I Want to Know the End of My Story

Shortly after my brush with cancer, the mother of one of my daughter’s oldest friends passed away, dying in her sleep. Marilyn had gone through surgery a few months earlier, but was recovering, so her unexpected death was shocking to everyone–not in the least to me, for she was seven years younger than I.

That event, combined with my own experience of a potentially terminal illness, has left an indelible impression on me.

I’ve never been one of those people who go blithely through adult life, never once considering the reality of their own mortality. As a new mother, one of my first actions was to write a will and name both a  guardian and trustee for my child, should she lose both her father and me.  As the newly-divorced mother of a young teenager, purchasing a new car, I was easily persuaded to add the extra few dollars to my monthly payment for insurance that would pay off the car if I died, reducing any debt that might be left to my daughter. Throughout my working years, for much the same reason, I carried all the additional life insurance my employer offered,  because I might die at any time, and my child would need the money.

Shortly after retiring, having researched the laws concerning the subject in the state where I live, I purchased an urn for my own ashes, finding a lovely, large lidded vase at (of all places) a flea market. Although I’ve made it clear to all and sundry that I’d prefer my ashes be scattered, I’d seen the “temporary urn” provided for  my mother’s cremation, and was appalled; it looked like a Hershey’s cocoa box!  One way or another, I decided, I was going out in style. Still, I wasn’t about to have my family paying the inflated prices of a mortuary urn. And so my crackle-glazed, bird of paradise-decorated ceramic vase reposes on my closet shelf, carefully marked as to its future use.

And then there was the wracking asthma attack in the middle of the night that had, just a few months prior to my cancer diagnosis, come close to taking me across the Veil. The realization that night that, “I might not make it out of this one!” had dismayed but not shocked me; nor did the tumble down my stairwell a few months later, which might have had such terrible results.

However much I may want to stick around for awhile yet, I am completely comfortable with the knowledge of my own mortality.

But, as I said in a previous post (I Want to Know the End of the Story, 07/06/18), I do want to know.  I want to know the end of my story.

I am the person who often flips to the final pages of my mystery novel to read the dénouement.   I can’t stand waiting to see if I’ve actually fingered the murderer.  During Downtown Abbey’s first run, I knew about the upcoming death of character Matthew because I’d sneakily read a British website describing the episode long before the show aired in America. I always want to know the end of the story.

I once attended a lecture by a Buddhist monk who explained that we should choose the manner of our going—to meditate upon it, and to announce our choice to the universe. I found this an interesting concept, and gave it a good deal of thought, but made no decision.  Later, a friend explained that she plans to die in her sleep when she is age 85.  I admired her resolution, but I don’t want to give myself an expiration date; the Divine might have plans for me beyond what I consider a reasonable life span.

But I am incredibly well-organized and orderly, and it bothers me that so much of life, and death, is not. I do not like chaos.  I don’t like surprises.  I dislike bedlam and confusion.

And so I am finally meditating upon the manner of my own passing, as that Buddhist monk once taught that we should do. I won’t, as my friend has done, accord myself an expiration date. But if that monk was right, and it is possible, then I want to decide what my going will someday be.

After all, as I have said once before: I want to know the end of my own story.

 

Lemonade From Lemons

I saw the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the theatre on the first weekend of its release. As I left the theatre that evening, I overheard a woman walking beside me comment to her companion, “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that!”, a sentiment with which I and numerous other smiling moviegoers apparently agreed.  But as I glanced over at her, beaming agreement, I glimpsed the frowning face of her companion.  He proceeded to explode in a plethora of angry complaints about the movie.  It was obvious to me—and to just about everyone nearby in the theatre lobby—that he had NOT enjoyed the movie, and, by golly, she and every one of us present was going to be made aware of that fact.

I’ve had reason to recall this unpleasant moment on multiple occasions as various male companions responded to movies we had just watched together. And I’ve begun to wonder if this is just a facet of my generation—or my bad taste in boyfriends–or if it’s simply a male trait in general to respond to a movie disappointment by behaving as if the writer/producer/director/actors all intentionally conspired to perpetrate upon him a film which he despised.

I’ve attended many a disappointing movie with women friends. Discussing it afterwards, that’s basically what we’ve said, too: “Well, that was a disappointment.”  “I’m sorry I wasted my money on that.” “I didn’t really like it” (with a shrug).  “Well, at least the popcorn was good!” (with a giggle).

