Sunday, November 25, 2012

Transitions and Traditions

It is the holiday season in the United States. We celebrated our Thanksgiving Day on Thursday. Christmas and New Year's are roughly four and five weeks away, respectively. These holidays are traditionally the most family oriented. Loved ones from far and near gather to celebrate, to once again feel the warmth and love of family.

Those families likely have traditions as part of their celebrations. The smell of familiar foods wafting from the kitchen, a sports event or favorite holiday movie playing on the television, singing, reciting stories or poetry, or perhaps the making of an ethnic recipe handed down from generation to generation are part of the tradition. The familiarity of the traditions are what makes the holidays special.

Loss of a loved one disrupts those traditions. There is one less chair at the holiday table, one less smile in the crowd, one less laugh filling the air, and one less person to hug. Decorating the house is different. There may be one less function to attend. There may be fewer memories and stories from years gone retold by an elder family member. A traditional recipe may go unmade. Each of us has an important role in family traditions.

The first holiday without a loved one is the hardest. Part of the healing process is a transition period where we learn how to move forward without our loved one physically present. Traditions change either subtly or radically as part of that transition. Sometimes a role may be shared amongst several family members. Sometimes the role remains unfilled.

I am very lucky. I spent Thanksgiving with most of my family and spent a wonderful Saturday with Lucy's cousin and sisters. I missed Lucy, Bob and Betty. But I also had Annette, Julie and Suzy giving me smiles and hugs and we all shared laughter. It was the best day I have had in several months.

Decorating the house for Christmas has been a story in its own right. That was Lucy's domain and she always did a phenomenal job with it. I decorated the outside but she did the inside. I know now she was very creative at finding places to store ornaments and decorations. In the time it took me to get the tree into the basement, she magically managed to put away all the decorations and ornaments despite needing a walker. She continues being extraordinary even after her passing.

It took a lot longer to decorate the tree this year. Lucy would normally put the lights up during the Saturday after Thanksgiving, then put the ornaments and decorations on the next day. I think she wanted to see the tree with just the lights on for inspiration.

I got the tree up on Saturday and lights put on today (Sunday). Part of the delay was because I had to find where the decorations were stored. In the process of discovery, I found she had kept every Christmas card we had received through the years, well over 500 of them. Those holiday cards were a time capsule containing memories. Some of the cards either had lengthy inscriptions or letters detailing the joys and sorrows of the previous year. Others contained photographs showing growing families. I was lucky I had a wonderful Saturday or these finds would have been very emotionally draining.

In keeping with Lucy's tradition, the lights and the tree topper are on the tree. The ornaments and decorations will go on tomorrow after the tree hints how it would like to be decorated. I'm glad I did it because it makes the house feel a little cozier.

Lucy always bought two amaryllis bulbs every year so she would have something in bloom at Christmas. She never wanted to try over-summering the bulbs because it was so easy to buy new plants that were ready to bloom. One was pink and the other red and white. Three weeks after her funeral both plants had wilted leaves. I cut the leaves back and put the plants in the basement near the furnace where the would receive very little light. On Halloween I brought the bulbs upstairs. The pink one planted in rocks was OK, but the red and white one planted in peat showed signs of fungus. I'm not sure if the pink one will bloom, but it does have four leaves on it each over two feet long. I bought a smaller Red Lion bulb with two flower stalks on it just in case, and it is also planted in rocks. Amaryllis bulbs can be rejuvenated for several years so I am anxious to see if I can make this work.

Lucy and her sisters would make piirakkas (Lucy's family recipe is slightly different) sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She and I would make our own small batch just after Christmas. I managed to get pretty good at making the rice porridge filling without destroying the kitchen or scorching the saucepan. The recipe kept the two of us busy for a couple hours. I may take a whack at trying it solo. If you read about an incident in Bloomington requiring the fire department and hazardous waste disposal, you'll know my attempt didn't go so smoothly . Lucy and I would also make a batch of Finnish flatbread using her Aunt Kay's recipe.

