Cheer a grumpy Christmas by stacking tiny bricks of gratitude

2020 hasn’t been a normal year. This won’t be an average Christmas.

Xmas tree - 1Many of us are heeding public health advice and avoiding travel. Some of us are still grieving lost loved ones whose presence defined* special holidays. Ignoring these very real sources of pain is neither healthy, nor possible in the long term.

But does acknowledging the bumps in life’s road mean choosing between being a humbug or a Grinch? I hope to prove otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m having a Very Grumpy Christmas. While I wish for better for every reader, I suspect my miseries enjoy plenty of company.

When I’m in this kind of snit—so easily degenerating into a full on funk—about the only remedy is the doing of good or the counting of blessings.

As I took advantage of an un-rushed school vacation week morning today by staying in bed for an extra hour with my book, I was grateful for not yet having reached the end of the last series of novels my mother will ever recommend to me.

She bugged me for months to pick up the first one. Why did I resist until after she was gone? I wish with every page that I could tell her how much I’m enjoying them…

Comforting myself with this small thing for which I could give thanks, I realized each little blessing is a brick. If I stack up enough of them, I’ll have built a sizable structure. One brick won’t do a person much good against an invading army, but enough humble chunks of masonry suffice for The Great Wall of China.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1So perhaps I’m not playing so well with others, today. I’m hardly a Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ll be a builder, though, of my own Great Wall of Gratitude.

I think it will hold.

QC city walls

Here are a few more trivialities I’ve found to be thankful for today:

  • My husband went back to the too busy, too crowded day-before-holiday bakery when they forgot to include my favorite cinnamon buns in the pre-packed bag he went out for at dawn.
  • My teenager told me he loves me… without me prompting him by saying it first.
  • My younger one never hesitates to show me affection, not even when his friends can see him doing it.
  • My kids can collaborate on a project and produce something great without adult supervision.
  • My pantry is full; I’m not afraid for how I will feed my family.

Readers, please feel free to share in the comments what you can find to be grateful for this topsy-turvy holiday season. Your smallest joy would be a Really Wonderful gift to me.

* I can’t look at a Christmas decoration without being reminded of my mother, who died of cancer in 2019. On the other hand, to ignore her favorite holiday would be the most disrespectful possible thing as far as honoring her memory goes.

Today’s post is brought to you in memory of Mother Christmas.

Mom decorates Christmas tree with ornament

That would be the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. Find them listed in order here; I’ve made it to book 13, Glass Houses. You definitely do want to read these in chronological order if you opt to give them a try. They’re decorous enough for readers of cozy mysteries (Mom), but complex enough for those of us who like to pretend we’re exercising our minds with our choice of literature.

Be warned, however: If you get into these mid-pandemic, you’ll be cross that you can’t make a visit to Quebec, which Penny paints as paradise… if you can get past the political intrigues and frequent murders!

Mail a greeting card in 2020 to uplift lonely holidays

Even if you don’t usually send Christmas cards or other holiday greetings, this year might deserve to be an exception. So many people are lonely and missing far-flung families due to the pandemic; getting a hand-written note in the mail may be the most human connection in a person’s day. That is well worth 55 ¢ in postage and a few minutes of your time.

greeting cards on desk blotter with pen and stampsI send cards sometimes; other years, I don’t get around to it.

I have written Hanukkah greetings, Christmas cards, acknowledgements of the Winter Solstice, and best wishes for happy New Years. I send the message I think the recipient would most appreciate; my religion* in no way dictates the blessing I offer a friend of a different persuasion.

My family hung the same red felt banners on the entry hall wall every year of my life. They went up early in December, empty canvasses, ready to receive holiday missives as they arrived. The oldest was made by my mother’s mother and features pockets and a waving Santa at the top; Mom had to craft another when I was little to accommodate the deluge of communiques that her sociability and dedication to friendship and public service inspired. Cards were pinned or stapled to that display.

In 2019, my mother died.

Somehow, that year also saw a huge reduction in the number of Christmas cards my widowed father received. In years past, every inch of these many yards of felt was hidden by the volume of cards and letters; last year, only one banner ended up even partially covered.

Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

I don’t believe that people were intentionally ignoring my dad in the absence of Mom, though her enthusiasm** for Christmas did put that of other, mere mortals to shame. I received fewer cards last year, too. The dentist and the auto body shop we used only once historically sent pre-printed cards, untouched by even a secretary’s hand. A lot of that has stopped. I suppose it’s a sign of the growing reliance on electronic communication, and I don’t miss impersonal mailings from businesses too much.

Dad’s passing comment about getting so few cards, however, was like a punch in the gut to me. It was already such a hard year for him; I grieved again to see him feeling forgotten. What a dreadful time for the world to decide to save a tree and skip a mailed paper greeting!

I’m going to be sending at least a few cards this year, myself. I’m prioritizing older relatives, and those who live alone. Even if you never send cards, hate to write, or don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays, this may be a year to reach out in the spirit of warmth, light, and joy—just because.

There’s no real deadline, either, in case you’re worried about the already overburdened postal system. Send Warm Winter Wishes in January, if that feels more appropriate. After the happiest of holidays, that month can be a real let-down. After a grim, lonely season you believe should have been festive? January could be gruesome.

Our shared humanity is reason enough. Care for others is the animating gift of all societies. Winter is dark and feels too long in the good years; 2020 has not been a particularly good year for most. Pandemic winter is an enemy to us all, but a terrorizing monster to the isolated and the lonely.

Reach out, if you’ve got a few minutes, an envelope, a stamp. You’ll be making the world just that little bit better for someone else. I’m willing to bet it will brighten your day, too.

I might even argue that the very definition of faith makes the fear of someone else’s difference a rather fundamental failing of it…

** Mom liked to say that Christmas was the reason the rest of the year exists. She called herself Mother Christmas, and Dad had a song commissioned for her about that by a talented musician friend. My parents’ over-the-top outdoor decorations were so spectacular, their house was featured in a television public service announcement in the 1990’s. Mom had a unique holiday outfit for every day between Thanksgiving and Epiphany, reckoning the arrival of the Wise Men was the true end of the Christmas season.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock to more paper spam either. This is not an argument that we return to physical documents for conducting most business.

That said, I do notice, enjoy, and appreciate the personalized greetings sent by some institutions, such as my son’s school and my former personal trainer who takes the time to hand write all of his cards.

Hot water bottles to warm up 2020’s chilly COVID socializing & studies

It’s 2020, autumn, and the pandemic did not miraculously resolve after the election. For those of us who believe in science and value the health of others, the only safe way to socialize these days is to take our meetings outdoors.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1I suffer more from the cold since developing an autoimmune disease, but November in New England isn’t traditionally known for sedentary al fresco activities. Even hale and hearty young people become uncomfortable sitting still as the mercury drops much below room* temperature.

Snow sprinkled evergreen trees in autumnAnd, of course, we got weather like this in October!

The first step to staying comfortable outdoors is wearing appropriate clothing. It is always wise to bring at least one layer more than one thinks is necessary for extended jaunts on cool days. Wear a cap, and bring your gloves, too, of course. But if the sun sets, or the temperature drops below 60º F or so, the amount of clothing required—or the need for expensive, highly specialized gear in which you may not wish to invest—can become burdensome.

teal softshell rain

Why I use hot water bottles at home and outdoors

I send my child to outdoor classes—and welcome visitors to our yard for socially distanced visits—with a cheap, simple, classic, soothingly warm hot water bottle. Adding a source of radiating heat beneath a blanket or tucked into a jacket can add hours of comfort for anyone, and, as a bonus, it also helps ease pain for those of us with arthritis.

Unlike a heating pad, you aren’t tied to an electrical outlet with a hot water bottle. And, while I also use microwaveable “warm bags” —which I’ve heard friends call “rice sacks,” “heat pillows,” and also “heating pads”— the grain filled type weigh just as much, yet cool down relatively quickly compared with the long sustained warmth of water with its very high specific heat capacity.

Red rubber hot water bottle on bed

My history with hot water bottles

Before I married my husband, I’d never even seen a hot water bottle in real life. I knew what they were from old novels and cartoons, but hadn’t noticed they were still sold in stores.

Quaint and old-fashioned hot water bottles may be, but I’ve become a convert. I’ve found them readily available in major chains and tiny Main Street Mom & Pop drug stores across America. Ask the pharmacist—or the oldest person on staff—at your local shop, and you will probably get what you need.

