Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Looking for the Awesome


The other day, my daughter, Melissa, and I were heading to the local outlet mall with her two kids, who also happen to be my grandkids. Miles and Georgia were in the backseat, legally secured in their newfangled, regulation, impossible-for-Grammy-to-buckle-without-cursing, car seats. Georgia was asleep, holding best stuffed bud, Beary Manilow, in a death grip, and Miles was complaining because it was taking too long to arrive at the restaurant where he was going to get the juice we had promised him.  This delay was based on the scenic route we'd embarked upon, out of Portland, through Troutdale, where Melissa and Trevor had celebrated their wedding, then down by the Sandy River, and up the side of a small mountain.

“Juice! I want juice!” Miles reiterated the iteration he’d iterated quite a few times during our journey. Truth be told, he would have been much happier at home riding his Christmas bike, but, at three, he doesn’t really have much of a say about how he spends his days, other than belting out “Juice!” every few minutes.

In an effort to hold our squirmer off for while longer, either Melissa or I had promised, at some point, that we were going to see something really awesome at the top of the mountain, yes indeed, employing the overused term that’s become such a cliché. What that awesome thing was we had no idea, but what we wanted was for him to stop fussing long enough for us all to be able to take in the beauty of that mountain and that river and the time we were spending together, just the four of us snugly snapped into our warm seats in Melissa’s mom-mobile on a wet and cold Oregon December day.

A bit more time went by and we discerned that the complaint department had apparently closed down in the back and we thought Miles, thumb in mouth and Gankie tucked under arm, had dozed off to snore in unison with Georgia by his side.  With new confidence, we drove a little higher up the mountain, enjoying the quiet and the companionship, mother and daughter all grown up. 

However, just as we were lulled into a faux serenity and some entry-level contemplation, a little voice emerged from the back seat.

“But where’s the awesome?”

After a chuckle at Miles’ cuteness with his childish but point-on question, I stopped to consider the fact that we often spend so much time overusing a term based on a dearth of a more varied and thoughtful vocabulary and  attempting to make the mundane noteworthy, that we overlook the minor miracles, the real awesomeness we happen upon, but often fail to note, in the hurry up of our everyday lives.

So, with that in mind, I challenged myself to notice and document the truly awesome for the rest of that day.  And I did.  

It included:
  • the deli lunch with the promised juice and hot dogs and lots of crackers, many on the floor, while the kids, in turn, sat on the table.
  • shopping for light-up shoes and packages of socks and finding one-year-old Georgia sitting, legs straight out, on the floor at the front of the store trying on a Norwegian knit hat from the sale bin.
  • fifty-cent rides with a serious Spidey and mirthful Big Bird.
  • driving back over Portland's gorgeous bridges with both kids asleep (and quiet) in the back.
  • walking in the rain to Pattie's Home Plate later in the day with son Billy and granddaughter Cami for a most unusual dinner.
  • coming back home, wet and happy, to listen to Cami's two-year-old patter about her day and her papa and her mama named Mary.
Cami after our walk in the rain
    I know there was more to that day that I could have commemorated, but I'm still new at looking for the awesome.  I'm hoping this Omar Khayyam treasure, recently shared by a friend, might help me to stop and ponder the wonderful.

    Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.

    Awesome.

    Friday, December 24, 2010

    Henry and the Runaway Christmas Tree

    Henry was our early marriage dog. As with many newlywed couples, anxious to nurture something but knowing it was too soon for that thing to be a baby, Gary and I adopted Henry. Gary was doing his pharmacy residency at McCook’s Pharmacy in South Macon, an area known as the Rutland Community. Being a good old boy, Gary fit right in at McCook’s, a place where patrons brought in cooked-to-perfection turnip greens and warm-from-the-garden tomatoes to share with the people who worked there. At some point, someone mentioned that a lady had some pure-bred beagle puppies she was going to sell for next to nothing, so we went and picked one out .

    I have lots of stories about Henry, about our moves with him to South Carolina and back, about the fence we bought to keep him in, about all the flowers he pulled up in that fenced-in yard, about the many times I had to bail him out of the pound when he dug under that fence. But the story I’m going to tell now is one that’s appropriate for the season and one that exemplifies what typically seems to happen to my best laid and made holiday plans.  And that story is the one about Henry and the runaway Christmas tree.

