When is a box really a coffer?

My father-in-law is a gentleman of the Old World whose interest in art often takes him to local auctions. For himself, he attends auctions in search of under-valued original works of art. But, when he finds a good deal on housewares that are antique, delightful, and a bit too fancy for his own table, he often thinks of me.

Yay!Silver box etched with floral ang geometric patterns

He gave me this silver plated box a few years ago.

Maker's mark indicating James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, EPBM 1155My fairly brief investigation into the hallmark engraved on the bottom gives me the impression that this box is not too fancy, and not so valuable. It is electroplated silver over base metal, made by James Dixon & Sons, of Sheffield, England.

Regardless, I find it quite fetching.

2 lit tapers on wooden table next to open silver chest containing beeswax candlesI immediately put my little silver box to good use. I store my Shabbat candles inside.

There is a notion in Judaism of Hiddur Mitzvah, whereby the act of beautifying a ritual enhances its spiritual significance. I find myself in complete agreement with this idea: to engage all of the senses in worship seems, to me, an obvious acknowledgement of the beneficence of the ultimate Creator.

One day, during the pandemic, I asked my child to fetch the coffer so I could put out the Shabbos candles. This led to the sort of inane conversation with which all parents are likely familiar.

“Please bring the silver coffer out of the cupboard, my darling,” says Mother, “so that I can get the candles for Shabbat.”

“The what?” asks Punk Kid #2.

“There is a shiny silver box inside the Kitchen Queen in the dining room,” replies Mother, still beaming with the sabbath peace. “The candles are inside.”

“What’s a Kitchen Queen?” responds Punk Kid #2.

“The Kitchen Queen is the antique wooden cabinet in the dining room that came from my grandmother, of course,” says Mother, rapidly losing her cool.

“Some people would call it a Hoosier Cabinet,” I offer as the steam billows out of my ears, my dear child looking on, taking no action, drooling, and perhaps going a bit cross-eyed…

Shalom bayit recedes into some future Shabbat during which I fail completely to engage with my own children and therefore achieve inner peace…

We could go on at some length describing how not one, but two, intelligent children failed to find a quite visibly special box containing the ritually important candles used to usher in the day of rest in a Jewish home, but, well, what value is there in teasing my kids?

I found it fascinating how definitely I defined my silver box as a coffer, and how my younger child immediately latched on to his own mental definition when I asked for one.

He was looking for a “box full of gold,” by the way, which is not a ridiculous notion for what a coffer might be.

Dictionary defining coffer as a chest or strongboxMy little box—it is about 6″ tall and 6.5 × 8.5″ at the base—may not be as imposing as a medieval lord’s strongbox. The lion heads at the sides, however, imbue a certain gravitas. Their noble expressions may be my very favorite part of the box!Lion head holding ring handle on side of silver box

Candles were a scarce, valuable resource in the not-so-distant past, needing protection from nibbling* by mice or rats. It’s not ridiculous to guard them with the mightiest of cats. They deserve to reside in a finely decorated coffer.

Though my children had managed, somehow, to not even notice my box’s presence, it has become an integral part of my celebration of the weekly joy that is Shabbat.

The idea of a holiday, every seven days, given to us to break up the monotony of a lifetime of work? I find the very notion miraculous. I’m eternally grateful for it.

During a pandemic, the relief of such a holiday is even more wonderful. Where one day piles up upon the next in a potentially never-ending heap, a simple break is a gift in a web of byzantine complexity!

Jewish menorah and hanukkiah candelabrae

Coming up soon, of course, for some of us, is another very light-specific and candle-involved holiday: Hanukkah. My photo here shows a Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, next to a standard Jewish menorah with only seven branches.

While the pandemic pounds the normalcy out of so many of our experiences in 2020, it has little influence on the celebration of a small band of guerilla fighters against the greatest army in the world during the second century BCE.

When I take a candle from my coffer to kindle against the darkness on 25 Kislev (10 December, 2020), I will commemorate and publicize a miracle. I will battle darkness with my own small light. I am good, and I will defeat that which is wicked.

