#Outlander, Christmas, and Rereading Books

Books are my touchstones. I carry them with me…battered copies tucked in my bag, a library of books on my phone, and always, always books in my heart. So many of my old photos have books in them, and I can tell you what was going on in my life by what I was reading.

Christmas 1984 – loved stories, and history, and losing myself…that was my Laura Ingalls Wilder period. Still love history.

Christmas 1985 – middle school, awkward, one foot in adolescence and one in childhood…ahhh, yes. Sweet Valley High and Flowers in the Attic. Don’t’ judge.

Christmas 1987 – young, broody…that would be my Sylvia Plath period.

Christmas 1991 – idealistic, romantic, and nostalgic…that was the year I discovered Norman Maclean.

Fast-forward to 2015, and I am re-re-re-reading Outlander. Yes, yes, I know. I have read it a *cough* few times. But there is a very good reason for that: It’s worth rereading.

Outlander-blue-cover-198x300I have mentioned before that the Outlander series, quite literally, helped me survive my husband’s heart attack this past March. I read while he rested in the hospital. The books were my refuge, my companion, my escape, my comfort. They still are.

So, when I realized that I wasn’t feeling all Eggnog-and-Holiday-Cheer, I tried to slow down and take a breath. It helped…a bit. I felt less stressed, but there was still the voice in my head whispering about the Christmas lights that were still in boxes, and the decided lack of Christmas cookies, this year’s non-existent Family Christmas Card, and the fact that Christmas is two freakin’ weeks away and I have done exactly NONE of my Usual Christmas Traditions.

We have not gone driving around to look at Christmas lights even once, I have not watched my traditional Christmas movies (The Family Man; Love, Actually; The Holiday, or It’s A Wonderful Life), and I have bought exactly…nothing. So, basically, I feel like I am sucking at this whole Mom Thing.

*Insert holiday induced pity party here.*

So, after a nice cup of fortifying tea, I started wondering what the holidays would have been like for Jamie and Claire. (Well, not that first Christmas. We know exactly what THAT was like for poor Jamie…let’s not go there. *shudder*  Oh, and not that incredibly rage inducing and misguided Hogmanay with Laoghaire. *makes sign of horns*)

No, I mean the later Christmases…those at Fraser’s Ridge. Actually, in The Fiery Cross Diana told us (she’s good like that) what the holidays were like. Spoiler: They were nothing like the holiday season as we have mangled it.

Despite all the of the responsibilities of being Himself, Jamie still found time to carve Jem a wooden horse, and he also carved Claire a new wooden ladle with the image of a mint leaf carved on the handle. And, despite all the time spent physicking, Claire gave Jamie “a new shirt with ruffles at the throat for ceremonial occasions.”

As Diana reminds us:

Catholics as many of them were—and nominally Christian as they all were—Highland Scots regarded Christmas primarily as a religious observance, rather than a major festive occasion. Lacking priest or minister, the day was spent much like a Sunday, thought with a particularly lavish meal to mark the occasion, and the exchange of small gifts.

I imagine a lovely meal courtesy of Mrs. Bugg (God rest her soul), and perhaps Claire would make some of her molasses cookies. And I am quite sure there was a wee dram to be had. Perhaps a song or two as well. Likely no cherry bounce or jigs and reels. But it was enough.

There was no tinsel, no movies, no stampede of crowds. There was no competing to get the biggest or best present for kids or grandkids. There was no social obligation filling every spare moment. There was food, and family, a fire in the hearth, and food on the table. And it was enough.

Once again, books steady me, comfort me. And this is why I reread books…because, like an old friend who knows me well, books bring me back to what matters.


Finding the Quiet

treeIt just doesn’t feel like the holidays yet.  Perhaps it is because the past week or so has been nothing but obligations: running errands, tending to unforeseen things that have a tendency to arise when there is no time to deal with them, and trying to “get ready” for the festivities (or rather, stress about buying all the things that have not yet been bought).  The end result, however, is more Bah-Humbug than Happy Holidays.

The days slip away, and each day I count down how many more days before the holidays are here.  I contemplate what event I can mark off next, as if they are hurdles to be overcome rather than moments to savor.  I—so caught up in preparing for fifteen minutes of unwrapping—have forgotten to slow down and enjoy the quiet sense anticipation of the season.

I do know how to manage it, which helps.  I need to find the quiet.  Sometimes I need to go outside and stand in the winter’s chill and lift my eyes to the heavens.  Or perhaps it is enough to wrap myself in a well-worn tartan and, with a wee dram in hand, sit before the flickering fire and let the stress rise and float away like the crackling embers.  Or solace may come to me in the still of night, while I listen to the rise and fall of breath next to me, and—reaching over and laying my hand across his chest–find blessings enough in the warm and solid presence of my husband.

