Christmas, 2018

Candle and ornaments

By Johna Till Johnson

“I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore,” I explained to friends. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was too hard after Vlad died.

It wasn’t just that Vlad loved Christmas. He loved it in such a particular way, with carols (the old-fashioned ones), mulled wine or cider, tasty cookies and candy, and decorations that bordered on the excessive: White lights and colored lights and candles… and tinsel (gold and silver).. and ornaments of all shapes and sizes.

How could I ever recreate the experience? Why would I even try? It would only remind me of everything that was gone….

The universe works in mysterious ways.

“Can we have an American Christmas tree?” my German visitor asked.

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the arrival of a German visitor, much less a 16-year-old girl who loved, loved, loved Christmas and was ecstatic when we put up the wreath. After we put up the wreath, a tree was the logical next step, so of course I agreed.

But what did she mean by “American” tree?

You guessed it: White lights and colored lights… and gold and silver tinsel… lots and lots of ornaments… and candles!

She was over the moon when we added the tinsel. Apparently they didn’t use it at home, despite the fact that tinsel is actually German: It was invented in Nuremberg in 1610. (Fun fact: What Americans call “tinsel” is, properly speaking, “lametta”.)

And if that weren’t enough, both the candles and the candleholders that Vlad and I used were imported from Germany.

But it was still a very American tree!

The American tree in all her glory

About those carols? And the mulled cider? And the tasty treats? Well, her sister, mother, and grandmother paid us a visit (from Germany!) So a few nights before Christmas, we gathered around the tree, sipped cider, ate Christmas cookies, and sang carols (in English and German). My visitor’s mother is a professional soprano and the whole family has excellent voices… so you can imagine the joyous sound!

The culmination of the evening was the candle lighting (with a brand-new fire extinguisher and a bucket of water handy).

This month, after I returned from abroad, I carefully washed the tree stand and packed it and the ornaments away…For next year.

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Park Avenue Christmas Tree Lighting

Light in darkness

By Johna Till Johnson

In December 2016,  Vlad’s best friend Dan came to visit.

Their friendship dated back to the beginning of graduate school. Now it was a lifetime ago. A lifetime that for one of them would soon be over.

I can’t remember why, but Dan and I went out one dark evening to get something. We had to cross Park Avenue. But as we came up to the street, we saw it was crowded with people. There was no traffic.

Voices filled the air, and we realized they were singing… Christmas carols.

People singing Christmas carols! On Park Avenue!

Dan and I turned to each other, delight and wonder in our eyes. Who knew that in cosmopolitan New York City, such a thing could happen?

We stayed with the crowd and sang for a while, savoring the moment’s sweetness. Despite everything that was happening, there was light in darkness.

For a couple of years, that memory remained isolated.

I wondered, but did not know, why one dark December night there would be people on Park Avenue singing Christmas carols. It remained a mystery. But it was enough that it happened.

Life resumed.

This December a small contingent of us from St. Francis de Sales Catholic church were invited to the Christmas party at Brick Church, the Presbyterian church a few blocks away…on Park Avenue.

After the Christmas party, there would be the annual lighting of the trees on Park Avenue. With caroling.

Oh!

Now it all became clear. And a new memory was created. Light in darkness, yes. And also laughter, and cookies, and lemonade, and homemade Christmas tree ornaments.

And caroling on Park Avenue.

(Click on any picture to enlarge it, and scroll through.)

 

The Return of Christmas

Ornaments

By Johna Till Johnson

I didn’t celebrate Christmas after Vlad died. It was too hard. He loved it so much.

But when you have a visitor, a 16-year-old girl from Germany whose favorite holiday is Christmas and whose face lights up with glee at the mere thought of it…the situation calls for re-evaluation.

We attended the Christmas party at Brick Church, which included lemonade, cookies, and do-it-yourself Christmas ornament creation.

Clara made two ornaments.

But.. where to put them? We had no tree, and no plans to get one.

Now, it’s true that we’d agreed to get a wreath. So step one: Buy wreath, and decorate it. Clara affixed bells to bows, and added brass angels (repurposed napkin holders).

Step two: The tree.

Stay tuned!

Clara and Wreath

 

A Wintry Thanksgiving Weekend Paddle on the Hudson

Ice on Haverstraw Bay

By Johna Till Johnson

The plan had evolved, as plans sometimes do.

Originally it was supposed to be a 4-day camping trip over the Thanksgiving holiday. But the polar vortex and its single-digit temperatures, plus a lack of preparation, put the kibash on that idea.