But leaving a substandard movie, or turning off the TV, while with a male acquaintance has almost inevitably resulted in an explosion of sorts. And I puzzle over this.

Discussing the subject with various female friends, it actually does appear to me that an irritation or disappointment—not just with a movie, but with outings in general—results in (shrug shoulders) “Oh, well” from the female contingent, while our male counterparts complain bitterly about the vile wrong perpetrated upon them.

Never was this made more clear to me than the time my sisters-in-law and I went to The Festival That Didn’t Happen.

Now, my Chosatives (see my 12/17/17 blog post) and I are small-town-festival junkies.  We love the fair food, the smiling crowds, the hokey little parades.  We adore shopping for homemade crafts and homegrown produce.  So a few summers ago, we hurried out of town to one of the first festivals of the season.

Which, as it happens, didn’t. Happen, that is.  Somehow the organizers had come up with a name for the “First Annual” festival, gotten it listed in the annually-published booklet of festivals throughout the state, named the attractions that would be available…and then somehow just lost momentum.

We arrived and there were no booths selling crafts and produce, no little parade, no corndogs and gyros and elephant ears. No Lions Club barbeque. There was, in fact, no festival, and the few year-long merchants in the area, dishing out ice cream and hot dogs and burgers at their little diners, were just as bewildered and apologetic as people could be.

Oh, there were still a few things to see: the town was an extremely old one, in a picturesque location, and there was, in fact, a wedding being held in that lovely lakeside venue; we watched from the outdoor seating area of a countryside diner as the photographer took gorgeous photos of a young couple. There were historic old houses, an antique shop, and a rustic general store.  And it was a simply beautiful early spring day, soft and warm with scudding, fluffy clouds in a bright, sunny sky.

So we three enjoyed ourselves. We strolled about and licked ice cream cones.  We looked at the town’s lovely old architecture, watched the wedding photos being taken, explored the antique shop and a century-old millworks grinding grain, the general store and a year-round Christmas shop.  We had, in fact, a lovely afternoon.  Then we came home.

But we also discussed what would have happened had the male members of our family been along for this “failed” outing, and shuddered, considering the complaints, angst, bitterness over wasted gas and a long drive, and general grumbles, moans and protests that would have taken place, ruining what had turned out to be quite a pleasant day.

Perhaps, as I say, this is just a personality quirk among my own family and friends, that our womenfolk tend to make lemonade from the lemons of life. Nevertheless, I wonder if, at some future date, I will not read some scholarly and scientific article comparing the rate of wars and generalized destruction to a predominantly-male habit of bitter resentment over the most minor vicissitudes of life.

But how much more relaxing to shrug and say that the popcorn was great, and enjoy sipping lemonade while strolling the boardwalk

The Name of My Year

I know what year it is: 2019. But I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Many, perhaps most people do this, I’ve noticed. The majority of years are thought of just as the number stated at the top of the calendar. But throughout our lifetime, that number often pales into insignificance as we give the year a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Joe Died. The Year Haley Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Wildfire, the Hurricane. The Year We Bought the House. The Year I Graduated.

These titles lend such richness and flavor to our memories that we often speak of them in just that way before stopping a beat—closing our eyes and searching our memories for a moment to recall the actual date of the occurrence: “The year the kids were married—oh, yeah, that was 2017. Yes, October, October 7, 2017.”

I have a flock of years like that in my recollection: arrows of memories winging their way through the skies of reminisce, named for events both traumatic or blessed, as I scroll through the chapters of my life—for that is how I think of them: chapter titles. Beneath each is a viable script, paragraphs of meaning and explanation, tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. Together, they comprise the book of my lifetime, beginning with Chapter One: The Year I Was Born. (Perhaps the book may be titled: I Was Born: It Could Happen to Anybody!)

Since retiring, though, I’ve noticed more of a tendency to think of all of my years as verbal titles, rather than those numbers displayed so prominently at the top of the calendar page. And so I currently look back upon The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbooks. (That second odd title requires a touch of explanation, no doubt: That was the year when I told my cousin, proprietor of our late Grandmother Marie’s huge box of recipe cards, “Look here, Susie, you’re busy! You work, you have a teenage daughter. You’re never going to get around to copying those recipes for all of us. I’m retired; time hangs from my hands like loops of yarn. Lend me the cards, and I’ll transcribe them into a cookbook for everyone in the family.”)

