Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Picture a Day. February

If it were not for the birthdays of some people I love, February would be, by far, my least favorite month of the year. Lots of painful things happened in my life in February. It's weird: the shortest month seemed to have had the most impact sometimes ... I always let out a long sigh of relief when it's over ... 

This February was an odd one. For the most part, it felt more like a late April than February. The weather felt like maybe we didn't move to North Carolina, after all, but more like South Florida, or somewhere tropical even. 

We're continuing to explore our surroundings, our neighborhood, the cities around us, the rest of the state. We took our first painting class together and we celebrated a whole month of heart health and rare disease awareness ... As always, February is anything but boring. 

Here is my favorite picture taken this month. 

Click it to start seeing the rest of the February shots. Click "next" after each shot to see February 1st through the 28th. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

10 Years

It's been 10 years since I wrote this ( A lot happens to us in 24 hours, so you can imagine that a lot has happened in these 10 years.

I have become an aunt, I have a husband, I have lived clear across this continent and then I came back, I got a 'redesigned' heart, I saw some other countries, and the list can go on a mile long. And yet one of the same three cats is sitting next to me as I write this, 10 years later, and probably the same black dog would recognize him again if he ever came back home. So much and yet so little can happen in a lifetime!

The one thing that's remained a constant through all this time has been my daily thinking and missing him. There are things that remind me of him every day, and that is not an exaggeration. I think of him when baseball season starts; I think of him particularly in March, with Spring Training, and in October, with World Series on. I think of him every time I see Pringles and Milano Cookies on the shelf at the grocery store. I think of him when I watch Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and I wonder if he would have liked it. I think of him when I hear about a newspaper laying off people or folding. Every such news feels like a piece of my flesh is ripped away from my body. I am sure it would feel the same to him, too.

I miss him when I see a black dog, a random mutt-like, black lab-looking dog, because it reminds me of Floyd and his bond with him. I miss him when the Phillies lose, but I get especially sad when they win!

I miss his wit the most. I still use phrases he taught me and chuckle inside when I meet with a situation that I know how he would have received. I almost know exactly what words he would have used. I still picture his mouth grinning, pushing the dimples deep to the sides, his head tilt, and incredulous stare when I speak about liberal politics.

Lately, I have missed him a lot in this political mess of ours. I wonder daily what he would have thought about this headline or the other, because, boy, you can be sure he would have had a strong opinion on everything. On the other hand, I am glad he was spared the true disgrace and despair that followed some years later. I think it would be safe to say he would hurt for America today.

I thought of him relentlessly when I went through my heart surgery. He was so brave in the face of a forlorn diagnosis, he fought with dignity, with hope, with the eyes wide open of the realist that he was, and – most of all – with grace. I wished, in my direst moments, to have had the grace that he showed in his last year of life.

The huge empty spot he left behind 10 years ago is still left open, like a gaping reminder that he was there. Like all of us, he was unique. He was singular. But only like some of the most special people, did he make a meaningful dent into all our existences. It's the sign of a good life, of a well-lived destiny, however short, when you leave a scar this deep.

Yes, it's been 10 years, and as 10 years show, a lot can happen in that time. But really, all we have on this side of the dirt is not years. What we have is barely minutes. Seconds. Short and shallow breaths! He showed me, and all of us, that not a blink needs to be wasted if we want to have a life to show for ourselves when we're gone.

I saw this quote somewhere and it reminded me of him so. Because, in the end, he was ultimately not afraid: "It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live."  And in the end, he lived. 

Miss you today, more than any other day, my dear friend, and hoping you're gracing a better place with your presence today, and forever ...

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Picture a Day. A Project. January

Photography is the story I fail to put into words.” ( Destin Sparks)

At the end of the last year, I was pretty disgusted with the world. I still am. Our bar has been lowered so much nowadays that I fail to hang on to what's true, and what's real anymore. And I fail to express what I feel, too. In words, at least. 

But one thing I do know for sure. I know that the world is beautiful. That nature is sacred. That God is in everything ... 

So, instead, I will try (make no promises, really!) to turn to the world and let it speak for itself, in the only way I know how: through images. 

I started this album called "2018 - A Picture a Day", and I am trying to not let any one day go by without capturing a picture in it and recording it there. At the end of the month or of the year they will speak, hopefully, louder than my words could express about what I see, feel, watch, experience. 

Here's looking back at January. Can you believe the first month is gone?! 

