The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past

§   This year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my tree for the first time, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me.  §

When I was a small child, my father one holiday season brought home  a tiny, thin book titled An Ancient Story of The Christ Child. I have the book still. It is bound in green velveteen, tied at the spine with a gold cord. It is beautifully illustrated, and a yellow Christmas star illuminates each page of text.

I loved the story, which is based on the moral of being kind to strangers, for by doing so, one may, all unaware, entertain saints or angels. But above all, I loved the illustration of the Christmas tree. My child self thought it was the most wonderful Christmas tree I’d ever seen: hung about with polished red apples, and trimmed with popcorn strings and candles.Christmas Story_20191022_0001 (2)

Many years later, as an adult living in South Carolina, I stopped in an ancient dimestore one afternoon near the holidays. There, as if waiting for me, were shining little red apple ornaments, and strings of plastic popcorn and wooden cranberries. I could not resist. For that Christmas and several that followed, my inner child thrilled to a red apple and popcorn decorated Christmas tree.

Eventually, those apple ornaments of painted styrofoam began to deteriorate; the plastic popcorn yellowed; the cranberries lost their color. I reluctantly retired them for more modern decorations.

My lovely red apple tree had not been my first holiday tree, though. As a 19-year-old living in a one-room apartment in the slums, with no money to speak of and only a kitten for company, I’d scrounged to buy a little three-foot tree, tromping through slush and snow in the dark to purchase it. I crafted cheap ornaments from painted plaster of  Paris, using bent paperclips as hangers. That little tree and plaster ornaments served me for several years, cheering me as I returned home evenings to my lonely digs. It apparently cheered my kitten, too, who viewed the small tree as a pine-scented cat toy! Abandoning my evergreen room spray, I bought a concoction called “Cat No!’ and doused the tree liberally with it. It smelled awful, but it did deter Doski’s forays into Christmas tree destruction. (And to this day, I weirdly associate the smell of cat repellant with Christmas.)

In the years that followed, my Christmas trees were garlanded with beads of gold and silver and hung with silver bells, some topped by a star, others by an angel. I enjoyed each new version, always taking photos, especially after the tree had been lit and the gifts piled high at its base. I learned to place a hook in the ceiling and tie the tree to it with nearly-invisible fishing line, so that my cats could not, despite their best efforts, tip it over. I learned, too, to place only unbreakable ornaments within the reach of their sneaky little paws, and never to drape tinsel where it could be swallowed. (One cat, Domino, was nicknamed “Tinsel Butt” for months following the holidays.)

Following my divorce I divested myself of old holiday decorations and their associations with the Christmases of my failed marriage. I  briefly considered the newly-revived “shiny aluminum trees”,  rejecting them after realizing that nothing would ever equal my Grandmother’s aluminum tree, rotating to a color wheel and laden with pink glass ornaments.  Instead, I loaded up on red velveteen ribbon to garland my tree, pairing it with golden ornaments.  Later I traded out the aging velveteen for wide ribbon in Stewart plaid, and acquired a set of tiny brown glass acorn ornaments to scatter amongst the gold. I dispensed with the cat-menacing tinsel and began using realistic plastic icicles.

SnowQueenTree (2)Finally, having grown weary of the red/gold theme and its links to some less-than-joyous Christmas days, I gave away all my decorations and began completely anew with a fresh tree of opalescent ribbons and turquoise and silver ornaments.  The Snow Queen tree, I called it: frosty and icy and different.

No doubt I’ll enjoy my Snow Queen Tree for years to come.  And yet, this year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my  tree for the first time, stepping back to admire my handiwork, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me. A little child—myself—stood staring in wonder at a tall, tall, green tree, garlanded in polished red apples and strings of popcorn and white candles—staring in wonderment and joy, while a visiting angel held her by the hand.

Merry Whatever-Doesn’t-Offend You!  As my blog posts are published on Wednesdays, I will be taking Christmas and New Year’s days off.  My best love and blessings to you and yours for a peaceful, healthy and joyous holiday.  See you the first week of 2020! 

The Screen Test

Years ago I read a slogan which has always stayed with me: “An open mind is like a window; you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

As someone who has always been interested “fringe” concepts – conspiracy theories, New Age spirituality, holistic medicine, reincarnation, acupuncture, telepathy, numerology, homeopathy, precognition – I’ve looked into ‘em all – that slogan has been important, reminding me to keep myself centered with a healthy skepticism. I fully agree with Hamlet’s famous statement to Horatio, but I’ve still always examined each of my interests using the Screen Test.