There are too many commercials, too many parties and luncheons, too many forced celebrations.  I will find my joy in the quiet moments in between.  In the twinkle of Christmas lights in the darkness and in stars overhead, in the smell of gingerbread baked “just because.”  And in ancient carols spilling from smiling lips…rather than tinny sounding sounds blared over department store speakers.  I’ll take comfort in the pile of wood next to my hearth, in a pair of warm mittens when I tend to the chickens.  And, as I add more hay to their coop, I’ll recall another manger, another night, another twinkling star…and I’ll remember what is important.

Preparations (and #whisky cake)

Home and hearth.

The rest of the house sleeps, but the early hours–the hours before the sun breaks over the ridge–are the hours that allow my thoughts  to percolate…and my preparations for the things that lies ahead.  The  morning moments, before the bustle of breakfast or the scurry of the workday, grant me peace; I accept the offering and try not to squander it.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  The amazing abundance that makes it the table is a labor of love.  I tend to plan my meal months in advance.  Some of the dishes will be found at tables across America, and others are simply family favorites.

Last night I brined the turkey.  Last year was our first year to brine the holiday bird, and it was such a success that it was quickly decreed that All Birds Henceforth Shall Be Brined.

Today will be filled with All Things Cranberry: the traditional Cranberry Relish, our beloved Neil Gaiman Cranberry Sauce, and Sugared Cranberries.  (Seriously, there is nothing more precious than hearing a small child say, in his best Holiday Manners, “More Neil Gamain Cranberry Sauce, please?”)

Desserts will also fill the oven today.  Whisky cake*, pumpkin pie, and pecan tassies.  The sugar  cookie and Pfeffernüsse dough were made over the last weekend and are ready to be baked on Thanksgiving night as we drag all of the Christmas decorations down from the attic.

Today I’ll make fudge (pumpkin, and peppermint, and chocolate), peanut brittle, and rum sauce.   Candy dishes will be filled and refilled as little hands sneak “just a taste” when I turn to stir a pot or peek in the oven.

Tomorrow is for side dishes and things-that-go-on-trays.  Pickle trays, cheese trays, olive trays, veggie trays…  Heaping piles of side dishes will be prepared: mashed potatoes, praline sweet potatoes, salads, quinoa and wild rice with cranberries and carmalized onions.

Tomorrow is for last-minute vacuuming by over-eager children with energy to burn (likely from the rush of stolen sugary-things).

Tomorrow is for trying to fill the table with all the foods that represent home, and family, and tradition; for wishes of a winter filled with Enough…enough food, enough warmth, enough family and friends, enough Love to make it through the years Dark Days.

As you go about your last minute preparations, I wish you Enough.


* If you will be having family over for the holdays, or going to visit family, I HIGHLY recommend making a whisky cake.  My version is very, erm, “bracing.”  Just the thing for a lovely day with the in-laws. 💕

Ash Wednesday, Words, and Droch Cainnt

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself
I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us.

From Ash Wednesday, by T. S. Eliot

Words often get in my head and clamor around until I write them away.  Maybe that is why I always loved that bit of Ash Wednesday.  These matters that with myself / I too much discuss / Too much explain… It is familiar.  Words have a way of doing that…of getting under my skin.  Words have meaning and power.  Words hold sway over us.  That is why it is so hard for me to give them up…any of them—words I mean.  I like having all of the words at my disposal, because words all have different connotations, different baggage that they bring with them.  Words have history and they carry that history with them.  Words said in anger, in love, or in doubt retain that shadow when uttered again.

For Lent, I will give up some of my words.  Not all of them, mind you…I am a writer, after all.  But I will give up the more irreverent words* that seem to pepper my conversations (especially my conversations with computers and office equipment that is not cooperating).  I plan to give up the curses that seem to form on my lips before I am even aware that I have formed the intent to utter them.  Oh, yes, though the speech itself may be coarse, it drips from my lips like honey.

You see, while my parents have pristine speech, my DNA harkens back to a people for whom curses were an art form.  And, truth be told, I find it rather comforting to be resurrecting verbal filth once feasibly uttered by my ancestors.

Curse words can provide a certain visceral relief in times of stress.  (Trust me; it is immensely satisfying to find precisely the right curse for a given occasion.)  Profanity can also act as a verbal intensifier and sometimes, just sometimes, curses can be a thing of beauty; the right words (however coarse) in the right language can be almost poetic.