Although I have a couple of favorites this month, this is my top one - it captures what this month is the best. I think. Click the picture to see the whole month's photos. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Beyond “The Post”

I'll tell you a story from a long, long time ago – almost 30 years.

I grew up in Communism, through my 15th year of life. This was your textbook communism, with a dictator at the top and a government so loyal to him there was no room to pry it with a crowbar. The government was made up of not only loyalists to the president, but mostly by his close family members: all the children, his wife, and then extended family.

It was the Communism you (should) learn about in school, where regular people like you and me, regular civilians are forced to believe whatever the one leader of the country says. I took propaganda lessons that I had to pass an exam on every year (these were enforced, you had no choice) for the first eight years of my school life. I had friends whose parents were interrogated and sometimes killed in beatings because they would not think whatever the government wanted them to think. The books we were allowed to read were “edited” by the government, to match the propaganda. Some brave people still had the original copies of uncensored books, but they ripped up their true covers and they wrapped the copies in the covers of the “approved” books, so that the Security police who came searching their homes would not suspect they had “dirty” copies of the censored books.

The local and national papers were all government-controlled. So was the one TV channel the whole country had access to and the one radio channel, too. There was nothing printed, or broadcast on TV or radio that was not controlled by the government. If your radio could reach The Voice of America broadcast, or Radio Free Europe, you'd go to jail for a long, long time, and you would never come out, quite often. As I said: textbook Communism.

And then, when I was almost 15, The Revolution came. One night, a handful of people, lead by mostly writers, artists, and students overthrew the regime, killed the dictator and his wife and we were, dare I say it, free. During that one night, we were cautiously, and very frighteningly, elated by the possibility, by the hope, and the dream, that our little country could possibly now be free. Free to express ourselves, to think what we wanted to think, free to choose our profession without it being chosen for us, free to buy whatever we wanted, in whatever much quantity we wanted to buy!

That one night my dad asked me to tell him just ONE reason for which I am happy that communism is now extinct in Romania. Just ONE reason. So, I told him: I am happy they are gone because now we can have freedom of the press, and freedom of the written word. Now, whenever I read a newspaper or a book, I said, I will be sure I am getting the true writing, intended by the writer, and not whatever a party loyalist deemed to be “appropriate” for me to read.

Many moons later, I am in the US of A, till recently deemed the “most free country in the World”, my dream of being her citizen fulfilled, and I see with my own eyes something that I never thought I would see again: I see how politicians attack the press, deeming it untruthful and lying, while they proclaim to their supporters that they, and only they and their loyals, have the whole truth and nothing besides. And the unbelievable happens: the supporters (for they are painfully many) believe this.

It's happening again: I am telling you, dear friends, from personal experience, and not from what someone taught me about Hitler, or Stalin: the first institution a dictator smears and tries to kill is the press. The first value they kill is free speech. Their very first step is to denigrate it. And for us, here, in the US, at least for now, this works

The reason, of course, is simple. But blinded as we are in America, by the freedom we have taken for granted for many years, and by the ignorance a mediocre school system and an even more mediocre political education system encourages, we do not see this simple reason: it's the press, and anyone who defends free speech, that must be killed first in order for the leader to manipulate the population however they please. The press makes people think. Tyrants have no need for people's thinking, because the only thoughts that matter to them are theirs. They deny everything else of value, because of the huge ego that they lead with which has to be the one, the only, governing power and focus over all the minions. How else do you submit them?!

There is a very important reason and not a coincidence, that your First Amendment (and not the second or the third) protects free speech. Without free speech, you have no democracy. The rest of the amendments are optional in a democracy. Without free speech you have dictatorship. You have easy mind control, and you have tyranny. Period. End of story. No arguments. History has proven this very big platitude for hundreds of years now. No more proof needed.

The press is and will always be, in my mind, and as a matter of fact, the one defender of free speech. By its very nature, it must be. I recently saw the movie The Post, which is a pretty good story, well done, for many reasons. It resonated with me from many perspectives, not only because of my government-controlled upbringing years, but also from the perspective of being a former newspaper employee and a good (I think) friend to many people who are still in this business or still respect it.

And then I read comments from random people online who said that (I quote from memory because I am too disgusted to go get the actual quote) “I am not going to spend my money on this very clearly far left political propaganda movie. After I have seen enough in the past year and a half to know not to trust these rags.” (referring, perhaps to The Post in particular and newspapers in general?!) This just about broke the camel's back for me.