As a result, the first time I encountered material that was supposedly channeled through a human from a “higher being” I hammered my skeptical screen tightly into the window of my mind.  The higher being was described variously as an evolved soul, an angelic being, or a spiritual master. Why, I wondered, would such a being need or even want to speak through a human voice?  I’d read extensively about the phenomenon of the subconscious mind producing alternate personalities, and was aware of just how easily this could happen, especially when the mind was in a trance or hypnotic state.  Nevertheless, I decided to read the book anyway,  wondering if it might convince me that channeled materials were actually teachings from higher source, and not just the product of someone’s untethered subconscious.

The book failed the Screen Test.

If this material was the revelation of an Evolved Master, I decided, I would just have to stay a spiritual amoeba. Decades later, I still recall some of the passages that set my teeth on edge. In one segment, the Teacher told a sort of parable about a married man who fell in love with another woman.  The two of them nobly refrained from an affair while he stayed with his  wife, whom the would-be lovers referred to as “the Vegetable”.  A few years later, the Teacher explained, their self-sacrifice and noble morality were rewarded when “the Vegetable” passed away, leaving the path clear for them to marry at last.

Now just a cotton-pickin’ minute! “The Vegetable”? This man mocked the woman whom he’d promised to love, honor, and cherish by referring to her using that scathing nickname?  His would-be paramour did the same?  Exactly how was it possible that his scornful attitude never affected his marriage – that his wife never felt his disrespect, never felt unloved or belittled? Exactly how was it better or morally right that she was never released from this sham of a marriage to possibly find happiness with someone who genuinely loved her?  How was it even decent that her death was viewed as convenient?

And this was an example of morality as taught by a spiritual Master?

In another paragraph, the Teacher referred derisively to “young men who refuse to fight for their country”. The Vietnam war was raging at the time this book was published, so this was clearly a reference to those who dodged the draft or protested the war.  But I personally had no quarrel with the courageous young people who protested and marched and held sit-ins and burnt their draft cards.  They had the courage to declare that this was an unjust war; an undeclared war forced on a generation of youngsters who, at that time, were underage to legally vote for the very leaders who were sending them away to die.

Right then and there I made up my mind that this material was representative of nothing but the personal prejudices of the supposed Channeler. This dreck in no way represented the teachings of an angelic being. Teacher, my right hind rump!

I’ve encountered other purportedly channeled material in the years since. Unlike that first encounter, much channeled material often seemed truly spiritual, wise, even beautiful.  So perhaps it is only owing to that first unhappy experience with channeling that I have never been able to accept channeled material to be other than the subconscious product of the Channeler. It saddens me that such sagacious people fail to trust their own wisdom and teach directly from it, but instead feel they must insist that it comes from a being beyond their own spirit.

I will never doubt that there are highly evolved spiritual beings on both sides of the Veil that separates human life from the hereafter, and I can even accept that those in spirit sometimes speak to us.

But I truly doubt that they speak through us.

The Sunflower Rescue

Each summer, I take on the personae of  ‘Mom the Free Gardner Lady’.  Every ten days or so finds me parking in front of my daughter’s home and schlepping a large tote bag filled with trimmers, trowels, forks, flower food and weed killers up to her front porch.  I spend hours pulling weeds, trimming bushes, and pruning and feeding roses–and, in the spring, planting sunflowers, which she adores.

So it’s quite likely that a recent Saturday, sunny and mild, would have found me there even if my beloved daughter weren’t a million months pregnant and at home on modified bed rest, unable even to bend, much less pull up a weed. We chatted while I worked on the flower beds.  Then, finally finished and covered in thorn scratches and chigger bites, I left to make a quick run to the ATM and replenish my languishing wallet. From there I debated the best route to the gas pumps at the local Kroger.  Should I travel down Main Street to the avenue and across the side road to the store, the straightest route?  No, much too heavy with traffic, I decided as I pulled out of the bank’s parking lot.  I turned to drive a longer but quieter route.

And from such minute decisions are often spun the slender threads on which life hangs in the balance.

As I reached the back road leading across  the busy avenue to the Kroger, my phone pinged with incoming texts. Despite having left my daughter’s home not twenty minutes before, my immediate thought was, “She’s in labor!”  Although the traffic signal was barely yellow, there were no cars behind me, so I stopped completely to give myself time to check the texts.

sunflower bouquetThe texts weren’t from my daughter–of course not. Instead, my friend Gloria was sharing a story of having just gone window shopping at a local festival.  She’d admired the bright sunflowers at a vendor’s booth, and was pleasantly surprised when the young clerk came out to hand her a free bouquet of those sunflowers.  It gave her spirits such a lift, Gloria told me, making me smile and reply that I’d forward to story to my sunflower-loving daughter.  Gloria’s second text mentioned that, as she’d left her home that day, she’d decided to expect a miracle. She felt the gift of sunflowers from a stranger was just that small miracle.

