“Getting out of hand”: A celebration of Idioms

Does it seem like things are “getting out of hand” in the world today? Or does it feel like there’s a “perfect storm” of tragic events, and “to make matters worse”, so many of us are “under the weather.”

Oh, those idioms- those sayings, or expressions, with metaphorical, not literal, meanings. Amazingly, there are 25,000 idioms in the English language. We all use them, and their meanings run the gamut from the humorous to the historical, or should I say, hysterical.

For example, let’s talk about prices. My dream beach-front home might cost “an arm and a leg”, but this expression dates back to the 18th century, when folks would have their portraits done, sans limbs. Apparently, painting arms and legs cost more.

Political intrigue seems to be the “order of the day”, and occasionally someone “lets the cat out of the bag.” In the 1700’s, a common fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of the bag, “the jig was up.” We cat lovers may be insulted by that one!

Do you feel that you can’t believe what you read ( or see?), that someone’s “pulling your leg”? This idiom has a rather gruesome history: it originally described the way in which thieves tripped their victims in order to rob them.

In keeping with the leg metaphor, when we hope someone “breaks a leg”, it’s not a curse. Historically, it was hoped that successful theatre performers would bow so many times after a show that they would “break a leg.” With Broadway just now getting back into form, hopefully there will be a lot more bowing.

On car trips, those of us who generally ride “shot gun” might be interested in learning that in the Wild West, the person who sat next to the driver was equipped with a shotgun to plug any outlaws that might approach the coach.

And, along with the topic of transportation, road rage is a growing issue in our polarized society. Those “flying off the handle” on roads should know that the saying originated in the 1800’s- when poorly made axes sometimes would literally detach from the handle!

But instead of complaining about society, maybe we should just “bite the bullet.” In colonial times, patients literally bit on a bullet to cope with the pain during surgery. Yikes! That’s a reason to appreciate life in the 21st century.

Seriously, “hands down”, we’re better off today, but in 19th century horse racing, the expression referred to when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.

Am I just “beating around the bush” in my discussion? In Britain, game hunters would actually beat the bushes to draw out the birds. Those poor fowls!

And back to the hunting motif, perhaps I’m “barking up the wrong tree”? Sometimes, a dog would bark at the wrong tree after the prey in question had already “flown the coop”!

Probably, blogs like these are “a dime a dozen”, but in 1796, when the first US dimes were produced for circulation, many items like eggs and fruit were sold a dime a dozen. Checked the grocery prices lately ?

Well, “time flies while you’re having fun”, so I’d better “call it a day”, and “go back to the drawing board.” To “make a long story short”, “it’s not rocket science.” Maybe I “missed the boat”, and “your guess is a good as mine.” Don’t get “bent out of shape”! We can’t have “the best of both worlds”, so “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

So, friends, “through thick and thin”, “hang in there”!

Powerless: The Storm and its Aftermath

The air was still, and hot. The almost triple temperatures had dried out the grass and vegetation. I was sitting on the back porch when from the west the dark clouds gathered, and the wind suddenly picked up, causing the trees to bend and snap in the torrent. Crash! Came the thunder and then the pouring, tumultuous rain. The light flickered…on, off, on, off, on. Then, finally, off for good. Possibilities abound- a tree has fallen, taking out a power line, or an accident has occurred, a car careening into a utility pole on some winding, tree-lined road. In moments, reality sets in. No lights, no microwave, no AC, no internet! I guess I won’t be watching Season 2 of “Modern Love” on Amazon Prime tonight.

Then, scrounging around for candles and flashlights. Although it’s not dark yet, it soon will be. Several candles are procured and lit in strategic locations. Those stubby little tapers, left over from the last power outage, will have to do.

Outside, the wind rips and roars. We gaze out the window, hoping we don’t lose any trees in the storm, or that one doesn’t crash into a neighbor’s house.

