Friday, December 27, 2013

Low Key Christmas

I'm dreaming of a low-key Christmas.
Just like the ones I never had.

I've been overwhelmed by the holidays for years. Call me Scrooge, but a white Christmas only means one thing - shoveling the driveway. I started looking at Christmas from a different point of view, when my children were young. At first, it's fun to be the adult at Christmas.  Like a magician who can change a silk scarf into dove, transforming my living room into a winter wonderland strewn with lights and filled with presents made me feel all powerful. But as the children grew and expected more, my super powers lagged. Erma Bombeck once wrote "There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child." Being an adult at Christmas is hard work. Hard work makes it difficult to see the magic and feel the wonder.

One Christmas when my children were young and my then-husband had worked them into a let's-see-who-has-the-most-presents-under-the-tree-frenzy I committed what I still think of as a parenting mortal sin. I looked them straight in the eye and broke the news that Santa would not be coming. He'd had a heart attack and wasn't expected to live.  I didn't say the elves had gone on strike, or Mrs. Clause wanted a tropical vacation. Nope, I said with more than a bit of glee, "Santa's heart has stopped working."  In my defense, that was the Christmas I'd hosted two holiday parties, attended two others, helped first graders make gingerbread houses, and tried to keep the number of beautifully wrapped gifts even steven. I didn't have the time or energy to help Santa too. If ever I needed a low-key Christmas that was the year.

For all my talk about down-sizing Christmas, I have yet to make it happen. Instead I complain a lot, which is about as unmerry as one can get. This year, like so many years before, I announced over the Thanksgiving turkey, things were going to be different.

"Yeh, Yeh," nodded my family as they inhaled gravy smothered potatoes.

Even I was a little surprised when my annual prophecy came true. But not because of anything I did. This year, I got sick. Some killer virus knocked me to the ground. Even when I stopped coughing and sneezing, my energy level could be measured just below the red line on one of those strong man meters at a carnival. You know the one where you hit a board with an oversized sledge hammer and it sends some kind of indicator up to ring a bell. For a few days, I was sick enough to think I'd been hit with a sledge hammer.

Suddenly low key Christmas took on new meaning. Early on I realized I was going to have to tell my inner Martha Stewart to get lost. If I survived until Christmas it would be due to antibiotics, sleep and following the advice given in magazine articles and blog posts on how to have a stress free holiday - do what you can and let the rest go. I had no choice. I didn't have enough energy to feel stressed. Instead of shopping and baking and sending cards, I sat in my grandmother's recliner and watched Christmas movies on the Lifetime channel. No matter the problem at the beginning of the show everything turned out all right by the end. By all right, I mean the house was decorated from top to bottom with twinkling lights, packages were wrapped and neatly placed put under the tree, the kitchen smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg and glistened like the Bethlehem star, costumes for the school play did not look homemade. In just two hours (minus the repeated commercials for Charmin toilet paper and Dance Moms) misbehaving hooligans became Christmas angels, while love was kindled, or rekindled, between a man and a woman who didn't look at all harried when they kissed under the mistletoe. Part delirium, part fantasy, I convinced myself the same would take place in my home, with no intervention on my part. As December 25th approached, however, and no miracles were in sight, I realized if Christmas was going to happen, it would need to be quick, easy, and low-key.

A low-key Christmas starts with the idea. Like the chorus from Whoville  the Grinch thought he'd silenced, it takes awhile for the idea to pierce through the standards of Christmas past. Then I had to  accept the fact that only so much could possibly be accomplished. I knew I couldn't manage all the things I'd done before. If someone else didn't do it, it flat out wasn't going to get done. My Sweetie was a willing partner. He'd do what I asked or forgo the traditional fare, my call. That meant I had let go of any guilt feelings, and words like, "my way." By Christmas eve, as we sang Silent Night in a candlelit sanctuary, I could feel the miracle that Christmas is meant to be.  A newborn baby, lying in a cattle trough. No tree wrapped in tinsel, no gingerbread cookies, no XBox or remote control car. Just weary parents looking at their baby the way all new parents do, with hopes and dreams for a peaceful world. Talk about low-key. Okay, the angels and magi jazzed it up a bit, but what's a miracle without a little jazz?

