Days that Count: Reflections on Advent

It’s the first week of December, which means I’ve broken out the red dining room tablecloth, I’m scolding the kittens to stop chewing the Christmas tree fourteen times a day, and each morning I clap my hands with delight to see what sweet scene is behind the numbered door on this year’s advent calendar.

Festive kitty!

I grew up with an advent calendar and an Advent wreath. Lighting the candles in the wreath was a family religious ritual, accompanied by biblical readings each Sunday that reflected on hope, peace, joy, and love. We began the cycle each year with the first Sunday in Advent, as designated by the liturgical calendar.

Our advent calendar, however, always began each year on December 1st. It consisted of a piece of plywood covered in gold foil wrapping paper, with 24 lidded boxes of all shapes and sizes–each wrapped in a different festive paper–affixed to the board. I thought it was beautiful. Each year my mother filled the boxes with small treats for my brother Todd and me, then hung the calendar on the wall in the den like a big colorful painting. The lid of each box was numbered with gold stick-on numerals, and each year we switched who opened odds and who opened evens.

There were a few boxes whose contents was predictable. A tall, flat box, number 11 as I recall, always had a funny black poodle card in it, as not much else would fit the box. Number 24 always contained a small nativity that we would set up on the box’s fold-down lid in honor of Christmas Eve. Some of the boxes would reveal trinkets we already owned, pulled from a cabinet or the Christmas box. But a few of them always held new items: a tiny Snoopy notepad with even tinier colored pencils, an action figure, a tube of lip gloss. Most times we opened the day’s box before we headed out to catch the bus for school, and even on the days when it was my brother’s turn, the anticipation and the surprise made for a pleasurable start to the day.

The pleasure of that daily ritual has stuck with me, and I have sought to recreate it for others and myself numerous times over the years. When I lived in Germany as an exchange student, the Christmas I’d just turned 17, my host sister Kristin and I made an advent calendar for my German host mama: I drew a snowy village scene, and we wrapped up tiny ornaments, sweets, and perfume samples and tied them onto the bottom of picture with ribbon. My host mama made us each a calendar, too, and my mother back home in Georgia created and sent an advent calendar for my entire German family. My host parents, sister, brother, and I–and even the family dog Lola–took turns opening those packages, which my host mama had affixed to our cellar door. My mother and I have often traded assembling or making advent calendars for one another in the past; my best effort was a series of tiny woolen ornaments that told the story of a little girl searching for the meaning of the season, which Mom still puts out each year.

Steve, sensing my fondness for the ritual, has gifted me a lovely 3D paper calendar–birds last year, and kitties this year–for each of my last two birthdays. But until this year, it had been quite a while since I’d made an advent calendar for anyone. This year I was inspired to create calendars for my three favorite guys. Our grown sons can’t be with us this holiday due to the pandemic and my high-risk status, so I wanted to do something special for them. I can’t say much about their calendars without spoiling surprises to come, but I will say I think had as much fun brainstorming with Steve, searching out items, and putting their calendars together as the boys will opening them! It’s also had the added benefit that as they open a treat each day, we exchange messages. I thought hubby Steve needed a calendar, too, so I spent a few days designing and painting a “happy memories” calendar for him, based in a snowy mountain scene. I got to think about all those memories as I made the calendar, and now I enjoy watching him open his calendar’s entry each day as much as I enjoy finding the cute critters in the calendar he gifted me.

So what is it about advent calendars that captivates me so? And why, this year of all years, did I feel especially compelled to share their joys with others?

It’s been a hard year. I mean, 2020, right? Global pandemic and the accompanying illness and economic woes, forest fires, hurricanes, fractious political climate and elections. Personally, I’ve been in some form of cancer treatment (or on pause, not knowing for six weeks if they were going to find something that worked) since December 26th of last year. Fighting cancer and being immune-compromised in the era of Covid feels like mortal threat on top of mortal threat, and it’s wearying to have part of your brain and body perpetually in survival mode. And so many holiday rituals and traditions that usually bring me joy–walking the neighborhood Parlour Tour of homes with Steve, baking cookies with my mom or the boys, spending an evening shopping and putting outfits together for a local underprivileged child, attending an ugly sweater party with friends–are unavailable, unsafe.