Enjoy your family traditions during your holiday season. Remember those who are could not make it or those who have passed away with love and affection. May your hearts be filled with love and happiness this season and in seasons to come!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Let us give thanks

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. It is a day set aside to give thanks for the blessing bestowed on us. The tryptophan torpor, sport spectaculars and "Black Friday" shopping planning are fairly modern side effects, though I would love to see the latter relegated to history's trash can.

I have so much for which I am thankful despite how much 2012 has been awful. The most important blessing I am thankful for was my time with Lucy. I was so fortunate to be married to her for almost 24 years and our being together for 28 years. I will treasure that time for the remainder of my existance in this world.

I am very thankful for the love and support everyone has offered me. I am especially thankful for the special people who were there for me during the worst time in my life, who offered compassion and strength when I needed it most, and who helped start my healing process. Marilyn Monroe once said "But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best." Thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for putting up with me.

I am thankful for the people who are sacrificing a holiday to server others: soldiers, police, firefighters, health care professionals, volunteers. It is gratifying that you are putting others first.

This year I am thankful the weather is cooperating, at least until early afternoon. We set a record high of 60°F very early this morning (the old record was 59°F set in 1998 for the curious; the "pioneer" record high was 60°F set in 1867), but will see a sharp drop in temp with a strong northwest wind later. Those of you on the road today should keep an eye on the weather and stay safe.

It's time for me to get on the road. I'm heading to John's for Thanksgiving. Mom and Dad are there and Jacob will be over this morning. Jim can't break away from his business venture.

Enjoy time with your loved ones. Chris and Dave, enjoy your time volunteering. Be thankful for your family, friends and loved ones.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lost in Translation

No, this isn't about the Bill Murray movie from several years back. This started with a gleeful Facebook post which resulted in me trying to find a recipe (tater tot hotdish), which resulted in me finding a piece of notepaper Lucy left in the recipe box with a couple Finnish phrases on them. Lucy was extremely proud of her Finnish heritage. She had the two phrases written out with a brief description of what sort of wall hanging each was from and had seen these in one of three places: Finnish Gifts in downtown Minneapolis, Bergquist Imports in Cloquet, MN or Irma's Finland House in Virginia, MN.

The first phrase was "Ota hymy huuleen ja juoksee vastatuuleen". She had written "Smile and run against the wind" as a translation. Google Translate indicated "Take a smile on the lip and runs into the wind".

On the back page was "Siunaa Jeesus ruokamme, ole aina luonamme". Lucy's translation was "Dear Jesus, Thank you for our food and be present with us always." Google Translate came up with something puzzling: "Jesus will bless our food, not always with us". The subtlety of language comes into play. This is why auto-correct features can be unintentionally hilarious or painfully vexing.

Google is a huge corporation. They have many brilliant minds working for them and advanced technology at their disposal. Something as simple as a before meal prayer still proves problematic for computerized translation, but a human translator has an easy time.  Words can have multiple meanings and definitions depending on context. A machine will try to use algorithms which parse words and then assign a weighting factor to determine probable usage. All that sentence diagramming we were subjected to in middle school was not for naught.

The Chinese proverb "A picture is worth ten thousand words" is quite appropriate thousands of years later. Brilliant writers can "paint with words" in ways that I cannot, but even they are hindered by the sterility of purely written words. A human reader can remember passages that were a few words, sentences, paragraphs or chapters back which help convey mood and context. A machine will look at a preceding word, the preceding sentence, and the current one. Even today, how many times has an email or note from someone caused the wrong reaction because even though the grammar and usage was correct, the intention was lost? How many times have passages been "taken out of context" to prove or disprove a thesis?

Take the three word phrase "I love you." The phrase is easily translated into numerous languages.  No problem with meaning, right? C. S. Lewis very artfully demonstrated the difficulties of expressing emotion through language in "The Four Loves". Love, while seemingly a simple concept, is an extremely complex emotion with many different contexts. For example, Marcy is married, has a child, both parents still living, several siblings and many friends. Even though Marcy will say "I love you" to her spouse, child, parents, siblings and friends, there is a different form of love expressed using the same words.

