Posts tagged: Christmas
They are one of the first signs of the holiday season: bright red cranberries in a sauce or compote on the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes they’re part of the centerpiece or decorations and they’re there all the way through Christmas.
It used to be that when the holidays were over, the cranberries were gone. But that was then. In the last decade cranberries have moved out of the holiday-only aisle and into the year-round pantries of most Americans. Now they’re baked into cookies and scones, sprinkled on salads and eaten as a quick, healthy, snack.
Most of us grew up with a kind of Norman Rockwell-inspired image of New England as the only place cranberries grow but that isn’t true. Wisconsin has been growing and harvesting the berries for 140 years and since the mid-1970s has produced more cranberries than any other state. Today, more than half the cranberries grown and consumed around the world come from Wisconsin, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington trailing.
In the last few years a new industry has grown up around the Wisconsin cranberry harvest: Agritourism. Now you can tour the marshes and get a glimpse of the unique processes involved in growing and harvesting one of the three fruits that are unique to North America (the others two are blueberries and concord grapes.)
I was curious and joined a tour at two Wisconsin cranberry farms: Glacial Lake Cranberries and Elm Lake Cranberry Company.
At Glacial Lake Cranberries we boarded a bus and drove along the narrow pathways between flooded marshes. The iconic image of cranberry fields is a flooded bog filled with floating berries, but they don’t grow that way and the low-growing vines are perfectly acclimated to the sandy soil acidic soil left behind Wisconsin’s ancient glacial lakes. From June through late September they form and ripen. Then, during harvest the marshes are flooded and red-ripe cranberries are scooped off the vines by special tractors (this used to be back-breaking work done by hand) and, thanks to the four small hollow chambers in each berry, float to the top of the water.
Like any kind of farming, growing cranberries is hard work, subject to the whims of nature and the ups and downs of volatile markets. It’s easy to forget the hard work behind the berry when in the fall the cranberries ripen and the beds are flooded to create a temporary marsh.
At Elm Lake Cranberry Company, the rich crimson color of the berries, contrasted against the vivid blue of the sky and the brilliant gold larch trees reflected in the water, was as pretty as a postcard.
With slow, graceful, movements, harvesters dressed in hip-high waders walk the circle of berries corralled by a yellow plastic boom and I watched as a man stretched out his arms, extending the wooden rake in his hands to gather and pull toward him the bright red cranberries while a vacuum swept them up onto a conveyor belt and into the deep bed of a waiting truck.
I know it’s intense and a lot is riding on getting the berries to market without bruising them, but he made it seem like water ballet.
Most of the berries are taken to a nearby processing plant where they will be frozen before being processed into juice, sauce or dried sweetened berries. Only a very small percentage of Wisconsin’s cranberries are packaged fresh for holiday sales.
Like every other behind-the-scenes look I’ve gotten into the heart and soul of any kind of farming—usually thanks to the agritourism movement— I came away with a deeper appreciation for the small red berry that has always been such a big part of my holiday table. And now, in ever increasing ways, a part of my everyday diet.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes the best gift is one that can be opened during the holidays but used later in the new year, sometimes again and again. A gift card, for example.
Travel, both domestic and international, can be expensive, even for the thriftiest of us. If you have a traveler on your list this holiday season, consider giving gift cards that can be used to fund a travel experience or make any trip easer and more affordable.
Here are some gift card suggestions for travelers of all ages:
Give the Green Mermaid: Most larger airports have at least one Starbucks, so chances are there’ll be one around when you or your traveler wants a cup of coffee on the fly. It’s always nice to be able to stop for a latte or any of the coffee-to-go products sold at the stores without having to fork over the cash.
Drug Store Dash: No matter how carefully one packs, there are bound to be a few things that are left behind or needed unexpectedly: BandAids for blistered heels, cold medicine to fight off airplane germs or prescription replacements or refills. Having a gift card from a national chain like Walgreen’s or CVS, stores that seem to be on every corner of bigger cities across the U.S., could come in handy for one of those little inconveniences or occasional emergencies.
There’s an App for That: Travel apps are constantly evolving with new options popping up almost over night. Most tech-savvy travelers are always on the lookout for the next big thing. An iTunes gift card keeps them up to date with the latest photo-editing, navigating or social media app. Of course, they can use it to buy tunes, as well.
