January 25, 2011
For me, this is the most grueling time of year.
It is cold, it is dark, and there are no holidays to look forward to.
This morning, thought, even though the sky was ashen and overcast, and icy snow was making the roads sleek and unpredictable, I felt fresh and energetic, ready to face the week.
I had a wonderful weekend.
I am frequently accused of being an introvert, with great need for solitude, but this weekend it was the company of family and friends that fed me the energy this cold winter had depleted from my body and soul.
Friday evening we had an old friend and his wife over for dinner. We ate beef brisket, roasted potatoes, salad; fruit pies, tea and coffee for dessert. And we talked. About children growing up and leaving, about parents getting old and dying, about life.
Saturday morning I spent at a cafe with my daughter and a young friend talking about young people’s plans, schemes, hopes. About starting one’s adventures in life.
Saturday evening, my friend Jelena had a ladies’ evening at her house. She made elegant cocktails and appetizers, carrot and asparagus soup, lasagna and light, creamy dessert. We watched a movie. We told stories and laughed.
Sunday morning my family gathered around our dining room table for brunch. We ate eggs, fresh bagels and cream cheese, smoked salmon, fruit. And drank lots of coffee.
We sat around for hours and Sasha and Nena talked. The rest of us mostly listened, but sometimes we all wanted to talk. Sometimes we needed a referee.
Then Jeff and I walked over to our neighborhood coffee shop, had hot chocolate and talked some more. It’s not always easy for the two of us to find a quiet, uninterrupted corner in our house. We gave each other turns. We listened.
In the afternoon, I went to my friend Ann’s house. We sat in her living room, full of her own pottery, art and yarn, and knitted while her husband Ray made a wonderful pasta dinner. Ann taught me a new cable pattern. It was not hard. I started knitting a scarf for my sister, beside myself with joy and accomplishment. The color of the yarn is deep burnt orange.
The weekend was icy cold. But throughout, the sky was iridescent Adriatic blue, and the sun was shining and making the snow sparkle.
And at night, the sky was clear and full of stars. The full, giant moon was the color of deep burnt orange.
January 20, 2011
I am fifty one years old. I have streaks of gray hair.
My hair is naturally dark brown, almost black. It has reddish overtones. Streaks of gray appeared when I was in my late thirties and without really thinking much about it, I started to color my hair. No matter what color I used, it always turned washed out red. I didn’t like the look, but coloring one’s hair seemed to be the thing to do.
Every woman my age colors her hair, right?
After my breast cancer diagnosis, I decided to let the gray grow out. And I have. For the last five years, I have not colored my hair.
My hair is very fine, very straight, and does not have much body. If I could choose any type of hair that this world has to offer, this would not be the type I would choose. But it is what it is
The fact is, even thought I have lots of gray, it really isn’t that obvious. The black, brown and reddish overtones seem to camouflage it naturally. So, people hardly ever bring up the topic, and I have been able to stay under the radar.
My sister, two years younger than I, always had thick, wavy, gloriously rich honey brown hair. When we were young girls, Branka had long, thick braids that I pulled mercilessly because I was jealous of the admiration they incited.
Now, Branka’s hair is still thick and rich, but it is also gray. Last year she decided to stop coloring. She got a short, snappy, modern haircut.
Wherever she went women complimented her and thought that she looked fabulous. Women admired her courage.
The men thought she looked old. They didn’t like it. They told her she looked better with her hair colored.
Our family from Europe was relentless it its assault. “You look old and sick,” was the consistent message buzzing over the ocean.
She resisted for months.
My sister works as a part time interpreter and patient advocate at a large university hospital. She is hoping to get a full time job and she goes to a lot of job interviews.
She felt that people talked to her differently and that her chances of getting a full time job diminished with her hair gray. Tired of all the fuss and all the commentary the topic fermented, she finally capitulated.
She colored her hair.
She claims that her hair will be gray again the moment she can do what she really wants to do.
I think she looks fabulous either way. I just wish the choice of whether to color her own hair, or not, was left entirely up to her.
January 19, 2011
Today is Sam’s 18th birthday.
I wish him all the best that this world has to offer.
Love and hugs to my youngest child!
January 17, 2011
All around the world, people have been assaulted with extreme weather. Snowstorms on the East Coast, ice storms in the South. Intense cold in Europe, terrible floods in Australia and Brazil. Warming temperatures in Antarctica.
We, here in Michigan, have been dealing with darkness, low temperatures, snow and ice. Driving on dark, snowy, ice-patchy highway every morning has been taking its toll on my nerves.
In this kind of weather the large, cozy, green chair in my living room is my favorite place in the world. Sitting in the confines of this sheltering chair is like being embraced by my grandfather.