At home, by the twinkling lights on my $10.00 tree, I read a note from my daughter tucked inside her Christmas care. "We did it, Mamacita, we had a low key Christmas." I think we may be on to something, preferrably without the virus to ensure it happens.

Here's what my low-key Christmas looked like:
  • Seeing the look of wonder on children's faces as they sit on Santa's, aka Sweetie, lap. 
  • Sharing blessings with strangers on the street, and a child's drawing of the peace symbol.

  • The smile on Bella's face when she saw me for the first time in two weeks, and dancing to Christmas carols with Sweet Caroline.
  • Seeing 25 foster kids get a home for Christmas
  • Letting Sweetie vacuum to his heart's content and not saying anything about the new living room arrangement.
  • Giving up deadlines.
  • Laughing and crying and laughing some more with my Chat Noir buds, aka "belly-dancing, wine-drinking, writer chicks."
  • A picture and story of "My Dog Pop" by Eden Rewa
  • Gift cards could be stuffed in stockings eliminating the need for ribbons and bows. 
  • Buying Pepperidge Farm ginger cookies eliminating the work of home baked and decorated gingerbread men. 
  • Cranberry and cinnamon candles make the house smell good. 
  • Buying the roast and letting your sister cook it.  
  • Passing up the Christmas tree lots advertising six-foot trees for $39.99 all month, then, in a burst of holiday spirit picking up a four-foot beauty for only ten dollars. 
  • Leaving all the pine needles in the car to give it a woodsy smell you can't get out of a Glade room freshener. 
  • Driving through a light-filled neighborhood (and feeling grateful that it wasn't mine)
  • A simple garland of photo greeting cards
  • Decorating the tree with two strands of lights, glass ornaments that have lost their their luster but sparkle with memories, and figuring out how to make the angel sit atop a tree without the benefit of a branch. 
  • Being okay with the cat knocking low-hanging ornaments off tree faster than I put them on, and an antlered dogs chasing the cat. 
  • Leaving a $20 tip on a $20 bill.
  • A feeling of peaceful surrender
  • Sweetie, aka Santa, who normally doesn't like to be photographed smile again and again so moms and grandmoms can get the perfect picture
  • Not freaking out when my computer appeared to have a power cord malfunction and taking a full week to finish this blog post.
  • The ulitmate low-key Christmas gift - movie tickets
  • Listening to Sweetie record "The Night Before Christmas" for Amy
  • Being a part of someone else's surprise
  • A man and his dog
  • Sitting with my own personal Santa, aka Sweetie, looking at the tree and feeling like we belong in a Lifetime movie.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christmas Miracle(s)

I've watched a lot of Lifetime and Hallmark channel movies recently. In almost everyone, a miracle takes place and everyone lives happily ever after.  Christmas time is the season of miracles from the  baby born in  Bethlehem to a fat man that drops down chimneys, a singing snowman that become real, or a red-nosed reindeer flying through the night sky dragging a present filled sleigh.

I believe each of us needs to have a something to believe in.  Life can get pretty darn hard without hope. And that's what miracles are - the manifestation of hope. We hear more about miracles in December because, let's face it, that's what sells Hallmark cards and wrapping paper. But what about the everyday miracles that happen right under our noses and we hardly notice anymore. Like the sound of a baby laughing, or babies in general. Like rainbows, and singing birds, and tulips. Like new hearts in old bodies, stroke victims recovering beyond all odds and then writing a book about the experience, and cancer patients who are restored to health.

The news I got today was proof enough that miracles happen to ordinary people. And, like my favorite quote from Sue Bender, miracles happen after a lot of hard work. Earlier this year my friend, Laura, was diagnosed with lymphoma. She had large a large mass in her lungs and another behind her heart. Scary stuff. She endured several courses of chemotherapy that made her feel like crap and her hair fall out. But through it all, she believed she'd get well. She had people all over the country praying for her and lighting candles. Today, she got the news we'd all been waiting for. The cancer is gone. G-O-N-E. How's that for a miracle?

