Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.
When last we left our heroes, they were two weeks before Christmas and their son had written a massively persuasive essay to the effect of he should get a frog. Much research was done. A terrarium was purchased and ready for Christmas morning. The amphibian excitement was running hot in the household. And lo! On Christmas morning there was the empty terrarium!
Our plan was this: we really want a vivarium. There are many reasons for this:
1) it requires massively less effort to keep clean, since nature does the cleanup work instead of you (a major consideration)
2) living things and plants, and the light required for them, are a boost to the mood and create an environment that is happier and healthier
3) less stank
4) they are extremely cool. Even the word vivarium is soooooo cooooool.
First we went to Jabberwock to buy one of everything. Just kidding! We bought two of several things. Our list included:
– Dinosaur eggs
– Light bulbs
– Three kinds of bugs (springtails, white pill bugs and crickets)
– Cricket stuff (cage, water stuff, food stuff, nutrient powder)
– Stuff for water (dechlorination, that surgical scrub stuff)
…. and a bunch of other things.
Oh, and a frog.
We came home and immediately got to work on three habitats: one for crickets, one for the baby frog right now (which will later be a nicer cricket habitat) and the Vivarium. It only took an hour or two to get the temporary habitat ready.
Six hours and 9 shopping stops later (ok, in fairness, only two of those stops were actually vivarium related, the others were in a vain attempt to find somewhere that still sold black tapes), the vivarium is up and running. The plants will need a few weeks to get rooted before they can handle the full weight of Mr. Lickums. But I’m already of the opinion it’s pretty awesome!
I believe that there are generally two kinds of events in life: the ones that are fun at the time, and the ones that make a good story later. As Christmas 2019 winds to a close as one of the “fun to experience” Christmases, I’d like to head back through the mists of time to tell the story of another Christmas.
This Christmas Eve I spent nearly 10 hours wrestling my 2019 photographs into submission. I firmly believe in the near-miraculous value of a good picture to help you remember an event as being much more fun than you thought it was at the time, and so I take a lot of pictures. I suspect this year’s tally was somewhere around 12,000 pictures (which was impossible for most of human history). I have pictures of almost everything. But there is this one Christmas where we go from this:
Strangely missing from the otherwise complete photographic documentation of my life is all the Christmas morning stuff. Where are the kids faces coming down the stairs? The stockings? The chaos of a living room in a flurry of wrapping paper? The look on my sons’ faces when they open their “big present”?
Well, let me tell you a story. The year was 2013, and on this Christmas my sons were 8 and 5 years old: peak Christmas aged. The joy and excitement were running high on Christmas Eve, and the full paraphernalia of both religious and secular were on display as we came back from Christmas Eve services to lay out a plate of cookies and milk for Santa. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, and the parents stayed up very late making sure that the scene to be uncovered in the morning was absolutely perfect. We were tired but satisfied as we went to bed that night, imagining the joy our children would experience because of our efforts the next day.
In the midst of our sugar-plum dreams, in the cold dark of a December morning, a sound intruded into our sleep. What could that be? But ah well, our children had yet to awaken us, so it couldn’t be that important. We rolled back over. But then, it came again. Was that… a squeal of joy? Wait, was that the sound of paper being torn? As if of mutual accord we flung ourselves out of bed and down the stairs, only to be confronted by a veritable blizzard of confetti-sized wrapping paper shrouding our two hellions as they tore into wrapped packages with a savagery usually only found in hungry, wild beasts.
Yes. They had gotten up and started on Christmas presents all on their own. They’d unwrapped over half their presents before we came down, screeching. It took me HOURS to get over it enough to take any more pictures. I was WROTH. I knew, in some tiny corner of my mind, that it might eventually be a funny story. I’m here to tell you that the amount of time required to accomplish that is no less than 6 years.
Here’s the decision-making, as paraphrased from the retelling of my eldest son.
So if you’ve ever met my mother, you would know that she is not what you would call a “morning person”. So when I woke up early on Christmas morning, I knew that my parents would not be excited to wake up so early. So I woke up Thane and went downstairs to give them a few more minutes to sleep. But our stockings were right there! I figured it would keep Thane quiet if we just opened our stockings, so we did. But then we’d opened our stockings. And I thought it wouldn’t hurt to open just one present to play with it, so Thane and I each opened one present. But then, before I could stop him, Thane opened a second! And it was only fair that I should open a second one too. Things after that got a bit out of control.
