Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Ghost of New Years Past

"It’s not a caste system,” my son sputtered incredulously.

“It’s our lot, Buddy,” I said, reiterating my unsympathetic response to his long-winded lament about a lifetime of ho-hum New Years Eves. “Did I ever tell you about 1984?” I continued, referencing the oft-told account of the year my sister and I sat in the un-decorated livingroom of the house into which our family had just moved, watching hour after hour of “Kate and Ali” reruns while our parents—who never went out—had somehow scored an invitation to a holiday gathering despite the fact that we’d been in town mere weeks.

“We can do better,” he countered. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

“It’s the best we can do,” I insisted.

Indeed, our dull New Years Eves have been a well documented source of conversation, wonder, and resignation over the years, as the only improvement we have made to our lot has been adding more would-be revelers to our number. Our respective husbands now sit alongside us as we watch slightly more current television, and leave our young to fend for themselves with preselected videos at a satellite location of the home. It’s a cycle we’ve tried halfheartedly to crack without success over the years, finally accepting it as the way things are.

I’ve always known there was last-minute fun to be had upon the year’s sunset, but we’ve never quite been able to find it. Fresh from the Christmas whirlwind, travel seems daunting. Funds are low. And the weather? Hardly something around which you’d want to plan an evening. So we’ve taken the evening-at-home approach, hoping that somehow the fact that we now number eight to-ten--depending on the occasional addition of a child’s friend—constitutes a party. Which could be fine, if the whole evening didn’t somehow manage to take on a desperate sort of Kate and Ali feel, every single year. And the kids know it, and, evidently view it as some kind of generational curse.

My son went off in an exasperated pseudo-huff, reemerging at the piano an hour later to deliver his message musically.

In case you missed the lyrics, he wrote them out and distributed them liberally:

New Years Eve is really lame
Every year is all the same
Yeah…we need change
to rearrange new years eve.
Each year we sit and watch Star Wars for the sixth time
Oh, it never stops.
My mom and aunt they whine, oh, they pine
about 1984--
but that year is nothing more than a memory.
My mom is stuck in a mental state,
She says that it’s a little too late to enjoy
the holiday.
Each year they send us upstairs and drink some wine
And watch a lame movie.
It’s never enjoyable,
It’s like eating a Lunchable.
We watch the movie, I know it too well,
The experience was none too swell.
I fell asleep in 2008 and awoke in 2009
only to find that I had missed the dropping of the New Years ball.
Oh the shame of it all.

I didn’t let on that that kid was getting to me. But his constant needling—the song was anything but the end of the matter—had sparked an unstoppable urge to find a solution to the decades-old problem. There really was no reason for it—after all, the same eight people anticipate Thanksgiving every year with an enthusiasm that is simply unnatural. What was missing just weeks later?

It was clear, from our Thanksgiving success, that all the ingredients were there for a memorable holiday—we had each other, and food wasn’t the problem, but the fun, where was the fun?

I remembered a truth I discovered at work during a slump years back when I felt bored. Bored! As an art teacher, bored stiff. I could find no excuse for that other than the truth: work was only boring when I was boring. Work became a drudgery when I coasted, when I refused to put the effort into the creative process that invariably breeds discovery, life, and dare I say, fun?

I idly thumbed through some tomes on the creative section of by bookshelf for inspiration. The difference, I knew, between thanksgiving and New Years was tradition. Thanksgiving is loaded with events we’ve come to anticipate year after year: the pumpkin carving, the feathers, the cooking--bad pie crusts and all.
And it suddenly the idea came. Who knows what sparked it—perhaps a picture, maybe a line of text, probably some wonderful combination of imagination, memory , and stimulus. But it came, in the way that all the good ideas do: suddenly, without a doubt, and at just the right time.

It’s been a busy and exciting week of planning—but tonight will see the first annual murder mystery party play out at my sister's abode. As a band of amazingly well-dressed pirates in thrift store finds, we’ll be at a jig—a jig!--participating in treachery, mayhem, and intrigue.