    Henry was a sweet dog, but stupid. When the human babies started arriving, he accepted those annoying hiccups in his life plan pretty well as little ones grabbed his hairy nose and black dog lips and tried to ride on his speckled back. However, I do believe that all this mayhem did serve to make poor Henry a little nervous. If he’d been a person, he might have developed a nervous tic or perhaps a smoking habit. In addition, the more crowded the house became, the less attention Henry received from the people who had promised to cherish him just a few years earlier. Whereas, before the kids came along, he could depend on a bowl of clean water and fresh gruel each morning and evening, that expectation eroded as changing diapers and spooning baby food took energy and focus away from caring for the dog.

    But, in spite of his less than stellar cerebral cortex, Henry adapted.  He took to eating off the floor, taking advantage of the messes the children made, the milk-engorged Cheerios, the dust-covered cracker crumbs, a tasty bit of pre-chewed weenie.  As for water, he got it wherever he could find it, from mud puddles, toilets, the occasionally-mopped kitchen floor.

    As the holidays approached one Christmas and preparations were underway, Henry was in dog heaven with actual baking going on and butter and chocolate dropping in giant glorious globs upon the floor.  And then there was the real tree, adorned with candy canes, chewy and delicious despite their cellophane wrappings, and the tree itself sitting in its very own reservoir of water.  Not stopping to reflect on the unfairness of a newly-arrived stalk of future pine straw getting preferential treatment over the family dog, Henry, pragmatic soul that he was, decided to feast upon the waters that sustained that Christmas tree.

    This water poaching went on for quite a while with my knowledge until ultimately the irresistible force met the immovable object when Gary happened upon Henry in mid drink on none other than Christmas Eve, its divine self.  A chase quickly ensued as Henry's collar, striving as we all do to make a some kind of connection to another entity, linked itself to one of the strings of Christmas lights that gave the tree its shine.

    All I saw as I arrived from the kitchen, covered in sugar and sweat and wondering just what this particular ruckus could have possibly been about, was Henry and the Christmas tree rounding the corner and careening down the hall in an attempt to find refuge under a bed. 

    At that point, if he could have, if he'd just had the words and the cultural history and a brain large enough for rote memory skills, Henry might have had the courage and the abandon to render the following from Clement Moore:

    But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
    "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

    And although he didn't, I do have all those things and, since I'm not hiding under a bed with a Christmas tree ruefully attached to my collar, that's exactly what I offer to you.


    Sunday, December 19, 2010

    A Christmas Walk

    In thinking about a Christmas memory, several come to mind. I remember my mother making us listen to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol via 78 rpm recordings each Christmas Eve, a story that should have been more interesting than it was. Of course, on Christmas Eve, pretty much nothing was as interesting as looking for Santa's feet landing on our hearth followed by all the presents I'd asked for and was confident I deserved.

    I also remember another Christmas Eve when my brother set his bed on fire. Too nerdy to smoke and too smart to play with matches, Sandy decided to try to lull his excited self to sleep by reading under the covers while I slept in the next bed, having had to give up my room to Aunt Susie for the holidays. He took the shade off the lamp before he entered his private reading fort, one that unfortunately turned out to be combustible when the bare bulb met the cotton sheet. However, it seems that there wasn’t too much of a conflagration as I slept through the entire emergency. From then on, our holiday tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve to keep my dumb-ass brother from burning the house down.

    A Christmas Day memory I have is one that happened a bit later. It was 1964, I think, which made me 14, a difficult age for the holidays, too old to play with the toys Santa had brought me and too young to borrow the family car to escape from the heat produced by too much food and too many relatives. I had already received all the compliments I was going to get about how pretty I looked in my new Christmas sweater and I couldn’t watch TV because Uncle Walter was sitting in front of the television set nursing his highball. When the phone rang and my new friend, who’d just recently moved to Savannah, bemoaned her similar circumstances, we decided to get together and take a walk around the beautiful island that was our home. We met up by her house and agreed to walk down by the bluff, a gorgeous spot adorned with moss-hung oaks, genteel old homes, and quaint river docks. I wore my Christmas sweater and she wore her new navy pea coat, something I immediately added to my upcoming birthday wish list. My new friend’s name was Allison and I’d been looking for her for a quite a while, even though I hadn’t known it. I’d skipped a grade in junior high and had been at loose ends ever since, as the kids I’d played with my entire life were now a year behind me in school and we no longer seemed to have much in common.