Pre-paid Plastic: Slip an American Express or Visa gift card in someone’s stocking if you want to make their holiday. Traveling with cash is risky and traveler’s checks are all but obsolete. Pre-paid plastic goes anywhere and is always appreciated.
Let ‘em Fly: With an Airline gift card you can help someone take the trip of their dreams or get home for some family time.
Phone Home: Most of us depend on our smart phones when we travel but phones can be lost or damaged. That’s when a pre-paid calling card can come in handy.
Get a Room: Most major hotel chains offer gift cards that can be used for rooms or (subject to terms and availability) a room upgrade.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com
We were fortunate again this year, the whole family was together for Christmas. We gathered, exchanged gifts, caught up on one another’s lives and enjoyed one another’s company. And we ate. We ate a lot.
When we weren’t sitting down to our traditional Christmas dinner, we were snacking on things I’d gathered on my travels and brought home to share with my family. That’s come to be one of my travel traditions and now wherever I go I spend time looking for goodies to bring home with me.
This year, while playing board games or working on a jigsaw puzzle we opened a can of Virginia peanuts that traveled back from Roanoke tucked into a corner of my suitcase.
We made pots of good Door County Coffee & Tea Company coffee and nibbled peanut brittle from Silver Dollar City in Branson Missouri.
I passed around a can of delicate and delicious Clear River pecan pralines I bought in Fredericksburg, Texas and hand-carried home. And we cracked pecans I gathered from where they’d fallen from the trees around the same city.
I spread tart cherry jam from, also from Door County, Wisconsin, on our toast at breakfast. In the afternoon I sliced a block of Wisconsin's Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese to go with the bottle of crisp white wine I brought back from Rhine River valley in Germany.
One night I made a big pot of chili and seasoned it with heritage chili pepper powder I bought at the Chili Pepper Institute in Los Cruces, New Mexico. I made a batch of brownies with brownie mix spiced with the same chilis.
We warmed up with mugs of hot buttered rum, savoring the bottle of Koloa rum I picked up in Kauai and saved especially for this holiday season.
This is the time of my life when I can travel freely and I don’t take it for granted because I know that could change at any time. My children are mostly grown and my work takes me around the world. I can’t always take them with me, but I can bring the world back to the ones I love and share it with them one delicious bite at a time.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
When Christmas comes to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, it is wrapped in a big white tent and filled with music, food, handmade crafts and the ancient tradition of German Advent markets.
Osthoff Resort General Manager Lola Roeh spent time in Nuremberg, Germany before returning to Wisconsin and coming to lead the Osthoff. Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt left an indelible mark on her imagination and she was determined to bring the tradition to the resort. Fifteen years ago she did just that and now the Old World Christmas Market at the Osthoff Resort has grown to be an important part of the region’s holiday season, catering to those who return each year to add to a collection or simply savor the tastes of an authentic German Christmas by eating schnitzel and red cabbage or sipping Glühwein.
Some vendors, including the sausage maker who flies in each year to sell authentic Nuremberg sausages—made with his secret recipe— have been with the market since the beginning.
While shoppers move from booth to booth, Father Christmas parts the crowd, calling out Christmas greetings. Seasonal music fills the big heated tent.
I had only just walked in when I spotted a booth filled with beautiful handmade paper mache Santa and Father Christmas figures. Each exquisite piece was made in authentic vintage German molds, hand painted and decorated with glass glitter or tiny glass beads. I spent almost half an hour looking at each one, trying to decide which would come home with me. Finally, I chose a petite Father Christmas, ornamented with glass beads and holding a tiny Christmas tree. He was wrapped and packed for the trip home and the little figure was the first decoration I put out when I returned.
Elkhart Lake is beautiful any time of year but the elegant white structures of the surrounding resorts, including the crown jewel, the big, rambling, historic Osthoff Resort, shine brightest in winter. The summer crowds are gone and the small town becomes a place to escape the hectic pace of the holiday while celebrating the best of the season.