And the ghost of 1984? Not on the guest list.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yesterday's News; or a Recycled Christmas

Nine years ago this morning, I found my favorite gift in the front lawn. I laid awake half the night, tossing and turning and checking the alarm clock with a giddiness rivaling a kid a third my age.

It's a well known fact at my house that my husband is an amazing gift giver--his thoughtful gifts in carefully wrapped packages are offerings I treasure. However, on this particular Christmas, the item for which I was waiting wasn't something he was able to give. The delivery came in the form of the newspaper, in which was printed my very first published piece of writing.

A couple weeks earlier, I had been notified that I had placed second in the paper's annual essay writing contest and that in addition to a modest cash prize, my essay would appear in the Christmas edition of the newspaper. Humble though the accomplishment was, it served as validation that a decision I had made months earlier to devote myself to the harsh realities of a writer's life may not have been for naught; that perhaps I could make a go of it. Indeed, it was the beginning of a long relationship between myself and our local daily, although I had no way of knowing it as I tiptoed through the wet grass that Christmas morning. All I knew was that my words were being delivered to well over a hundred thousand doorsteps--my words! It was a feeling that a gift box could never contain.

Nine years later, circulation is nowhere near the six digit figures of those days--in fact, today marks the first time the paper has ever failed to be printed--they took today completely off. A lagging economy ended what turned out to be an eight year stint with the paper last year. But nine years later, I haven't forgotten that heady rush of seeing my byline.

So today, I will share the text of that first essay, cheesy theme (what would you do if you were Santa for a day?) and all, in celebration of remembered gifts and cherished dreams.

Heart of the Holidays contest--December 25, 2000
Second Place
If I Were Santa

Santa – the single word ignites images and memories of the dearest and most cherished variety. To a young child, the word is the representation of hope in its purest form as elusive wishes are whispered, shyly at first, but with an unwavering confidence between the fibers of a silky white beard. A young parent, hopeful to keep the dream alive just one more year, penciling a simple “thanks’ on a crayon scrawled note by a plate of cookies. For those whose youth has long since faded, the remembrances are bittersweet with nostalgia for all that perhaps was, or should have been.

Close your eyes…can you hear the distant sound of sleigh bells, the crunch of newly fallen snow under sleigh runners and hoofed feet? Can you feel the softness of the plush red stocking slip across your fingers as you hang it on your bedpost? Can you smell the freshly baked cookies, can you taste the one that will be left on a plate, in unquestioning confidence by the smallest of hands? Can you resist the urge to smile at the mental images the name evokes? What if? What if the power to bestow joy and delight on such a large scale to young and old, rich and poor, strangers and those held most dear—what if I, a very ordinary, everyday woman—could embody that magical, mythical power? What would I do if I were the dream giver?

What if I were responsible for a rare smile on a young and far away face, a face so ethnically different from my own, a face that has seen poverty, war and grief? What if I could somehow touch that life, bring a moment of bliss, of unexpected anticipation in a colorfully wrapped box?

What if I could brighten the face of my irritable neighbor, and for one, brief moment watch her harsh and hardened features soften in a childish delight as an unforeseen surprise stops her in her tracks?

What if I could momentarily bring laughter to a drab and cheerless retirement home, where hope has been all but completely forgotten? How would I feel? Would I, could I, ever be the same?

As Santa, I would be able to offer hope where it did not exist before, to deliver kindness where it was undeserved, to alleviate the sting of loneliness. One by one, I could touch lives in unexpected and welcome ways, and little by little I could change my world-- if I were Santa, with the inexhaustible resources of the North Pole at my disposal. If I were Santa, joy to the world and peace on earth would seem more like reality than the intangible words of a Christmas carol.

I wonder, though, is an impossibly speedy sleigh and eight tiny reindeer absolutely necessary to bring happiness halfway around the world or just the vision to deliver that same smile by sponsoring a child through a humanitarian organization, or stuffing a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child?

