Hello. I know, long time no speak. Well, to be perfectly honest I have been speaking, but just not here and just not to you, but instead, seemingly for an inordinate amount of time, with Apple (cue lightening and thunderclap like you hear when the villain joins the horror movie…). Apple, who I have kinda gone off of at the moment because two of our three computers have crashed and I’ve lost all my writing since I installed their new operating system, Yosemite – but I digress. It is Christmas time and my brain has finally moved past images of rotten apples going to mush under my apple tree sneering at the obvious appropriateness of the representation of my nemesis, and I’ve started wrapping presents – which always puts me in a good mood and listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas cd (another mood enhancer) and of course, listening to even more of Radio Four (kinda the NPR equivalent in England). It was there, on 93.5FM, that low and behold, I found the seeds of a December “pumpkin”. It was during “Woman’s Hour”, when they had a discussion on last week about new books that are coming out I guess in the pre-Christmas rush to promote new publications that it came to me. Anyway, the BBC’s Jane Garvey interviewed Nancy Tystad Koupal, the editor-in-chief and director of the Pioneer Girl Project with the author, Tracy Chevalier to discuss the new book out called: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Yes, that Laura. The one from Little House on the Prairie. The author of one of my all time favourite children’s books series and leading character of my next favourite show growing up besides, as you well know, The Waltons.
I was enthralled listening to the discussion and the comparison of the new non-fiction book with the ones I read growing up and about how many things recounted in Pioneer Girl had remained exactly the same as they appeared in the children’s version of Laura’s stories. It was interesting to me how Laura had included some of the events of her life while edited out others; I reckon to make the original books more palatable for kids. As a writer and appreciator of writing, I was fascinated by that process. For example, the loss of her baby brother was in the new book but not in the Little House series (although I do remember a profound episode covering the topic when I was watching the show way back when). I loved hearing how much Laura really did accomplish in her life and that the richness of her family relationships, as depicted in the kids books and TV show, had held in the true story version of her experiences on the prairie. Thoughts of the Ingalls sat with me as I later rushed off to collect the kids from school, stopping along the way to grab a coffee from Costa as I was in serious need of caffeine.
At the coffee shop, after the girl passed me my drink and I stirred in a packet of brown sugar thinking I had resealed its top to the rim , I headed back to the car. I placed the coffee in my centre console only to find that the top was actually not on it was just resting there. I don’t know if it was the heat of the coffee or the fact that their cute Christmas character cups just weren’t made to match so well with the plastic lids, but no matter how many times I tried to push the top on and run my finger to affix it to the rim, I could not get it to stay on properly. I couldn’t drive with it afraid the coffee would slosh out so instead, as I sipped my topless latte, I started considering how different my world was from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s particularly with regards to the different skills we need these days. I thought about how Charles or Caroline would have had to walk or ride in their wagon (having hooked up the horses) to Oleson’s Mercantile to buy coffee beans (maybe trading some of Caroline’s eggs for them), take them home, hand grind them and then cook them on their wood burning stove (for which Charles would have had to have chopped up a ready supply of logs) and then drink their coffees from one of their tin cups adding the latte bit from the pitcher they had filled from milking their cow at dawn. Whereby, I, on the other had, had had to simply order my medium latte(using the correct terminology – which is a skill in itself), drift my card over the top of the machine to pay “PIN-lessly” as I was purchasing some thing under £20 and then side step down the coffee bar to the barista and collect my milky cup of joe while shortly thereafter struggling with my plastic top. It got me wondering, what other unique skills of our generation, like putting those tops on, do we need to master these days?
Off the top of my head I came up with a quick list. There’s the following a GPS navigation system on our phones and in our cars with no map reading required just attentive, logical listening once the postcode has been input. There’s the mastering the “bluetoothing” of our devices to printers, mini Bose speakers or in-car audio systems, so we can print, hear music and talk to each other while we are driving. There’s downloading and uploading and creating and retaining countless passwords to live out our life safely on the internet. There’s the skill our kids are probably better at than we are which is managing the spectrum of social media knowing how, for example, to make Facebook a place to plan a party or get your homework not just post proud pictures of your Facebook-able exploits. There’s even the ability to take Facebook-able pictures using a “selfie stick” if you are so inclined. As a mother of teenagers I appreciate the importance of having all photos fully vetted by any people contained in said pictures rather than suffer a wrath even greater than mean Nellie exhibited when Laura pushed her down the hill in her wheelchair after she faked paralysis and ended up safe but drenched in the pond.