So, yes, in giving up my ability to communicate and articulate freely, I chose to give up something quite dear to me for Lent.  For me, it is much more of a sacrifice than giving up meat, or sweets, or social media.  So, scoff if you like; but, if you do, be aware that you might well get an earful…just not in English.

*To clarify, because I am not a saint and I would rather not set myself up for utter failure, I will allow myself a few colorful utterances with the caveat that they must be uttered in a foreign tongue.

Bliadhna Mhath Ùr!

The year is winding down, and I survived (*knocking on wood*).  I survived Thanksgiving, and the mad dash to prepare for Christmas, and the holiday parties, and Christmas Eve with my in-laws, and Christmas Day with more extended family and other in-laws.  There was a not-unheard-of amount of drama, and mess, and stress.  Then there was the quiet.

house  A few days after Christmas things tend to get…still.  I think it this happens as a sort of recharging, or as self-preservation, or perhaps from mere exhaustion.  This year, nature must have sensed the need, too, because it cooperated.  A cold front descended, a bit of snow fell…the fireplace roared, candles were lit, and a dram or two of whisky helped to keep the chill at bay while friends came to visit and we all talked long into the night.  And amid all the hustle and bustle of the season, a moment of quiet was found.

As the last few days of the year dwindle down, I tend to get more reflective and perhaps a bit maudlin.  Each year tends to have a bit of a theme that becomes clear as the year draws to a close.  2012 was The Year of Writing.  2013 was The Year of the Move.  2014 seemed to have been The Year of Medical Drama.  Three (Four? Five?) Familial Hospitalizations (one of which resulted in Five Fewer Bodily Organs), one eye surgery, and untold visits to doctors, urgent care, and pharmacies later, I think this year has earned its moniker.

I have no idea what 2015 will bring, but I start each year with good intentions, and aspirations, and hope.  I hope that 2015 will bring health, and love, and good stories, and enough.  Food enough to fill our stomachs, warmth enough to keep the chill at bay, money enough to provide for my family and friends (and a bit more to help those whose faces I may not know but whose needs are real).

I want to read more, and write more, and spend more time with my family.  I want to feel more comfortable in my own skin, to learn a new language, to figure out how to knit more than just the one type of stitch.  I want to put in a bigger garden, and cook healthier, and walk/run more.  I want to let go of things I don’t need (be it the boxes of extra things in the attic, those couple of holiday pounds that crept up on me while I was making merry, my sometimes paralyzing writer’s doubt, or the dull ache of mom-guilt).  I want to hug more, worry less, try harder, and laugh louder.

New Year’s Eve will be here soon.  My husband and I have decided to claim this as our holiday.  Unlike Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July, no other family members have a claim on this day.  There are no familial obligations tethering us to anyone else’s expectations, traditions, or demands.  We don’t have to go anywhere or do anything.  No one’s feelings will be hurt by our absence or alternate arrangements.  It is ours.  So, as we see the backside of 2014, there will be candles, and a peat fire in which to throw the remains of doubt, dread, and regret so that we don’t carry them with us into the new year.  (Likewise, before New Year’s Day, Christmas will be carefully packed away so as to not carry the remains of the last year into the new one.)

boozeAs the last hours of 2014 dwindle down there will be a toast to whatever is to come, followed by strict adherence to the plethora of superstitions to ensure a prosperous new year (first footing at midnight and, after the new year dawns, there will be black eyed peas, something green and something gold, and finally–on Twelfth Night– the burning of the greens).

But until then, I’ll revel in the last of the turkey, and the glow of the Christmas lights, and the familiar comfort of a year well lived.  Bliadhna Mhath Ùr!

Ri tragadh ‘S ri lionadh

It happens every year, so I don’t know why it shocks me when it happens again.  As the days grow shorter and the holidays grow closer…the darkness seems to close in like a fog.  Somewhere amidst the twinkling lights and joyful carols you can feel it.

Sometimes the sadness lurks inside the song itself.  One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but I don’t like just any version of the song.  I only like the version that includes the line “…but until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”  Because, for me at least, the holidays are filled joy and tradition and family and friends…and more than a wee amount of muddling.

I juggle bills and obligations.  I work around traditions and expectations.  I try not to let my mental picture of “The Holidays!” take away from the reality and true meaning of the holy day.  Most days I fall short.

photo 2The house is starting to look plenty festive.  I have a bit of gluten free cookie dough in the refrigerator waiting for a free evening.  There is wood piled up.  I even have a big bag of marshmallows just waiting to be lit aflame and then quickly blown out and consumed in all of their charred and gooey glory.