Do I really need an overstuffed sack of goodies to surprise my unpleasant neighbor, or just the courage that it would take to cross her yard by the cover of a Christmas night to adorn an outdoor pine or bush with candy canes?

Is a workshop with little elves completely essential to have before I bring warmth and laughter and freshly baked cookies to a nursing home or hospital? Or would my goals be more closely observed if I ate the cookies myself, so as to better fill an oversized red suit?

In the end, “what if’s” are nothing but unrealized dreams: wishes that can only satisfy once they have blossomed into the greater hope they offer. I don’t ever have to wonder what it would be like to become Santa, and bestow the love and joy his image represents. Being Santa is a choice I can make when I live by the words of the One in the manger, the One whose gifts Santa really delivers. In loving my neighbor, I hold the only hope any of us truly has for peace on earth. For in living by those words, I can be Santa, and not just on just one, solitary magical day. I can be Santa any day I choose.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This Post Sponsored by Perspective

I've been a terrible blogger. I haven't posted in over a week and a half. I haven't visited other blogs, or left any comments. Instead, I'm knee deep in cookies, packages, and projects and I'm looking at serving some hard time in the kitchen and in my studio in order to finish the things I want to do to make Christmas merry. Although there's usually time for both, lately I've only been able to live the journey instead of logging it. See, I'm committed to enjoying December. I don't want to reach January and realize I lost a month to stress and obligation. So what I've had to let slide lately is the regular posting. I can live with that a lot easier than missing a moment of the season. I wasn't always this chill on December 23, and I'm quite aware that I'm just one Bad Decision away from succumbing to overload. So in the interest of late-season perspective, I'm posting one of my December newspaper columns that ran a few seasons back. I hope you have a moment to kick back and take a breather--and maybe leave me a comment to let me know you're still with me :)

Daily Press, December 11, 2004

Every year a veritable army of gingerbread men, bears, and toy soldiers march from my attic in December.

At tree trimming time, it becomes apparent that I’m on the fast track toward a holiday edition of one of those home reality shows where Patient Organizers attempt to rehabilitate committed pack rats.

“Tell me about this,” the Patient Organizer might say, raising a skeptical eyebrow toward the paper bird with the upside down wings that I made in grade school.

The sheer volume of inherited glass balls, mementos from classmates and students, not to mention everything either of my own children have ever made during the month of December would present a formidable challenge.

Now, I’ve seen enough of these shows to know what the Patient Organizer would say next. “The memories aren’t here,” she say, in a sweeping gesture across the flotsam. “They’re here,” she’d explain gently, patting the left side of her chest.

But they’re MY ornaments and they’re ALL important.

Once, I went to a friend’s tree trimming party. Having raised two children and beginning to accumulate the mementos of grandchildren, her ornament collection dwarfed mine.

Mentally pitting the size of her tree against the stack of boxes, I immediately began to stress. How on earth were we going to do this? How could we pack all of these obviously important treasures on one little tree?

Panic set in as I envisioned a triangular heap with an angel perched in blessing at the top.

We’re not going to use everything, my friend laughed. Just the ones that are right for us now.

Utterly horrified, I flashed back to the year when upon un-decorationg, I discovered a blue checked bear overlooked in a wad of tissue paper. Dismayed that he’d been missed, I hooked him over the knob of a cabinet for year-round display in an attempt to make up for the oversight.

Intentionally excluding hundreds of important relics was a concept foreign to my thinking. I would have gone through the trouble of putting up two trees before leaving something out would have crossed my mind.

In today’s society, we’ve taken the pack-rat mentality into choppy and uncharted waters. We collect titles, projects, and activities until we’ve effectively multi-tasked every moment we have. We’re shocked at the suggestion of paring down because everything we do is so important.

December typically adds another layer of must-dos clamoring for our attention. We cram shopping, recipes, traditions, and yes, even church activities into already overloaded schedules.

Psalm 46:10 tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.”