The Osthoff Resort
Old World Christmas Market
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by R. B. Millsap)
One night, on my first trip to Germany during the month of December, hungry and still a little jetlagged from the flight, I walked into a tiny restaurant in a residential district near the center of Munich. I opened the door and then, dazzled by what I saw, stopped to take it all in.
A forest of dozens of small, elaborately decorated Christmas trees were hanging upside down from the ceiling of the room. I’d never seen anything like it before. Beautifully-wrapped packages of all sizes were stacked on windowsills, strung like ornaments on garlands of ribbon and greenery, and piled into corners. Evergreen boughs, woven with tiny white lights that glowed in the fresh snowfall outdoors and were reflected in the mirror over the bar, trimmed every door and window.
The intimate neighborhood eatery was filled with locals enjoying a big plate of schnitzel or wurst and crowded with friends who’d stopped by for an after-work drink. I felt as though I’d walked into a scene from an ornate Victorian picture-book, but I quickly realized the over-the-top decor was no show for tourists. It was just a perfectly fine example of the way Germany dresses up for the holiday season.
Anyone who has ever spent time at one of Germany’s Advent or Christkindlmarkts can relate. It’s the same kind of over-the-top feeling. Strolling down the rows of wood huts, most strung with white lights and wrapped in garland and decorations, it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Most markets are held in the traditional market square or city center. Surrounded by beautiful architecture, the air is filled with the sweet and spicy scents of sausages, pastries, potato pancakes and warm candied almonds and other nuts. Shoppers crowd around booths buying gifts of handmade wood toys, knitted items, ornamental gingerbread and hand-carved wood figures for the family creche. And the Glühwein stands are the most popular by far, with friends gathering to enjoy a mug of the hot, spiced and fortified wine that is so much a part of Germany’s holiday season.
Each market has a distinctive feel. The walled city of Nuremberg is famous for its red and white striped market canopies. The Munich “manger” market is where families come each year to select hand-carved pieces for the creche displayed every Christmas season. And the sprawling, busy, Frankfurt market stretches from the old city center to the river, highlighting both the history and contemporary culture of the vibrant city. The beautiful market in Cologne is consistantly voted one of the most popular.
If you have the time and want to explore Germany at a more leisurely pace, consider booking a Rhine River cruise. With frequent stops at villages between Frankfurt, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, a December river cruise down the Rhine River gives you a trouble-free way to enjoy the scenery as you cruise past ancient castles, beautiful and productive vineyards, old fortifications and picturesque villages. Each day brings a new opportunity to explore holiday markets in towns along the river, each with its own flavor and vibe, without the crush of peak-season tourists. Small-ship cruising combines the best of cruising—fine dining, comfortable staterooms and leisurely travel—but most river cruise ships carry fewer than 200 passengers so one never feels lost in the crowd.
No place is as beautiful as Germany this time of year. Every year when I hang the wreaths and decorate the tree I think back to that small but beautifully and exhuberantly decorated restaurant on a quiet street in a very busy city. And I'm always inspired to do just a bit more.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
My eyes flew open and I was instantly awake.
It wasn’t that long ago that when I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, I would lie still for a moment, listening for what had pulled me out of a sound sleep, straining to hear the plaintive wail of an infant’s crying or the footsteps of a preschooler who was out of bed and into mischief. Later, it was the sound of a teenager coming home, chased by curfew But this night there was only silence.
I sat up, rubbed my eyes and then walked out of the bedroom. The rest of the house was dark but a single light burned in the living room and I saw my jetlagged son, home from Japan, sitting on the sofa. He was concentrating on the yarn and needles in his hands and didn’t look up until I was beside him.
He had learned to knit while he was away and in the dim light of the lamp on the table, in the darkest part of the night, he worked on the pair of mittens he was making for his father.
I sat down beside him and watched his hands as he worked. He is young, only 24, but his hands already show the wear and tear of all his projects. He is always busy making something, a piece or a part for one of the massive, expensive, machines he designs and builds or one of the tiny works of art he creates when he is bored or thinking hard about something. When he needs to keep his hands busy so he can still his mind.
Looking at the scarred knuckles, the callouses, as he looped the rag wool yarn around the needle, making one stitch at a time and linking it with the chain, I thought about the things he’s made and brought me over the years.