I am sure you could carry on with this list yourself and astound me with the ways in which you are managing to survive in 2014(and I ask you to please feel free to do so in the comments). With the new year, however, on the horizon, I thought I should consider some new skills I would like to acquire to help make my life more complete. I was born one hundred years after Laura yet I still feel like she might have some good ideas as to how to make the most of my time here. Her pioneer skill such as having a good sense of adventure generally is good as well as her finesse in branching out into new frontiers whilst maintaining a connection with her community holds well. Walnut Grove might not have been some major metropolis, however, it was big enough to work hard in and look after its neighbours which are definitely two skills I’d like to practice. Laura also had the skill of celebrating live music – just think of all those times the Ingalls’ days improved when Pa pulled out his fiddle – so I think I will look for opportunities to sing more and dance definitely. I might never sew gingham fabric into a cute sun bonnet, but I will try and protect my skin and apply suncream liberally when I am next in the strong sun. I don’t think I’ll ever get into horse riding or butter churning either, but just like Laura with her dog, Jack, I can make sure I get out there, breath fresh air and run down hills of tall grass and daisies with Winston. I also would like to follow Laura in the way in which she attends church even when Reverend Aldren is a bit heavy and, dare I say, boring. I definitely need to work on my skill of carving out time to reflect and give thanks. Which brings me on to the manner in which Laura prays. She says her prayers so thoughtfully, not by rote, and follows them with a solid slumber under the patchwork quilt nestled next to her sister, Mary, her nightcap pulled on tight to keep her head warm such that I find it an exemplary skill to pursue.
Speaking of expressing gratitude, I know an easy skill for me to keep up, will definitely be maintaining my appreciation of my dad. Just like Laura, who loved her Pa and looked to him for inspiration on how to stay positive and not let the crab apples of the world get the better of you, I look to my dad and never find him lacking. This morning, for instance, he sent me two photos which impressed me. One was of his mailbox decorated in SC with a reindeer decoration he made from some cast away palm bark (see above photo). My sister, Kate, has been making the decorations up in Philadelphia and she gave him the idea. The reindeer is a replica of a decoration we had growing up in my house. It is one that reminds me of my mom who loved the holidays, because it came out ever year and always made it feel like Christmas was nearly here. Even at 79, my dad is up for trying new things and honing new skills even the likes of wielding a glue gun after a trip to, no doubt, a craft supply store (two definite skills of the Pintrest Age) to produce the reindeer and he makes me want to expand my competence in to new areas beyond my comfort zone .
Dad’s second photo moved me even more. It is a photo of his and my stepmom’s Christmas tree. On top he has placed a dove instead of an angel. He sent the picture of it with the note: “Mom landed on top of our tree.” which demonstrates his skill in not only of remembering people we miss but celebrating their lives with small, uncomplicated, enduring and endearing gestures. Ever since my mom died twelve years ago, mourning doves have come to us whenever we miss her most and we are sure those birds are the embodiment of her sweet soul. The dove nesting on top of his tree says it in one for me.
I hope this time of the year finds you well and ready to rejoice in the simple things of your life. Even if you are battling with the gadgetry of our highly technological age or struggling in the long winter of the hard economic times that we continue to live in, perhaps you can join me in working on the skill I am putting at the top of my list to master. The skill which comes from a quote, not Laura, but from Ralph Waldo Emerson who might not have been her exact contemporary but he was definitely around when she was. The quote seems to me a good skill to start with and apply to all others. It commands us to “Laugh as much as you breathe and love as long as you live.”
So, the next time it gets too quiet in my house from staring frustratingly at the WIFI bars willing my PC to connect to our router or when I spill a little coffee from the rim of my latte’s lid, I am going to open up with a smile to begin with an aspire to keeping my sense of humour and perspective intact. I know the world has a lot bigger issues to contend with, but if laughing and loving can be incorporated more in our lives I am sure we can manage anything thrown our way.