I have seen these comments (and oh, so much more!) online for the past two years now (and who hasn't, if you're paying attention?!), that Trump and “them” are all good and right and it's the media that makes them look bad. The belief of the ordinary American nowadays is that newspapers and news outlets, somehow are all on this platform to lie about everything Trump, and he, somehow, is the only one telling the truth. This boggles my mind, in a way, and in another: I can totally see what he's doing and how … it's working for so many people, and to our detriment! The Communism in my little country, just as Nazism in Germany was seemingly the “will of the people” when first instated.

Just to make sure I get it out there: I am not endorsing The Post, or any other particular newspaper or news outlet. I am just endorsing the thinking, inquisitive, and ever truth searching human mind. The Post (in the movie and in the past few years) has just merely exposed mostly (if not always in entirety) verifiable truths that should at least make us think of where we get our news and who we can trust. All this while our political leaders have done nothing but stepped from one wasp nest into another, amongst law suits, mystery accusations, revolving doors of firing and hiring for key-level positions, and yes, lies. A lot of lies that have been proven not once, or twice, but multiple times by many sources to be just that. But I am getting ahead of myself, because I do not want to keep this entry specific to a particular regime, person, or time in history. The lesson that The Post, the movie, teaches us, I think, is much deeper, and much larger than any one reality.

Anyone who knows me and has read my blogs knows: I rarely do politics, but these things had to be said:

  • Politicians lie. No matter which side of the aisle you're on, even the best of them, even the ones I deem to be my favorite, most inspiring, true in character and morality, they all lie. For whatever reason, security, or politics, they all lie. Little lies, big lies, they all do it. They seldom apologize for it, and they seldom get caught. They have armies of staff to bury the evidence. This is not conspiracy theory, this is fact.
  • After spending 10 years amongst journalists, I am here to tell you: they lie much, much less than any politician I have ever experienced. For obvious reasons, but if you're having trouble knowing what they are, I will spell some of them for you:
    • Their lies are 100% verifiable and they have zero protection against them. They have no secret police, no PR protecting them. It's their word against the mountain of evidence, and their lies, if they happen, are very short lived.
    • Their lies are insular: if one reporter or even one paper lies, and it is a legitimate lie, the rest of the papers will live with one goal in mind and that is to prove the truth. There is no way, in my experience, that all (or most of) the news outlets in the nation lie about the same one time. Report the same thing, sure? But not after much source vetting do they all publish the same thing in every outlet.
    • Their lies are almost always 100% suicidal: they will never write for a paper/ media institution again if they are found, and they will die of hunger – quite plainly.
    • More than any other profession I have ever been exposed to, journalists keep each other accountable. They have this incredible pride in what they do that they do not allow doubt to seep into their business, at any cost: they know that if they lie, their peers, and their competitors will prove them wrong and all will be lost – their credibility is much more important to them than any one story in all its sensationalism.
      I should mention here that I am speaking of journalists who represent legit sources, your Posts, Times, your NPR come to mind but are just a couple, of course – there are thousands out there. I am not referring to your tabloids and scandal reporting, which I hardly would call “journalism”.
  • Journalists, unlike politicians, do not have the power, therefore there is nothing to abuse. They cannot sway the masses in one way or another. Sure, they can try, but you won't get 100 news institutions swaying in the same direction. There is competition, point of view, difference of opinion (which is the foundation of the news landscape, really) that news institutions thrive on and need for their mere survival. Tyrannical, one-opinion minded politicians need uniformity and conformity. Diversity is chaos to them, and they want it put out, for fear of undermining them.
  • Another thing I see very clearly in our current political system: the need of the main leader to be surrounded by either family, or people stupider or less prepared (Gosh, is it even possible anymore?!) than themselves. This is, of course, also done in an effort to make them look like the only authority and supreme source of knowledge. This is typical, my friends, of tyranny. Mind my words: textbook!

In the many years I spent at a daily newspaper, I have learned that there is one thing that moves a true journalist: the chase for the true story, the meaning of it, the history of it, and getting all those facts on paper. They skip meals, they work crazy hours, they drive distances on their (very puny) salary to get to the true meaning of a story. It is probably childish and silly to say this, but I am going to say it: they don't want to manipulate, they just want people to know the real story. I don't even think they care whether anyone agrees with them or not. Getting the story is their prerogative, and theirs alone. Writing, in any form, is a pretty solitary business, and so is chasing that story for them. There is a pride in that, a true sense of accomplishment that they're after. And most of them do it with passion and grace. I am yet to find the work ethics and dedication in a work place like the ones I knew in the newspaper business!