When he was five he took a piece of paper and marked it with North, South, East and West. He folded the edges up into a cup and inserted a brad into the center, covering the top with cling wrap. He’d made me a compass, he told me as he presented it. You could, if you wiggled it, make the brad rotate and point in a new direction.
Later, in school, I was called to a conference with his teacher. “He’s not paying attention,” she told me. “He’s always working on something else.” And then she handed me a little paper tube. It was folded flat but if you allowed to rectangular tube to open, a miniature classroom popped up. Rows of paper-doll heads looking toward the miniature blackboard and teacher. I studied it as the teacher, a woman my family knew and adored, talked to me about his lack of attention in class. She, like me, was torn. What he could do with his hands was astounding, but you have to pay attention if you want to move on to third grade.
I have a treasure box filled with his handiwork. Clay pots, tiny shadowboxes, elaborate sketches and diagrams. This Christmas, his gift to me was a miniature loom. Perfect in every detail, he’d created it while on a ship in Japan, killing time while he waited to test the complex underwater drill he’d built, piece by piece. Bored, a lot on his mind that needed to be worked through, he grabbed a handful of coffee stir-sticks from the galley, some pieces of wire and the thread he usually carries with him as he travels. He built the working loom, complete with a tiny bit of cloth woven on it, and then, for a moment, considered throwing it away.
But, because he is my son and I have hoarded his creations all his life, he put it into a box and mailed it to me. And Christmas morning I opened it, speechless at the cleverness of it. The beauty of it.
When I found him knitting in the living room, he was doing what he does best, setting his hands free so his mind can follow. And, in the shadowy and quiet cocoon of the room, I listened as he talked about his work, his dreams, his concerns and his worries.
I slipped my bare toes under his knee and tucked myself into the opposite corner of the sofa as one stitch linked to another and the mittens took shape.
I thanked him again for the gift of the loom, working to keep the tears out of my voice and, taking advantage of the moment, I told him, just as I did when he was a boy, a sweet, busy, square peg trying to fit in a tight round world, that I am proud of him and always will be.
Wherever life takes him, it won’t be on the same path others follow. He’ll always come into each new adventure through a side door. Through an opening no one else noticed. He’ll find his own way and he’ll be OK. Because his future, just like his heart, is in his hands.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
I hope that when you opened your eyes this morning—no, even before you opened them, even earlier than that—I hope that when you first found yourself swimming into morning light and out of whatever dreams you’d been having, somewhere in your mind there rang out the words Christmas Morning! And for a moment or two you were a child again, thrilled by mystery, consumed by possibility.
As an adult, I know that doesn’t always happen.
It’s so easy to lose the holiday spirit when all you can think about is the fact that you’re the one who is responsible for making the magic. That you’re the one who shops and wraps and cooks and cleans and plans and then makes new plans when the old plans fall through. It’s easy to lose the joy and let any happiness you might find in a song on the radio or a kiss under the Mistletoe slip through your fingers when you are already looking ahead to Visa bills and taking down the tree and packing away the decorations and standing in line to return gifts.
This time of year, the darkest part of the year, is laden—some might say booby-trapped—with reminders. There is the dragging weight of all the invisible holiday baggage each of us carries. Nothing is safe. Food, music, celebrations and even movies and books come wrapped in memory and association. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant. And, to add to the fun, for those with young children, there is the suffocating parental pressure of creating the mythical perfect holiday; the self-imposed quest of taking on the impossible task of sending our children into the world without the legacy, the thousand little failures, of an imperfect parent. Good luck with that.
So much of the stuff of life is out of our hands. Forget holidays, on any day the big things, war, weather, economic turmoil, toxic bosses, family issues, bad fortune and lousy luck, are beyond our control. But the one thing we can choose is how we will face each day in world that perplexes and frequently exhausts us. Even the weariest among us can, if we so choose, celebrate the gifts of sleepy eyes that open on a dark December morning and a childlike heart that unfolds to let the spirit in, and with it the mystery and the possibility of another Christmas Day.
My son, who has been working in Japan, is on his way home. We haven't seen him in several months and I'm hungry for some time with him. My son has grown up to be a wonderful man; an adventurer, a tinkerer and a master of creating complex machines from bits of metal.