We bought the chair years ago, when the kids were little and it has withstood years of use and abuse. One arm has been noticeably bent since Mike, Sasha and Sam wrestled on it and caused a bit of damage to the frame. The silky velor fabric has thinned out in most used places. The back pillow has lost some of its feathers.
Still, the chair is as soft, warm and comfortable as a beloved old robe. It sits in front of a shelf of books that covers one wall of our living room. Books that various family members have accumulated over many years line the shelves. Jeff’s college editions of Plato and Nietzsche are there. Mike’s South American history and travel books. My childhood paperback copies of Mark Twain and a hardcover collection of Pushkin. Nena has lately been buying books for the beauty of their covers so we have some unusual editions of Emily Dickinson, John Cheever and Dostoevsky.
In front of the books are many framed pictures. There is one of Mike as a young boy carrying baby Sam on his back. Sam is dressed in a clown costume. There is one of five year old Nicky and her uncle Jeff, the niece lovingly holding her head on her uncle’s shoulder. From a light wooden frame, six year old Nena is grinning while swinging a baseball bat. She is wearing an official team t-shirt and ruffled polka-dot shorts. Sasha and his mother are smiling from a graduation photo. My mother is dreamily gazing into the distance as a sixteen year old girl in an old black and white photograph.
When I sit in that chair with a cup of coffee in my hand, I feel I can face the day. The shelf behind me, and the memories it holds, gives me energy and the courage to forge ahead into the darkness of the cold morning.
January 10, 2011
There’s a certain Slant of light
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
by Emily Dickinson
January 7, 2011
Today is Serbian Orthodox Christmas.
Serbian Orthodox Church (together with the Greek and the Russian Orthodox churches) follows the Julian calendar system, while the rest of the western world transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. The Julian calendar is 13 days behind Gregorian, so our Christmas falls on January 7th, and our New Year on January 14th.
Serbian Christmas traditions are gloriously complex and differ from area to area. When I was a child we celebrated them in most of their intricate glory, despite the fact that we lived in a socialist country.
My immediate family, here in the US, has simplified those old traditions quite a bit.
On Christmas Eve, my sister, daughter, friends and I drive about an hour to the nearest Serbian church. (Not this year, though. We are all sick.) We partake in the celebratory rituals, including following the priest around the church three times and burning the “badnjak” the Serbian Yule log.
Everyone takes a branch of the log before it is burned to take home and place on the icon for good luck.
On Christmas Day, instead of the customary ancient practice of going from house to house to congratulate the holiday, sing and celebrate, I make phone calls to family and friends and greet them with the traditional Serbian Christmas greeting, “Hristos se rodi” or “Christ is born!” Their reply is, “Vaistinu se rodi!” or “This true he is born.”
On Christmas Day, we make a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast lamb, potatoes, salads, desserts. My sister makes “chesnica,” a dish similar to baklava. She places a quarter (in ancient times it used to be a golden coin) somewhere within the cake, and whoever in the family finds it, gets a prize of money. They are also considered to have good luck for the entire year.
In the reenactments of these ancient traditions and rituals, I feel comfort and connection to my culture and history. For a few days, the complexity of the modern world slows down a bit, and I belong to a different time, a different place.
January 6, 2011
I was never one for New Year’s resolutions. I don’t like to make a promise (to myself or to others) that I pretty much know that I won’t keep.
But this year, I have made a resolution. I want to finish a large, king size quilt that I started for my friend Nancy three years ago.
When Nancy’s husband Ken died, Nancy didn’t want to part with his clothes. I volunteered to make a quilt out of Ken’s shirts, ties and pants. To make the quilt representative of their life together, I took a few of Nancy’s colorful blouses and added them to the mix.
I made a simple design, something that would work for a disparate collection of colors, tones and materials. Then I bought creamy and burgundy floral fabrics to tie everything together. And when I started quilting, I chose different colors of thread – neutral beige, deep burgundy, emerald green and burnt orange.
This quilt has been an evolutionary enterprise. I started with a vague concept in mind, but the project has evolved into something with a life of its own.
I have done all the sewing and quilting by hand. From the beginning I felt, but didn’t understand clearly, that the idea was not to finish the quilt quickly, but to go through the process of slow, meditative healing. I couldn’t rush this project.
Ken and I were suffering from cancer at the same time. He had incurable esophageal cancer, I was sick with breast cancer. The last time we saw each other was at our children’s piano recital. He was at the end of his treatments, I was in the middle of mine. We made a sad sight – both of us gray and weary, with no hair and our eyes hollow from nausea and fear.
We said nothing but looked at each other with compassion and understanding. We embraced and cried.
So, when I work on this quilt for Ken and Nancy, every stitch is a gift of tenderness and love. And gratitude that they have given me the opportunity to spend hours slowly pulling silky thread through fabrics that they have marked with their presence. They have given me a chance to mend and heal.
