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Christmas Memories

I love Christmas. Making the presents, wrapping them, putting them under the tree that is loaded with ornaments that track our family’s history—it makes me obnoxiously happy. We’re together to relax, celebrate, retell stories, and laugh.

Each year we try not to overdo the excessive buying aspect of the celebration. We don’t always succeed, but this year we’re behaving well. Each present is something we thought about before slapping down the credit card or clicking the “submit” button online. There’s hand knitted socks, hats, blanket, shawls and mittens; the folks who wanted hats, got hats—I didn’t mess around. Each knitted project also served a purpose for me; I made it a point to learn something from each present. Perhaps it was a new technique, a new yarn, a new design… each one kept me engaged and taught me something in addition to the joy of giving.

If the presents under the tree aren’t made of fiber, they’re probably books. Throughout the year, I keep my eyes open for titles that I think my loved ones might enjoy. Could be a book of walking tours through their new neighborhood or cookbooks that are unusual or something they might have mentioned, but haven’t bought for themselves. I like how this practice keeps Christmas alive throughout the year.

One of the most fun parts of the celebration is stuffing everybody’s stocking with little goodies: a favorite candy (not a whole bag!), some cool spices from Trader Joe’s, a handmade bar of soap or moisturizer and something funny that they’re not expecting (no clues given here now!) We’ve got the same stockings that the kids had growing up—and David’s stocking from when he was a young boy—ironically it’s knitted and has his name knitted around the cuff.

The tree is up, fully lighted, but won’t be fully decorated until our daughters arrive. That’s just something we do together. We all gloat over our favorite ornaments, and you can hear “I remember this one”… over and over again. There’s Christmas music in the background, but not the regular stuff. David has collected CD’s that really mark our season: Charlie Brown, the Canadian Brass albums, Dave Bruebeck’s Christmas album and many more.

This year all three women will be cooking together in the kitchen; it will be a menu that satisfies all of us, regardless of allergies, gluten intolerances, vegan regs, paleo regs, and Mom trying to lose weight. Per Tim Gunn, “We make it work” and it’s joyful. Every once in a while we find a recipe that all of us can eat, like zucchini noodles, and then we get really happy.

Lots of good, old memories get stirred up this time of year. I appreciate remembering them and having them come alive once more. When I was a kid, my dad was Santa at the church fair. He rode around town on the fire truck and then sat for hours in a throne like chair in the school auditorium while long lines of nervous children waited to sit on his lap and tell him their wishes. He was the absolute best Santa in the world: he listened, smiled, laughed, and looked soooo real. I have a photo of me sitting on his lap completely unaware that it was my dad. It’s one of my favorites. He made my childhood Christmas full of wonder and love.

Another standout memory is how every Christmas Eve, I’d hear sleigh bells and thumping on the roof. My heart would beat a million miles an hour, and I’d pretend to be sound asleep, just like Santa expected. Years later, I learned that it was Papa Louie Andiorio who did the honors every year. That was one of the many memories I have of that special man.

This Christmas, there mostly likely won’t be snow here at the Cape, and I probably won’t see Santa at the mall, but I will look for him in the sky and listen for reindeer hooves on the roof knowing that David’s probably throwing the pebbles. Merry Christmas to all.

Enough Stuffing

I have decided to put my money where my mouth is and NOT participate in the buying frenzy on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. After years of reading about voluntary simplicity and the unintentional consequences of consumerism, I’m determined to only buy absolute essentials. It is easier said than done.

First, I have to dodge all of the tempting and sometimes ludicrous on-line ads that are so clearly focused on “stuff” I usually like (i.e., am addicted to). Ads for books, yarn, fabric, music, and hand cream bombard me. I have a stash of all of the above and could most likely open my own store. Yet, those ads are so enticing. They know what they’re doing, and their data mining usually pays off, but not this time.

I’m determined to make minimalism work and stop the whole cycle of having “TOOOOOO MUCH STUFF”. That means buying only what we really need. What a new concept! What do I really need????  In the grocery store, it means buying one package of tofu, not four. It’s not purchasing yet another toy for the cat… or more skeins of yarn to keep the other zillion company in my studio. It means more frequent trips to the Falmouth Public Library instead of filling up my bookshelves with bought books that I’ll only scan. I will buy a pomegranate or two, but not six or seven.

My buying habits reveal that I live by the “warehouse” concept, not the “buy as you use” system. At any time of the day or the year, I probably have what I “need” to complete any ridiculous task I dream up. I do think that I will most likely be dead before everything is used up and that’s rather pathetic. What would my widower husband do with enough yarn to make 47 sweaters?

This epiphany became apparent when we moved. I thought I’d need ten boxes to empty out a room; in reality it was thirty, ok really forty. There was a lot of stuff I had amassed. It was a physical sign that I couldn’t ignore. Yes, we destashed, gave to charities, to friends and to the recycle center, but the message was there in bold print. There’s too much stuff.