He'll be home for Christmas Eve and wrapping his gifts and putting them under the tree, thought about the boy who loved contraptions and I was reminded of something he taught me one Christmas years ago.
(I had to do some digging to find a copy of this early column.)
The Spokesman Review
December 25, 2003 | Cheryl-Anne Millsap The Valley Voice
Early each Christmas morning, as I turn out the lights and make my way to my bed, knowing I will be pulled out of it again when the sun rises, I stop for a moment, overwhelmed by memories and the knowledge that time is flying past me.
The children, who have been the reason I wake each morning and fall into an exhausted sleep each night, are growing up so quickly. Already one has left the nest, and another is perched on the edge. Their Christmas lists are more sophisticated now, with high-tech gadgets replacing Easy-Bake ovens and G.I. Joe.
When my son was six, he fell under the spell of a miniature arcade game, the kind where you manipulate a giant claw to pick up prizes and stuffed animals and drop them down a chute. He wanted the game more than anything and put it at the top of his Christmas list.
He was thrilled when he found the game under the tree and played with it constantly. But it was a complicated toy that was never meant to go the distance. When it stopped working, he was disappointed and put it away in his closet.
I didn't think about it again until the next year on Christmas Eve when I was getting everyone ready for bed and another visit from Santa. He walked in and placed the broken game under the Christmas tree with a note asking Santa to please repair it.
I could only gape at him, speechless. It was already midnight and to paraphrase the poet, there were miles to go before we could sleep.
My little boy had no idea that his mother was staggering under the weight of postpartum depression or that his father, who was in graduate school and wearied by final exams, was scheduled to work a 24-hour shift on Christmas Day.
My son wasn't jumpy and distracted from listening for the cries of the colicky baby sister or thinking about the 2 a.m. feeding that would cut into the few productive hours of the night.
The way he saw it, Santa brought that game to him and he would want to know there was a problem. And since the big guy was going to be in the neighborhood, it wouldn't hurt to have him take a look at a broken toy. So he left it with a note asking that Santa “make it work again.”
Somehow, the two elves-in-residence, Sleepy and Weepy, did everything that needed to be done. The baby got her 2 a.m. feeding and Santa placed the surprises, including the refurbished toy, under the tree before the children woke with the dawn.
I was watching my son the next morning when he found the game. He was pleased but he wasn't surprised. It was just where he expected it to be. His face shining with pleasure, he took it to the kitchen table, turned it this way and that to admire Santa's handiwork, and began to play contentedly while new presents waited under the tree.
Whenever I am confronted with the reality that life doesn't come with guarantees, I think about that Christmas morning. And when I think about it, I wish I could be seven years old again, with that much trust in everyone around me to do the right thing. I wish I hadn't learned that sometimes things break so completely that no one can fix them, not even Santa. Not even for a day.
Now, years have passed. Dad got through graduate school, Mom got over the blues, and the new baby stopped crying. The toy, which wasn't built to last, stopped working again and found its way back to the closet, to be eventually taken apart and its parts scavenged for a little boy's inventions.
For my son it was proof that Santa cared enough about him to take the time to try to make something work again. For the elves, it was an exercise in patience. For all of us it was a sweet reminder that love has responsibility.
Maybe this year under the tree I'll leave my heart, just to see what Santa can do.
Each year, after Thanksgiving dinner, some time after the last of the dishes are washed and before the pie comes back out again, I bring up a big handwoven basket from the storeroom in the basement. The basket is the size of a bed pillow, a split-oak rectangle with a sturdy handle, and it is filled with books.
There are one or two that my husband and I brought with us when we married: his old copy of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. My 100-year-old edition of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Stories with A Christmas Carol, a story I’ve read and reread since I first opened the book as a girl. But mostly, it holds an assortment of holiday books we’ve collected since our first daughter was born more than 25 years ago; familiar titles like The Night Before Christmas, The Gift of the Magi and The Littlest Christmas Tree.
Some are old toddlers’ board books, with broken spines and peeling pages, showing the wear and tear of little hands. Others are children’s classics filled with familiar illustrations.