Instead: A Saturday paddle launching from Croton Point headed to parts north. (Ultimately, that turned out to be the Cortlandt Yacht Club just south of Verplanck, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Looking south from George’s Island

Early in the morning, I drove out to the George’s Island State Park boat ramp and took some photos. Then it was south to Croton Point, which has a lovely little launching beach designed specifically for human-powered boats.

Launching from Croton Point

Launch time was 12:15 PM. I meandered up the east side, poking into every nook and cranny. The current was nominally flooding, but flood that far north is fairly weak.

By the George’s Island boat ramp, it was definitely turning to ebb, but I pressed on, curious to see what lay beyond. The chart indicated some sort of marina. And you couldn’t really tell, but it seemed possible to go under a bridge into an inland body of water.

Reeds and red berries

After the long curve of Montrose point, there it was: a complex maze of boats and sea walls, which I later discovered was Cortlandt Yacht Club, Hudson Valley Marine, and Viking Boat Yard. Disappointingly, there was no navigable route to the inland waterway; although there was a low tunnel under the road through which I could glimpse daylight, the sound and sight of roaring water just beyond made me give up any thought of entering it. So I decided instead to have some snacks in preparation for my trip back.

Although many of the boats were put away for winter, there were plenty still in the water. And what a mix! Rusting barges sat cheek-by-jowl with spiffy new yachts. There was a festive yellow boat—whose paint job had seen better days—festooned with tattered flags: The Caribbean Queen. She was far from home, I thought idly as I broke out the food.

To the south, the water shimmered, smooth as glass. The shoreline and tiny island made quivering reflections. All was still.

Autumn reflections…

And then it was time for the return. The current was ebbing fiercely now, so I shot down the middle of the Hudson (keeping a sharp eye out for tug-and-barges, which often travel all the way up to Albany).

I made it back in half the time, nearly overshooting Croton Point, which, like most points, featured a bouncy little tide-rip. Had there been more wind, that part of the paddle would have been positively exciting. But as it was, I rounded the point, then paddled the calm waves gently lapping the beach.

As I landed, I was greeted energetically by two small, fluffy dogs. Their owners (or at least leash-holders) were an elderly couple bundled up against the chill.

The woman, who looked to be in her 90s,  asked if it was possible to walk along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay.

“No, but you can paddle it,” I said. “Why?”

She wanted to see it, she said. Because of the ghost ships.

Ghost ships?

She explained: As a girl during World War II, she’d lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a view out over the Hudson. During the blackouts, the US naval fleet would travel up the Hudson to shelter in Haverstraw Bay.

As she spoke, her words formed images in my mind: A darkened Manhattan. Ships gliding by, as silently as possible. Ghost ships, black silhouettes against the darker darkness of night. Headed for someplace unknowable to a small child. Someplace with a strange, foreign name: Haverstraw Bay. The place she wanted to see.

I felt sad to disappoint her with the news that condos and sea walls blocked the walk along the shoreline, but by then she didn’t seem to mind. It seemed that having someone listen to the story was enough.

“Thank you,” she said, as she, the dogs, and the man prepared to leave. It wasn’t quite clear what she was thanking me for: Listening to her, perhaps? Or just a moment of human connection on a cold, overcast day?

But I was the one who was grateful, to her for passing along a memory that would soon expire, but now would live another lifetime. A secondhand memory, but still real.

Croton to Verplanck

Craft: Solstice (Tiderace Explore-S)
Paddle Date: 11-24-18
Paddle Launch Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle Launch Time: 12:15 PM
Paddle End Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle End Time: 3:30
Distance Traveled: 7 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3 hr
Time Stopped: 15 minutes
Average Pace: 2.3 knots
Paddlers: Solo
Conditions: Cloudy, calm, cold (35 to start, 45 at finish, approx.). Very little wind.

Morning at the Tappan Zee (seen from the north)

Note: I haven’t been able to find anything about the ghost ships of Haverstraw Bay during World War II. If you do, please let me know. I don’t doubt the old lady’s recollection; it was far too vivid for that. But it’s strange that there seems to be no historical record…

Thanksgiving Day Parade 2018

Eponymous

By Johna Till Johnson

It was pure serendipity, as many wonderful things in life are.

I had just decided, with some regret, that kayak-camping on the Hudson during the single-digit temperatures of a polar vortex was not wise. So at the last minute, I was without plans for the Thanksgiving holiday.