Dinner time is upon us, and since we have a gas range, I’m able to light the cooktop. Still, in the growing dusk, preparing and cooking flounder and corn has its challenges. But my petty cooking nuisances almost make me feel guilty, when I think of my ancestors, who, in the last centuries, struggled to keep their families fed with no electricity or modern conveniences. And millions throughout the world still do. The meal is finally prepared. Is it romantic to eat by candlelight? Not so much when you don’t have any choice!

The dark night has set in, and with it, our solitude. Our phones are down to 10% and we’re soon cut off from the outside world. The only lights in the neighborhood come from those few homeowners who were smart enough to invest in emergency generators.

It’s a challenge to read by flashlight, but any kid who used to read that way under the covers knows it can be done. And so the hours tick by….until suddenly, near midnight, magic! The lights are on, and the AC, and all is well!

Until…. morning, when we survey the mess in the yard. Branches, limbs, and leaves are strewn over what looks like every inch of our expansive lawns. Still, we are grateful that no trees were felled in the storm. As the murky sun peers behind the clouds, I start the backbreaking task of clearing the yard. Several hours and many trash cans later, I am done. Yet who am I to complain, when across the country, folks are salvaging the remains of homes devastated by flood waters, or picking through debris left by the fires that have decimated thousands of acres. Once again, we realize how fortunate we are. Yes, we were powerless for a while, but in a sense, aren’t we all powerless?

The rain, the fires, the virus, the grief and tragedy in Afghanistan- if the summer has taught us anything, it’s how tenuous life is.

The lyrics to English musician Sting’s anthem, “Fragile”, seem appropriate to the moment:

“On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star

Like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are

How fragile we are….”

Of Fire, Rain, and Ice

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain

I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end

I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend

But I always thought that I’d see you again…”

James Taylor, 1968

Those soulful lyrics by a young singer songwriter attained world-wide fame. But Taylor, only 20 at the time, was attempting, by writing, to recover from a tumultuous childhood and the suicide of a friend. Since then, dozens of artists have covered “Fire and Rain”, and famously, popstar phenom Taylor Swift, ( who was named for James Taylor!) sang the classic with him in a 2011 concert. My husband and I were also lucky enough to catch him in concert some years ago. It’s nice to know that JT was able to establish a fabulously successful career spanning many decades, stemming from that one melancholy tune.

But somehow, the lyrics to “Fire and Rain” have me thinking about current headlines.

FIRE!

As of this writing, nearly 80 wildfires are burning millions of acres across 13 states. The largest is the Bootleg Fire in south central Oregon, and in Northern California, the Tamarack Fire is ablaze south of Lake Tahoe. Firefighters courageously battle the flames, yet erratic winds and draught exacerbate the situation, while homes are destroyed. Can you imagine the fear and horror of seeing your house burned to the ground? Here in south central Pennsylvania, smokes from those far-away fires hung in the air this month, causing a dim mist and affecting air quality. According to Park Williams of Columbia University, “No matter how hard we try, fires are going to keep getting bigger. Climate is running the show of what burns.”

RAIN!

On the flip side, in West Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, flooding has killed at least a hundred, with more than a thousand still missing. Torrential rainfall caused rivers to burst their banks. In some cases, nearly two months of rain fell in just 24 hours, leading to flashfloods that tore through buildings, ruining lives as well as habitations.

Hannah Clarke, climate scientist at the University of Reading, England, remarked that “high energy, sudden summer torrents of rain” are symptoms of a “rapidly heating climate.”

ICE!

As an English teacher, I sometimes required students to memorize a poem to deliver to the class. Because of its short length and simple rhyme scheme, they would often choose “Fire and Ice” by iconic American poet, Robert Frost. I doubt that they understood the poem. Its casual tone masks the serious question it poses to the reader: how might the world end- in fire, or in ice?

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if I had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.”

Robert Frost, 1920

In the poem, fire is used as an emotion of desire, and ice, that of hatred. In Frost’s view, icy hatred is just as capable of ending the world. Author George RR Martin is said to have received inspiration from Frost’s poem for his masterwork, “A Song of Ice and Fire”, which was later adapted into “Game of Thrones”, one my all-time favorite TV series.