Now, every Christmas Eve, I remind my children that there is NO OPENING PRESENTS WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION!
And to those of you who just lived through one of those, uh, challenging celebrations: take pictures. It’ll be a great story, someday.
On Friday at 9:30 in the morning I got an email with a slide deck attached. This much is not unusual. As far as I can tell, half my job involves getting emails with slide decks attached. (The other half, of course, is sending such emails.) But this one was different. This one came from my 11 year old son, who definitely should have been doing something else in school.
The deck was titled “Why I Should Get a Frog“. I have my suspicions we may have entered the “persuasive essay” portion of the curriculum. Which, props to his teacher. This thing is a masterwork.
With a brevity and clarity that my work presentations can only aspire to, slide #1 got right to the point with the “ask” of the presentation:
The Frog I Want (If I am allowed to get one) is the Whites tree frog, you can find plenty of them in pet stores all around, and I believe they have them in pet smart. They are easy to handle, cute and overall funny looking.
So far, so good. I appreciate the research here, including specifics about the breed & availability desired. He expands with the reasons for the particular selection. To note: on further research everything he says here is also actually true.
Slide two gets deep into a cost analysis of the acquisition:
Although it is $200 I won’t ask for it for Christmas instead I will use my own Money
I am not sure yet if the terrarium is cat proof but if it is not we can always make something to keep the cats out. I believe it also fits on my desk, and is the biggest terrarium I could find.
Here we see advanced level skills. The kid has already learned something it’s taken me 20 years to figure out – if you promise to bring the budget, the project is 900x more likely to happen. Now you and I both know that a) it will cost way more than $200 b) he won’t end up paying for something he requests two weeks before Christmas. He may guess #2, but he’ll discover #1. He also does a fantastic job of objection handling. In this case, by making explicit reference to our biggest objection (frog = cat toy) and then just waving it away as inconsequential. Masterful.
But in slide three, he really closes the sale.
Grey was the one who got the cats, but I have never had a chance to have a pet of my own. It would help prove my responsibility and be adorable at the same time. The cats are very old, and not that playful. I have my own money to buy the terrarium and the frog. It is the derpiest thing I have ever seen. They are easy to take care of. Also, I LOVE FROGS. (It will be named Mr. Lickums The third).
Here we invoke the principle of fairness and the desire of parents to raise responsible children. We probably didn’t need to throw shade on our two lovely cats. But then, the close man. The close. How can anyone resist “Mr. Lickums The third”? It’s impossible.
In unrelated news, we learned that the local pet store focusing on things that people have phobias about is called Jabberwock Reptiles. They may be our new best friends. Time to go learn about keeping frogs alive. And crickets. And worms. Yikes!
GREY! Don’t tell your brother! Do you want some pet crickets for Christmas?
UPDATE: I have learned that the original Mr. Lickums was a clay art project. The second Mr. Lickums was an icebreakers can that was decorated to resemble a frog. You may now resume your important activities.
Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. -John Muir
I spent about 12 hours over the last week or so going through the pictures I took in 2019. I believe the tally is about 10,000 pictures, give or take. I’m deeply lamenting that Google stopped automatically syncing drive and photos, since now backing up my collection requires actual effort. But at the end of each year, I create a “Best of” album that I use for creating calendars, making physical prints (so that some hacker can’t erase my children’s childhoods), and as the background scenes for my screensaver at work.
I’m always struck at how the photographs work. In the moment, my kids start groaning when I take my camera out. There’s a fake-feeling when you arrange them artistically and cajole them to smile. When it’s just me, sometimes I wonder if I’m really seeing things when I have my phone out, or if I’m just postponing the seeing to some later date which may or may not ever come. The moments that surround those pictures have all sorts of feelings: annoyance, exhaustion, aggravation, anger, humor, relaxation, exasperation. But by the time I’ve picked my favorite photos, the entire year looks beautiful, joyful, peaceful and full of familial bonding.
This transformation of life from banal aggravation to beautiful memories is a miracle of modern alchemy. The best part is that, as you pull out your memories along with these pictures, they start to conform to what the photos say. It was a great day. We all had fun. We get along wonderfully. We spend most of our time doing meaningful things together as a family. Memories are not the truth of what happened, or of what we felt at that time. They are changed by, and even created by, what we do with them after they are first born. I work hard to make those memories largely lovely (although I do save a few less beautiful ones for authenticity’s sake, and because given enough time they usually become funny).