And transcribe I did, through the course of one entire spring and summer, occasionally losing a bit of my mind in the process as I stumbled through difficult handwriting, missing information, and antique recipe nomenclature that required hours of research to resolve. (What the HECK was a “29¢ bag of chocolate chips”? 29 CENTS? Or a “Number 2 Can” of pumpkin? For the love of God and little green apples, Grandma, what do you mean, “Bake until done”? Uh, is there a temperature connected with this, much less a time?)

My sanity, such as it is, was severely challenged by the Year of the Cookbooks, yet when it was done, I had a PDF document ready to e-mail to every family member who wanted it, complete with Grandma’s high school graduation photo on the cover, and other pictures and memorable food-related, riotous stories scattered throughout.

Marie Gregory

So delighted was I with the results of my efforts that (definitely, sanity-challenged!) I turned right around and transcribed all my own recipes into a cookbook, also.

The Year of the Cookbook was followed by The Year of the Wedding,Dancing with my daughter at her wedding as I leapt into the preparations (finally—were any two people ever engaged for SO LONG?!) for the wedding of my only daughter. A frustrating, amazing, exhausting, meticulous, wonder-filled and magnificent year, in which everything that could go wrong, did, and yet in which I somehow managed to help produce the most marvelous and glorious wedding possible for my beloved children.

Then came the most recent year, 2018: My Dickens Year. It was, genuinely, the best of times, the worst of times. I might have titled it “The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth”, but it’s simpler just to recall it as My Dickens Year. Diagnosed with cancer in January, cured by surgery and prayer and natural treatments in March, and finally overwhelmed by indescribable, heart-breaking, breathtaking, wondrous joy by the birth of my first grandchild in August, it was, beyond any measure, a year of the worst of times, a year of the best of times.002

And so, this morning, as I traced my fingers over the number at the top of the paper calendar that I persist in using and enjoying despite a digital world, I realized: I know what year it is. I do. It is 2019.

But, for the moment, I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Being THAT Person

We all know one: the person who is incredibly thin-skinned. Whose feelings brim close to the surface and who is constantly, easily hurt. Who almost seeks out reasons for offense.

And, of course, at one point or another during our lives, many (most?) of us have been that person.

Thoughts of this behavior hovered in my mind recently when the Universe seemed to have declared a “pick on Beckett” day. One friend, not at all meaning to be unkind (and specifically saying so), pointed out a physical flaw that was likely to worsen due to a minor medical problem I was experiencing. While making this point only with the intention of providing helpful advice, it was, nevertheless, said in front of others, and so embarrassed me slightly.  I said nothing, allowing the feeling to slide off, but it arose like a buried demon and came back to haunt me when I woke in the middle of the night, hovering before me and forcing me to deal with the unpleasant emotions evoked by my friend’s comment.

Later that same day, another acquaintance used a pair of topics from this very blog to press a point in a very negative manner. Once again, the words were said in front of others; this time, I was both startled and taken aback, hardly knowing how to respond. And, once more, I let those feelings slide off, telling myself sternly that no harm was actually intended, and saying nothing. But that memory, coupled with the other incident, haunted me in wakeful moments in the small hours of the night, robbing me of sleep and causing self-doubt and unhappiness.

In the morning, I took time to fully consider my reaction, shining the light of day into my wounded places. Was I really reacting just to my friends’ words, I wondered?  Or was I actually responding to past events of intentional bullying–situations that wrought havoc in my life and left emotional scars. Should I have spoken up at the time to each of these people? By keeping silent, was I behaving masochistically? Would the memory of these events cause difficulty in my future relationships with these friends, resentment casting a pall over our interactions? Was I actually even doing each of my acquaintances no favor by failing to point out that they had distressed me? For if they did not realize they had unintentionally offended, I reasoned, they might easily do this again, to someone else—someone perhaps less prepared to deal with the resultant emotional turmoil.

Or (and this was the hardest thing to consider) was I simply being too thin-skinned, seeking out reason to feel hurt feelings; seeking out cause for offense?