But advent calendars are still possible. And while some of my good feeling about them derives from nostalgia, no doubt, hearkening back to those childhood mornings of little delights, I think there’s more to it than that. Advent calendars–in secular as well as religious form–offer me, us, something that we need in this upside-down, topsy-turvy year. Advent calendars are a lesson in appreciating this moment and its (often literally) small beauties, even as they are also a lesson in waiting. They encourage a daily practice of being present, finding a moment of pleasure, taking a moment to pause and appreciate the now. But they’re also about anticipation, faith that the days will roll forward, that even as darkness falls earlier and stays longer, the light will eventually return. For me they are also about fostering relationships and showing love. When I assemble or create a calendar for someone, I think of them throughout the process, and I hope some small part of me and my affection for the recipient is present each day when they open that day’s box or envelope or card.

And, of course, there is the wonder of surprise, even in miniature: What is behind this little door? What will I discover today? Wonder, love, being present, and faith in the future: all held in a small numbered box, or found behind a tiny paper flap. That’s the kind of gift we can all use right now, the kind of gift I’m thrilled to receive and, given the chance, even happier to give.

Last year’s bird calendar, which is getting a 2020 reprise!

Birthday Girl

This is a happy story. Just keep reading.

This coming Friday, I will celebrate my fifty-first birthday. And make no mistake, though it will just be Steve and me at home with the cats, there will be a full-on party taking place in my heart.

One year ago yesterday, a Saturday, I was at The Stone House owned by Black Dog Salvage, preparing for my “Fifty and Fabulous” birthday party. We’d been planning the party for a while, and I was excited and looking forward to the evening’s festivities. But my joy was tempered by news I’d received two days earlier. On that Thursday I’d been taking part in an annual holiday craft fair sponsored by the women’s organization at Roanoke College. I had arranged my table of wares for sale: origami tea-light lanterns, notecards that featured prints of my watercolors, and a few original watercolor cards. I’d just gotten things set up to my satisfaction when I saw I’d missed a phone call from my breast surgeon’s office. I knew it was likely to be about the results of a recent punch biopsy from a red patch that had developed just above my left armpit. I slipped into an empty classroom, sat down in a desk, and returned the call with shaking hands and clumsy fingers. I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know. I was worried.

Origami tealight lanterns

When the nurse practitioner came on the line, she asked me if I was sitting down. I pretty much had my answer in that moment. Then came the gut punch.

“I’m afraid I have some really bad news,” she said.

Wait, what? Even in my state of heightened anxiety, I felt like something was off in the way she was framing things. But it was all I could do to keep breathing. “Okay.”

“The biopsy does show breast cancer.”

Shit.

“I’m so sorry. I know you were hoping for a different result. We all were.”

Breathe, Sandee, Breathe. I asked her something about next steps, what tests I’d need. She told me they’d refer me to my medical oncologist, and I’d need scans, then likely chemo and/or radiation.

Then she said, “Unfortunately, most of the time when we see it in the skin, it means it’s already everywhere.”

Every cell in my body clanged like a fire engine heading to a five-alarm fire. No. No, no, no, no, no. We ended the call, and I walked, stunned, back to my exhibit table. I’d brought some paints and blank cards with me, and the only thing that saved me running screaming from the room was making art. I put my head down and started drawing, one tiny line after another tiny line, until they formed a flower. Then another. This. I can still do this.

One line after another

I kept it mostly together until I delivered a pack of notecards to a colleague I knew, though not well, on my way back to my office. She asked how I was doing, and the dam broke. She sat with me in a back room until I calmed down, then I headed to my office and on to a scheduled hair appointment. I cried to my hairdresser, who is a wizard with both hair and human. How on earth was I going to get through my party? I didn’t want it to become all maudlin and weepy. I wanted it to be a celebration. In many ways, perhaps, I needed to celebrate more than ever.

