Tag Archives: New York City

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

 

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

Autumn Sunrise

Upper East Side, 10-26-18

 

By Johna Till Johnson

Twice a year I can watch the sun rise.

It happens in late fall and early winter—around early November and again in February—as the Earth tilts away from, then towards, the Sun.

The sunrise migrates Northwards and hides behind the big building on the left in December and January. It peeks out again in February on its Southward path, an early sign of Spring to come.

Sometimes a sunrise is more than a sunrise. These words from a poem by Adrienne Rich spring to mind:

Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

The Cat that Found Me

Mully and Spider Plants

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

“You don’t go out and get a cat, ” Vlad would say. “The cat will find you!”

He’d had three cats that he loved dearly: Sergei, April, and Clara. They were memories of happier times, when he’d lived in the first throes of romance with his then-wife in a New York apartment. I don’t think I ever knew how Sergei found him, but April and Clara were abandoned kittens that his wife discovered crying in the street, and which adopted her on the spot.

That marriage ended, and one by one the cats grew old and died. He buried each of them in Central Park (which of course is highly illegal.)

He told the story hilariously: “There I was, in a black leather jacket and skullcap, carrying a shovel and a dead cat in a duffel bag. Its feet were sticking out, already stiff with rigor mortis. It was the middle of the night–I don’t know why the cops never stopped me!”

But it was laughter tinged with sadness, as the last vestiges of his once-happy existence ended and he remained alone in the apartment that had once been vibrant with life. Not coincidentally, that was when he began to take ever-longer kayak excursions, and ultimately met me.

So it was natural that we discussed getting a cat together. I’d had cats for most of my life (despite being allergic), and we both thought a cat would be the perfect addition to our household.

Just one problem: Vlad’s adamant stance that you don’t get a cat. The cat gets you.

And unsurprisingly, given the amount of time we spent on the water, no cat managed to find us.

After Vlad died, I sometimes thought about getting a cat. But I live in a high floor in an apartment building with a doorman: how was a cat going to find me?

Online, as it turned out, just like so many things in this world.

Despite Vlad’s death, I’ve stayed engaged in the Facebook cancer forums that were so helpful to us while he was alive–in no small part because people dealing with cancer are some of the funniest, most honest, and best people around. Cancer has a way of stripping the superficial and extraneous out of people’s souls. If it doesn’t destroy you, it leaves you with a greater appreciation of the world’s beauty–and a much lower tolerance for daily B.S.

One of my forum friends had been keeping us all entertained with her online saga about a feral black cat that appeared on her deck one day this spring.

She promptly named him “Mully”, after a nearby brewpub, Mully’s Brewery.  Over time, Mully went from showing up to be fed to sleeping in a crate that she put out for him.  He allowed himself to be petted, gingerly at first, then with full enthusiasm (and a throaty purr).

In short, he adopted her.

Mully on Bed

Just one problem: The family already had five dogs and another cat, and my friend’s husband, not unreasonably, put his foot down when it came to a seventh animal.  Mully could  be a “porch cat”, nothing more.

My friend started looking for a permanent home for him, with no luck. For several weeks he continued living on the porch.

Then one day he disappeared.

Mully reappeared days later, sick and bleeding. He had puncture wounds in three of his paws and was running a fever. He’d come back to the only place of safety and care that he’d ever known, begging for help. (The puncture wounds, we found out later, were from some kind of attack. Whatever creature had gone after him, Mully had fought back fiercely.)

My friend took him to the vet, where they treated his wounds and infection, dewormed him, and vaccinated him. When he came home, she put him in the guest room, against her husband’s wishes.

“Porch cat” had become “guest room cat”.

But the situation couldn’t last. Mully had to go. The husband was adamant.

My friend posted again on Facebook, asking for any takers for an “indoor-only cat”. She explained that he’d already exhausted several of his nine lives, and needed to spend the rest of them indoors.

Indoor-only? I could do that, I thought, as I read her post.

The only problem: how to go get him? She lived 200 miles away, in southern Maryland. Moreover, I’d be out of town for several weeks, and not able to pick him up.

We made tentative plans for me to drive down on my first free Saturday. Then I ended up unexpectedly spending that weekend in Los Angeles, and we missed the date.

The husband wouldn’t budge. My friend couldn’t keep Mully any longer. He had to be out of the house that week, no more extensions.

She made plans to send him to a foster  home. “Unless,” she wrote, “You could pick him up Friday?”

I couldn’t, but by this time neither of us were willing to give up. She came up with a plan: She’d bring the cat up to her daughter’s on Friday, and I’d pick him up from there on Saturday.

That’s how I found myself on a sunny summer morning, driving down the familiar stretch of I-95 once more, this time in pursuit of the cat that found me.

I realize I’d fallen in love with him long before that day. “How is our Mully?” I’d written, earlier that spring. And “I think I love this cat,” another time. Not only was he adorable, but his feistiness and spunk were undeniable.

And with everything that he’d survived, his sunny and loving disposition was still intact. When I met him for the first time, he crawled into my lap and began to purr, nestling his face into my arm.

Vlad was right: The cat finds you.

Sergei (RIP) Photo by Vladimir Brezina