    Beginning with that Christmas walk, it didn’t take long at all for Allison and me to bind our friendship through our outlandish senses of humor, our budding liberal views, and our love for saddle oxfords. We went on to become college room-mates, bridesmaids in each others' weddings, and, years later, that same other was right there when each of our marriages ended. And then, just a few years ago, fate would intervene once again when we both had the opportunity to move to Atlanta around the same time.

    And so, forty-six Christmases later, my new friend is now my old friend. Although I never got my pea coat and we no longer yearn for saddle oxfords, which, by the way, just might now work wonders in covering our bunions and veiny feet, we are still pretty darned silly and annoyingly liberal. Just ask anybody.
    Still friends (and silly) after all these years.

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    Star Light, Star Bright

    First star I see tonight.
    I wish I may
    I wish I might
    Have the wish
    I wish tonight.

    I don’t remember my first night sky memory. Perhaps it was a warm summer evening when my parents took my brother and me out in the yard to lie on our backs, hands behind our heads, to ponder the moon. I see the moon and the moon sees me. Or maybe it was Christmas Eve, gazing up to look for the Star of Bethlehem on that silent night, holy night - or Rudolph’s nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?

    Several things have happened lately to make me think of the night sky and all of its wonders.

    First is a current REI ad on television.  Although REI is a company that sells hiking and camping equipment, items I'm not all that interested in, their latest ad is a good one.   It makes me want to step back and contemplate my life, which is a lot to ask of a television commercial, especially one touting something I don't want.  In it,  a woman is perched on a dusk-lit cliff in the great outdoors, eating a piece of bread slathered with peanut butter. By the enthusiastic noises she's making, you can tell she is thoroughly enjoying that peanut-buttered bread, as the narrator says something like, "Jane Smith has just discovered that a four-star restaurant can't begin to compete with one having four million stars."  All I can add to that is "Isn't that the truth and where can I buy a sleeping bag - or at least a big old jar of peanut butter."

    And then, there’s the teaching of second grade and our current curriculum unit centered around the moon and the stars. For this unit, we usually have the students keep a moon-phase calendar for a month, an assignment that causes no small amount of angst for parents and children alike as they try to find the time each night to locate the moon not only in the midst of a cloudy evening, but also in the middle of homework, baths and bedtime stories.  So, this year, I asked the parents to simply help their child to take a moment during the busy holiday season to go outside and look up at our beautiful night sky, to think about the moon and the stars and what they mean to us, to marvel at the wonder of it all.

    As soon as I asked that, I had to stop and consider just when was the last time I marveled at the gift we get for free most nights if we just stop and look up at the magnificence of our universe.  For those of us who live in Atlanta, when we gaze toward the heavens, we often can't get past our city view, with its skyscrapers lit up like Christmas trees all year round.  It takes real focus and commitment to take note of the glory of our earth and its suburbs, the neighboring galaxies.

    And finally, there's this season we're in, when we humans add twinkly lights to trees, homes, bushes and the occasional dog in an effort to emulate the celestial bodies. And don't forget the story we tell all over the world about that special star that led the wise men to that certain babe.

    And so, my promise to myself this holiday season is to take my own moment to go out into the brisk night air, to stop and look up in wonder at the sky and think about what a gift it all is, how the stars have guided us throughout time, how the moon moves the oceans, the miracle that is our universe.  I think I may take along a jar of peanut butter.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    A Gospel Christmas

    A sea of red, a vocalized tsunami, an undulating mass, and the assertion that God is, indeed, in the house. That’s what I get each year when I’m lucky enough to attend the Atlanta Symphony’s Gospel Christmas Concert.

    Although the orchestra gets first billing, make no mistake about who owns the night.

    The Atlanta Gospel Choir is made up of about a hundred folks who can certainly belt out a tune, but it’s more than that. The term gestalt keeps coming to my mind as I consider the sum of all those very human parts. The great majority of the members are African American, with just a few pasty faces punctuating the throng. I’ve wondered just how talented a Caucasian has to be to infiltrate a group of dynamic singers who’ve undoubtedly been experiencing the mightiness of God’s Own Personal Music in their churches since they arrived that first Sunday as little babies tucked into their mothers' necks.