My thoughts ping-ponged in this manner for the better part of a day, until I finally decided that I had wasted enough valuable time thinking through a very minor set of events. In the end, I decided, because no offense had been intended—in the first case, quite the opposite, in fact—I needed to take no offense. To do otherwise would place me in the category of being that person: the one who is always offended, always upset, always drowning in a welter of hurt feelings, always affronted and angry and miserable.

That person, I realized—the hypersensitive, prickly, overly-emotional, constantly aching bundle of nerve endings, has one trait that I shared and was quickly spiraling into as I overthought the events I’d just experienced: an over-inflated sense of self-importance. A unreasonable belief that everyone around me should “just know” what might upset me, and therefore either avoid such circumstances entirely, or, having stumbled into them, immediately apologize.

I am not that important.

Neither are you.

Those around us—friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, neighbors—will sometimes, inevitably, inadvertently, hurt our feelings. But if these events are not malicious, nor continual and pervasive—not slyly abusive, nor subtlely cruel– then we, adults all, need to relinquish our over-inflated sense of self importance and just get over it. Shrug. Consider the source. Let it roll off. Save our high dudgeon for the really critical problems of relationships. But, most importantly, we must be certain of our genuine selves: certain of the person who we each are at our core and center, so that the thoughtless remarks of others have no ability to cast a pall over our spirit.

That sure self-knowledge is, after all, the ability that comprises a true sense of self worth: the sure center of our spirit; the Self that can never be harmed by the thoughtless, careless words or behavior of another.

Repainting the Nativity

Following the most recent holiday season, I’ve spent weeks working to refurbish my small nativity scene.  This grouping—just the three main figures—is nearly 25 years old. I purchased the expensive set from a charity-oriented catalog, spending money that I didn’t really have, because I was taken with the unusual grouping. Unlike traditional displays, the child in my tiny nativity scene is cradled in his mother’s arms, while she sits encircled within the loving touch of her husband.

Despite their cost, the statues I received were formed of cheap plastic, their clothing created by cloth that was probably dipped into some mild hardener, such as white glue, and then draped. The faces were surprisingly detailed and well-sculpted, but because they were created in an Asian country, the skin tones and eyes were representative more of their origins than those of a family from the Mideast. But I appreciated my little set especially for that very reason; it seemed to me to be more universally  inclusive. The muted, uneven colors of the cloth, and its rough texture, correctly represented a family in exodus, travelling in poverty.

One of my own family members, though, found my nativity set comical. A sad person who usually tried to build herself up by cutting others down, her preferred method of criticism was mockery. And so it happened during one holiday season several years ago that she sat at my Christmas dinner table, laughingly examining the figurines where they perched, surrounded in holly garland, on the pass-through to the kitchen (to keep them safe from my cats, who regarded the Baby as a hockey puck). My relative made scathing remarks about St. Joseph’s “sick-looking” face, and the fading colors and battered cloth covering the statues. Where on earth, she demanded, had I found such a pathetic  little display?

Respecting both the day and her status as a family member, I forbore to answer in kind, replying only that my  nativity set had been created in an impoverished country. I neglected to mention how much I had actually paid for it, but explained that the proceeds from sales went largely to people who desperately needed the money. I let the matter rest there.

But I felt stung. I loved my little nativity scene, but I had to admit that it was true: the statues were beginning to show their age. So that January I set about repainting the figurines. I carefully changed their facial tones to accurately represent desert dwellers, and altered their clothing to colors that, while slightly more traditional, were still faithful to the era represented. The smooth acrylic paint restored the cloth to stiffness and luster. I was pleased with the results.

Years again passed, and during this most recent holiday season, I re-examined my nativity set. The colors painted a decade ago had not faded (as had the sting of those long ago critical comments); instead, they had darkened.  holy family loves cats Joseph’s shepherd’s crook had been stolen and used for another hockey game by my ever-marauding cats. The tiny statues no longer quite pleased me, I realized. I made up my mind to refurbish the set once more.

But this time, as I brought out paints and brushes in January, I approached my nativity scene with a different idea in mind. I would not be adding tints to represent a family of immigrants in poverty. Instead, I would be painting them as the sacred souls that they were, not just in Christian legend, but in countless myths and legends of a Sacred Birth from all the eras and all the countries of the world.

