Spirits and Spirits: Love and Joy Come to You

Monday Morning Musings:

“A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”

–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Christmas time

And the spirits of the past arise

Last week

I listened to Radio Times,

“The Pervasiveness of Tchaikovsky’s

The Nutcracker.”

The conductor described

The transformation to the snow scene,

A quiet moment in the action that she loves.

And when the music played

I remembered how much I loved

That section, too,

When the music swells

And the bed moves across the stage.

And it’s possible my eyes were a just a little teary

As I sat there in my car

And found my Christmas spirit.

The year we took our young daughters

To see The Nutcracker

I had won a prize,

The only time I’ve ever won a contest,

But what a spectacular one—

Box seats

At the magnificent Academy of Music

To see the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Production,

George Balanchine’s version,

A Philadelphia tradition,

Plus a tour of the stage afterward—

And, of course, a nutcracker

For our very own.


We had watched The Nutcracker ballet

On television

With Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland.

Our younger daughter was scared of the Mouse King.

But we told her to wait

And he would turn into a prince.

She did.

And he did.

The fear was gone

And she exclaimed,

“Princey Prince, I love you!”

A phrase we later quoted

Back at her.

Innumerable times.

It never bothered her,

And why should it?

She has her own prince now

Though he was never a Mouse King

He has also been transformed

But aren’t we all?


There was no such outburst

During the Academy performance.

Our young daughters had been sick,

But they rallied enough to see the performance.

Somewhere there’s a photo

Taken on the stage

Of one daughter with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

I searched for it—

It was a Polaroid

Remember those?

In the days before cell phone cameras?

It’s in my memory,

The whole experience

A Christmas Past,

But I wonder if my daughters remember it

At all.


Our daughters often got sick at Christmas.

There was the year they had chicken pox,

First the older,

Then the younger.

Oatmeal baths

And calamine lotion.

In the midst of Christmas presents

And treats.


Then there was the year

We had to leave my mother’s

Suddenly and before

The festivities began.

The girls dozed on her bed–

With no interest in presents

Or treats.

We knew then they must be sick.

So back home we went to

Put them to bed.

We had planned to eat dinner

At my mom’s that night—

Perhaps the traditional Christmas dinner,

Bagels and lox?

And then travel to my in-laws’ house

The next day.

So we had nothing ready

For a quick meal.

Even the Chinese restaurants

In our neighborhood

Were closed.

I think my husband and I ate

Cold cereal that night.

Or perhaps peanut butter and jam.

But from then on

I always had a backup meal idea.

Lesson learned.


All those Christmases

With our daughters growing up.

Breakfasts with Santa

And the light show at Wanamaker’s,

The old department store

Now a Macy’s.

The high school Christmas concerts,

I loved the Madrigal performances best,

The girls in their beautiful Renaissance gowns.

My older daughter with her older friends

My younger daughter’s powerful soprano

Ringing out

“Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail, too.”


Madrigal Gown serving double duty in a high school musical performance.


Now both girls are grown

And building their own traditions

With their spouses

One memory at a time.

As I unwrap my own.

Last year on Christmas Eve

Our son-in-law proposed to

Our younger daughter.

Dreams of future Christmases

In their heads.

I was also engaged

At Christmas time,

Many years ago

And many Christmases past.

That young woman still lives

Somewhere inside me

Dreams and experiences

A kaleidoscope of spirits

Past, present, and future.

Dizzying to try to sort them all

But somehow comforting, too.

Cozy memories

Providing Christmas cheer

As Christmas spirits should.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

As for other Christmas spirits–

Mulled wine was our drink of choice this Christmas season.

It is simple enough to make by gently heating red wine with cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger, orange slices, and a bit of sugar.

You can add some port to make Smoking Bishop. See Tori Avey’s recipe here

And more history from NPR here.

But we went the easy route this year by buying some already spiced red wine.


And added to the cookie rotation

These Pecan Pie Truffles with a bit of bourbon. Delicious!

A bit of spirit for the spirit.

So to speak.

















Childhood Dreams, Childhood Memories

“Walkin’ through the world
Things happen
Right before your eyes
Things happen
Soon enough you’re lost
And thinkin’
When I’m gonna go back home”
–John Kander and Fred Ebb, “Go Back Home,”
The Scottsboro Boys


I was in my car today listening to Radio Times, as poet Lynn Levin described the doll on the cover of her new book Miss Plastique. The brief discussion brought back vivid memories of my daughters playing with their dolls. They loved playing with “the Barbs,” and gave each one a name. I remember Mary, Colonial, Tracy (aka Tracy-Hopping-on-One-Foot after she lost a leg). The Barbies had so many adventures—some of which, I recently discovered, I knew nothing about. It’s probably better that way. I did witness though, and participated in, many of the dolls’ escapades. Little Women Barbies was a favorite game of my younger daughter that we played together when her older sister was at school. She selected particular Barbie Dolls to be the main characters of Louisa May Alcott’s story. In my daughter’s Barbie version, Amy had superhuman gymnastic abilities and drove a car. And I’m pretty sure I remember Aunt March sang “Bare Necessities.” I’m not certain why.


Dolls have existed since ancient times and in cultures throughout the world. (See an example here.)
They can be made from all sorts of material. My daughters made paper doll families, seashell families, and on one family vacation, they made a family from the chopsticks they took home from a restaurant. I was never worried about them being unduly influenced by Barbie’s freakish body. Clearly, the dolls were merely props for the worlds their imaginations created.