A bunch of my Internet friends and blog buddies helped me string together a chain of positive affirmations and quotes. Laura and her mom turned reading 3 a day into their daily meditation time. I'd like to thank all of you who helped with this project, who prayed and believed. What I'd like to ask you now is to keep that positive energy going. You're sure to know someone who can use a helping hand, a  kind gesture, a loving thought. You just might be the medium the Great Miracle Worker in the Sky uses to change that person's life.

Blessings abound,
Merry ME

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Sweetie asked me this morning about the ghost of Christmas(s) past that has me longing to be a child again. Before I could form an answer, my eyes started leaking. I could feel that little girl inside me longing for those days.

There are only a few gifts that stand out in my memory - a baby doll and a cradle, my first pair of real stockings (with a garter belt - ooh lala), and a cedar lined hope chest. It's the feelings I recall most, that I long for. The anticipation. The excitement  of waking up on Christmas morning wearing pajamas we'd been allowed to open the night before. The self absorbed delight wrapped in pretty paper, oblivious to the tired red-rimmed eyes of my parents who had only gotten a few hours sleep. The sense of family (think Norman Rockwell here even though we were far from it) that hovered in the room where our stockings were hung. An afternoon spent playing with new toys, or feeling more grown up. My grandparents coming for dinner. Again, oblivious to my mom spending most of her day in the kitchen.  To be honest, I do remember a Christmas meltdown or two, so it wasn't all perfect. It's hard to know which memories are real, and which I've magnified over the years.

I've have played and replayed Mary Chapin Carpenter's Christmas Album for about a month now. You'd think I would know every song by heart, but I don't. I throw in a lot of la la's between the words I  do know.  Part of what I'm feeling floated into my consciousness last night as I drove home from work. As if hearing it for the first time, I heard this stanza of Christmas Carol*

Because Christmas is for children's joy
For every single girl and boy
That's the truth we come to understand
But the memories that don't let go
Like Beatles songs and falling snow
Can make us feel innocent again.

Innocent. That's what I want. I want to see the season's magic again through an innocent child's eyes.

Sweetie has transformed himself over the past 6 months into Santa's twin brother. It's hard to live with Santa when it's August in Florida and the temperature hovers around 100 degrees. It kind of made me hot just looking at all that hair and made me ask on several occasions if he was ever going to shave again. But when a cold front moves in, and Black Friday has come and gone, being with my own personal Santa is kind of neat. Sweetie went to church with me last Sunday. A first in a long time. Maybe he was trying to shoot his name to the top of his own Naughty/Nice list. At fellowship hour, a young girl approached, kind of tentatively. She wanted to get close. She wanted to believe, but you could see the trepidation in her eyes.
"Are you Santa?" she asked.
"Why yes, I am," replied Sweetie. "Have you been good?"
"A little," she said, holding her thumb and pointer finger close together to indicate she had some work to do.
"Well, that's good," Santa reassured her. I think she breathed a sigh of relief.
I watched and listened as the man I love more than hot chocolate with little marshmallows, topped off with a mound of whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, comforted a questioning child and kept her beliefs in tact. I'm a not so sure I like hinging good or bad behavior on a lie, but this child needed some reassurance.

 It was not lost on me that this conversation took place in a church setting. When grownups sit in pews, offering up prayers of contrition and prayers of hope as they struggle to believe in the holy magic that took place on a starlit night in Bethlehem.  It's that time of year when we all need to be reminded that being a little good is good enough. It's a time when world weary adults need to be reassured that love and hope do exist. A time ....

When peace will shine in me and you
from Bethlehem to Timbuktu
Even if the forecast is for rain.

Thanks for listening while I try to sort out my feelings. 
Merry ME

*Track #11, Christmas Carol, by Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2008, Why Walk Music (ASCAP)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Christmas Decorations

Johnson and I walk around the block every night with two of the slowest, nosiest, untrained walking dogs on the planet. Forget that the American Fox Hound just won top prize at a big dog show. Whatever fox hound DNA  Suzi has in her bloodline means only that she has to sniff every blade of grass she passes.

Christmas decorations are already up. Inflatable Santas and twinkling lights. I was kind of considering not putting up any decorations. The idea of bringing down all the boxes, then going through them, and taking them back upstairs, only to reverse the process in a few weeks makes me tired just thinking about it. Yesterday Sweetie and I came home from visiting some old people and lo and behold there was not one but two wreaths all lit up and hanging on the front of the house. And Johnson had brought down all the boxes. I never even got a chance to declare this a No Decoration holiday.