Finally finished (I’m not a particularly good artist, and painting comes hard to me), the seated figure of the Divine Mother wears a scarf of silver, touched with opalescent paint. The guardian figure of her husband, standing near her and encircling her and the Child, is partially cloaked in gold—gold, for the nobility of a man who gave up everything: home and family and livelihood, to fly into hiding in Egypt—and all for a child that was not even his. And the Divine Child is swaddled in a shining blanket bespattered with  minute stars.  img_20190115_110047196 (2)

Refurbishing my aging nativity scene has been a careful, thoughtful effort. I seriously debated before finally adding haloes to the figurines, created of gold and stars. It was the finishing touch.

img_20190115_110150240But an acquaintance dropped by one recent afternoon as I was fitting the small, painted twig, shaped like a Scottish thumb stick (a type of walking stick), into Joseph’s tiny hand.

She examined my work with raised eyebrows. It was obvious she thought little of my small, shining saints.  “That doesn’t look anything like a shepherd’s crook,” she at last complained.

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t Christmas day, and she wasn’t a relative! Shooting her as withering a look as my face was capable of producing, I retorted decisively, He wasn’t a shepherd. He was a carpenter.”

No one was ever going to criticize my noble St. Joseph, not ever again.

Toxic Recipients

Now that the holidays are safely behind us, it’s probably the perfect time to discuss the situation of Toxic Recipients.

Most of us have known one…and many of us, unfortunately, still do: the person who, no matter what gift is given, is never quite pleased. Who is not only displeased, but vocal about her or his displeasure. (The dress is an unflattering style; the shirt is the wrong color. The membership to the local museum is a waste of money—after all, no one goes to the museum more than one time yearly. Movie tickets? The movies these days are all trash. There’s nothing worth seeing. Ditto the restaurant gift card; don’t you know how much that place has gone downhill?)

As to why these individuals behave this way, well, that is a topic for another blog post.  But in an attempt to please a TR, friends and family (having exhausted all the usual avenues for gift ideas), often turn to creativity, sure that something hand crafted, homemade, will be given the respect due the work put into it, if not the gift itself. Homemade bath bombs and salt scrubs, hand-knitted sweaters, carefully-constructed photo journals, “just add water” recipe jars, hand crafted suncatchers, redeem-at-will coupons for yard work, home repairs, chauffeuring, babysitting…  But all are rejected with a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh, or a scathing comment about a how a flagrant misuse of their funds must have resulted in a limited budget for gifts this year.

A gift card to a favorite store? Couldn’t  be bothered to shop, could you? Cash? Giving money is the biggest cop-out ever! Fresh flowers? What a waste—the damned things don’t last any time at all; they just wilt. A gift made to a charity in one’s name? Don’t you realize that NOW that self-same charitable organization will be dunning the honoree for donations at every possible turn? A planter? Who has time to take care of plants? A spa gift card? One has to tip the staff at those places, you know!

I recall a story once told me by a coworker: Her family was sure they had finally hit upon the absolutely perfect gift for their Toxic Recipient Matriarch. They contacted an astronomical society and had a star named for her. Now there was a present that couldn’t be topped! It was, in fact, sky-high.

The Matriarch’s reaction to this gift was, as they recounted afterward, a true Mastercard moment: utterly priceless. Upon opening the certificate, she read it through twice—the first time uncomprehending, the second time, in patent disbelief. The she pinioned her hapless family with a gimlet stare and, tossing the certificate toward the discarded wrapping paper, demanded, “Just what the hell am I supposed to do with this?!”

So….  My humble suggestion to all of those trapped in the hellish round of attempting to please a Toxic Recipient on every birthday, anniversary, holiday, or whatever, is just this: Stop. Stop trying. Stop giving. And, above all, stop caring.

Give a gift with the store receipt prominently displayed, and when the TR comments upon the tackiness of this behavior, merely shrug and say, “Well, we knew you’d hate it, since you always hate everything we give you, so we were just making it easy for you to return it.”  Or show up emptyhanded, and mention casually and with total unconcern that your financial circumstances right now limit gift giving to small children only. Or, when the poisonous remarks about your gift begin to be spouted, throw up your hands and recount a laundry list of past gift failures. “Well, let’s see. You didn’t like the pink blouse/blue shirt. You used the restaurant gift certificate, and then gave us a blow-by-blow description of how poor the food and service were. You never even used the zoo membership. You didn’t cash in on our “a full day of yard work” coupon. You said the tool set was cheap. You never got a pedicure at the spa. You told us the year of gym membership was just our way of saying you were fat. So it was this,” (here making a dramatic gesture toward the most recently-rejected gift), “or purchasing your funeral plot. Of the two, we thought this was better.”