The answer to how the world will end is left unanswered, and what we can do about climate change, still in question.

James Taylor and Robert Frost, though writing in the same century, were not exactly contemporaries. Still, they were somewhat prophetic in that they saw the elements as metaphors for human emotion, and perhaps, our ultimate destruction.

An overabundance of fire and rain currently torments our world, while, sadly, there is no lack of the ice of hatred.

Of Cicadas and UFO’s

The hot June sun beats down. Hardly a breeze ruffles the branches of the trees in the nearby woods. But all around is the constant, whirring noise, insistent, almost spooky! The attack of the cicadas! This year, a group of cicadas, known as Brood X, have made their appearance in 15 states, ranging from the South to the Mid Atlantic to the Northeast. After hanging out underground for 17 years, they have emerged to spend 4-6 weeks courting, mating, and flying around, sometimes crashing into our windshields and landing on our sidewalks. Splat! Crunch!

The humming noise we hear is made by the males, calling for females to mate, who afterwards will hatch their eggs ( up to 500!) Their offspring will repeat the cycle and head below until 2038. 2038! Who knows if you or I will be around to witness the next infestation?

Cicadas have existed between 40 million and 200 million years, though humans have only been drawn to their deafening shriek for mere thousands. Ancient Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote a haiku about our buzzy summer friends:

“The cry of the cicada

Gives us no sign

That presently

It will die.”

One of the earliest records of cicadas in America dates back to the spring of 1634, when Pilgrims in Massachusetts saw millions of winged insects spring from the earth, and, likening them to the pestilential swarms from the Old Testament, called them locusts.

Lots of people are really annoyed by the cicadas and articles about them are creating something of a cicada mania. But really, what’s the big deal? They don’t sting or bite, and they don’t chew on plants. All they want to do is drink sap from trees or stems- and mate. Really, it’s a wondrous natural phenomenon, and one of those mysteries of nature. I’ve been fascinated and even entertained by the sounds made by those little buggers. I read somewhere that they sound like the background to a sci-fi movie, like one of my favorites, 1979’s “Alien.”

And speaking of aliens…..

Wait! What was that bright light that just streaked across the night sky?

No, I’ve never seen a UFO, but I wish I had.

A few days ago, the government issued a long-awaited report on the existence of UFO’s. Over the last several decades, credible pilots have described incidents of objects moving without observable propulsion or with rapid acceleration. When the newly formed Department of Defense’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force did a deep dive into these incidents, 143 remain “unexplained.” Such maneuvering is thought to be beyond the capabilities of our adversaries, China and Russia. So what are they?

The public’s fascination with UFO’s goes far beyond the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico occurrence supposedly involving a crashed alien craft. But how does one explain the literally thousands of unexplained sightings since then?

In 2006, employees and pilots at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport reported seeing a saucer-shaped craft hovering over a terminal, before it took off in a rapid vertical rise.

In July, 2019, a Navy aircraft reported a spherical object flying not far above the waves before it dived into the ocean.

Navy pilot Lt. Ryan Graves reports being worried about unexplained aerial phenomena seen by pilots “everyday for years” off the Eastern seaboard. And there’s been a spike in sightings across the United States from Florida to Maine in recent months.

Although the Task Force report does little to answer questions about these unexplained sightings, it is a big deal in that they are finally being taken seriously by a government that has a history of stonewalling, making fun, or downright lying about the unexplained. What the report does say is how little we know.

“Do you believe? The truth is, one American in three believes we’ve had extraterrestrial visitors, and many think that they’ve been on earth for eons. According to Scientific American, “The truth is out there somewhere, whether or not it appears in the pages of the UAP Task Force report.”

Cicadas and UFO’s- though seemingly unrelated topics, I beg to differ. Both are mysteries- for example, what force impels those winged insects to emerge every 17 years? And how to explain these unidentified flying objects traversing our skies? And indeed, how to understand the sheer immensity of the universe itself, with its innumerable galaxies, stars, and planets? According to former President Obama’s science advisor, John Holden, “There are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on planet earth.” That said, how can any sane person think that we are the only show in town?