Continue reading

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!

Road warrior or mobile mom: on-the-go hydration without burst bottles in a 4 season climate

Many of us practically live in our cars, or it often feels like we do. From long commutes to the carpool expectations of modern parenting, our vehicles have become as familiar as our homes.

To keep ourselves healthy and comfortable on the go requires some effort. We fundamentally ignore nature’s expectations for our bodies (frequent movement, limited sitting) in automobiles.

Stock your vehicle for health & safety

What steps can we take to make our vehicles safer and healthier for our families?

Keeping a blanket handy and storing a reflective vest, safety flares and a wide brimmed hat in the trunk could reduce the hazard of an automotive emergency or an unplanned, prolonged stop awaiting rescue.

Carrying my Beastie massage ball and a pair of generic fit-over sunglasses (I’m utterly dependent upon prescription lenses to see) in the glove box helps me avoid debilitating headaches that could take our show off the road.

Little things like stocking shelf-stable snacks and bottles of water keep my family from resorting to junk food drive thru fare. Once in a while might be fine, but daily is a recipe for poor health and an empty wallet.

Storing drinking water in your car

That said, how safe is it to store drinking water in a vehicle?

Sigg water bottles - 1The poorly insulated metal and glass body of even the nicest car will always exacerbate local climactic conditions. On a hot day, the inside of the car will be a deadly inferno; in frigid weather, a stopped car blocks the wind, but quickly releases its heat once the engine is off.

Extreme heat could affect water safety

Exactly what happens to drinking water stored in a plastic container in a hot car is scientifically unclear, but it is reasonable to be cautious where heat and plastic are concerned.

My usual bottle for use in the car is a 1.5 litre Sigg made of coated* aluminum. I fill it every Monday morning, drive around with it all week, and bring it in for a thorough wash over the weekend. I have a set of glass bottles, too, which I will use cautiously in the car, but not “on the run” because I’m clumsy.

At this stage in their lives—elementary/middle school age—I’m not comfortable giving my kids glass bottles to use outdoors. They aren’t careful enough, and I don’t want shards of glass to ruin a day out. I could switch over to glass for their use solely while seated in the car, but I’ve watched a lot of objects get kicked out the door by a boy in hurry, and I also ask them to carry their own gear out from and into the house each day. My calculus on this question still points to unbreakable metal bottles for growing kids.

The sheer magnitude of the denting on their Sigg bottles tells a cautionary tale!

I’m a little more comfortable leaving water in my car in a reusable container that isn’t made of low grade plastic like disposable bottled waters, but I always try to avoid extreme temperature variations of my drinking supply.

In the summer, I typically refrigerate my bottle overnight before bringing it to the car. I prefer room temperature water, but, if it starts out cold, it may not reach “hot” before I drink it.

Sometimes, I’ll fill one of our lunchbox Thermos jars with ice cubes before I leave the house for a full day of adventures; I can add one or two as necessary to cool off what we drink from our personal bottles. It’s rare for the melt water in the Thermos to be anything but cool, even late in the day.

Freezing cold has its risks, too

Metal or glass water bottles might alleviate concerns about heating plastics containing potable water, but there’s another serious risk in New England’s four season climate: freezing.

When water freezes, it expands. Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of burst pipes at home during a deep freeze.

At least one of my children has forgotten a full aluminum Sigg container in a car parked outdoors in winter, resulting in an exploded bottle. I discovered the bottle before it thawed, so it was the loss of a pricey (~$15 USD) object that hurt, not ruined carpet or upholstery.  The lesson was taken to heart.

At our old house, we parked outside. All water bottles were carried in from the car each night, and we brought new ones out with us the next morning. Most of this effort was to prevent freezing as opposed to spoilage or stinking since children don’t get any drinks in my car except for water.**

Now, I have the great privilege of parking in an attached garage, so what was a vital necessity is just an abundance of caution. The garage temperature doesn’t drop below freezing.

Even with my van being kept warm(ish) overnight, living in the Northeast means enduring at least occasional days where the air temperature doesn’t rise above the freezing point of water, but I don’t like being caught out and about without fresh, filtered water to drink.