During this marathon session of photographic goodness, I couldn’t help noticing something about my year. There were a LOT more mountain scenes than in past years. My memories of those moments don’t include aching knee-muscles (impossible to photograph) or the pounding heat on Chocorua. But they instead evoke moments of peace, majesty, and a bigger and more lovely world. I’ve recently begun hiking a lot with an old friend who is the same kind of crazy I am about hiking mountains. On grim, cold days we sometimes text each other pictures of where we wish we were. With his not-so-great example, I was recently talked into doing my first ever winter hike, which required a massive re-kitting for appropriate gear. (OK, by talked into, I mean I said “Hey, want to go hiking on Wednesday?” and he said, “Sure!”.)
It was a beautifully soul-clearing hike, starting in the dark of the morning before dawn. We climbed to beat the weather, due in at some uncertain time of the afternoon (the forecasts were wildly inconsistent). The skies at times darkened ominously and scarves of white clouds wrapped themselves tightly around the necks of Lafayette and Lincoln, across the valley. But there were glorious moments, too. A perfect boulder, covered in pebbly ice. A southern exposure with bright moss shining through the white snow. The expanse of Lonesome Lake perfect below us. The sound of bitter winds whipping above our heads, with short summit-pines protecting us from the greatest heat-stealing wrath of winter’s icy breath.
As Boston braces for our first real snow of the winter on Monday, the experienced yankee might feel a mild claustrophobia setting in, as the world begins its process of shrinking to the size of the shoveled path. But perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps this year, I’ll be able to brave snow and ice, and meet my mountains again before spring.
Seven years ago, I took the bus to work. Both kids were little. I remember picking them up at the Y, rushing to get there before 6 pm. I’m guessing Adam dropped them off, since I don’t remember it. I drove to the tiny lot near the bus stop for that reason, and stressed about parking every day. Over time, I made friends with the people at my stop. I got to know the folks on the bus by sight, if not name. I read a whole lot of frivolous novels. I was kind of sad when that commute came to an end.
Then the word came that my office was moving from Cambridge to Boston for a little while – about 9 months. I’d been very tired of driving anyway, so driving into Boston was a no.
Now there are no daycare pickups (thank heavens!) And there is a beautiful new Greenway almost directly connecting my home and that bus stop with a brisk 20 minute walk. So here I am again, sitting in the 354, headed to work!
The struggle of explaining my relationship with Del always started with how to describe him to people who didn’t know him. I usually settled on calling him my Godfather. It had the right ring of near-familial without blood-relation to it, and in some ways it was quite true. Of course, Presbyterians don’t usually do godparents, and Del had been a few continents away when I was born and christened.
What he started as was my grandfather’s best friend. They’d been Boy Scout leaders together most of their adult life, although Del was a decade younger than my grandfather. In my earliest memories of him, I’m probably 7 or 8. We made the trek to Seattle to visit my grandparents for a great family tradition: the annual Gilbert & Sullivan outing. I’m not sure exactly which show it was, but I remember seeing Yoeman of the Guard, so it was then or earlier. My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and various family friends were all there – a huge crowd of us for dinner, a speech by Del about the play we were about to see, and the play itself. A few years later, after the performance, he asked my parents if my sister Heidi might be able to join him for some other plays, and with their assent, a new relationship was born.
My turn came when my sister got too busy to attend the plays, perhaps around my freshman year of high school? Del and I had so much fun together, we had to set a rule that we could only have an event in Seattle once a week during the school year. (Seattle was a 2 hour drive for me. My Jr. year of high school I put 1000 miles a week on my parent’s car.) He brought me along with him with his season tickets to the ACT, Seattle Rep (I nearly died of embarrassment when we caught “Angels in America” there when I was 16), Intiman, Seattle Opera (my favorite – he got me a signed copy of Lohengrin by Ben Heppner which shows how in tune he was with my obsessions) and “Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We also caught musicals at the Paramount, and the periodic Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert (my favorite was New Years ’98 concert in Benaroya Hall’s inaugural year). Throughout high school (and summers in college!) I got a world class arts education, first hand, from Del.