This winter I feel that the time has come to complete the quilt. It feels right. Every evening I work on it for hours.
When the longer days of spring arrive, I will be ready to hand it over to Nancy for safekeeping.
January 3, 2011
A few nights ago my family gathered around our dining room table.
It was not a large group by our standards: Branka, Joe, Jeff and I were on the adult side of the table; Sam, Nena and Sasha on the young people’s side.
Branka had made fried chicken, curried rice and salad.
The atmosphere was unhurried, light and relaxed. The conversation meandered in all directions. We talked about people’s plans in the new year, resolutions, or lack of both.
At one point, Sasha brought up the question of balancing one’s life, of not getting caught up in the never ending need for more things. Of knowing the meaning of enough. Of the possibility of living in Hawaii and taking pleasure in simplicity and doing what one really wants to do. Of being free.
Nena and Sasha graduated from college last summer, and they are trying to figure out what to do next.
Nena is still looking around, thinking, considering, experimenting with different prospects and possibilities.
Sasha has always been the kind of person who needs a more solid footing. Right after graduating, he got a job as a community organizer. It is a difficult and demanding job, but Sasha has given it all he has and has done well.
When he moved to Ohio, he lived in a tiny studio apartment with minimum amount of furniture. He wore his dad’s suits, which did not fit perfectly.
Now that Sasha got a raise, he moved into a larger apartment. His parents rented a U-Haul truck and transported some nice furniture to furnish the new apartment. He bought a vacuum cleaner and other necessities to take care of his new dwelling.
Then, Sasha bought a number of expensive new suits. He wants to project a sense of respectability and trustworthiness.
Money was spent.
But for a twenty two year old, Sasha is amazingly aware of the slippery slope of life. He has plans. He wants to travel to South America and go to graduate school. He wants to be in charge of his life. But he also sees clearly how easily it is to lose one’s compass and get caught up into the hamster wheal of everyday consumerism.
Nena said that, for her, growing up means participating in the larger experience of one’s community and culture. To check out and criticize from the sidelines while benefiting from the effort of others, seems like a copout to my daughter.
Sam commented that he could see how easy it would be to forget (or even to learn) what really matters. Full of energy and hunger for life, he delights in pleasures that good things in life can offer. We all do.
How does one know when to stop?
I don’t know.
But I do know one thing. These kids are all right.
December 30, 2010
My family hosted Christmas this year.
Every part of the house was put to good use.
The children came home from far and wide. Nena, Nicole and Sam were comfortably ensconced in their rooms. Mike flew in from Boston, Sasha drove in from Ohio. The two of them had to sleep on a sofa bed in the basement.
Branka started baking a week before Christmas. Every evening and all weekend long she was spreading phyllo dough for baklava, grinding walnuts, juicing oranges and making her secret citrus honey syrup. The house smelled of fresh baking, cloves and cinnamon.
Two days before Christmas I started making side dishes to go with roasted turkey and honey glazed ham. I made green bean casserole with fresh mushrooms, sweet potatoes with pecans and cinnamon, mushroom gravy. As I tasted my concoctions, I noticed that my sense of taste, and my sense of smell, was numb and muted.
Sam had been sick the week before Christmas. He had gotten a nasty bug from his girlfriend Emily – high fever, sore throat, achiness, no appetite. Now it was my turn to fight the virus.
We were expecting thirty people for Christmas dinner.
Somehow, by sheer will power I got up early on Christmas morning and readied the turkey for roasting. I cut up lemons, apples, celery and onions, stuffed the turkey and placed it in the oven. Everyone commented on the delicious fragrance but I could smell nothing.
We set out our best china, got out the crystal. The guests started arriving at three in the afternoon.
Jelena brought two kinds of appetizers and a selection of confections that could rival any French bakery. Martha baked a perfect apple pie. Natasha made a frothy, creamy torte. Hannah baked a delicate spice cake and a key lime pie.
The table was overflowing with delicacies.
I could neither smell nor taste anything.
My head ached so badly I had to prop it up with my arm so it would stay upright. My throat was sore, eyes watery, nose red.
Still, the evening seemed to go well. People filled their plates with turkey and glazed ham slices, side dishes, salads. They talked and laughed. The kids watched basketball and played pool.
We made tea and coffee and spread out the deserts. Guests sampled everything.
I filled my plate with desserts – one of each, hoping that by some miracle I could taste the beauty of the food in front of me. I could not.
By eight in the evening, with a house full of guests, I waved good night, and slowly walked up the stairs to my room.
Good night, all!
December 22, 2010
Best wishes to everyone for a year full of love, health, strength and compassion.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!