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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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A portion of Deal Lake, which almost surrounds Interlaken.

There are many things—garishly colored bug juice, for one—that are pretty much appreciated by kids alone. Autumn, on the other hand, is for grownups. I don’t think any of us can appreciate autumn until we’re finally allowed to disassociate it from having to go back to school. As much as I love summer, autumn is delicious, sensuous in a way that July and August can’t compare—a dazzling, aging beauty, at one moment exuberant with passion and color and at another wistful, melancholy. While summer is two-dimensional, a childlike, right-now-in-the-moment Eden, autumn sees its fate across the calendar. Is there beauty in resignation? Maybe so. I think it’s this inherent wisdom in the season that gives it its sweetness.

In autumn I love walking through my hometown, a place in which, to paraphrase the adage, you can hardly see the town for the trees. It’s a strictly residential community, and to look at an aerial-view map, you’d think Interlaken was a forest. Its trees, many 100 years old or more, are enveloping and comforting. Peering up through their rustling leaves on a late-autumn afternoon and seeing thick, heavy, soot-grey clouds is thrilling, the way, as a kid, you loved watching the Wicked Witch of the West on television as long as your mom’s arms were tight around you.

Leaves in the lake.

We had just begun to enjoy autumn here at the Jersey Shore when Hurricane Sandy hit. And sadly, it took most of the leaves with it by the time it was through with us. Still, I took a walk on Thanksgiving Day to sink into the season, and let it sink into me, before the holidays eclipsed it. The park I visited is in Oakhurst, just a couple of miles inland, where autumn’s stark beauty was everywhere.

Sycamore branch.

Pasture and farmhouse.

Windfall.

Sycamore and pasture.

Today I bought local unfiltered apple cider and had a taste. It was as mellow as the autumn sky. And soon I will be baking a cider cake, making a cider buttercream icing for it, having friends and family over to eat it up with me—and making autumn last just a little bit longer.

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Halloween was the one night a year when it felt as if kids ruled the world. And we did.

Below, a step-by-step description of what, to me, makes a perfect Halloween—and which is what I lived every year in the ’70s and into the ’80s.

Step 1: Be lucky enough to be raised in a small town—for example, Interlaken, NJ—that has 1000 residents, pretty much all of whom are extended family members, or are neighbors of extended family members, or go to school with you. Either way, they’re moms who work with your mom on the PTA and have your back. Your town will have hundred-year-old trees that grow together in the middle of the street just like Ray Bradbury described in the town of his youth, and which, despite a handful of streetlights, make the town inky black at night and heap it with fragrant leaves, rich and musky, to shuffle through.

It was Mayberry—and it still is, 30 years later.

Step 2: Choose your costume at the 5 & 10 one town over. It will be acrylic, make no mistake.

Three years old, across the street at the Boyds’ house.

Or, if you are seven and your two front baby teeth have recently come out and you look three-quarters of the way to a jack o’lantern as it is, your mom might be inspired to put you in the pumpkin costume she sewed for your little sister a few years back, stuff it with bunched-up newspaper, and draw triangles around your eyes and nose and an exaggerated smile around your mouth with black eyeliner. Hypothetically speaking.

Step 3: After school, your mom sends you and your brother and sister outside to play because you’re too hopped up to be inside. You meet your friends to go trick-or-treating after dinner. Unless you’re five, you don’t go out before dark. We lived in a safe town and helicopter parents then were few. My mom had just one rule: Don’t cross Westra. (That was the one moderately busy street in our town.) The rest of the town was fair game. Once you were old enough to go trick-or-treating alone with your friends, you did—and your parents did not fret, fuss, insist on coming along in their own costumes, tell you not to eat the candy you got, make you wait to eat any until you got home so they could check it for tampering, or text you incessantly—because, saints be praised, it hadn’t been invented yet.

Pendant of candy corn encased in Lucite, circa 1973. Yes, I do still wear it.

Step 4: You stop at every house with a porch light on. You make a point to stop at the Maguras’, because Mrs. Magura makes homemade popcorn balls, and Mrs. Panes’s house, because her family owns Criterion Candies on the Asbury boardwalk, and she always gives out gorgeous candy apples. And you stop at your cousins’ because your aunt gives out the yummiest candy and the most generous handfuls. When you pass other friends on the sidewalk, you stop and brag about how much more candy you have than they have, and then you tell each other which houses have the good stuff and which have the raisins. When you’re in the mood for candy, you eat it. When you’re full, you still eat it. Because you and your friends don’t eat like this on a regular basis. It’s one night a year. It’s okay.

Card from Auntie Phyllis, circa 1977. Each of us kids got our own Halloween card.

Step 5: Once your candy bag starts getting too heavy and a thick layer of leaves has attached itself to the hem of your acrylic dress, you say goodbye to your friends. You don’t walk home, but to your other aunts’ house, where your parents and your aunts and uncles are gathered around the dining room table. After a certain point that night, they stop handing out candy to neighborhood kids, turn off their porch lights and head over to relax together with coffee and apple cider and cinnamon-sugar apple cider doughnuts. It is always the same cider and doughnuts from the same place, Delicious Orchards, because nothing—to this very day—beats them for quality. We grew up on this cider, which is unpasteurized, murky and intensely flavored (and may be why none of us has allergies) and the doughnuts are crackly and delicately crumbed.

Cider doughnuts from Delicious Orchards, on one of my beloved aunt’s dessert dishes. Worth clicking to see it bigger. Seriously.

Step 6: Go home and dump all of your candy on the living room rug, making stacks for each variety and counting how many you have of each. This was a time when there were not many ‘fun sizes’ except maybe for Milk Duds, which came in tiny boxes and you got three to a box, and Hershey Miniatures. Most other candy came in full size—big Krackels, big Charleston Chews, big Chunky bars.

Give your sister all of the Snickers and Baby Ruths because you hate peanuts and she likes them, and she will give you all of her Reese’s peanut butter cups (because you do like peanut butter and she hates that). Your dad roots around for the Mounds bars and Hershey Special Darks, which is fine because you also hate coconut and dark chocolate. (What was I thinking?) Milky Ways, Skor Bars, Rolos, Whatchamacallits and $100,000 bars (their real name) get place of privilege. Mary Janes—these you and your sister and brother throw at each other just because they’re weird, always smushed, and aren’t chocolate. If it’s not going to be chocolate, at least have the decency to be Chuckles, those luscious half-dollar sized gumdrops, or Twizzlers.

Small ceramic witch I received when I was very young. My sister has a blonde one, with a pumpkin instead of a cat.

Step 7: Eat some more. Your mom does not rush you off to bed because you go to Catholic school and tomorrow, November 1, is All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ is the result of Christianity trying to co-op the pagan holiday and is kind of a weasel move, but I’m not about to quibble with a day off, especially the day after Halloween. You put all of your candy back into your candy bag. And finally you head to bed.

I bought some Mary Janes this year just to taste them, since I never had before. They’re peanut butter-molasses chews, and I was underwhelmed. I don’t know why I was expecting a miracle. Did that stop me from sticking the rest into two envelopes and mailing them to my brother and sister? It did not.

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