Our modern day Christmas season doesn’t have many still moments, but the original Christmas story is full of them.

A couple waiting alone in a stable to witness a miracle.

Shepherds watching sheep on a hill.

Kings who found wisdom in a night sky.

Today, the only character in the Christmas story most Americans can relate to is the one with “no room.”

Being still means keeping space open for possibilities.

It means leaving room for moments of wonder.

It means not running the risk of being “too full” to assist in a miracle.

Too often, our lives resemble my overcrowded Christmas tree. We’re sure there’s a lot of beautiful things in there somewhere, but we can’t see through the clutter clearly enough to recognize them.

Being still means taking time to prayerfully discover if we’re investing our time in things that are right for us now.

For my friend, the presence of a two-year-old grandson meant that the soft ornaments turned out to be the right ones for them that year. The others went back to the attic. Some might be a good fit another year. Others might become memories stored only in the heart.

Her tree was beautiful and held only what could be appreciated.

May the same be true for each of our lives this Christmas season.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Good, Clean Read

“Maybe you can at least get the gist of it,” my ever-optimistic boy said in an attempt to be consoling.

This morning, this soggy pile was a hard cover edition of a book I believe to be called “Crush It,” by Gary? Ted? Ver---------mer----something. It was next to impossible to tell when I approached my washing machine to investigate why it wasn’t running and I discovered that I never closed the lid, thereby keeping all the towels on hold in the drum filled with water of a shockingly blue-black hue. And a lot of strange fibers that didn’t resemble the texture of any linens I’m aware of owning.

My mind instantly did a flash-back segment to an hour earlier when I pulled the book from a laundry basket where someone—may have been me—had apparently stashed it days earlier in a hasty clean up effort. This would not be the first time mayhem resulted from this highly unrecommended house keeping method. After pulling the book from the basket where it had been whiling time safely intermingling with clean stray socks and “B” grade underwear, I set it on the dryer where it evidently got caught up in the loading process of the aforementioned linens. Miraculously, the Bible with which the damaged text had been paired remained on the dryer unscathed. I always heard that God protects His word. Meanwhile, the Lesser Text was marinating with the towels, book, and sundries for over an hour, with the cloth products faring much better than the paper.

I carried the dripping pulp to my front porch where I broke it down into segments in hopes they would dry. For the next several hours, the carnage got Top Billing in my personal headlines, as I’d ironically been planning to spend part of my day reading the book, and was suffering from dampened hopes.

Around nightfall, I gathered the saturated segments and a blow dryer. I made significant progress in the drying of a small, apparently mid-book section in the 2 minutes I worked on it before plunging the back of the house into darkness when I blew a circuit.

The waterlogged literature remained on the metaphorical back burner until bedtime. “I read some great things about it today online,” my husband offered.

“Don’t whet my appetite!” I pleaded. “I’m not spending another $20.00 on a second copy. I’ll just work more with the blow dryer tomorrow. I hope to get it to the point where I can punch holes in the pages and put them in a binder.”

“Don’t be silly,” my husband said. “You’ll spend more on electricity than I did today with the super saver rate I used when I ordered you a new copy online. It took some detective work to find it, though,” my husband said, detailing the trail he followed beginning with the website of the specialty shop in which we found it. “It sounds great.”

“Wow,” I said, thanking my husband for his efforts. “Still, that was a lot of work. Let’s hope the book is worth it. For all we know, he could be all wet.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Olfactory Experiences; or One Line Wednesday, Side B

“Children! We’re heading for the car!” Abandoning my cart mid-aisle, I herded my kids from the Toy-R-Us, undoubtedly to shocked inquiries and possibly even wails. At the time, my son was small enough that I likely scooped him into the crook of my arm like a linebacker making a key offensive break, although I’ll admit that I don’t follow football and I’m not even sure if that is the type of thing linebackers do.