May humanity deal COVID-19 a similarly devastating blow in 2021, offering us a future of uncovered faces and robust health for the multitudes.

EPBM stands for “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal,” which is a cheaper version of the electroplated nickel silver that was, itself, a cheaper imitation of sterling silver goods.

*Remember that early candles were made of tallow, or beef fat. For a rodent, that stuff is like caviar or manna from heaven.

My country ’tis of thee on Election Day, 2020

My country ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of libertyUSA flag - 1

“My country ’tis of thee / sweet land of liberty…”

Most Americans are familiar with these opening lyrics penned in 1831 by Reverend Samuel Francis Smith for his hymn, “America.” To this day, I thrill every time I hear a recording of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he repeatedly quotes Smith toward the thundering conclusion of his great oration.

brass bell ringing on chain

“Let freedom ring!”

“Let freedom ring” should stir the hearts and souls of every American. It represents the absolute best and greatest potential of the United States of America, no matter how human and imperfect we may be at a given moment.

But the less well known third verse speaks loudest to me today as my fellow citizens go to the polls. I already voted by absentee ballot this year due to the pandemic.

Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake…”

I voted Election sticker - 1

“Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song.
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.”

This election has been more rancorous than any other I’ve known. For the first time in my life, I fear a night of violence and civil unrest instead of an evening of more-boring-than-average television viewing as the polls close and results roll in from the East Coast to the West.

And yet! In spite of! I carry hope like a tiny flame in my cupped hands against the breeze. I can hear sweet freedom’s song over a susurrus or a partisan gale.

USA flag flying on pole WA San Juan American CampI believe that mortal tongues will waken, and that my countrymen and -women will, in fact, partake of the opportunity to raise their voices today and be heard. We will vote, and we will take notice of those bad actors who stand between the populace and each one’s right to cast his or her ballot free from interference.

I reject and repudiate those wicked cynics who would choose to disenfranchise others in hopes of clawing back power being lost to legitimate changes in our nation’s demographics and priorities. Those who prefer to enforce their will upon an enslaved population should take up residence in a country built upon the primacy of an all powerful dictator. The United States of America was founded in direct opposition to such despotism.

Here’s to the prolonging of sweet freedom’s song today, and every day, in the USA, and around the world. May peace and justice prevail for everyone.

Until I did a little research for this post today, I was only vaguely familiar with the much longer back story of the melody to which we sing Smith’s lyrics. I knew about “God Save the Queen,” of course, but not earlier American adaptations of the tune and its use by classical greats such as Haydn and Beethoven. This Library of Congress page was my main source.

*It’s not a new phenomenon—Paul Weyrich, the conservative who founded a group laughingly calling itself the Moral “Majority”—was filmed addressing a group of religious leaders in 1980 and literally admitting that his bullying minority’s “leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s an insult to mathematics as well as to our founding fathers’ stated intent in the Declaration of Independence to create a new nation in which:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

It is clear to me that any true patriot must balk at disenfranchising other citizens.

Profound joy alongside grief when accepting unavoidable loss

My sincere hope is that I bring more positive thoughts to the world than negative ones. My choice of domain name, ReallyWonderfulThings.me, reflects that impulse and intent.

Lately, however, I’m mired in a slowly unfolding crisis that looms inexorable. Here is one of those snafus inherent to life. I can’t avoid it. I can’t fix it. The best I can do for myself is to endure with a measure of grace.

For my ill loved one whose prognosis is likely death within two years, I’m also aiming to provide comfort and support to any extent that I can. I am wholly inadequate to the task.

I’ve shed plenty of tears and pitied myself because I’m human and so damnably, unrelentingly flawed. I’m already grieving a loss that hasn’t happened yet, even as I nurse the tiny flame of hope that we will defy the statistics, beating the odds and the fallibility of every living body.