One thing is probably certain: The cicadas will reemerge in 2038 to resume their mating ritual, but we still won’t know the truth about UFO’s or possible visitors from the stars.

DEAR READER: This has been my 50th blog! It has been my pleasure to write for you over the last several years.

FREEDOM ISN’T FREE

The warm late May sunshine beat down, as we trooped along the road, the smell of hot asphalt mingling with the sweet scent of flowering lilacs from neighboring gardens. The streets were lined with little kids, families and friends, some waving American flags. I was marching with my high school band and Color Guard at the annual Memorial Day parade in our small New Jersey town. Our flags billowed in the slight breeze while the band played a Sousa march. As we neared the town cemetery, silence ensued. We filed in to stand respectfully for the five-gun salute, and the solemn playing of taps. The tombstones glistened in the blazing sun, some of those revered dead dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Many decades and many miles away, another cemetery comes to mind. My family and I often hike the Heritage Rail Trail at Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, where Abraham Lincoln passed by on a train headed to Gettysburg to deliver his famous speech, dedicating the newly formed Soldiers’ National Cemetery there. In sad irony, just a few years later, Lincoln’s funeral train would make the sad journey on those same tracks en route to his midwestern resting place.

Indeed, Memorial Day ( then known as Decoration Day) originated in the years following the Civil War as a way to honor the Civil War dead. On May 30th of each year, observances were held to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.

By the end of World War I, poppies became the flower of choice to remember the war dead, especially after the publication of the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Canadian poet John McCrae, stricken with grief over the death of a fallen comrade at a battle in Ypres, Belgium, penned those lines after seeing the final resting place of his friend, a cemetery where poppies grew in profusion.

“In Flanders Field the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below…”

Years ago, I was honored to have visited another of Europe’s most famous cemeteries, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the cemetery is the resting place of nearly 4.000 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. Emotions overcame me as I witnessed row after row of white crosses and Stars of David stretching to the horizon in orderly fashion. Unknown soldiers are buried among the service members, their headstones reading: ” Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”

The cemetery, of course, was featured in the film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

When I think of Memorial Day, I think of my Dad, Al, just a young 18 year old Wisconsin farm boy, aboard a Navy tanker traversing Pacific waters during World War II. The boat could have been a target for Japanese torpedoes at any time. By the grace of God he and his fellow sailors were spared.

I think of my father-in-law, Fred, in Patton’s Third Army, marching through war torn France, then liberating the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, where over 50 thousand met gruesome deaths. After the liberation, Fred often relayed how German citizens of neighboring towns were made to file through the camp to witness the atrocities that their feigned ignorance or silence had permitted.

And I think of my brother, Joe, who flew Navy planes over perilous skies in Vietnam and is now suffering with Parkinson’s Disease, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while there.

Memorial Day is more than the official start of summer, more than a 3 day weekend of cookouts, ball games, and family gatherings. No, Memorial Day should be the somber remembrance of the half a million men and women who have died defending American freedom through the years in far-flung battlefields from the villages of New England, to the fields of Pennsylvania, to the countrysides of Europe, to the jungles of Vietnam, to the deserts of Afghanistan. They were defending America, our America, that magnificent experiment of freedom, though flawed and imperfect, still the hope of the world.

FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.

Tea Time

Spot of tea, anyone? I’ve been enjoying tea since early childhood, when my Irish Mom introduced me to a warm mug laced with a little milk. According to my mother, a cup of tea was good for anything from insomnia, to relaxation, to healing a broken heart, and maybe she was right!

That wonderful elixir has a long and varied past, dating back thousands of years to Southwest China. Believe it or not, according to legend, in 2732 Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water.

Originally used for medicinal purposes, its popularity grew to become the favored drink for the masses, and tea plantations spread throughout China. Today, tea is not only widely enjoyed there, but it is ritually extolled in Chinese Tea Ceremonies, often held during important occasions like weddings.

“Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one.”- Ancient Chinese proverb

But how did tea’s reputation spread into Europe, particularly the UK? Through a series of ruthless economic and political moves, British botanist Robert Fortune, while on a visit to China, stole Chinese tea seeds in order to launch a tea trade in India, where Britain had secured a stronghold. The British East India Tea Company was established, and grew fabulously wealthy. As a result, tea became popular in Britain and the American colonies by the 17th century.

Tea continued to play a pivotal role in history, when, in 1773, in an act of defiance, patriots threw 324 chests of tea into the harbor at the famous Boston Tea Party, claiming, “No taxation without representation!”

Currently, in America, though not yet eclipsing coffee sales, tea has grown into a 10 billion dollar industry. In our health-conscious society, tea may be preferred for its benefits: tea is rich in compounds that act as antioxidants and may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And although many drink their tea hot with lemon or sugar, interestingly, 85% of tea consumed in the States is chilled. Personally, I don’t care for iced tea. Instead, I drink mine British style, hot with a little milk, no sugar. But why the added sugar? The story goes that in the 17th and 18th century, the china cups were so delicate that they would crack from the heat of the tea. Milk was added to cool the liquid and stop the cups from cracking.

I was recently pleased to learn that Queen Elizabeth’s favorite tea is Earl Grey, a black tea blended with lemon and orange peels, which she drinks with milk. Earl Grey is also one of my go-to choices. Her Majesty, of course, just marked her 95th birthday in subdued fashion, due to the recent passing of her husband, Philip. But I’m sure she’s still enjoying her afternoon tea.

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” claimed British writer Henry James. And who could argue with that? Originally served in Britain as a private event for the upper crust, the afternoon tea was eventually ensconced in society to include the common folk. Afternoon tea is traditionally composed of sandwiches, such as cucumber or smoked salmon; scones with clotted cream and jam; and sweet pastries or cakes, not to mention a variety of teas. There are four basic types of tea: white, green, oolong, and black, but there are literally hundreds of herbal tea flavors as well.

Flouncy hats, anyone? Although tea houses exist throughout the world, most American communities boast several, where customers can relax, perhaps dress up a bit, enjoy the genteel atmosphere, consume several courses of sweet treats, and essentially escape from the chaos of the world. I’ve been to several over the years, and although the choices vary, it’s always a lovely experience.

It’s tea time at my house every evening, when I relax with a warm cup of Lady Grey with a little milk. I think of my Mom, who was devoted to her tea, and my daughter, who also loves it. And I think of a quote by Bernard Paul Heroux: “There is no trouble so great that it cannot be diminished by a nice cup of tea,” or my favorite by an unknown author: “Tea is always a good idea.”

SPRING AHEAD!

“in Just spring

when the world

is mud-luscious

and eddieandbill

come running

from marbles

and piracies

and it’s spring…”

Over 100 years ago, American poet e.e. cummings celebrated the arrival of spring in these jumbled, magical words. Cummings famously defied the rules of punctuation, capitalization, and syntax in his erratic poetry, just as spring often follows its own mind, with some days warm and sunny, others chilly and windy.

In early spring, the trees sport a marvelous reddish hue, the buds not quite brave enough to display their green, but the resilient crocuses can be seen popping out of last year’s leaves and twigs.

Bird song fills the day, and though I have yet to see a robin, the blue jays, wrens, and woodpeckers are busy in nest building and in emptying the contents of our birdfeeder.

On a recent gloriously warm and sunny day, my grandson and I walked the Rail Trail past a running stream, where we spotted a large, brown crayfish. This handsome fellow was trying to sun himself after a long winter, undoubtedly spent under some mossy rock. Minnows darted to and fro in the clear water. Moving on our way, my grandson gingerly balanced on the railway ties, long in disuse, hopping from one to the next. Arriving back in town, we stopped for icy cold chocolate gelato at a local stand.