Safely bucked into our van, I explained to the kids that we had to leave our cart full of cool gifts behind because mommy accidentally left the Christmas potpourri on the stove top when we left the house, several hours earlier. This may or may not have been the same year we awoke on Christmas morning to find that the candles on our wooden armoire had mysteriously disappeared and had been replaced by ominous blackened rings where the candles had been merrily burning the night before. But I digress.

We were homeschooling at the time, so I’m sure on the way home from Toy-R-Us we probably talked a bit about melting points, the properties of flame, and the rigors of Fire Academy, but I can’t be sure. At home—which we noted to our relief was still standing and not engulfed in flame—we found a scene that looked something like this:

The above photo is not archival documentation from the scene—just a little something I shot last night that is eerily similar.

I fear, however, that the image and the above commentary do not do justice to the merits of the simmering potpourri. Using nothing more than a few well-chosen items from a common spice cabinet, it lends an instant Christmas atmosphere to a holiday gathering, a family movie night, or even an ordinary morning blogging at home alone. There is so much to gain by turning our attention to the possibilities of the potpourri itself that you should regard the above as a cautionary tale from a someone who can’t even manage the uneventful use of school glue.

The template for the potpourri—officially dubbed “Christmas in the Air” emerged as the singular redeeming feature of a scarring Women’s Ornament Exchange I attended in the late nineties. The original formulation probably exists somewhere in my personal archives, but it has adapted and morphed over the years, depending on what I have on hand, and it always turns out wonderful.

The basic blueprint relies on segments from an orange, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves and all spice. The original recipe calls for a bay leaf, which I toss in if I have one on hand. Some incantation of peppermint also appears in the original—I believe it was oil, which I never have on hand, but I have occasionally been known to toss in a starlight mint. Star anise makes a pretty addition, but its bold fragrance really changes the potpourri's aroma profile, so experiment to see what you prefer. The entire mixture goes into a water-filled sauce pan or other metal simmering pot and put on a back burner to simmer, emitting a wonderful aroma that permeates the whole house.

A package of your own personal blend makes a wonderful hostess gift or thoughtful gesture for coworkers.

Get creative with the packaging. I can see it in a brown paper bag, tied with festive ribbon, or in colored cellophane. The whole point, though, is the offering of common elements given as a simple olfactory experience. Which scientists happen to believe to be the most powerful. Which can be a good or bad, depending on whether we’re talking about the simple pleasure of spicy goodness, or the heavy stench of smoke and flame.

So--one little thing. Don't forget the water. Add lots of it when you start the potpourri, and check it every now and then, to see if it needs more—because water, you know, evaporates, especially if you go out shopping for several hours.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

One Line Wednesday

It's either a pot full of instant Christmas or all the makings of a Homeless Holiday.

(Either way, you'll want to come back later for the back story and some only slightly hazardous Christmas goodness.)

New to One Line Wednesday? Get caught up and join the fun!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

If the Glue is Dry, the Rap Won't Stick

“So just how did this happen?” the school nurse asked when I presented in her office yesterday morning with a bloodied index finger.

I’d prepared for the question—even tried out my answer on an inquisitive preschooler I passed in the hallway enroute to the nurse.

“I cut it on a bit of dried glue,” I answered casually, as though a laceration from dehydrated craft supplies was pretty routine.

“Glue!” the nurse exclaimed, frowning. “I’ve never heard that one before.” She sprung into action, pulling a contoured band aid from what seemed to be a secret stash of Special Supplies.

She covered the tip of my finger with a band-aid that resembled a stout letter “H.” “This should keep you out of trouble,” she said. I thought that was a lot to ask of an adhesive strip, and I’m pretty sure she did, too, considering I’ve been in her office three times in as many weeks.

She asked a few follow up questions, which I answered as politely and vaguely as possible, as I’m pretty sure she’s started a file on me, and I want to be careful not to leave too damning a trail as I’m building quite a resume of equipment from which I’m banned.