These reflections about dolls and childhood came after my checkup with my oncologist. He said everything looks great. I was relieved, of course. I know how easily I could have been told something else. Yesterday I had attended the funeral of a young man who died much too soon. He was only 23, barely out of boyhood. I am happy that I am well, but it makes me feel almost guilty. I cherish the memories of my daughters’ childhoods, but they are alive, and this wonderful young man is not. His family has the memories of his childhood to cherish, but he is no longer with them, and memories are all they have.


Like many people here in the US, I’ve been feeling that “Right before your eyes things happen.” In the case of the “Scottsboro Boys,” it was being on a freight train at the wrong time and place. Last week it was watching a marathon in Boston. Why is one person injured, while someone else moments before just happened to move away? Sometimes randomness is reassuring, but at other times it’s frightening. Since prehistoric times, humans have tried to understand fate, but it is impossible, of course. “Giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel”


Girl with collection of dolls

Girl with collection of dolls (Photo credit: George Eastman House)

spins and we don’t know what it will bring. Perhaps that is one reason why children are so drawn to dolls. They can be held, loved, and cherished. They can be used to create a new universe where characters in a novel take on new lives, or where a family member still exists. They can help to bring shape and order to a random world.


Detail showing the "Prince of Hell"....

Detail showing the “Prince of Hell”. Gibson compares the monster to a similar figure in the 12th century Irish religious text Vision of Tundale, who feeds on the souls of corrupt and lecherous clergy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I remember the staff at our public school. You know, we had a saying, uh, that those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym. And, uh, those who couldn’t do anything, I think, were assigned to our school.”

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), Annie Hall (1977)

I have enormous respect for teachers—even gym teachers—but when I was in 7th grade I dreamt that my gym teacher locked me up in prison. She was probably not the ogre I imagined her to be. In my memory, she is a small, wiry, grizzled woman with short, gray hair, but my memory could be wrong. I’m certain she did not single me out for torture; I was noticeable to her only because of my clumsiness and my unfamiliarity with sports and sports equipment. Whether through lack of time or lack of inclination, she made no effort to find out anything about me. She didn’t know that I had no experience with an intense junior high school physical education program.

I was uncomfortable in my body, as many girls are at that age. Through a combination of willpower, diet changes, and walking, I had lost about twenty pounds between the end of 6th grade in Dallas and my move to Havertown the following spring. My body was lighter, but my soul was still confused. I had both the energy and the self-consciousness of youth.

I started thinking about my own relationship with exercise and how it has changed over my lifetime because of a recent discussion about recess on the wonderful Philadelphia public radio show, Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane. Many schools in the United States have eliminated, or are considering eliminating recess. How sad it is that having an opportunity to get up and stretch and relax is considered a luxury for both children and adults. When I was in elementary school we had free time after lunch to wander around the schoolyard (to me the space seemed enormous), to play on the monkey bars, jungle gyms, and swings, or to throw a ball around. Although I did not engage in vigorous physical activity, I enjoyed the freedom to walk around and think without being bothered by teachers or confined by desks or tables.

In elementary school, we had physical education classes two to three times per week. On gym days, we girls wore shorts under our dresses because we were not permitted to wear shorts or pants to school, but we were also not supposed to show our underwear. We did a variety of activities including relay races, square dancing, and calisthenics. My classmates and I were excited when we got to use scooters. These scooters were little wooden squares with four wheels. You sat on, or draped yourself over the square “seat” and pushed with your hands. I wonder—do elementary schools still have scooters like that?

My gym classes in 7th grade in Dallas were markedly different. Girls and boys were separated. We now had ugly white, cotton one-piece uniforms to wear during class.  At “that time of the month,” girls did not have to put on the uniforms or participate in gym. But I don’t remember ever doing anything very active in that class. We were being groomed to be young ladies who occasionally perspired lightly; we were not supposed to actually sweat. Once or twice a month, the teacher, a pretty young woman with red hair, would gather the girls around her to discuss questions we had posed via slips of paper dropped into a box. We sat on the gym floor in a circle around her. The questions we posed to her were about periods, personal grooming, and dating. She answered them in a hushed voice as we leaned in to hear her words of wisdom and advice—none of which I remember.

In March of that year, my mother, sisters, and I moved to Havertown, Pennsylvania. The junior high, constructed of fieldstone, looked like a prison to me. The basement with its dark, winding hallways, and exposed pipes, seemed like the gateway to some hellish torture area. Yes, it was—or as I referred to it, the gym. On my first day at this school, I walked into an area filled with gymnastics equipment. I had never seen such things, and to me it was as though I was walking into the torture panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Despite my nightmare, I survived the class, although I continued to hate phys ed. throughout my high school years.

My feeling about exercise and gym classes has changed. I now enjoy the physical activity, and even though I no longer have the energy of youth, I’ve lost most of the self-consciousness. Since I work from home, going to a gym is also my time to socialize with my gym pals. When one of the aerobics instructors exclaims in her boisterous trainer voice, “Are you here to talk or workout?” My answer is both. It is the time I use to recharge both my body and my mind.

I think we all need that time. Although not everyone has the means or desire to join a gym, we all need breaks and time to move about. When I am having trouble focusing on a writing assignment, sometimes all I need to do is get up and sweep the floor or play “Jump for the Cheerios” with the cats. One thing has not changed, however–I still have no interest in sports.