A few days later, my three grandchildren and their parents met us in the vast, early spring acreage of the famous Longwood Gardens for a cousin reunion. The kids cavorted on the newly green lawns and climbed to the top of stone towers. They threw coins and whispered wishes at a grotto wishing well. At one point, my son-in-law snapped a photo of our family group, standing single file on a wooden bridge, smiling despite our pandemic masks. A moment in time that we won’t soon forget. Then, we drifted past a field of buttery yellow daffodils, nodding in their near Easter glory.

The years roll back to another Eastertime, when these same parents were little kids, themselves. My daughter, attired in a frilly pink dress with a floppy white straw hat, my son in a little striped suit far too big for him, pose with cockeyed smiles in my in-law’s kitchen. A marvelous Easter dinner followed, featuring a pungent ham with brown sugar glaze, creamy sweet potatoes and tender asparagus, ending with a delicious New York style cheesecake with a crunchy graham cracker crust.

After the meal, we’d corral the kids in the car for a visit to the home of a local neighbor. The homeowners would famously dress as bunnies each Easter, distributing free treats to the children who visited. Their yard was a riot of color, with hundreds of yellow, pink, and purple plastic eggs hanging from trees, and blow-up bunnies situated near bushes and trees. The place was prime for photo opportunities, as we fondly look back now over the prism of time.

Spring and Easter- they’re almost synonymous, and now it’s time to spring ahead.

Spring ahead- to family gatherings and Easter egg hunts, to crab feasts and cookouts, to joy and laughter!

After such a long, cold winter, and an even longer dismal Covid year, we celebrate, as philosophers of all ilks have always done.

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, “The earth laughs in flowers.”

Former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, known for her beautification of America campaign, stated, “Where flowers bloom so does hope.”

But comic genius Robin Williams asserted, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’

Party on!!

SNOWED IN

No, we’re not exactly “snowed in.” In fact, by my count, we’ve only had about two feet of snow, all told, this month, and we haven’t suffered with icy roads and power outages like those folks in Texas.

Still, the frigid cold and windy days set the stage for several snowfalls. Oh, the peace of watching those big, fat flakes falling, turning the countryside, trees, and houses into a powdery white wonderland. Benches and bushes take on curious shapes with the onslaught of snow, and the brave little birds dart to and fro from the fleece-covered feeder.

“Snow was falling

so much like stars

filling the dark trees

that one could easily imagine

its reason for being was nothing more

than prettiness.” – Mary Oliver

Then, finally, the snow ends, and it’s time to don those heavy wool sweaters, the puffy coats, knit hats, striped scarves, bulky mittens, and tall boots. Winter is in full swing. Out comes my trusty blue shovel as I attack the piles on the sidewalk and porch. Whoosh! Up flies the snow, bright white against the blue sky and frosty air, then falls with a thud on the snowbank. My husband cranks up the old snow blower, held together with a wing and a prayer, and roars up and down the driveway, creating an arc of diamond like crystals in the icy atmosphere. Afterward, we watch the neighbor’s kids erecting a snow fort, then joyously indulging in a snowball battle.

The soft blanket of this snowy February conjures thoughts of winters gone by, and memories sift in, like the snow as it drifts by my window.

Just a turn of my head, and I am transported back in time. Our own kids are building that ice fort, bundled against the cold, their smiling faces glowing. Then, they tumble back into the house for a snack of hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream and some gooey Rice Krispies treats.

Decades later, those same kids are parents themselves, and although distant by miles and Covid concerns, they send on-line photo streams of our grandchildren, dressed in vibrant jackets of bright orange and green, falling into snowbanks to create snow angels. On other snowy days, in an effort to escape cabin fever, photos capture them tramping through snow covered Pennsylvania state and county parks, and fording paths by icy streams and lakes. If there is an silver lining to the corona virus pandemic, perhaps it is that families have been afforded the time to explore the beauty and simplicity of nature.

Seeing those little ones enjoy the snow sends me back to my own childhood.

