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GreensHere we are again at what I have always thought of as the bottom of the year, the trough of a great sine wave. From here, we start the long slow climb to July, as the sun comes back a bit more each day. We have always thought more of the season as Yule, the ancient Germanic and Norse holiday, a holiday of warmth, light, tradition, and fellowship, in the dark of winter.  The halls are decked with evergreens, and the windows lit with candles.

We woke this morning to new snow, the sparkly sort which coats the evergreens and bare branches. It came after we went to bed last night, long after we had come back on dry highways from my brother’s, where my parent’s ornaments, older than I, hung on the tree among cookies, popcorn garlands, and twig stars newly made. The ancient Santa candle, in Norman Rockwell style, that sat on the edge of my parent’s mantle, is there too.  On the drive back, we listened to Dylan Thomas’s reading of his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a tradition started long ago when we spent days on the road at Christmas.

TreeMantleOur own tree has paper snowflakes, cut from dissertation bond, cotton rag paper meant to last forever, or at least a long as anyone would want to read your dissertation, by graduate school friends at a tree-trimming party, precursor to our annual open houses, on our first Christmas.  There are Victorian cardboard ornaments, bought on a trip to the Smithsonian, German candleholders from my Aunt Elizabeth, and various ornaments made and given over the years.

On the mantle are more evergreens from the yard, with cousin Øyvind Kjølsrud’s box and a Julekniss we got in Norway.  We have email greetings from his son Arne, whose big-band music we listened to yesterday.

And every year, the rituals, old but evolving – grapefruit and black bean soup for Christmas Eve supper, Julekage and grapefruit for Christmas breakfast.  My mother served an angel food birthday cake, with grapefruit, for Christmas breakfast, to which her brother-in-law famously asked, the first time he encountered it, “Whose birthday is it?”  The top was decorated with tiny Nativity scene candles.  We have substituted Robert’s grandmother’s Norwegian Christmas sweet bread.

Dylan Thomas says

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

and

One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

The generations pass, the years roll around, and come to the dark again, and we light the lights and bring in the Yule log, the holly and the ivy, a few bits of green, hope and remembrance, give each other bits of delight, and the snow falls.

Into the woods

Into the woods

Yesterday we drove over to Blackwater Falls.  I had never been there in the winter, although the Falls in winter is a standard West Virginia photo.  Again, photographs cannot begin to capture a four-dimensional, 360-degree experience.  Not to mention the cold and the sound (even though there is lots of ice, the falls are still running and can be heard from the top of the hill; away from the falls, the snow soaked up all sound).

We had on black jackets, and spent some time looking at individual snowflakes thereon.

Steps

The first of 214 steps

The long walk

The long walk

The falls

The falls

Updated:
Robert put up a short video

ChandelierThe crystal chandelier in the dining room is one of those things, like the hot tub at our old house, that I would never have bought, but since it’s there, needs to be kept up.  This weekend I spent a morning taking down all the prisms, soaking them in ammonia, polishing them, and putting them back up.  I had never cleaned them, and from the amount of crud on the glass, they hadn’t been cleaned for years before we bought the house.

A month or so ago, I had looked at the little doodads around the screws holding up the large mirror in the dining room, which appeared to be brass, and decided to try polishing them.  They “cleaned up real nice” – they seem to be silver, and look ever so much better.  I found that the little wires connecting the prisms were silver, too.  Polishing each one was way more than I wanted to tackle, but the ammonia took off a good bit of the tarnish.  Before, besides the dull glass, the whole shebang was dotted and striped with black where the wires attached.  Putting them back up, I also figured out that they had been replaced backwards at some point – the flat sides of the prisms were out, which also meant the attachment points showed.  Now the wires are on the inside and the sparkly sides of the prisms are out, which made as much difference as removing the crud.

The spots on the walls, the mirror doodads, and the dull chandelier were not things you would consciously notice.  It was not as if anyone would walk in and say “Oh my!  Look at that filthy chandelier!”  But the effect of all the little dingy bits adds up.  There must be a life lesson here somewhere.

CardinalWe got our minimal outdoor decorations, lights along the patio rail, up this weekend before the snow began in earnest.  Yesterday, a cardinal came and sat on the rail.

I spent almost two years thinking about how to insulate.  There was no insulation as far as we could tell, except under the floor in the den.  The second floor is really a finished attic, with no access to the space above, although there is a half-sized door (because of a chimney in the wall) to the space above the den, which has dormer windows and a finished floor, but is vented to the outside.   Despite that, once Robert had sealed at the bottom of the baseboards and we had sealed the light switches and outlets, the house was not drafty, and actually used less heat per square foot than our house in Austin, which had been weatherized in the 90s, before we bought it.  When we had the roof done last spring, I asked about insulation board.  The roofer took a look at the upstairs, and said “You have plenty of space above the ceiling – why don’t you just cut access and lay or blow insulation?”  As it turned out, they had to lay plywood anyway because of the condition of the roof deck, which helped with air sealing.