Facing my fears one at a time and bringing my intellect to bear on the process is a large part of how I cope. I read studies, research long shots, and struggle with my fundamental powerlessness.

And yet! I have also experienced a shocking and rather profound blossoming of a calm state of resigned joy. I never, ever expected that.

Don’t mistake me; it’s bittersweet. I could talk about my sadness or my fear, and typing these words has already brought a fresh wash of tears. None of that surprised me, though. The joy sure as hell did.

Somehow, staring straight in the face of one of my worst fears brings with it a resolute peace as I’m forced to live in each moment, because, really, that is all that I actually have. It’s easier to savor sharing good times with someone when you know each event is precious, limited, and won’t ever come around again.

There is nothing I can do except live my life as best I can. What a relief to give myself permission to do so in the absence of guilt. How freeing to accept* what I cannot change. I never thought I had it in me.

May good fortune and robust health find you and everyone you care about.

*As the serenity prayer sagely advises. One needn’t be a true believer to accept good advice. I’m pretty sure a number of gurus are preaching along the very same lines.

Holiday wishes for readers of every stripe: why I may wish you Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Good Yule, too

Looking forward to a holiday season that promises merriment and stresses, joys and missed opportunities, I send my sincere wishes for a healthy, happy, well-balanced Celebration of Your Choice to every reader.

X New Year - 1

Beginnings of a feast to welcome the New Year

Contrary to what some pundits believe, I am not partaking in a “War on Christmas.” I just happen not to be one of the Americans who makes a Christmas holiday in her home. I am delighted by the fact that so many do, however, and honored to be invited to participate in Christmas and alternate holiday parties held by friends, family, and my community.

I cherish every card I receive wishing me the best, whether the sender is joyfully recounting the birth of Jesus or illuminating the darkness in remembrance of a miracle of light. Some of the greetings are silly cartoons and puns, and I like those laughs, too.

I’m especially fond of the irreverent ones because they tickle my fancy, though I don’t think most who know me would accuse me of a lack of reverence in my personal or spiritual conduct.

Xmas - 1

Ёлка (yolka)

I even appreciate the commercial cards from my dentist or the auto repair shop, especially when an employee took the time to sign his name; it may be advertising, but it is also a human expression in an age when some would call corporations “citizens.” Ahem. It’s an effort to spread joy. I’m all in favor of that.

Counting your blessings, sharing glad tidings, and lighting up the darkness are Really Wonderful Things.

I begrudge no one her wish to draw her family close and celebrate the season as she sees fit; I wish for everyone the comfort of being embraced by his family and friends during these darkest days of the year.

It is human nature to need a bright and warm “coming together” in the heart of winter. I hope every reader finds that, whether the bosom that welcomes you is secular or holy, crowded or solitary.

May each of us find the love we need to keep our spirits lifted, now and going forward.

And I pray for extra doses of relaxation to find their way to all of us who join in multitudinous cultural festivals due to the rich complexity of our intermingled lives. Let all the in-laws and outlaws* revel together in harmony this season.

Shalom! Peace be with you and yours. Happy holidays. Blessed be.

X Hanukkah - 1

Homemade hanukkiahחַנֻכִּיָּה, only slightly flammable. Adult supervision required!

 *Outlaws may be a distant possibility unless you celebrate a real, old-fashioned Saturnalia. Enjoy a law-abiding holiday season… unless you are living in place that suppresses your religious freedom. Secret personal observances in defiance of culture police? Yes. Drunk driving? No!

Childhood sweets: Russian karovka & Greek pasteli induce circular rumination on parental love

What were the sweetest flavors of your childhood?

Candy Moo Korovka - 1

Pictured here is my husband’s favorite sweet. It’s a Russian candy our family calls “Moo.” Yes, like the sound a cow makes. My husband only likes the brands with polka dots on the wrappers.

It appears he isn’t the only one who yearns for cow candy to bring back memories of childhood and the act of chewing his cud?