A clear recollection comes to mind. My brother and I listening close to the kitchen radio to hear of school closings after a northern New Jersey snow storm. Screams of excitement, then, after a warm bowl of Cream of Wheat, pulling the heavy wood and metal Flexible Flyer from the garage. Arduously dragging the sled up our hilly street, then, flopping on, and screeching head first down the slope. The ride always improved after the snow got panked down for a while, but that hidden jagged rock could sometimes veer you off into a tree, resulting in the banged-up knees and hurt pride of a sledding accident. After hours in the icy cold, I’d trudge home, my hands frozen despite my two pairs of gloves.

But my snow memories could never top those of my Dad’s, who loved to tell tales of how, in the snowy 1930’s Wisconsin winters, he had to tramp two miles in knee deep snow to the one room school house, where the young school mistress had been stoking the pot bellied stove for an hour beforehand. No snow days back then!

At night, Dad and his two brothers, lying in their attic room, watched the snow sift in through the rafters onto their quilts.

Down through the years, winter memories- and a silent, white and frozen landscape, a wintry world, captures us in this moment.

But even now, the promise of spring lies waiting in the ground, and in our souls. In the words of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Uncorked

“A bottle of red, a bottle of white, perhaps a bottle of rose instead…” Billy Joel must have been drinking a large amount of wine in his “Italian Restaurant.” We may not be frequenting many restaurants these days, but we are still drinking plenty of wine; in fact, wine drinkers consume 2.8 gallons annually. And as of 2014, the United States became the largest wine consuming nation in the world. That’s a lot of wine and cheese parties, wedding celebrations, and afternoon happy hours.

Why drink wine? Relaxation, companionship, anxiety relief, joy- the reasons for drinking wine are endless. And why so popular? For one thing, wine is less expensive than other alcoholic beverages. It’s readily available, both in liquor stores and on-line. Wineries exist in every state, even Alaska, and those ubiquitous wine tours in vineyards nationwide will hopefully resume in ’21.

And despite my title, wine is not only offered in corked bottles. The popularity of wine in boxes, bags, and even cans continues to rise. Whether the outing- picnic, pool, or beach- consumers are starting to think outside the bottle.

Wine is even touted as a healthy drink, providing antioxidants, like resveratrol, which eliminate free radicals in the body. Then there’s the variety of kinds- red, white, rose, sweet, or sparkling, that can appeal to any palate.

I don’t claim to be a sommelier by any means, but my palate has certainly evolved over the years, from a sweet, inexpensive sangria in my youth, to a dry, oaky chardonnay today. A cold glass of rose is lovely on a summer’s day. And, of course, nothing beats a robust red chianti paired with my family’s spaghetti sauce and pasta.

A Wine Tour

Wine production dates back to China, 7000 B.C., and wine remains have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, where, amazingly, jars were found inscribed with the wine producer’s name. Can you imagine? Wineries were vying for popularity even then. The Greeks worshipped the god Dionysus in celebrations featuring song, dance, and wine, and the Romans carried on the cult with Bacchus. The Romans were instrumental in developing the wine producing regions of western Europe that exist to this day, and by the Middle Ages, wine was the common drink of all social classes where grapes were cultivated.

European grape varieties were first brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, where wine consumption eventually flourished in the southern colonies. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson was America’s first wine geek, claiming, “Wine from long habit has become indispensable for my health.”

Alcohol consumption was surprisingly high in colonial America, even in New England, probably because given the sanitary standards of the day, water was considered unsafe. That jokester, Ben Franklin, supposedly said: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, and in water there is bacteria.”

Wine in Culture

Wine has been extolled through the ages in music, art, poetry, and film.

“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou…” romantically proclaimed 10th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Rumi, another Persian mystic, merely said, “Either give me more wine or leave me alone.”

In Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper”, Jesus’ right hand is reaching for wine. Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” fame, painted a lady enjoying a pour in 1661’s “A Glass of Wine.” And in France, Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” captured a colorful, fun-loving ensemble of partygoers. In one of my favorite films, 2006’s “A Good Year”, Russell Crowe’s character, Max Skinner, reluctantly inherits a French winery, where he falls in love with it, as well as a lovely local French woman played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard.

The Future of Wine

But speaking of ‘good years’, it certainly hasn’t been. And not surprisingly, wine consumption has increased during the pandemic, as USA Today reports that people drink more “during times of uncertainty and duress.” Given the anxiety of our current age, it is unlikely that wine consumption will abate any time soon.

I have a feeling that wine, that wonderful elixir, enjoyed by poets, artists, philosophers, and common folk since the dawn of time, will continue to be enjoyed in good times and in bad.

So I say, Cheers!

ALL AGLOW

The winter night is long, dark, and cold- but into that gloom blazes the bright, twinkling sight of Christmas lights. Christmas lights! On the roofs and porches, on the trees and bushes, on the lawns and light posts. The night is suddenly all aglow.

My love affair with Christmas lights runs deep. As a child, I was mesmerized by those colorful bubble lights on our family Christmas tree. I would lie under the tree, gazing through the pungent, green boughs to the magic of the liquid-filled vials.

Fast forward to parenthood.

When our kids were small, we’d all tumble into the minivan, our big, red Plymouth Voyager, the two sets of grandparents, the kids, and us, for a drive through our neighborhood to view the Christmas lights. Oh, those memories!

My Mom in her big fur coat, my Dad’s cigarette smoke filling the air, a jumble of kid’s fluffy hats and mittens, we’d slide by the household displays to utterances of “ohh” and “ahh”!

Even our cat loved Christmas lights. In the last year of her life, Samantha perked up when she curled around the trunk of our tree, sipping the sappy water and gazing at the glittery expanse above her.

Does it seem like there are more Christmas lights this year? Indeed, Christmas light sales are up 238%. According to the New York Post, a deadly pandemic, civil unrest, and a nasty election period have people feeling that the Grinch stole 2020, and are turning to Christmas decorations to “make 2020 suck less.”

And with holiday celebrations of all kinds cancelled- those ubiquitous Christmas plays and concerts, the joyous parties, ornament and cookie exchanges, and even a cap placed on family gatherings, folks have turned to the one thing they can control- turning on the Christmas lights.

The tradition of Christmas lights dates back to Germany, when Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with candles, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed, “I am the light of the world.” John 8:12

The use of those lit candles on trees proved so dangerous and often tragic that it was a good thing when Thomas Edison, in Christmas 1880, strung the first strand of electric lights around the outside of his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It took many decades, but eventually electric Christmas lights were seen in communities across the nation.

Today, Christmas lights have gone high- tech, with laser lights, digital projections, and LED light shows.

But probably the most famous use of Christmas lights is on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in Manhattan, boasting the use of 50,000 LED lights. It’s been a New York tradition since 1933, except for 1944-45, when the tree went unlit due to wartime blackout regulations.

Speaking of regulations, in typical 2020 fashion, the annual tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center was virtual. So for my money, the saving grace of this year’s event was the discovery of a little northern saw-wet owl wrapped in the branches of the tree, newly delivered in November. The feathered stowaway was brought to a vet for rehab, then released back into the wild. “Rocky”, as she was named, is hopefully soaring above the vast New York state terrain as we speak.

On a brighter note, festivals of light are still available to the public even under COVID regulations. One can stroll, masked, through the dazzling expanses of light at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, in Rocky Ridge Park in York, and in locales nationwide.

But some communities have had to get creative with their light displays. In lieu of their annual Christmas parade, the residents of St. Michael’s, Maryland, took their celebration to the water, sailing their decorated sailboats, yacht, and skiffs in a glittery display on the Miles River.

This year, my husband and I, just the two of us, will probably hop into the car and tour around our local community, viewing the Christmas lights, some of them playful and silly, some simple and elegant, but all aglow. And maybe we will seek to dispel some of the darkness of this abysmal year.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5