From knowing what I know about politics, these are foreign concepts to people in the leadership of this country, or any other, really. Before you slap me for my puerile credulity, I will tell you that no, I don't believe all reporters tell the truth. But I will say that most of them do, for the reasons I briefly shared above, and possibly a lot more. I will also know, deep down in my heart, that politicians will lie to just about anyone, about just about anything to save their rung on their ladder.

Surviving for the journalist equates with the truth. For the politician, survival is keeping in power, however you can hold on to it. This is why you see politicians not conceding races right away: because they think there is always a way they could have won that power.

After our elections, I have thought we could not lower ourselves in a deeper darkness and mire. But I was wrong, for the true walk through the darkness can only now begin: us turning a blind eye, not staying vigilant, not demanding our press to stay free and open and yes, controversial and competitive, is what is going to slip us surely into the deep and muddy and empire of darkness which will ultimately threaten our very being.

The last thing we need is one person to tell us how it is, and us not to interpret and weigh in on our decisions and options. One person to offer us one pill of knowledge and us run with it, without questions and doubts. Sure, thinking is hard. But trust me: falling asleep and waking up with someone else's brain in your head is much, much harder to stomach!

I do think that one line from The Post summarizes the whole movie, the events that it depicts quite beautifully and the lesson those events drive home. I also think that this one line carries a much heavier message about why it is still important to trust the written word, and to value the right to public opinion, and why it is still and will always be important in a true democracy to do everything we can to preserve the right to free speech. That line is, in paraphrase: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” If we don't know our history, we're doomed to repeat it. The good but especially the bad of it. We owe it to our children to help that, if we can. And we can. We may not want to (it's tough work, I get it), but we certainly can.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts on the Cusp of the New Year

Disclaimer: I have had this blog cooking in my head for a few days. Last night, I came up with a killer title for it. Today, the tile is completely gone. I cannot remember even one word of it. I hope the compromise one I chose instead will still do. 

On every New Year's Eve, I always ponder upon our lives, our journeys, and the accomplishments or lack thereofs in the year closing. So, today is no different than any of the other 40+ Eve's that I have left behind me.

But I think this past year (2017), I have asked myself more the questions of “why?”, “why now?, “why us?” more than any other year in my life. As the world seems to grow smaller, and angrier, and more crowded, less patient, and less respectful, I wonder daily what is the purpose of us all, and what kind of cataclysm doomed us to whatever it is happening now and whatever might be coming up next.

2017 has been a year of everything for us. As any life goes, it's been a year of amazing personal peaks and disappointing lows: we saw some new countries to us, we have seen most of our close family, some of which we had not seen for years, we made closer friends, we did some good for our charities, it was my first (air) travel year after my surgery and it all went well. I almost did manage to go through the year without an ER visit, all the way until the very end. But I was happy that the one ER visit I did have was not heart-related. Or at least not directly.

But personally, we have also seen some of the lowest lows, too: the insecurity and uncertainty of losing a job, the horror of a cancer diagnosis amidst our close family members, the need to uproot once again (at 40 something and 50 years of age) to settle in a new state – this last one is more of a bitter-sweet transition, rather than a low point, or at least we hope it is not all low.

All this, while the world seems to spin faster and faster out of control! And I am not sure whether it's just aging, but this year, for the first time, I felt like the state of the world affects the state of my being more than ever!

I don't think globalization can be stopped or changed anymore: used to be that events that happened in other countries had no potential of ever affecting us. But that is not the case anymore. What happens in Iran, Iraq, Korea, Japan, Israel, Russia, the UK, France, you name it … can affect us here, in a small town in NC, or AL, or anywhere nondescript. If this past year has taught us anything is that the world is our oyster. For better or worse!

With social media and its free and available nature, we are constantly exposed to evil, from near and far. Why do people choose evil over good is still beyond me!

I know people who unconditionally believe in the good in all of us. I have had doubts my whole life about this, but it must be true: if it true that we all come from God, then it must be true that we all have some good in all of us. What I fail to see lately is people finding that good that's already inside them and greeting the world with that, rather than with the sea of badness they're filled with. The willingness to show good, and to do good is a weakness anymore. You're a hippy, a 'sissy', or a 'chick' if you're soft, and kind, and caring … - none of which is a compliment, of course.