    The city of Atlanta has a vast and powerful Black population, and why wouldn’t it, with its history and its strong connection to Dr. King. It’s long been a place where African Americans have come because they believe they can find a good and safe place for themselves and their families, a place they can call home. And that home has often revolved around church - and church means music.

    Now, keep in mind that I'm the pastiest of pasty faces and I'm certainly not in the choir.  In addition, I'm pretty sure some of my black friends will tell me I'm being simplistic here and that not all African Americans are church-going choir members.

    I know that, but this is my story so I get to say it the way I see it.  And the way I see it is that the sum of those singing parts in the Atlanta Gospel Choir is certainly greater than what it would appear to be at first glance.  Those people perform not only with superb talent and abundant energy, but also with an assuredness that could come only from some kind of big old belief in something even more important and lasting than standing up, en masse, and singing along with the Atlanta Symphony. 

    And being enveloped in that belief and that authority for a couple of hours each December makes me want to believe too.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Oh no! Here comes Marcia with her Christmas basket.

    I am a happy woman. I just got back from the fabric store and I’m deep in thought as to what I’ll be making for Christmas. Every year, my poor work friends are besieged and beset and not so besotted with me following them around asking which gift they want to choose from my basket.

    When I was younger, I made almost all of my presents. I remember one Christmas when I made my mother, my grandmother, and my three aunts flannel granny gowns. For some reason, they never seemed to wear them when I was around. Another Christmas, I created nativity scenes out of dough made from flour, salt, and water. I sculpted Mary, Joseph and Sweet Baby Jesus in his manger, and even a few sheep to graze around and then gaze upon the little baby. I was really proud of those Tiny Tidbits of Godly Art until my preacher asked why I’d included turtles along with the Holy Family.

    I’ve made lots of ornaments, including little fabric baskets with reindeer poking their antlered pom-pom heads out to see the world, knitted wreaths with yarn accessories, surprisingly heavy angels made of tiny flower pots with Christmas balls for the heads and moss for hair, little what-nots made from leftover potpourri that looked like miniature dirt dauber nests, and perhaps my strangest creations ever: tiny hanging pillows with pictures of Paris on them. There were very good reasons for all of the brilliant creations mentioned above, although I can’t think of any of them right now.

    Last year, I hit the jackpot when I figured out a way to make festive coaster sets out of fabric and polyfill layering. I even came up with a great tag, which read “Roller Coasters: Putting the Fun Back into Drinking!” If that doesn’t say Let's celebrate the birth of Christ, I don’t know what does.

    When one of my gifts turns out to be even more lame than usual, I tend to write a poem to go with it. One year, I gave my colleagues muscadine jelly from grapes I’d gotten free from a friend. Although home-made jelly would normally be a great gift, I managed to screw up the recipe somehow. But, that didn’t stop me. I just added a poem, which, I’m sorry to tell you, I can’t find. But I do remember it ended with something like this:

    Since I had no money to splurgil,
    I got my grapes from Virgil.

    The poem would have been much easier to write if my friend’s name had been Bob or Frank. But, then again, real art is never easy.

    Back to this year. Since I’m finally seriously considering retirement, I’m thinking this may be my last year for workplace gift giving. I’m definitely leaning toward ornaments again, this time trees stuffed with chopped balsam I ordered from some place that actually grows balsam trees. Maine, I think. 

    I hope my latest gifts turn out okay, but if they don’t, I have a poem percolating in my head. I just haven’t yet figured out what rhymes with balsam. Wait a minute.  How about this?

    My trees are awesome.
    They smell like balsam.

    As to what I’ll do when I no longer have work friends to entertain and annoy with my baskets of home-made gifts, I’m considering  giving to those who may not have access to a lot of Christmas cheer. So, if you see the pimps and pros from the corner hightailing it down Ponce de Leon Avenue in midtown Atlanta some time around the next Yuletide Season, just know that what they're screaming isn't "Cheese it! The cops!" Instead, it will be “Oh no! Here comes Marcia with her Christmas basket!"