Johnson is an enigma to me. He swears like a sailor, has a shorter fuse than me, is very opinionated and has never met a job he cannot do better than anyone else. But on the other hand he is sweet as can be to babies and animals. He can strike up a conversation with anyone. And when it comes to Christmas, I can still see the little boy he once was. Try as I might I could never dissuade the rest of my family when it came to holiday decorating. The Ellington family creed when it came to Christmas was "Sooner not later. The bigger the better. When in doubt, add more." Don't get me wrong, I like Christmas decorations. I just wish I had a few elves around to do the work. Maybe if I lay low and wait it out, elves will appear just like the wreathes.

I think in my heart I don't want to be a grown up this Christmas. I yearn to be the little girl who has trouble falling asleep on Christmas Eve,  then wakes up aglow with anticipation of what Santa left under the tree. I didn't realize it til just now, how much I wish my mom and dad were here to make this Christmas like the ones of my childhood. Funny how missing my parents sneaks up on me.

Wishing for you a child's vision of Christmas,
Merry ME

Sunday, December 1, 2013

How did it get to be the 1st of December already?

I seriously thought I was back in the blogging mood when I got on the subject of light. I see now the last time I actually posted something - as opposed to thinking about posting something - was Nov. 13th. So here I sit at the end of the first day in December, look at how packed full the days ahead are and wonder where blogging kind of writing will occur.  It's clear that my writing muse packed her bags for an extended vacation on a tropical island. I think she is taking long strolls on deserted beaches, swimming in crystal blue seas, sleeping with her windows open, the better to hear the waves as they lap against the shore. She's probably drinking rum drinks with little umbrellas, learning how to sway her hips to the beat of native drums, wearing flowers in her hair, and bright colored muu muus. I hope she comes back rested and full of stories.

In the mean time I'm sewing bears. I love how sometimes the things I do just feel right. That's the way I feel about making bears for people who have lost someone close to them, from the loved one's clothes. When I first started sewing these bears for my friend Diane, my only goal was to do something to help ease her pain. I had no idea that the bears would also help ease mine. Even though I don't know the people I've memorialized in t-shirts, dress shirts, clerical shirts, sweat shirts, work pants, woolen snow suits, and an old quilt, I've somehow discovered a sense of who they were. I don't think a person's spirit  resides in their clothes. But I do think that because the clothes that are given to me are obviously special to the one(s) left behind, I feel the love that remains there.

I like hearing the stories of the people the bears represent. In a strange way, I feel like I get to know them.  Each bear is a recycled memory for others and creative piece of art for me. I call it "soul work." I feel honored to be given the opportunity to use my handiwork as a way to make someone who is grieving  smile for awhile. Yes, tears are always a part of the process, but that just comes with the territory.

As I put the finishing touches on each bear, (s)he becomes my favorite. The one I completed tonight is in honor of Rev. Johnson H. Pace. A priest and friend for many years. Back in the days when I was working hard in the church, he gave me an honorary degree. DD. Devoted daughter, rather than Doctor of Divinity. Fr. Jack could recite a person's lineage back to the Mayflower, knew the scientific names for all kinds of plants and trees, never failed to remember birthdays, enjoyed working in God's gardens, even if it meant pulling weeds in the hot Florida sun, and called my father the Commodore. He was small in stature but big in heart. A tad eccentric, but really, who isn't?

Thanksgiving came and went and I failed to write all the things I'm grateful for. Doesn't mean I'm not grateful.  If you've followed my blog and still come back to check on whether I've written anything or not, I thank you. As the holidays approach, I hope you'll slow down, rather than rush from place to place. I hope you'll say God bless you, instead of Bah Humbug. I hope you'll share simple kindnesses with those you love and strangers alike - don't forget to be kind to yourself. I hope you'll put some tiny marshmallows in a cup of hot chocolate, and read a favorite Christmas story. I hope the light in your heart will sparkle as bright as lights on your tree. I hope there peace will surround you.

Merry ME