Of course, this last statement is likely to result in one’s being cut out of the will, or thrown out of the house, or banished from the family, or treated to an Amish-style shunning, or some other such volatile gesture of utter disdain.

Which, come to think of it, might not be so bad a result after all.

Taking Down the Christmas Once More

(This post first appeared on January 2, 2017.  It now appears with pertinent edits.)

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The cheerful Yule placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The colorful holiday cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the storage boxes for ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there. I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look once more at enclosed photographs; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone who is now gone, or signed with the names of pets who have passed on–as I, in fact, did, during this most recent Christmas season. Then, and only then, will I recycle the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into a corner of the garage, where, I hope, it will not topple over this year! Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments. Most Precious Ornaments. Angel. Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by my Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors. Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.

Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

The Oak King and The Holly King

(This Winter Solstice story first appeared on this blog on December 21, 2017.)

It is a night in prehistory, someplace in the area that will one day be called Britain. Those in this tiny village of mud thatched roundhouses live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a few precious crops from the soil each summer season, hunting and fishing, gathering from the wild.  They pray each summer  for a bountiful harvest, that they might have enough to survive the coming winter.

The nights have been growing colder for many weeks now, but, what is even more frightening, they have been growing longer. The elders in the village say that this has happened before; many times, in fact.  The sun rises later and later, sets earlier and earlier, and each successive night lasts longer.  The elders have grown wise merely by the act of surviving so many repetitions of this occurrence.  And so they choose the largest, hardest, longest-burning oak logs and set them aside for what they know is coming: the Dark Night.  The Long Night.  The fearful night when Darkness overpowers the Light.  They set that hardy wood aside for the night when everyone in this little village will huddle together, seeking warmth, and desperately hoping that this time, this time once more, the Darkness will not win.  The unbearable, long night will end, must end, and the morning sun be reborn.

Gathered About the Yule Log
Gathered About the Yule Log

And as they huddle together about the bright light of that long-burning log, stories are told. Legends are born.  For the light of the log is like passion, like the heat of battle, and so surely it must represent a battle – the battle of Light and Darkness.  Perhaps it is two great Kings who are battling ,  or even Gods  (for there must always be kings and gods – someone, after all, must be in charge of all this.)   Perhaps one of these God Kings lives within the oak log itself, the oak twined with ivy, ivy which remains green even in winter, and with mistletoe, that mystic plant which appears growing high in the trees without reason or explanation.  This Oak King must be battling the Holly King, whose sharp, thorny green plant bears red berries like blood.

And what of the sun, the golden sun, the longed-for sun? Drawing perhaps on some misty memory of an ancient  sun-scorched land known only from legend, they recall the myth of  Nuit, starry Goddess of the Night Sky, from whose body each morning the sun was reborn.  Surely a God King must have a wife: a wife pregnant, laboring, struggling to give birth to the Sun.  A family — a family and history remembered even by those who have no memories of that land.  (It will be centuries yet before another small family will fly into Egypt, that ancient land of the starry Goddess…)

And so at sundown, the Great Battle commences: the battle for the very Earth itself. If the Holly King wins, the laboring Goddess will perish in childbirth, the sun never be reborn, and the Earth and all its inhabitants will die.

But the Holly King never wins. Time after time, battle after battle, he is slain, dying as he knows he must die: King, and God, and Sacrifice.  Darkness never conquers the Light.  And at the moment of dawn, the Queen of Heaven once again gives birth to the Child who is the Light.

And so it is that all the ancient legends blend, and twine, and intermingle, into this singular neverending Truth: that though the Darkness may gain sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes minutes, its reign upon the Earth and her peoples must always, eventually fade; that sacrifice and courage and wisdom enable one to battle through the long and fearful night; that the pain and toil of women who carry and labor the children of the Earth into existence allows us always to persist and continue.

And now in closing this ancient but always-new tale, I send (as Fra Giovanni once wrote in his Christmas Greeting, quoting the great Song of Solomon), “…the hope that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”

 

The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.