Steve was traveling on business and driving back from Tennessee that day, and I didn’t want to upset him and then have him be on the road, so I held off calling him. My parents were scheduled to arrive late that afternoon. I expected to burst into tears the moment one of them put their arms around me to hug hello, but it didn’t happen. And then something shifted in me, and I didn’t want to be the daughter with cancer. I just wanted a nice, normal afternoon, pleasant conversation, party talk. At some point I decided I would hold the news unless or until one of them asked me directly about the biopsy. That didn’t happen until after dinner, shortly after Steve came in, when we were all sitting in the living room together. My mother asked if I’d ever heard back about my test. I whispered–all I could manage, suddenly–“Yes. Yes, I did.”

November blooms–seeking the beauty

I’m still angry about the editorializing that framed the report–you don’t tell a patient “I have really bad news,” which essentially tells them “be scared” and adds to their trauma. Using I-language, something like “I’m sorry to have to tell you that…” helps the patient understand it’s not good news, but doesn’t impose emotions on them. And it was way out of line that I was told skin metastasis is often a sign of widespread disease. It was pure speculation, terrifying, and utterly unhelpful, as neither I nor my doctors could confirm or deny where the cancer was or wasn’t until I had more tests. Because of that statement, I had to do the extra labor of carrying that possible story around while I waited to know. One of the most important aspects of self-care you can exercise as a cancer patient is to distinguish what you know from the stories you might tell yourself about what you know, and all we knew was that I had a small patch of cancer in the skin above my left arm. That news was hard enough to hear without the commentary. We would later find out that it wasn’t everywhere, only in the skin and a few nearby lymph nodes.

But I was talking about celebrations, and I promised you a happy story. As my parents, Steve, and I sat in the living room that Thursday night, processing, after I’d answered my mother’s question and we’d all shed a few tears, Steve asked, “So, is the party still on?”

My answer: “Hell, yes, the party’s still on!”

And it was. We didn’t share the news outside of family ahead of time so we could focus on fun. And it was fun, and fabulous, full of friends and laughter and family and cupcakes and music and dancing. There were a couple of toasts, and as Steve spoke his, I looked around the room at all the people who’d filled my life and heart with so much beauty and joy. And in that moment, I knew something important.

I knew that I had loved, and I had been loved. And I would keep loving and being loved. And whatever else I would or wouldn’t do in my days on this earth, that was the deepest, truest, most wonderful gift. That was my story. That alone makes mine a life well-lived.

Then we all raised our glasses, turned up the music, and danced.

Heads Up! #9: Joy in a Mauve Cloche

Today has been a good day. In fact, it’s been a good week. I had this week off from treatment, so I’ve been busy creating, writing, and organizing. We’ve had a couple of sunny days, which energize me, and some rainy days, which somehow make my afternoon tea taste even better.

It’s been oddly warm for November, but today began to feel like Fall again. So it seemed like a good time to break out a hat and renew my running “Heads Up!” feature, which I started as a way to get some practical use out of my vintage hat collection, as well as find a bright spot in being bald (and not just because my head is shiny).

Today’s hat, though it looks vintage, is actually a newer acquisition, purchased in 2018 from Bonnet, a lovely millinery shop in Portland, Oregon, whose brick-and-mortar store, sadly, has since closed. The hat looks delicate and feminine, but it’s sturdier than it appears: it was made to stand up to rainy Portland winters. I love the combination of the cozy, sueded fabric with the jaunty striped grosgrain ribbon. I call it “mauve,” but that’s not quite right: it’s a warm, rosy lavender that makes me think of winter sunsets and stormy summer skies.