A Boston-based friend I hadn’t seen in decades, but with whom I had a lively Facebook correspondence, wanted to know: Would I like to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—from inside the HBO building? A friend had a spare ticket, and it would be great to reconnect…

It took approximately a nanosecond to decide. Truthfully, I would have jumped at the chance to see her, and meet her teenaged daughter. Meeting her Brooklyn-based friend (who, it turned out, is also a NYC kayaker) would be an added bonus.

But all that and the ability to watch the parade from a high floor in a climate-controlled building? As I said… pure serendipity!

It was wonderful to reconnect with my friend, who doesn’t seem to have changed much since college, except for the deepening of her acerbic wit. Her daughter turned out to be a lovely young woman, and I look forward to spending more time with my new Brooklyn friend.

For me, these were the best takeaways.

But there are also the photos.

Bearing the colors

Run, he’s after us!

Pikachu

Believe

Homewood patriots

Rocking horse and float captain

Marching band

Marching girls

HBO… from the inside!

 

Afternoon Jaunt to “Chromium Beach”

Chromium Beach Sunset

By Johna Till Johnson

They call it  “Chromium Beach”, not entirely in jest.  Back in the first half of the 1900s, a company called Mutual Chemical contaminated swathes of New Jersey with hexavalent chromium. One of those areas was in Liberty State Park, the green area to the west of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where there’s a lovely sandy beach on the Hudson shore.

Chromium Beach is a popular destination for Manhattan kayakers, due to its proximity, its topology, and the scenic views it provides. It’s close enough to be an easy afternoon trip (assuming the currents are in your favor), and the beach landing is in calm, protected water.

And the views! Oh, the views!

Manhattan

So it was a reasonable destination for the first day of December. I hadn’t paddled from Pier 84 in months, and was missing the bustle and churn of paddling in the New York waterways.

I set south around 12:15 with no clear destination in mind. By my calculations it was almost exactly slack, so I crossed over to New Jersey shore and wound my way down, hoping to use the back-eddy to combat the anticipated adverse current. My plan, such as it was, was to keep paddling until either the current or my inclination caused me to turn around.

There was still a reasonably strong ebb,  so I glided downriver at a fairly  rapid clip. The maritime radio was on, with the crackle and calls of a busy day on the water: “See you on two whistles, Cap’n?” “That’ll be fine! Two whistles.” “Okay, have a good day, Cap’n!”

I zipped under the bridge connecting Ellis Island to the New Jersey mainland. It was newly re-opened to kayak traffic after the 9/11 security closures, and I savored the opportunity to go around the calmer back waters to the west of Ellis and Liberty Islands.

A ghostly memory surfaced: Early one summer morning,  Vlad and I had stopped at a sandbar near the beach on the way to points south.  The sun was just rising, and baby hermit crabs had left tracks on the sand. I remember saying, “Look, Vlad, crabs!” (One of his research studies used crabs as subjects, and he was fascinated by the creatures.) For a moment, the air seemed touched with the shimmering golden promise of that morning.

Statue of Liberty and Helicopter

Then the golden memory faded, and I was back in the reality of a gray, chilly winter day. There was no wind, and the water was calm, but brisk (temperature around 42 degrees). The air wasn’t much warmer. I was glad for the wool I was wearing under the drysuit.

My stomach growled, and the thought of hot cocoa took shape. I’d brought a thermos of it, and it seemed like a delightful idea to stop on Chromium Beach for a hot drink and a look at the view.

The late-afternoon light tinged the sky peach and gilded the skyline of Manhattan. Behind me: trees, grass, and parkland. In front of me: the lapping waves and some of the most iconic images in the country.

Soon after, I was back in the boat and heading North, keeping a sharp eye out for ferries. The flood was late and a bit sluggish, but the growing momentum gave a nice assist, and soon the skylines of New York and New Jersey were streaming by.

Pier 84 at Launch

I arrived back at Pier 84 at 3:45, happy and satisfied. It had been an ordinary trip. But no paddle is truly ordinary. Even the most prosaic is touched with magic!

Trip details:
Paddle Name: Chromium Beach 12-01-18
Craft: Photon (Valley Avocet)
Paddle Date: Dec 01, 2018
Paddle Launch Point: Pier 84, Manhattan Paddle
Launch Time: 12:15 PM 
End Point: Pier 84, Manhattan (went down to Chromium beach behind SOL and back)
Paddle End Time: 3:40 PM
Distance Traveled: 11 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3.25 hours
Time Stopped: 10 minutes (cocoa on beach)
Average Pace: 3.38 knots

Dawn, November 12 2018


On the Pulse of Morning
by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers- 
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

© Maya Angelou 1993