To me, the basket is a time capsule. A record of time spent together as a family and in the company of beloved books and stories. Each year another book is added to the collection. The new book is left propped under the tree late on Christmas Eve and is passed around on Christmas Day before going into the basket and, eventually, after the tree is undressed and all the decorations are put away, back down to the basement to wait until Christmas comes again.
It pleases me to see my grown children sit down and pull out a book when they drop by during the holidays or on Christmas Day when we’re all together. Especially the older books that were in the house when they were babies. I steal glances at them as they read. I like to think they hear, in some shadowy corner of memory, the sound of my voice and the feel of my arms around them as we read together; that they hear again the creak of the rocking chair and recall other rooms in other houses and are reminded of the sweetest years.
So much of what happens during the season is rushed and hurried. So much is new and shiny and meant to be tossed away as soon as the New Year arrives. But the basket, with it’s cargo of paper and ink and memories is evergreen. Like a precious ornament taken off the tree and put away for another day.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
I turned the corner, down an unfamiliar street, my mind so oblivious to where I was going I might just as well have been a dog with its head out the window, lost in the delicious rush of mysterious and fragrant air, just happy to be out and about with no thought of what might be ahead.
Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, swept down by the wind and an early snowfall, and the sidewalks and street were littered with the russet and copper remnants of a spectacular autumn. But at the end of the block a scarlet tree still blazed, a burning bush, bright and vibrant against the faded landscape. Even the sun could not ignore it and sunlight danced in the tree, painting the leaves with subtle shades and shadows.
It was impossible to look away and I didn’t try. I gazed at it as I drove by and even looked back at it in the rearview mirror.
Thursday my family will sit down to our Thanksgiving meal and for the first time one of our small group will be absent. My son is away, working in Japan, and we will miss him even as we celebrate his success.
We are so fortunate to have made it this far without an empty seat at the table. Even in difficult times—and I have never pretended there weren’t some truly difficult days—we gathered, held hands, and spoke aloud the things for which we were most grateful.
Each year I compose a mental list but when it is my turn to speak, the words fly out of my head. I tear up and can say only that I am grateful for the love of those around me. But what I can never seem to get out is that I am filled with gratitude for the gift of a million small moments.
There were quiet Sundays spent reading, curled in the big chair beside the fire, my husband stretched out on the sofa. There were Saturday morning feasts that lured home grown children who filled the house with the sound of laughter and the smell of bacon and coffee.
There were quiet walks through the park with my dogs and the rapturous look on my daughter’s face as we stood in Notre Dame Cathedral on a rainy January day in Paris. There was the afternoon my son turned to me and recited a poem I’d read to him when he was a boy, and my firstborn’s secret smile when she told us her news.
There were shooting stars glimpsed from my back door and my youngest daughter’s shining face as she sat in the saddle, flying on horseback. There was, just this week, the chance encounter with a beautiful brilliant tree in a landscape that had already surrendered to winter.
On Thanksgiving Day I will blink back tears and fumble the opportunity to say what I feel. But in my heart I will celebrate the quiet gift of time and the chance to have lived one more extraordinary year of ordinary days.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review and is a contributing editor at Spokane Metro Magazine. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The upside of jet lag, and I suppose it takes a certain kind of optimism to even search for an upside, is that you sometimes find yourself awake and alone deep in the night. Or, at least, that’s what happens to me. For days after a trip my internal clock is upended. While everyone else is tucked in and sound asleep, I am a ghost. I tiptoe through the house making tea and toast. With the muffled whine of jet engines still ringing in my ears and a stuffy head thanks to the combined coughs and colds of hundreds of passengers packed into a 10-hour flight, I wrap myself in blankets and sit on the chaise lounge by the window in my living room with wool socks on my feet and a box of tissues by my side. I am miserable.
But, I have discovered, there is a gift. When you are awake - half-awake as the case may be - in the dark and quiet world, you are free to think. Wrapped in warm blankets watching the snow fall on the other side of the glass, a comforting mug of hot tea in your hands, you can plan, imagine and dream. Who cares if you have to struggle to remember dates and names? If you’re too sluggish to do more than fall back against the pillows. Under the influence of too much travel and too little sleep, one is free to play with memory and ambition like a puzzle. The pieces can be arranged in whatever way suits you best.