Speaking of jaunty, I must confess that it wasn’t only the hat that compelled today’s photo fun. Take a close look at the pattern on my pants. It’s called “catstooth” (the feline answer to houndstooth, made by Betabrand), and my pants have been making me smile all day. If you gotta wear pants, why not have some fun with them? (I recognize that in the era of Zoom, not everyone has to wear pants, but…most of us have to leave the house at least occasionally.)

Teeny-tiny black and white kitties!

And speaking of things we gotta wear: masks, friends. Something else we might as well have a little fun with, while we take care of each other.

I have a lot of fun with clothes. Some folks may think I have too much fun with them, that dressing up during a pandemic when I’ve no where much to go is silly, or that playing with style is a shallow pursuit. But being creative with clothes harms no one and it brings me joy. If I’ve learned one thing in the past four years, it’s that you can never have too much joy. Seize it where you find it, and spread it whenever you can.

I got lots of grins from passersby while I was out taking pictures today. And I just grinned right back.

Finnspiration! Finn approves of my catstooth pants 🙂

Joy Journal 1: The Beach

It’s taken me a while to get to this project, which I’m calling my Joy Journal. The idea was inspired by an article, “Crafting Memory Cards,” in the July/August 2016 issue of Cloth-Paper-Scissors. Written by Susie Henderson, the article describes a set of “altered cards” she made to “curate [her] collection of losses.” Henderson used a set of playing cards that she altered with paint, fabric, charms, and other items to commemorate those she grieves. She then made a pocket journal to hold the cards.

Sample of Henderson's altered cards
One of Henderson’s altered cards

I decided to adapt Henderson’s project in a different direction. Though I am certainly facing my fair share of losses (and may at some point decide to commemorate those as well), I feel like it’s easy right now to get lost in the losses, and that it might be helpful to me to remind myself, instead, of all the things that bring me joy. I’ve been slow starting on this project, but I was spurred on to make progress this past week by a combination of events: my disappointment in the election, scheduling a definitive surgery date, and a consultation with my reconstructive surgeon, which just made the whole mastectomy thing that much more real. I needed a little joy.

Original title page of Francis' book
Original title page of Francis’ book

I’d already decided to use an altered book as my container, since I had the perfect one practically volunteer for the job. Back in the summer I’d ordered physician Gavin Francis’s Adventures in Human Being, subtitled “A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum.” Francis weaves science, philosophy, and literature with stories from his own experiences with patients to create a kind of “cartography” of the human body. The first copy sent to me was missing pages 19-52. I was sent an intact replacement copy, so I had the extra, incomplete book just sitting around. The title called out to be tweaked and re-purposed.

I looked up a couple YouTube tutorials on prepping a book for alteration, removed pages as directed to make space for adding my own journaling, and it was ready whenever I was. I gathered up paint, glue, washi tape, playing cards, and various other materials to see where they led me.

JJinProcess1
Gathering tools and supplies

It will not surprise anyone who knows or follows me that the first entry in my Joy Journal is The Beach.

Since I used an altered book as the container, my approach is a little different than Henderson’s. I focused as much on the book pages themselves as on the altered card.

I enjoyed letting the entry emerge organically and metamorphose over the course of a few days. I don’t claim to be a professional artist, but I think the entry captures much of what I love about the sea: sun and shells, blue waves and happy memories. I included photos from a couple of my beach trips, along with shells, an origami sun, and some of my favorite beach elements and colors. In case you can’t tell, that’s supposed to be a ghost crab in the lower right corner of the card! I love watching them skitter down the beach, and Steve and I once spent a lovely afternoon sitting in our beach chairs on Ocracoke Island, feeding the ghost crabs around us bits of pears and cheese. I have also known them to enjoy barbecue potato chips.

I worked a bit on the title page of the journal, too, as well as altering the book spine to reflect the new journal title. I still have some blank “front matter” pages to create, but I wanted to focus on getting my Beach entry done first. I’ll return to those elements later.

This project did bring me a smile. Wishing you a little extra joy this week, too!