It's a tough world out there and I think it will be tougher. Disrespect and hatred seem to be accepted anymore, and although I do see a lot of my friends take a firm stand against it all, I don't see much changing in the bigger picture. Sure, with each individual action of resistance and setting the record straight, the evil has one less chance to win, but the evil is still out there – supported and advertised by people in power.

It boggles my mind that people still support Trump! I am not saying they “support the Republican party”, but that, still, puzzles me, as well. But they support him, the man! I cringed when the results of the “most popular man of the year” survey came out and every news organization blasted that the news was “shocking” that Obama was more popular than Trump. Other than the platitude of findings (is there really a comparison between the two?!), I was floored that the news was that “Trump got 14% of the votes while Obama got 17%.” Really?! You're telling me that Trump is only three percent points less popular than Obama?! I wish I were a better writer to explain to you how much that 14% really stings. Double digits! Really?! Forgive me for not seeing the silver lining here.

I understand freak personalities that come every once in a while during the history of mankind. Like bad seeds that sprout weeds, they happen to humans as much as to plants. I can even understand freak circumstances that might allow them to go far and succeed in oppressing others' dignities. But I have never understood the support. The millions of others who accept this as a way of life. As a standard for all of us. Many days nowadays have me wonder: “in what universe is this thing legal? And accepted?” And yet, things that appall me happen every day with zero consequence!

It makes me angry that after so many thousands of years, after so many history lessons, after so much angst and turmoil, after countless losses as a universe, we're regressing so much as opposed to progressing and enhancing our humanity.  

But I seldom do politics. However, I feel like this year, more than anything, this transcends politics. Just like I knew this country was headed for failure after W. Bush was in the office and supporting mediocrity, I know we're in more trouble now than we have ever been before. When something reminds me of something darker, crueler, even less humane (if such a thing is even possible) than Communism, trust me: we're in for deep, troubled waters.

As a country, as a world power, but most importantly, here at home, as a community. I fear for us, as women, people of color or of other nationalities, children with disabilities. I fear for us as a social class, and as a community. I fear we're losing something that we don't know we're losing till it's all gone and too late to get it back.

I am looking for answers, and for the first time in a long time, I fail to see where they might come from. Both in Europe, as whole (Romania in particular), and here, I feel the fastened pulse of a people in despair and rage. And for the first time in a long time, a people hopeless.

There have not been many years where I wished for the old year to never end. I am usually hopeful that the new year will bring us more health, more joy, more wealth, more love, and more togetherness than the year we're closing. This time, I don't ever want 2017 to end. I am scared that what the new year will bring will be darker, more grim and sadder than what we're leaving behind. I am scared that it might bring us something we're hardly prepared to handle at all. Something beyond our imaginations.

I wish I could truly say it's up to us how to put together the next 365 pages of our lives, our 365 chances to screw it all up or make it all better. But I am not believing these words anymore. There seems to be so much in this world that eludes us that controls us, and our every day, more lately than ever. Staying vigilant is only half of the answer. The other half is truly fighting this. But when there are no laws to encourage and support our fight, it is hard to fight back. And for the hippy in me fighting is ever the solution or the victory.

One promise I can make myself, and my family: I could try to not let this harden and embitter me beyond graciousness. I will try to let what is good in me win me over and allow me to put it forward, instead of cowardly hiding it as a weakness and I will try to share the goodness at least with people in my immediate realm. I know I can use some kindness – I am willing to be the first one to give mine to others. Giving it to the undeserving will be hard, however. The judge in me won't let that go, unfortunately.

I am not bitter. Just sad and drained by everything I am seeing around me this year. I used to wake up every morning and check my emails. My husband calls it “checking in with the world.” Nowadays, I fire up my news-feed first thing in the morning, before I do anything else. I need to check and see whether I do have a world to check in with anymore.

In the end of this long and strained year, I leave you with the lyrics of one of my favorite poets which I think summarize sort of how I feel right now:

Did you know freedom exists
In a school book?
Did you know madmen
Are running our prison
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant

We're perched headlong
On the edge of boredom
We're reaching for death
On the end of a candle
We're trying for something
That's already found us.” (Jim Morrison – Freedom Exists)

I wish you all a kinder and easier year in 2018. May you all find that something that's already found you and hopefully that something is good.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

'The Ghosts of Christmas Past'

I have always faulted Romanians for living in the past. Their present, for as long as I have lived, has always been grim and disappointing, and they always take refuge in the past. “Yes, this government is more corrupt than any government in the history of the country, and our standard of living is below poverty for 99% of the population, BUT … Europe won the Second World War with our oil and we gave the world insulin and Nadia Comaneci!” Who cares, right?!