When I worked for Dr. S a graduate assistant at my university, I was banned from the Paper Pro 2000 stapler, the comb binder, the copy machine, and the entire data base. By the time I left, I was pretty much down to the phone, but even there, my status was a bit shaky after Prince Books called and I caused a bit of undue excitement when I thought we were in communiqué with royalty and not just taking a routine call from a text book publisher, as we were wont to do at the Graduate Office.

In my brief months at my new post, I’ve managed to get banned from the laminator after setting it aflame during a lunchtime episode that ended in a smoky haze of plastic fumes.

Considering that there is now a big sign on the laminator listing the people allowed to use it (basically NOT me) it’s pretty important that, as an Art Teacher, I don’t get banned from glue. Especially not as the result of an Official Report. Aside from the host of practical problems such a prohibition would cause on a day-to-day level, I’ve got a whole other layer of consequences to consider.

See, when I worked at the Graduate office, one of the jobs I was allowed to do over the phone was collect contact information for the administrators of all the schools at which our graduates are hired, to, you k now, see how they perform in Real World situations. They use this data for all manner of flow charts, pie graphs, and brochures. Which means that some new graduate assistant is collecting all that data, and eventually Dr. S herself is going to call my work.

Although I’m sure she’d file the incident with the laminator under Routine and Predictable, being banned from glue? That’s a rap I can’t allow to stick.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Set Work

Years ago, I needed a name for the mayhem and madness that exploded in my living room each week when anywhere from two to a dozen or more teenage girls gathered to share lives, loves, a lot of laughter and a fair share of tears over brownies and Bibles.

I decided on the moniker “Backstage Youth,” because I came to view the moments we shared hunkered down around the brownie pan, puzzling over the best approach to problems and praying for the wisdom to do it well as the behind-the-scenes “backstage” moments that made all the difference when we went back out to that oh-so-public “stage” we know as Real Life.

Drawing on everything I ever learned in a Dramatic Past that includes the teaching, writing, and performing of live drama, I knew that the quality of the “finished product” any group of performers brings to a stage is all about what happens when the house lights are down, scripts are open, and the players are focused on the director.

It’s no different in life. The world sees what happens on the “main stage” of our lives, and what happens backstage determines what they see. Backstage is where decisions are made, fears are overcome, confidence is gained, and relationships are formed. It’s where God can do his work in us so we can do our work for him.

I went MIA from Blog-ville circa Tuesday last week and I’ve been backstage the whole time. Practical set work involving my physical space played a big role in my disappearance. Being in a family that devotes an entire week to a huge Thanksgiving requires a fair amount of clean up at the same time we need a complete set change for Christmas. Despite my feelings about the intermingling of holidays, I must confess to a few days of inter-holiday commerce as gourds and garlands clashed at various intersections. But now? Writing this by only light from some of the 1,500-plus mini white bulbs twinkling from green garlands around my home? It’s hard to believe that just one week ago I sat in the same seat amidst leaf swags, carved pumpkins, and turkey feathers.

But my backstage work hasn’t been limited to just my set. As I’ve discovered with every production in which I’ve ever been involved, the backstage intensifies just prior to the production’s debut. The players disappear from the public eye as backstage becomes their temporary home as they focus and prepare for the Big Moment.
I’m not currently in a production right now but life has still been like that for me a this past week. There’s a lot going on in the life of my family right now. It’s all Big Stuff or the Life Changing variety-- invariably exciting, and very wonderful—but still seems Big. I don’t know how everything will unfold over the coming weeks and months, but I feel on the cusp of changes. Changes for which I want to be prepared. And the best place I know to do that is backstage, with prayers and chocolate.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

This Place Reserved for Tuesday's Post

There will be a post today. This just isn't it. So grab a coffee, linger over the last of your leftovers, or, if you're feeling ambitious, get some work done. Have an adventure--maybe even two--then stop back on by after dinner this evening, if you're on the east coast, or for your late afternoon pick-me-up on the west. With any luck, all this silliness will be replaced by today's Actual Post.

Oh--and congratulations to Raoulysgirl, the randomly selected winner in the apple peeler/corer giveaway!

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