It wasn’t just that we watched the plays together, either. Most of our outings included a dinner. I remember one night eating at the Four Seasons in Seattle where he apologized to my future husband, who would not be able to take me anywhere fancier to propose to me. (In point of fact, Adam took me to Applebees. After Del had met him and approved of my then-boyfriend, he’d offered the advice that Adam should take me to Der Rosenkavilier to pop the question.) We had car rides to the plays, dinner before hand, the plays themselves, and then the post-play breakdown. I almost always loved it, but recall Dels’ surprise when I was particularly critical of 7 Guitars when it premiered Seattle. We skipped it when it subsequently showed in Ashland.
Del and I talked a lot. About everything. We talked about the shows we’d seen and would be seeing. He spun me extremely specific tales of Seattle of yore – the people, places & events. He witnessed much of the city’s growth from a regional backwater to nationally important center. At the height of Microsoft’s power and dominance, we even once sat behind Bill & Melinda Gates at a relatively exclusive showing! He told me about my grandparents, and my father as a young scout. He talked about Baden-Powell, and the Order of the Arrow, and his mother. He told me how his parents would take him out to fancy balls, and he’d explore with the other kids and then fall asleep in the coat room. He told me how the doctors believed he’d been a twin in utero, due to the mirror-placement of his internal organs. He talked about KING TV, and the day he had a heart attack at his desk at work, died, and was brought back. From that day on, without fail, he ALWAYS ordered the salmon at dinner. Always. He’d encourage me to get creme brulee for dessert and then stare at me wistfully while I ate it. I particularly remember the long drive from Ashland back home to Mineral, where he spent no less than two hours explaining the whole concept of an “HMO” to me, and how it would work amazingly, back when that was a brand new concept to the world.
He was also always there for me. I am not sure I played in an orchestra concert where he wasn’t in the crowd, nodding his approval. He noted my interests and helped me pursue them. Most of the time when I met up with him, he had newspaper clippings he thought I’d be interested in. He never forgot a birthday. As time went on, he was increasingly at every Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. My mom kept tea in the cupboard, which only he ever drank. After I left to go for college, Del and I were frequent correspondents.
My parents, in a sign just how much he was truly family, stepped in when it became clear that he could no longer live alone. They tackled with love and compassion the task of preparing a home he’d lived in for 75 years (which, in all our time together, I’d never once seen) for sale and a new generation. My mother says that in all the extensive files he kept, I was his longest & most voluble correspondent. My parents have been with him since, treating him like the grandfather to me he is like. My father kept vigil with him today, as his breathing became unsteady, labored and then finally ceased.
My relationship with Del was just one chapter in the book of a great man. There are many who look at his life’s work, and can be forgiven for thinking he dedicated it to excellence in the way they knew him. His scouting service was legendary. His name is inscribed in the outdoor theater at Ashland. He had an eidetic memory, and could (and would) give you the life histories of all the important people ever buried in Queen Anne Hill. He was a great patron and lover of the arts. He also worked a full career, starting with pushing elevator button on the Smith Tower (a favorite topic of conversation), through the rise of television.
He was a remarkable and generous man, and I’ll be forever grateful that he gave me so many rich gifts: of experiences, tickets, meals, marble heads of Wagner (ok, only one of those), but mostly – his time.
If you have any remembrances to share, or want to learn more about this amazing person, you can visit delloder.com
This post is best read while listening to “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by Anonymous 4. Their whole “American Angels” album is worth a listen for those to whom this post will resonate.
I always liked to joke that I am an “Born the first time around” Christian. I was a missionary baby born in the hospital my father helped run in the Congo. My earliest days were a compassionate example, as my mother visibly nursed me to show that this healthy & cheap option was good for any child. I was baptized by Pastor Kafiamba – fire-eater. My first memory of music were the songs of Maranatha when I was three. And I have never fallen away from church, from my faith, from my God. Even in college, the notorious time of not-going-to-church, I was one of a faithful handful who attended Sunday and Wednesday services, huddling in a tiny corner of the vast and magnificent Harkness Chapel.
My good-church-person resume is extensive. I’ve been a member of the Presbyterian Church in Burlington for nearly 20 years. I’m on session. I am a Sunday School teacher. I run the website. I have served on almost every committee a person can serve on. I show up on Sundays, and sometimes Tuesdays. I ran the process to listen to what mission God calls us to, and led the search for our new pastor. I run the Christmas pageant, play trumpet, serve communion, bring coffee hour treats, and can walk through the halls in total dark without stumbling.