But as I age, I find myself looking back to the past more and more. Not sure if as much as a refuge from the present, but just as a contemplation of where this aging body has been – a long journey, full of good remembrances!

This Christmas, I have spun through my head the memories of my life, at Christmastime, like you spin an old movie reel. And they are so many and so different. I have been lucky to not only have a family who is very much into Christmas, but to have come across, over the years, families that adopted me at this time of the year and shared with me their traditions as well. I have been exposed to a smorgasbord of Christmas pastimes, so my memories are very eclectic.

When we were little kids, I remember mom and grandma taking us to the most central park in our hometown where we would watch the lighting of the tree and the temporary statue of Santa Claus. We did not have the Santa that lets you sit on his lap at the mall. We didn't have a mall. We had this giant, wooden Santa, about 30 feet tall standing by the city tree. It boggled my little mind how this huge Santa would even fit through our door to come drop off the presents – this was just the beginning of my doubting nature. There were no carols, really, because it was during communism and we were not allowed to carol churchy stuff. Our family sang carols, but it was very much hush-hush. Christmas was about winter and Santa, not about Jesus. For this reason, we never went to Church on Christmas.

We went to see the tree and Santa on Christmas Eve, not 10 weeks before Christmas started. Everything started then on Christmas Eve. We even made our own tree on The Eve, too, not weeks before. We would have the tree up till January 8th, after celebrating John the Baptist's feast and Jesus's Baptism. We did say “Happy Holidays” in December, and we still do, back home, and that was not because of some anti-Christian agenda, but because we really did celebrate multiple holidays: Christmas, New Year's with its feasts, John the Baptist, and Jesus's baptism. I never thought that there is something wrong about saying “Happy Holidays” till later in my life, when I moved to the US.

After the Christmas tree and Santa viewing, mom and grandma would take us home which always smelt like food. Cozonac mostly (a Romanian sweet cake) but also lots of meats, mostly pork products. We ate Christmas Eve dinner in the family, always, and then the adults would distract us so they can sneak some presents under the tree and tell us Santa stopped by with presents. They were wrapped in newspaper – I still remember how I hated that ink from the paper making my white fingers black. I remember the smell of the ink, too.

I don't remember getting more than one present. When we stopped believing, we got presents from the parents, grandparents and some relatives, but again, just one from each party and not even wrapped or under the tree. They would just buy us something and they would say “this is your Christmas present”. The joy of finding things under the tree and unwrapping them as a family came much, much later in my life. I grant America with revealing that wonder to me.

In Romania, Christmas (and Easter, for that matter) lasts for 3 days. On the 25th, 26th, 27th of December we took turns visiting people we knew, mostly relatives, and they took turns visiting us. With every visit, we would eat a 10 course meal, with all traditional foods: several kinds of sausages freshly made from a pig that just got killed, sarmale (cabbage and grape leaves rolls), pork meat in aspic, lots of appetizers, including meatballs and boeuf salad, which in fact almost never had any bouef in it at all. We would eat all these foods, prepared tens of different ways in our home and every home we visited for three days straight. I swear our stomachs expanded this time of the year.

In the city, we did not get carolers for Christmas much, but we would get them for New Years. They could sing about the New Year, which seemed more lay than the birth of Jesus, so this was safe. This was the Christmas at home, in the city where my parents lived.

Christmas in the mountains where I grew up was much different. There, it was all about Jesus. People in the mountains were simple and as simple people come, their lives revolved around the church. And they cared little about communism. Communists also cared little about them, too. Communists knew that mountain are remote places with stubborn people and they did not ever care to even try to brainwash them. Mountain people had the notion of private property, they killed their own pig in their own yard and did not have to give The Government any piece of that! They also believed in Jesus and they were extremely respectful of the faith. I cherished that! They did have carolers every year, and every carol was about The Birth, and Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph. Sometimes, they would sing about making bread on Christmas with a broken oven and a broken pot, but making bread nonetheless, which tasted sweetest, because it was made in the family.

The mountains always got snow, too – so it was a magical fairy tale time to spend Christmas there.

