A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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The World of Holiday Greetings Has Changed

For the last several years, a friend and I have gotten together every December to address Christmas cards and catch up over tea. She still writes at least two dozen, while my output has dwindled to less than 10.

I used to love Christmas cards. I tended to indulge in the expensive ones printed on high quality paper, the ones with artistic designs or humorous sentiments. Sometimes I bogged down with signing them and getting them to the Post Office, but I always got them out before New Year’s.

While doing business as Ellen Shriner Communications, I began handcrafting holiday cards to send to ad agency and marketing clients. Instead of dropping off clever client gifts or food treats (a common practice in the communications world), I made a charitable donation in my clients’ honor and hoped the cards would remind clients about my creative work. I also sent the cards to close family and friends.

Every year, I wandered the aisles of the now-defunct Paper Depot and let the stamps, vellums, fine cotton card stock, and gorgeous imported papers inspire me. For a month, I holed up in my office planning, writing, printing, cutting, gluing, and assembling 50-60 cards. Many years, I made several versions because I was attracted to multiple ideas, and it was fun to experiment.

The card with red ribbon involved dried flowers from my garden. For the one on the far right, I drew ornaments in watercolor. For the one in the center, I hand cut starbursts with an Exacto knife so the gold vellum would show through.

By the end of 2010, I was winding down my business and had accepted a hospital marketing job. I could have continued making the cards for family and friends, but handcrafting cards no longer gave me as much pleasure, and the world of holiday greetings had changed.

For many people, sending Christmas cards had become just one more thing on a long To Do list. Friends and family were relieved to let go of the tradition. Often the cards I received seemed to be guilt-induced (Dang! She sent me one. Now I need to reciprocate), and I didn’t want to cause that discomfort.

For me, Christmas cards had been a way to stay connected with out-of-town family or friends I rarely saw. Often the cards summed up how the year had gone, and that ritual reflection felt worthwhile.

Now a yearly missive is less important. Calling is so cheap and immediate that the most important people in my life already know what’s going on. As a writer, I’m at the keyboard most days and can dash off a quick email to friends. Social media has made it easy to stay in touch with an extended group of people.

Maybe one day I’ll rediscover the creative fun of playing with fine papers, glue, and an Exacto knife. But this year, I’ll sign a few store-bought cards and write a handful of personal notes. Of course, nothing replaces visiting in person, especially over a cup of tea!

To all of our blog readers: the WordSisters send lots of affection and appreciation for our connection. Happy Holidays!

Company of Strangers

Bell ringers, crowded parking lots, a too-warm coat in a too-warm store waiting in line to pay, missing a gift box, losing a gift receipt. Bright lights and glittering messages of sales and making others happy. A barrage of noise and pressure camouflage what was once Christmas. Thanksgiving’s turkey barely forgotten and three weeks of hurry up to run.

Away from the malls, eight school choir members dressed in the winter jacket and hat uniform of kids their age line Fish Creek’s historic Alexander Noble House’s porch while dozens of friends, family, strangers, holiday lovers gather on the walkways. Young boys kick apart snow chunks along sides of the gathering. Flashing Christmas lights hang around the necks of middle-age women. Babies watch from cocoons of blankets and scarves. Couples relax within each other’s arms or stand side-by-side exchanging private looks of contentment.

Candle flames flicker in a playful breeze, burning holes in plastic cup that offer minimal wind protection. Most stay lit for the community Christmas caroling led by a choir director’s strong tenor. Everyone beyond the age of teenage angst sings. Confidence is found in the company of strangers on a mild December evening waiting for lighting of a tree maybe twelve feet tall. Choir members stand absolutely still, sway on booted feet, move from one foot to another as the crowd owns old songs, contemporary songs, religious songs. The night could go on longer as people unconsciously edge closer to each other.

The temporary community chorale doesn’t need a soaring Rockefeller Center tree to proclaim Christmas. When the switch flips and hundreds of white lights sparkle, the moment becomes special. People clap. Some call out Merry Christmas. The tree festivities end without a pitch for funds or a speech by the someone with a title, just the exchanging of holiday wishes as blown out candles return to a box.

Happy holidays to all of you. May you find times of comfort and peace in the coming weeks and all of 2020.

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One Hundred Reasons to Be Thankful

For weeks I have noodled around the idea of posting a simple list of the people, places, abilities, things, conditions, blessings to bring meaning to this year’s Thanksgiving day.  An introvert with a history of over thinking added complexity to the simple list. Capturing one hundred reasons to be thankful posed a bountiful problem: Do I capture family as one listing or name everyone? The same thought rumbled around for friends, for neighbors, and friends who play multiple roles. Should individual writers be called out or tumble them together. And what about music? Does the list become trivial with additions like homemade caramels and fresh popcorn? What about specific brand call outs?

My expectations for this Thanksgiving were not very high. It is a holiday that traditionally is celebrated by all of us in the U.S. The slow slog toward a nation divided topped by the trauma of impeachment hearings had me dragging my feet while approaching the common table. Friends do their daily grateful lists, but that habit didn’t stick any better than water exercise or keeping a drawer of perfectly rolled underwear ala Marie Kondo.

The nerdy spreadsheet used to record one hundred reasons to be thankful could be filled with the names of people, pets, foods, books, music and such to flesh out section and become quite a document. My self-editor is constrained by assuming you would want to be amused or impressed if those columns were offered. Many of us have a richness of reasons to be thankful—love, family, friends, a place to call home, jobs, talents, faith, a beloved nation. And responsibility to extend another’s list. Needs extend 365 days a year.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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After the Fireworks

We sat under the hazy sky in the cooling humid air, scented with bug spray. All around us were clusters of people: young parents taking family photos of their daughter in the near dark. A group of young women to our left talking loudly about their lives and shrieking with laughter. Two young couples sharing a blanket behind us, speaking Spanish and laughing about what a weird word “fireworks” is—why “works” one asked. An extended family in lawn chairs in front of us whose father was telling a lengthy story. To the right of us, a bored preteen plugged into his phone on a blanket with his family, who appeared to be of Indian descent. Each group was self-contained, distinct. Not unfriendly but joined only by clapping to hurry up the show and later in appreciation.

I wondered what the day meant for each of us.

For me, it was a more thoughtful day than usual. I love this country but also am deeply troubled by so much of what is going on. For the first time, I wondered if or how the America I believe in will survive. But I set my worries aside and immersed myself in the spectacle of fireworks and enjoyed the magic. I don’t know if the people surrounding me attended to express their patriotism and commitment to our country, or if like me, it was mostly something traditional and fun to do on a hot summer night. What was remarkable was the ordinariness—the fact our mingled heritages sitting together peacefully at the fireworks.