I took this pretty picture of candy he received on Halloween because I knew it would be consumed immediately. While I don’t like the stuff at all, my sons have inherited their father’s fondness for this “milk caramel” or “gentle fudge” as I’ve found it translated online.

The candy is called “karovka,” which is the Russian word for cow. More specifically, it’s the diminutive word for “cow” in the Russian language. The Russians are masters of the diminutive!

Like Smurf-ette from Smurf, “karovka” implies a cute, dainty cow, not a regular old karova (корова), which might be a common dairy cow, or, God forbid!, a karovisha (коровище) which would be a gross, overwhelming cow-ishness!*

I knew a girl in college who was called Mary Moo.

When I met her as a wide-eyed froshling, I thought people were calling her “Mary μ,” with μ (mu) being a lowercase letter in the Greek alphabet. Its uppercase corollary, Μ, should be very familiar to all of us Westerners using a Roman alphabet. This casual use of Greek letters seemed very collegiate to my naive self.

Having just done the section in our Physics book about friction**, I felt very cool to have a new friend with a μ in her name. It turns out she was merely a vegetarian with rather bad manners who had often quite literally moo-ed at people while they ate meat in the dining hall the year before.

I learned the first of many lessons about the true nature of intellectual life at even a highly rated liberal arts college that day.

Now, as for candy, I’ll return to my starting point: the sweet memories of childhood. My husband loved karovka; I find myself reminiscing about the taste of sesame-honey candy.

One of my earliest memories of sweets is a sesame confection my mother would allow me to buy at our local, small city grocery store. A search online today tells me it was almost definitely a Greek delicacy, pasteli (παστέλι.)

I’m not sure I knew any Greek people as a child in our city. I wonder if the candy was there at the supermarket because its simple ingredients appealed to hippies (who lingered in Oregon long after they’d been supplanted by yuppies elsewhere), or if this is yet another Greek creation co-opted by the rest of the civilized world?

I’m almost positive that my mother was attempting to give me the most nutritious sweet possible without actually denying me a treat. In the 1970’s, when I was a tot, honey would have seemed a far cry from sugar. And with all those sesame seeds in the recipe? Pasteli is practically health food!

When Halloween comes around, I’m confronted in the sweetest possible way with all that’s different for my kids, here and now, and all that’s the same. My birthplace may be nearer than their father’s, but it’s still thousands of miles away.

The kids said, “Neener, neener, neener” to mock each other where I grew up; here, they tease each other with “Nana nana boo boo!” Don’t even get me started on how silly that taunt sounds to my West Coast ears.

People shop with carriages instead of carts. We get a driver’s license from the Registry of Motor Vehicles instead of the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles.) My kids are growing up in a Commonwealth, not a State.

Harrumph.

But here’s the sweeter side of these differences.

When I was a girl in the 1980’s, I sincerely believed that the USA and the USSR would destroy each other in a nuclear Armageddon. I worried about this. I lost sleep over it.

Sting released his song “Russians” in 1985. The lyrics always haunted me. They include these lines:

“We share the same biology/
Regardless of ideology/
What might save us, me and you/
Is if the Russians love their children too”

Politics are more polarized than ever. Our fears may have shifted from the Communists to the Terrorists, but it is still fear being peddled.

What has changed for my personal understanding of the scenario is the now constant awareness of the fact that, yes, the Russians did love their children, too.

They still do, and they always will. Just like we Americans love our kids, as do the Greeks, together with every other healthy human parent on the planet.

How sweet that is!

*Note that a native speaker of Russian says this would be a highly unusual word to encounter under normal circumstances. If it isn’t obvious to you yet, you should not be looking to me for guidance in correct use of the Russian language. I really enjoy this notion of turning words from diminutives into… what’s the opposite of a diminutive? I’ll go with grotesqueries.†I find them great fun.

†And now even my footnotes have footnotes. I had to look it up. The opposite of a diminutive is, naturally, an augmentative. Read more on Wikipedia if, like me, you must.

**μ is commonly used to symbolize the coefficient of friction.