We had a tree in the mountains that one of the older boys in the family cut themselves in the forest right behind our house. We would trim it with pine cones, mostly – not with the fancy, colored, glass ornaments we had in the city. The tree was in our room, which was the main room of the house, the living room and dining room, too. It smelled so good and piney in there. We would fall asleep with the sound of crackling fire logs in the wooden stove, every night and we were tipsy from drinking red wine. Yes, even as kids, we would drink some: it was in a way, we were told, medicinal, to drink mulled red wine; it would keep colds away. Carolers came on Christmas Eve and we would give them nuts, apples and sometimes real food too. We only gave some money to kids related to the family.

Communism was over and Christmases changed for us in the city. We had carolers there, too, and it became a lot more commercial: we got nice presents, wrapped in nice paper, or bagged in nice bags. The food and drinking and carrying on for days was still the same. The closeness of family was nice, too. We are closely-knit families back home as it is, but for some reason getting together for The Holidays (we celebrate New Year's for days, too, then the other holidays of January) was always special: we all contemplated as a family what we left behind in the old year and we made plans on what the new year is going to look like. We hoped. We dreamed. And we shared.

And then, I moved to the US. Here, every year seems different. I have had the good fortune to meet some people that welcomed me into their homes for Christmas and included me in their traditions. And now, after 19 Christmases on this side of The Pond, I have made my own traditions that are a mish-mash of what I have learned from everyone's celebrations, including my family's.

Some memories that come to mind from these past years: the years I spent Christmas with wonderful friends in Charlotte, NC – I am still, to this day, yet to see the amount of presents and bounty that they displaye at Christmas! They are some of the most generous people I have ever known, with warm hearts, too.

For a brief time in my life, I had an uncle (by marriage) and he decorated his house like a Christmas store. There was no shelf untouched, no corner, even the railings of the house were full of Christmas 'scenes' and dripping with artificial snow. He had hundreds of Santa figurines and snowmen, too. He started decorating around Halloween to be ready at Christmas. I spent just two years at his house, for Christmas, but they stick in my mind as being special, because of his joy, like a little kid, showing off his decorated house.

Then, there were Christmases that I spent alone with my cats while being on-call for work. I still cooked like my family taught me, and during my free time, binge-watched Hallmark Christmas movies and marathons of home improvement shows. Having sent off presents to family afar and meeting with other friends around town on non-Christmas days made it feel special to me, in a different sort of way.

One year, I went to a carol concert at a church on Christmas Eve, invited by a, then, coworker. She and her husband were alone that evening and would not let me go to be alone at my house: they invited me for dinner at their house instead. They had a tree and a simple dinner (I don't remember what it was, but not sure it was ham and fixings at all). It felt a little uncomfortable at first, but in the end I felt less alone.

Southern Christmases are truly the best: the weather is amazing (I don't miss snow on Christmas at all – never have!), you can walk after a big meal, and people are nicer and calmer – it really brings out the best in them. I love the Salvation Army bells in the South, too, with people dressed up like Santa ringing them.

Then, we moved to Utah, as a family. I made a promise to myself that as long as there is breath in me, I will have a Christmas tree in the house - and so far it has kept. We made a tree every year, and although our stay in Utah will not stand out as a friend-making experience, we managed to have a Christmas gathering at our house and sometimes a second or third one at someone else's every year. We shared foods, and stories, and presents and learned about what other people, some strangers to us, had planned for The Holidays. These gatherings were that much more meaningful as they were rare and we felt lucky to be invited to them and to be able to invite others to our home, too.

Also, in Utah, we have learned about “neighbor's gifts”: you're supposed to give something, anything, to all your neighbors. We got stuff from many people we didn't know – small things, like a box of tissues (really!), or more significant things from our next door neighbor who we did know (like a garden lantern).

One of the strangest Christmas memories will probably be the one from our last year in Utah: for 12 days straight we got presents from a “Secret Santa”: we got everything from chewing gum packs and beef jerky to bottles of soda and a tub of ice cream.” To this day, we will never know who that person was, but for the “12 days of Christmas” they kept giving us presents.

This year has been a hard personal year for us and even harder for our extended family. With our cross-country move, I started Christmas preparation and sending gifts to far-away family late and not with much enthusiasm. Some of the presents won't make it there in time. We do have a tree, but we downsized the present buying for ourselves this year – after all, we bought a whole new house, right?!