I spent a lot of time looking at  the roof and the upstairs, and decided that a hole could be cut in one of the bedroom closets. out of sight.  Robert found a carpenter who came one Sunday afternoon with his wife (a reading specialist who turned out to have lived for a while on Schoolhouse Hill in Spencer, where I grew up), and took a look.  We agreed he would cut and frame the access, at an hourly rate, and we would go from there.  Handily, he was able to come not too long after the furnace was done.  He brought his son, and in less than an hour he had cut a neat hole in the ceiling.  There was plenty of space above the ceiling, and a clear shot to the ceiling space in the dormers and sides.  So off they went to get insulation, and in less than six hours they had blown insulation into the dormers, laid bats in the flat areas, framed out the access hole, and made a cover for it.

Robert had volunteered to insulate the crawlspace, which is under the front of the living room and the parlor.  He spent a weeks’ worth of afternoons dealing with joists that were all different widths apart, insulation falling off the heating ducts, and working around a chimney base and wiring running through the space.  But it is done, and the floor above it is now about as warm as the floor over the basement.

He spent several more afternoons in the tiny attic area over the kitchen, hauling out things that have been stashed there by past owners and insulating.  Finally, we realized that the giant hole in the ceiling of the maid’s bathroom in the basement, ripped out when the previous owners redid the kitchen and never fixed, was creating a giant chimney effect.  Last winter the room stayed just at freezing, and probably contributed to the coolness of the kitchen above it.  He spent an afternoon duct-taping plastic over it,  as a temporary fix, since the entire room will have to be redone eventually.  The space under the sink, which was freezing last winter, is now in the forties.

Our gas usage for the first six weeks of this season looks like it is down 16% per degree day from last year, the combined effects of the new furnace and the insulation, and 26% from our first year.  So the sealing and turning the thermostat down saved about 12%, and the new furnace and insulation another 14% (or more – we didn’t finish the insulating and sealing until after the heating season started.)  It also puts our heating and cooling use at about half the US average.

Next year we will look at replacing windows (or adding storm windows) and insulating the basement walls that aren’t underground.  I think we still have some major air leaks in the cracked plaster upstairs; redoing the walls and ceilings in the bedrooms up there is another major project for next year.

Jundo Cohen and Taigu Turlur, an American and a Frenchman, running a virtual zendo, Tree-Leaf,  in Japan, have different but complementary styles.  The last post from their blog at Shambala Sunspace says

What you have to do, though, is avoid the snake oil, the image-driven jive and hype, the soothing but empty cliches, the charismatic charlatans, the fast food drive-though spirituality. Also, don’t fall into “spiritual materialism” — shopping around in the “Dharma department store” for the fluffy and flashy, for teachers of anything-goes, feel-good philosophies that just say what we want to hear (and not what we need to hear).

Which goes for all flavors of religion, not just flavors of Buddhism.

I follow the blogs above because of a common thread.  Each of the authors is thoughtful about what I see as the real values in life, regardless of their actual formal faith, and I know that there are Jews and Muslims, and others in many faiths, who are also.  I know humanists and Christians who are not as thoughtful, who have fallen for all the pitfalls Jundo listed, and more, like believing that science and reason are everything, or evil, or that the purpose of religion is to provide rigid rules to live by, and worse, to condemn others.  And worst of all, I know people who believe that their path is the only path, and scorn or condemn everyone not on it.

I go to a Silver Sneakers class at the YMCA.  The program is a supplemental Medicare benefit, for which I won’t qualify for years, but it’s at a good time, combines strength, stretching, balance, and cardio, has nice people and great oldies music, including You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, one of the few disco-era songs I like.  (Red-Headed Stranger came out about then, and it was Willie and the boys for me after that.) I also started doing a Nautilus circuit at the Y, after watching Robert for about 6 months.

This morning I ran across a release on a research report headlined Fountain of Youth in Your Muscles? , on the mechanism by which endurance exercise (hiking, biking, swimming, dancing, jogging, housework, mowing the lawn) builds muscle – and can “rejuvenate” old muscle.

Presumably what applies to rats applies to people:

Endurance exercise also improved the levels of “spontaneous locomotion” — the feeling that tells our bodies to just get up and dance — of old rats. Aging is typically associated with a reduced level of spontaneous locomotion.

The combination of aging and a sedentary lifestyle significantly contributes to the development of diseases such as osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as a decline in cognitive abilities. If researchers can discover a method to “boost” satellite cells in our muscles, that could simulate the performance of young and healthy muscles — and hold our aging bones in place.

The astonishing conclusion?

With this advance, we can let ourselves dream about creating a new drug for humans — one that could increase muscle mass and ameliorate the negative effects of aging.

I’d rather dance…

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. - Howard Thurman.

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