The solution requires halting the incoming. Since November 1, I’ve been diligent in only purchasing essentials, and I’m being fairly strict on my definition of essentials. Yes to healthy food, utilities and medical expenses; No to anything I really can do without. I’ve been living by the World War II adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Most of my Christmas gift giving will be handmade from my fabulous stash. It’s actually kind of fun to re-discover the interesting fiber, beads, and creative findings in my studio. I recently saw an ad for a gorgeous skein of yarn that would be absolutely perfect for a hat or socks for either daughter… my heart raced—it was sooo perfect. Then I rummaged through studio and found that I already had three skeins of that exact same yarn. Hmmmmm,.. embarassing and eye-opening

So wish me luck as I attempt this year-long journey of minimalism and voluntary simplicity. I actually am finding it quite exciting, and hope it will become a way of life. I will keep you posted on my progress and would love to hear how you’re dealing with this issue. In the meantime, here’s George Carlin’s bit on “Stuff”. Don’t pay attention to the ad!!!

Classroom Rules For All Ages

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As a teacher I worked with students of all ages from elementary school, through middle and high school and finally at the university level. Without fail, on the first day of class I’d layout and discuss rules that would guide the semester.

Yes, there would be a listing of books to be read, topics to be covered, forms of writing to be explored, and problem solving techniques. Most importantly, however, was the attitude and process that would be in play.

As a child, I hated the “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you” approach—it was deadly. I’m a great fan of setting clearly defined expectations at the beginning. Although the wording might have changed over the years as I moved from teaching ten year-olds to twenty somethings, the messages were consistent.

Here’s the list of “rules” I have collected from various sources over almost forty years. I reviewed one by one on the first day of class… and kept the list posted in a highly visible spot all year long:

  1. Mistakes help us learn.
  2. You’re not supposed to understand everything the first time around. Critical thinking, pushing beyond the obvious, and perseverance are what count.
  3. Good students ask for help and for lots of feedback on their work.
  4. Consistent effort and effective strategies are the main determinants of success.
  5. Everyone is capable of high achievement, not just the fastest ones.
  6. If you try hard, learn from your errors, and persist, you can succeed.
  7. Mistakes are not signs of weakness. They’re data to use. They’re an opportunity for learning. Don’t be afraid of them.

I’m noticing that these are “rules” that I seem to use everyday, no matter what the venue. Whether it’s reading a challenging book like Jonathan Safran Foer’s new, unusual Tree of Codes or attempting a complicated sweater design or a sudoku puzzle, the rules help me push beyond chaos and get to something meaningful. Getting rid of the fear of failure and using our own learning experiences as a tool is one of the best lessons we can learn.

Sock It To Me

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Some folks can track their lives through the books that they’ve read, the songs they’ve heard, or the graduations they’ve attended. Personally, I find it incredibly meaningful to look at my life via the socks on my feet.

As a seven year old, I wore a school uniform, right down to the toes. White cotton ankle socks—no lace—no trim—bleached dead white. Nothing less was accepted and nothing less was ever worn, even if it meant washing out a pair the night before class and hanging them in the bathroom to dry. During the school day, these white socks purposely slid into our shoes and caused misery and anxiety. In late fall, the rules changed to a more seasonable grey knee high. These kneehighs had to “stay up”, no slouching allowed, just like our posture in class. Everything was at attention. I confess that we used rubber bands in order to keep on the good side of the administration who never seemed to hear of the words “phlebitis” or “tourniquet”.

In high school, if you were cool, you wore NO socks. Our mothers vehemently protested. “You’ll catch a death of a cold!” It’s not like we weren’t wearing bras or going commando…. Nevertheless, we learned to leave the house with socks afoot, and then clandestinely stuff them in our pocket (or bra) before arriving at school. Mother never knew.

At college in New England, the coolness of no socks turned into very cold feet. I learned to don not one, but two pairs of socks from November through late March. Shoes were bought a size larger to accommodate my thermal layers, and items from head to toe seldom matched. I was studious, warm and not fashionable.

After graduation, the work place had entirely new demands on my feet.  As a teacher, I wore grown up clothes and grown up hose. Pantyhose, to be exact. What a stupid invention! I can guarantee you that no woman invented pantyhose. I learned to struggle with runs and sagging hose in the ankles as well as the tummy slip and slide. The waistband never stayed put. Elastic bands would be of no use. For many years, my sock drawer became my pantyhose drawer with fancy sub-dividers. They were not necessarily happy years.

Two years ago I learned how to knit socks. A whole new world opened up for my toes and my soul. The first several pairs were misshaped, too big in the foot, too tight on the top, and I absolutely loved them. Making socks for me is one of the nicest things I do for myself.  Sock knitting offers fun yarns and excitement… something to look forward to at every step of the way: ribbing, leg pattern, heel patch, gusset, foot, kitchener stitch.

happy feet!

happy feet!

When my younger daughter left home to go to college and venture out into the world, she asked me for only one thing: Mom-made socks, as many pairs as I could knit. Wow- I thought- she sure is ahead of the sock-learning curve. She left with five pairs of socks that actually fit her and a standing order for more. One of the best things she ever said to me was “Every morning, when I get dressed and put on my socks, I think of you, Mom.” That was a puddle moment!

I’ve made a decision, at age 59, to only wear socks I’ve knitted. No more commercially made, skinny, skimpy, anemic, machine made socks. I’ve already created twenty pairs and am on the way to knitting one new pair a month. Wearing hand knit socks is like giving your feet a hug and a massage at the same time. Best of all, I love the instant smile that comes to my face when my pant leg happens to ride up and my bubble gum pink striped beauties wink at me.

Life is good. Hand made socks are great. Just do it! I can’t wait to tell you what my socks reveal about the next year of my life. I’ve just retired, and my sock yarn stash is taller than I am.