Every year since I started to consciously build my own traditions, I try to do something “Christmassy”, meaning something that you can only do around this time of the year: like going to a Christmas play or concert, or the Christmas market bazaar, or going to see some Christmas lights somewhere. I am not sure why this is important to me, but it is. Maybe it's my dad reminding us to take time for “special” things, because this is how memories are made – and, like I said, you don't get to these things year-round. So, I take the time to do them this time of the year.

I know it's not a popular idea to buy “stuff” for people around Christmas – which has nothing to do with the holiday itself. But if this is how you understand the holiday, I would say it's OK. I do want to see (or imagine) the eyes of people I love glisten with anticipation as they open my presents, knowing that this is my way of saying I am thinking of them. We cannot be close to all family at Christmas, as they are all so far away. But knowing I can send them a token of love and acknowledgment that they are indeed special makes my holiday brighter. This is the same reason why I still send cards to my special people. I get it that it could be consumerism, but I see it as sharing my bounty with people I love.

I don't really get all the cooking, either – but I embrace it as a custom given to me by my family and by people I love. I have a friend who always says that she cooks for people because she doesn't know how else to say “I love you”. I agree to that.

But I digress. Back to not feeling enthusiastic this Christmas.
For weeks now, I have thought about what to cook for Christmas, and I am not feeling like cooking at all. All I want is just to look at my tree, snuggle with Gypsy and close the door on the world for a few days, under a blanket with a trashy magazine.

But I did find some drive to cook and we will have our own traditions, like we normally do, because I cannot bear being a Grinch, no matter what my life is doing. It would feel like I have given up, if I were, and life still has so many beautiful reasons to celebrate. We will open presents over mimosas and breakfast casserole on Christmas Day (a tradition I stole from my Charlotte friends), we will speak with relatives, and watch Christmas movies, me, over eggnog, and Aa. over wine or a mixed drink. We might even make a fire, too. We will nap and read and walk in the crisp air, too. Because we are back in the land where we are lucky to have friends, we hope to see some of them over Christmas and New Year's as well.

Maybe my looking back through the memories is, in fact, a way to escape the present, which is challenging my patience and peace of mind right now. Maybe, I am just Romanian, after all. And yes, this is very much, tongue-in-cheek.

Whatever Christmas is to you, I hope it is warm, healthy, calm, long and lingering. I hope you find at least one reason to smile, many reasons to celebrate, and look forward to what's beyond this time, with hope and dreams anew.

Happiest of Holidays, everyone! 

Still my most favorite Christmas picture. We were young and unassuming. All four of us. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Our World on the Thankful Day

Tomorrow will be a month since we touched North Carolina land for the first time as a family. Although I have lived here before for 12 years, although we have known each other for 10 years, my husband and I, and although we have been married for seven of those, we have never lived in North Carolina together, as a family. This is our first Thanksgiving in NC together. In our new home.

Today is when I usually get melancholy about life. Never during a year do I feel the passing of time more palpably than around late fall, beginning of winter. I just look back at the year past and just sigh … so many undeserved highs, so many painful lows, I ask myself how we're still standing, and all in all, a life.

This year, I am grateful for the many trips and new places we got to experience, I am grateful for the new opportunities that have been open to us and waiting, patiently, for us to explore and expand. Most of all, I am grateful we're all here, on this side of the dirt, all the people who matter to us, and us, of course.

I am grateful for our new home and for my very old kitty who is spending his seventeenth Thanksgiving with us in it. I am grateful for our means and for the food we put on the table because of them. I am grateful for friends, near and far who care for us and wish us well. We give thanks to you all and hope you know we reciprocate.

The world has been a sad place for the past year particularly. But I am grateful for the handful of people who care and who still fight for what is right, for the less fortunate, and for the ones who cannot speak for themselves. Some days I am not sure this planet will see another day. It's hard to be an optimist anymore. Some days, I do not see the end of this darkness we seem to all muddle through, deeper and deeper, boggled down by confusion, disbelief, sadness and even desperation. So today, I am grateful that I can write this, uncensored and free. Still. This, I shall never take for granted!

I hope that this day has found you all grateful for at least one thing. The world might have a chance yet if it did.

Happy Thanksgiving, you all, and a happy and healthy start to your Holiday Season!

It's good to be back where our post-Thanksgiving feast walk is amongst tall, aging trees, and where it's quiet. No cars. No traffic. No wind. Just peace, trees, and soft Carolina light.