Back from a December trip to Germany, cruising down the Rhine River past castles and villages and light-studded Advent markets; after navigating snowstorms, airport closures, cancelled flights and last-minute schedule changes, arriving just in time for Christmas with my family, I spent the last days of the year in just that condition. Exhausted, congested, confused and restless at night and too sleepy to function well by day, I cocooned in thick blankets. I looked back over the previous months. I measured my progress against the plans I’d made. I was too tired to run from my mistakes so there, in the darkest hours of the night, I let them catch up with me. There was, as is usually the case, plenty to answer to.
I looked at the year ahead. I lay there and thought about what I really want to achieve. Maybe it is my age, my place in life, but when I really considered it, I realized the list is surprisingly short. I want less now than I’ve ever wanted before. The important things still matter: good health and happiness for myself and my family, time to daydream and write, freedom to travel and explore. But I’m no longer inclined to tilt at windmills. Let them spin. I’ve learned to choose my battles.
Although it didn’t feel that way at the time, those hours by the window, awake in a dark house illuminated by the moon shining down on a snowy world, were the best gift I received. I could see where I’ve been. And where I want to go. And, perhaps this is the most important thing of all, I made peace with where I am.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The dog scratched at the door, asking to go outside. For days the city had been wrapped in a front of arctic air that swept down from the north and wouldn’t leave us. It was so cold that the doorknob burned against the palm of my hand when I turned it and the first breath shocked me, making me gasp.
The dog rushed out into the darkness, disappearing into the backyard. He rolled in the snow, happy to be out of the too-warm house - too warm if you’re wearing a fur coat - and then stood still, sniffing the air.
I wasn’t dressed for the weather but I stepped out and closed the door behind me. It was so beautiful I was pulled out into the night.
In the cold, pure, silence that falls with snow, we stood there, alone in the dark. The air was so cold the snowflakes were thin and sharp, like frozen shards of broken rain swirling around me. I could feel them land on my face and in my hair. The sky was filled with crystals and the hard, crusted snow glittered.
I pulled my robe tight, tucking my hands under the collar, feeling the chill creep in through the soles of my boots.
Every breath I took lingered, hanging in the air around me, a cloud of proof that I was there in that cold place, warm and alive.
Looking up, the sky formed a dome over me. For a moment, I was encased in a frozen bubble. There was no sound except the white noise of snow falling and landing on the roofs of the houses on the street, collecting on the boughs of the Ponderosa pines, falling to the ground around me. I listened to the sound of my heartbeat in my ears.
I could, in that moment, imagine that I was in a snow-globe. I was a song, a carol, a witness to a silent night filled with peace and contentment. I was cold only because I chose to be cold. And, when I chose again, I could walk back into a warm and welcoming shelter. I was reminded that so many men, women and children do not have that simple luxury.
Through the windows I could see the rooms of my house glowing with light and warmth. The Christmas tree stood in the corner of the living room, strung with lights and ornamented with family history. The cat was asleep by the fireplace. There was the familiar clutter of books and newspapers and coffee cups. The fragrance of food still hung in the air. It was, at that moment, a place of comfort and joy.
The dog shook the snow from his coat and brought me back from my thoughts. Together, we walked, taking our time, back through the door leaving the silent night behind.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
The first Christmas I was truly on my own, I left a party and drove back to my apartment late on Christmas Eve. There wasn’t any snow, but the air was sharp and cold. My breath fogged the windshield in my little car and my fingers – I hadn’t remembered my gloves – were stiff. I hunched over the icy steering wheel as I made my way to my empty apartment.
I was 20 years old and I felt as alone as anyone could be. I was, as Charles Dickens wrote of Ebenezer Scrooge, as solitary as an oyster.
Moving slowly through shadowy neighborhood streets lined with pretty houses – upright two-story houses and tiny cottages sitting side by side – I passed quiet homes that just hours before had been full of noise and excitement.
The streets were dark and empty, but I began to notice that many of the houses were not. It was almost midnight but lights were still shining, and through the wide front windows I could see men and women moving about.
Finally, passing one house after another, in neighborhoods with swing sets and bicycles in the back yards, I realized what was happening. And I stopped…