Solution: an insulated wine tote

Here’s my solution: an insulated wine bag. Mine came in a gift. It was part of a matched set with a lunch bag and a file tote.

The wine bottle size is perfect for my large water bottle.

The interior layer of reflective insulation helps protect the water from temperature extremes. The decorative outer material feels like a lunch bag or heavy duty reusable grocery tote.

The top of the bag has Velcro to keep it closed when relying upon the insulation to do its job; I don’t even close it in mild weather. The whole thing folds flat when not in use. It wipes down for cleaning, but that’s rarely necessary since it’s used by an adult only for water.

Since implementing this storage solution, I’ve returned to my van to find a rime of ice in my drinking water, but never a catastrophic hard freeze that bursts my bottle. On hot days, I don’t encounter that gross mouthful of sun-warmed, plastic-tainted water.

You can see in my photos how the insulation solution also works to prevent the oversized and top-heavy bottle from toppling over out of shallow cup holders when I take corners a little too fastI hang the Sigg in its insulated bag on my passenger seat armrest instead.

Velcro-ed shut, this keeps the bottle protected from temperature shifts, but it remains easily freed, even one handed, while driving. I know where to reach, and don’t take my eyes off the road.

Unscrewing the cap while driving to get a drink is actually much more difficult than accessing the bottle itself. Since my daily reality also involves having a tea or coffee mug in the car, I’ll often use that for water, too.

Once my morning caffeine fortification is complete, I’ll rinse out the mug and pour in a few ounces of drinking water at a time. This, I do while safely parked; I take my responsibilities to others on the road as a driver quite seriously. The coffee mug gets carried in at the end of every day for washing, and it’s never filled to the top with plain water. If it were forgotten, it wouldn’t be full enough to burst if frozen solid.

By pouring water from my large bottle into a cup instead of drinking directly from the spout, I also feel better about using the same one all week long. I refill it as needed, at the doctor’s office, or the gym, or school—anywhere convenient with filtered drinking water. Our town, a mere seven miles from our old home, gets its water from a different reservoir, and the taste is less than pleasing to a girl who grew up on the fantastic water sourced from the Bull Run water shed.

Keeping my mouth off the large bottle also makes it more hygienic to share when one of the boys forgets his bottle or has already emptied the smaller ones they find easier to carry when we’re active. It isn’t out of the question for us to drink from the same bottle, but I do try to avoid swapping germs willy nilly when there’s a good alternative.

Amazon is selling a range of similar insulated totes from $8 to $50. If you’re carrying a water bottle in your car in a climate that regularly freezes or exceeds comfortable temperatures, this is a good solution for keeping your drinking water at your preferred temperature for both taste and good health.

To avoid buying something new, consider using an extra insulated lunch bag for the same purpose, though you would probably need two shorter bottles instead of one large one for that scenario.

Once again, my Thermos food jars are often pressed into service like this. In winter, I’ll fill the 16 oz jar with hot water from my electric kettle. Hours later, it won’t be hot enough to brew a decent cup of tea, but it can take the chill off cold water from a bottle left exposed.

If I’m packing water for the whole family on an especially hot or cold day, I’ll nest more sets of bottles into lunch sacks with ice or heat packs as needed. I might then tuck one or two, or more! lunch bags full of waters into an insulated shopping bag or a cooler to extend the time even further before outside conditions affect our drinks.

You can spend a fortune on the best cooler available, or you can increase the insulating power of items you already have by doubling or trebling them up.

My insulated wine tote gets tucked inside the larger cooler as necessary when winter brings its worst, and my water bottle doesn’t freeze solid and burst.

*I am left with questions about the potential risk of the “non-reactive” coating inside Sigg’s aluminum bottles, but I’m not enough concerned to dispose of a container whose other features I like that is still in perfect condition. I won’t re-purchase bottles by this brand because of how they handled the BPA controversy back in 2008.

**This is partly about health: we drink water because it’s the best choice for hydration. The other motivation is avoidance of sticky substances that will annoy me if they are spilled. If you aren’t old enough to clean my car thoroughly after you spill—or pay for detailing—you don’t get any option but water. Exceptions are made on long distance journeys when the family is in the car all day for many days in a row, but, at home, during a normal commute, water is absolutely sufficient.