But lately, it’s been harder and harder to reach that font of living water, and I have felt my soul getting parched. I suspect some of this has to do with age. Nothing feels quite as vivid or fresh or spooky-special at 40+ as it did when I was 19. Repeated experiences, like sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, can either gradually add to or gradually wear away at meaning. Or sometimes, both. But in the last decade or so, as my labors have increased, my deep connection to the “why” of those labors has started to wear thin. Simply put – my heart has been growing hungrier, even as I do the things I’ve always done to feed it.
When I think of my mother’s parents, their deep faith and devotion are a huge part of what I remember. They had two chairs in the living room, with a big bookcase on one side. One for her, and one for him. And every day, often in the quiet cool of the morning, they would sit in those chairs with their well-loved Bibles and pray and read. Both those Bibles are still in their hands, in the cool quiet of their shared tomb – a fact I often reflect on. But this time of prayer was central to their lives, if always a little foreign to me (and hard to stay quiet for, when I was wee).
In this desert-time in my spiritual journey, I’m looking hard for things that fill my cup, and inspire me. I’m looking for things that make me feel big feelings, and have a heart overspilling with unnameable emotion. I’m looking to have mind and heart and soul be more expansive, and to see a world that is grander and more mysterious than the narrow boundaries of my life. And so, into the cracks of time my schedule permits, I’m trying plants expansive seeds of soul-dilation.
And that brings me back to the sweet hour of prayer. (OK ok, honestly, sweet fifteen minutes.) I’ve started creating my own sanctuary and litany. My quietest time is morning, after my boys are all already gone to school and work. (I am not a morning person.) I sit on the white chair by the window and look out at the morning and the sky and try the rusty skill of prayer. I’m really not very good at it for someone who’s working on their fifth decade of Being Christian.
Then I sing a hymn. Hymns are my emotional soft spot, especially the old ones (like Sweet Hour of Prayer). Grey accused me of “flexing” in church this morning because I knew all the words to “Praise to the Lord, The Almighty” by heart, and it includes the word “Ye”. The hymns sound strange in the acoustics of my bedroom, with just my voice. But the words connect me to the great cloud of witnesses who have come before me.
Then, if I have time, I read. My goal was to find things that would inspire me when I read them. I read the Book of Matthew first, a little because I had to start somewhere. I’ve probably read Matthew through 10 times? So I wasn’t expecting to find anything new, or surprising there. But that’s the great joy of a book like the Bible. There is so much to it, so much complexity, that you see different thing based on where you are in your own life. Different things stand proud and catch your notice. In this case, for me, it was the theme of being judged by the measure you judge others, and the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” which showed up several times. It is funny, reading the Bible, to know that there is so little to find that others have not already seen. I bet both of those have PhD theses, if not entire books written on them. But I’d never noticed before.
I’m working on my next book. I listened to “The Reason for God” on my commute, which was particularly fascinating when read alongside Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“. I tried Bonhoeffer, but despite his excellent quotability he was annoying instead of inspiring me. I’m reading Luke while I figure out what I want to do next.
I’m also mindful that books that have great spiritual resonance for me are not always actually Christian. There is no book more capable of evoking a spirit-response in me than Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion which is written about a religious Pantheon which is distinctly Not Christian. But yet, it makes me feel closer to the creator. I also have come to the conclusion that John Muir is a prophet to *me*, speaking to a very important part of my heart. I think poetry may come close to this soul-expansion I so deeply desire.
The last thing I’m doing is my one faith-fail-safe for my whole life. I feel closest to God when I am in nature. There is a meditative quality to an expansive hike which cracks open my hard shell and lets air and light and water in. It is as though altitude helps me get closer to heaven. The time I spent this summer and fall with hiking boots strapped to my feet was time I spent nurturing the soul-fire God has given me.
With time, prayer, song, poetry and nature – I have hope that embers of my joy in God will rekindle. There’s a heat to someone whose soul is well tended. I remember the soft warming glow of my grandparents, in their quiet devotion. I also know that there is a more blazing, inspiring fire that comes sometimes. I’ve rarely heard a story of someone who converted to Christianity without an encounter they have had with someone who seemed lit by an internal conflagration of joyful spirit. I wish to be such a beacon.