In addition to words, humans will use tonality, inflection and expressions to help convey meaning. We've seen movies where one buddy will slur "I love ya" before the copious quantities of alcoholic libations previously consumed are unceremoniously liberated and/or unconsciousness. "I love you" spoken to a spouse can have different meanings depending on mood. The degree of love between two people can differ. Romantic comedies have used a variation of A loves B madly, B loves A not as much (or at all), hilarity ensues while equilibrium establishes or fails and all the loose ends tidy up in about 105 minutes. Affection, or caring, or adoration, or comradery:  it's still those three words, "I love you".

The visual and audible cues are very important. How do we determine if a person is angry or pretending, sincere or lying, happy or putting on a brave face? We try to "read" a person's clues in their voice, eyes, mouth, nose, neck, posture. People with certain spectral disorders lack the ability to pick up those cues, and some psychopaths have the ability to "fake" these cues on demand. Without those cues we are subject to misinterpretation. Some people were uneasy watching "The Polar Express" because the cutting edge Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) failed to adequately capture facial expressions. Compare those characters to a newer CGI film like "Avatar".

Make it simpler for your loved ones. Find time to ota hymy huuleen ja juoksee vastatuuleen when there is no risk for frostbite. Be genuine with your hugs and tell them you care. Give them as many cues as you can. There is elegance in simplicity especially in a fast-paced and complex world.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The gales of November (7 months tomorrow)

November is notoriously fickle in Minnesota. The National Weather Service lists it as our gloomiest month (sunshine 39% or less than 11 days of 30). We had the Armistice Day blizzard on November 11, 1940 that killed 49 people in Minnesota alone, 145 total in the affected region. That day started out mild with some clouds, some drizzle towards noon, and finally slashing wind, plummeting temperature and close to two feet of snow falling in under 24 hours in some areas. In other areas the snowdrifts topped 30 feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald went down on November 10, 1975 during a near-hurricane-force gale and was immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot. Very large temperature swings occur. The daily average high and low temperatures drop almost a degree per day. Just this past Sunday, we had two EF-0 tornadoes on the ground about 4 miles south of me. Thankfully no one was hurt although some houses and cars were damaged. All I had here was some 20 - 25 mph wind gusts. Saturday was sunny, warm and 69°F. Today (Monday) was overcast, blustery and a high of 26°F  and a low (so far) of 19°F. The Minnesota Climatology Office has a list of the worst Minnesota storms. Notice how many fall in November.

Tomorrow marks seven months since Lucy died and Wednesday would have been my brother Robert's 44th birthday. Going through the grief process is like going through November in Minnesota. For most part it is dull and cold with a clamminess that cuts to one's soul. The storms come quickly, harshly and with no warning leaving one damp, shivering, weakened and miserable. But there are days similar to last Saturday where warmth and light reign for a few precious hours. Those hours are enough to dry off, warm up and gather enough strength to keep moving forward.

Never underestimate the power of even a small kindness. A smile is a ray of sunlight cutting through the gloom. A hug is a break in the clouds with warmth and light. Letting someone know you care lifts that person off the ground. Combine all three and a person can weather an impending storm. Love is very powerful stuff. There will be many stormy days ahead, but eventually the grief calendar will start a new month with the promise of spring on the horizon. It only seems like the calendar is measuring months on Pluto rather than Earth.

If I may, I would like to ask a personal favor. Please keep Steve, Suzy and Julie in your thoughts and prayers this holiday season. This will be the second Thanksgiving without Betty, but the first without Lucy and Bob. They are such wonderful people and I am very blessed to have them in my life. Give them some sunshine and warmth to help them get through their grief November.

I miss so many things about Lucy, but the hugs and cuddling are what I miss the most, and it's been the hardest adjustment to make. If the weather is as cold in your part of the world as it is here, cuddle if you have someone. Aw heck, cuddle even if it isn't cold!