watching the final season of Lark Rise to Candleford. (My, is that Gabriel smoldering. But don’t tell me what happens!)

Now on a crafting roll, I bought charming, old-fashioned scrapbook paper and watched The Goodbye Girl (watch it! so good!) on Saturday, looping the cut strips into long paper trains for our tree. It’s a giant douglas fir that stands tall next to me in our living room corner right now in front of a street-facing window. It smells like heaven and nearly touches the ceiling. We carried it home Friday night, Sebastian leading the way holding the heavy base and me trailing behind carrying the light crown. I still have a sap on my jacket.

It does not escape me that three years ago, we couldn’t afford a tree.

I loved what Elizabeth said about Little Women being the inspiration for her holidays this year: “simple and charitable, but also festive and merry and creative.” I feel the same way, and keep slowly turning the pages of that book wanting its sweet perspective to inform my life for as long as possible.

And after such a long crafting lull, I’m using the quiet joy and creativity of the season to get out of my head and use my hands. It feels good to be creative in a new way, to not rely on the will of my intellect to twist a sentence until it suits. That’s been feeling hard lately. But crafting warm golden light and handmade decorations and artfully placing tree branches around our little home seems an important part of creating the atmosphere that is my favorite part of this season: one of warmth and generosity, care and homemade mirth. For me, the sweetness of this time of year is all about the feeling of it, the way all the sensory abundance adds up to something singular. There is a woodland tree in our living room! I light the candles when I get home in the evenings and drink saison. There is something slow-simmered on the stove, and a last-minute invitation for someone to come over and share it. If we can slow down to hear it, there’s a hush.

And I still have one more garland to go. Cranberries are up next.

I’m of course interested to hear how you all keep your holidays simple and meaningful, and what traditions mean the most to you. Please share!

December 23, 2011

What Are Your Most Treasured Holiday Traditions?

Happy Christmas Eve eve, friends! Are you up to your neck in wrapping and bows? Are you buried under sacks of sugar and flour? Well, as long as you’re captive, I’ve got a little holiday tale.

A couple weeks back, I cashed in a very generous gift certificate. On a Friday evening, after a particularly bad week, I walked into a very fancy spa in a hotel. I was the only one there, so I headed to the snack area in my robe and grabbed more than my fair share of almonds and dried apricots. I hurried back to the “heat experience” room, eager to wring out every dollar’s worth of the whirlpool and sauna. Beaten by jets, pores purified, I let a woman named Karen attack the knots in my neck and shoulders. Afterward, I climbed back into my clothes, feeling as sleepy and relaxed as a baby whose been driven around in the car until she falls asleep. And while I waited for the elevator to take me back down to reality, I was transfixed by the scene in the hotel bar. It was crowded, high above the glittering lights of the city and the dark trees of Central Park. Women were holding glasses of champagne and little handbags that cost as much as my rent. You know when someone just looks expensive? It was like I was seeing dollar signs everywhere I looked, on ring fingers, hanging from earlobes, in slim martini glasses being knocked back one after another. It all started to make me sad.

Let me explain: I was very lucky to have received such a luxurious gift, and I was grateful for it. At the same time, I realized that in my own life I was regularly participating in an exchange I wasn’t sure I liked very much. My time for money; my money for things to make me feel better. Spending mindfully on objects and experiences that enrich our lives is one thing. But pissing away dollars to make up for the fact that we’re stressed, that we’re tired, that we work too hard and take too little care of ourselves––it’s a cycle all too easy to get caught up in. And there I was.

Continue reading “What Are Your Most Treasured Holiday Traditions?” »

December 5, 2011

Feeling Holiday

Are you getting holiday yet? I blame Pinterest, but I’m in full-on feeling cozy mode. Last night I sat in a corner booth in a restaurant that sits like a beacon on a quiet street corner and feels like a lodge tucked into the woods. Over plates of cheese and sausage, my book club exchanged gifts and talked about the cold wilds of Nova Scotia. And before that, I walked with my husband as he carried a Christmas tree on his shoulder back to our house. We cut the clear fishing wire netting loose and tucked lights into its branches. We listened to carols, I bought whole milk for homemade hot chocolate, and though the temperatures hover in the 50-60 degree range, I happily wiled away an hour or two making this Christmas vision board.

Who knows what does it? Sometimes we’re in the mood for the holidays and sometimes we’re just not. But even the years when I feel pretty grinchy, I can usually still manage to see the charm in a hot toddy and a digitized fireplace. What I like best is the world at large agreeing to champion the virtues of coziness: curling up, staying home, and cocooning yourself in warmth.

So even if I’ll never get excited about the jangly Christmas jingles in the drugstore or the deep discounts that make me seriously consider buying things I don’t really need or want, I can get behind that: more candles on the table, vintage ornaments, and a cheerful, twinkling tree in the corner.

Where are you on the feeling-holiday-o-meter this year?