There is a new bottle of Glenfiddich tucked between the Laphroaig and Glenmorangie, and I am eager to make another whisky cake.  And the fog that seems to have encompassed my city the past few days makes it feel like the perfect time to fire up the oven and fill the house with the strong smell of some Christmas spirits.  And, last night, I quite nearly did just that.

Only I didn’t.  Instead, I helped my kiddos clean up their rooms.  We tucked things away and found places for things that had been underfoot too long.  We talked about school, and life, and friends who are hurting.  We talked about rumors and small towns and loyalty.  We talked about friends in need.  The talk lasted long into the night and left me with a lingering sense of unease. Often midnight revelations are poor bedtime companions.

So today I find myself preoccupied.  I can’t focus on the Christmas list, or the fact that I haven’t bought Christmas cards (let alone signed or mailed any).  If truth be told, I have not bought any Christmas gifts yet.  And yet I do not doubt that my Christmas is already more festive than many of those around me.

A co-worker’s home burned down last night.  From all appearances, it is a total loss.  A friend of mine lost her brother just before Thanksgiving.  A family we know had to deal with a suicide attempt.

Yes, these short days bring darkness closer around us.

I was talking to a dear friend the other day about space and deep seas and voids…and the fear which such immense caverns of nothingness can evoke.  She told me that the cold continuum of unending space terrified her, and I agreed.  I thought it funny at the time that darkness can feel both too vast and too confining at the same time.  It pushes in on you and stretches out around you until there is nothing left but you and the dark.  That is when you either surrender to it, or you hold out hope for a spark…a sliver of illumination, or possibility.   You try to wait out the ebb and flow and pray for the darkness to recede.

There are a lot of sparks that illuminate my life.  I have been blessed with love, and friends, and family.  I have enough: enough food and clothing.  I have a warm home and things to do each day which give me purpose.  I am forty-two years old, but none the worse for wear.  Most days, I like who I see in the mirror.  Not a bad thing, that.  These are what makes the long nights bearable.

Gloir don Athair,
agus don Mhac,
agus don Spiorad Naomh.
Mar a bha, ‘s mar a tha, ‘s mar a bhitheas,
fad shaoghal nan saoghal. Amen.

Just the thing for some Holiday “Spirit”

Today was the Thanksgiving “muncheon” at work.  Ever the rebel, I decided that I would liven up the festivities with a nice Glenmorangie cake.  I placed the cake in the break room at 8:30 a.m.  It was completely devoured within the hour.  Although, admittedly, I did eat one piece myself.

The holidays mean relatives descending upon your sanctuary.  They come from far and wide and, even if they aren’t staying for longer than it takes to eat The Meal, they still bring a lot of baggage with them.  Slights, resentments, and betrayals unknown or unrecalled are all stirred up.

In order to prepare for the inevitable drama, it is best to have plenty of strong tea on hand (or coffee, if that is your thing).  Perhaps some eggnog–well fortified–will help, too.  But, at my house, I go with a very special cake to help get me in the holiday *ahem* spirit.  This Glenmorangie cake is just the thing to fill my stomach, settle my nerves, and help those passive aggressive remarks slide by unnoticed.


Glenmorangie Cake

1 c. softened butter (no substitutes)
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
3 c. self-rising flour
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. Glenmorangie
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Grease and flour one 12-cup Bundt pan AND one 6-count cupcake pan OR one eight inch round pan.  (This makes more than just the one Bundt cake, and I tend to snack on the “extra” cake and keep the “fancy cake” for The Meal.)

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until fluffy.  In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients and set aside.  Add the eggs one at a time to the creamed butter.  Slowly add the flour mixture.  Then add milk, vanilla, and whisky.

Divided the batter 2/3 in the Bundy pan and the remainder in the cupcake pan or eight inch round.

Cook until golden brown.  (The Bundt cake will take longer than the others, so keep an eye on it.  It will take about 1520minutes for the cupcakes and about 35-45 minutes for the Bundt, depending on your oven.

When the cakes are done, remove from the oven and let them cool.  While the cake is still warm, brush it with the Glenmorangie Glaze.

GlenmorangieGlenmorangie Glaze

1/2 c. butter (no substitutes)
1/4 c. water
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. Glenmorangie

Melt the butter in a sauce pan.  Stir in water and sugar.  Boil 5 minutes, stirring continuously.  Remove from heat and cool slightly.  While warm, gently pour in the Glenmorangie.  Spool/brush onto warm cake.  Let cool.  Store in air tight container.

Serve with coffee, tea, eggnog, or more Glenmorangie.  Let the festivities begin!