The light was still red as,  having read her texts and briefly replied, I  looked up, startled, hearing horns blaring.  I watched in horror as, just up the street where I was headed,  cars scattered in every direction like marbles tossed by the hand of a giant,  trying to avoid a three-car pileup.

Had I not stopped to check Gloria’s texts, I would likely have been right there in the midst of that accident.

Later, arriving home, I read Gloria’s final text, which said simply that she had just felt moved to share that story with me. I responded with shaking fingers, replying that by doing so, she might very well have saved me from a very bad accident.  We each felt chills, thinking of the intuition that had led her to relate the tale of such a simple moment, and me to stop and read the texts.  Divine intervention, my daughter declared, when I described the whole thing to her a little later.  Tell her there aren’t angels?!  No way, José, she scoffed, returning to her favorite childhood saying.

I am still pondering the sequence of events that led to my being protected from harm. Gloria left her home, expecting a miracle.  A young woman thoughtfully gifted a bouquet of flowers to a stranger, raising her spirits.  The recipient of her gift,  listening to intuition, felt moved to share that sweet story with me.  I, notorious for stomping the accelerator to beat the yellow light–and who would under normal circumstances just have waited until I reached the gas station to read the text–pulled to a stop in order to check the message, and consequently was not on the road when a terrible accident occurred.

And, as a final caveat, when I reached the filling station at last after maneuvering around the accident, a lady across from me was in despair of being able to get her discount card to register at the pump. Since I’ve encountered this problem a number of times, and been shown by a kind stranger how to deal with it,  I was able to demonstrate how to make her card work correctly.  From there, we began to chat, as women always do, and ended up in a happy conversation about the leaves caught in my hair from my gardening adventures, the pregnant daughter, her two sons and grandchildren, my expected grandbaby….

On such small dimes does life turn: often, sadly,  to sorrow, accidents and ugliness; sometimes, joyously, to protection, happiness, and the kindness shown by total strangers to one another. And, if we listen hard enough, above it all, we might hear the whispered rustle of angels’ wings.

Touching the Angel’s Hand

Aged not-quite 19, I moved out of my parents’ home to a basement apartment in a slum. Years later, that same slum area would undergo urban renovation, and the once-gracious mansion, restored to dignity, would become a psychiatric clinic, located on a street of other restored mansions not far from the President Benjamin Harrison home.  But at the time I and a roommate lived there, it was decidedly a slum.

And that was okay. We were young, and, like all the very young, totally believed ourselves to be invincible. We ignored or laughed off the very real dangers of the area in which we lived.

Unlike my roommate, however, I did not see my newfound freedom and my escape from the rigors of my family’s problems as license to live riotously. Disturbed by her use of drugs and alcohol and her sexual promiscuity, only three months later I moved once more, this time to a tiny studio apartment  just a few blocks away, carved out of what had been a hotel in the 1930s.  It had lovely parquet floors, a gigantic, time-worn old bathtub, and a miniature kitchen fashioned from what had once been a closet.  Most of the population of the building were elderly pensioners, living in this low-rent district to eke out their Social Security, and the local hooligans, aware of the dates when then-paper checks were delivered, lay in wait and regularly mugged residents in the front hall.  My youth helped me to avoid such a fate, but more than once I was unfortunate enough to walk in just after such a frightening assault had taken place.

Despite the ever-present threat of robbery and muggings, though, I often found myself walking to my job. For the same reason that I lived in the low-rent district, I had to forego taking the bus; I could not always afford the 35-cent bus fare.  I earned only minimum wage at my job as a file clerk, and most of my salary went to pay my rent while saving for the required deposit and installation fees to the phone company, a monopoly which had a stranglehold on communications and could charge whatever it pleased.  It took me months to save enough cash to have a landline phone installed.  My groceries each week, purchased after a long walk to the only grocer in the area were, again, all I could afford, and numbingly the same: a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a box of cereal, seven cans of soup, two packages of cold cuts, a carton of eggs, and some salad goods.  When my brother and sister-in-law brought me a kitten, I added a few cans of the cheapest pet food and cat litter to my purchases.  Each week I carefully hoarded quarters so that I could do my laundry using the machines in the scary basement (also the site of many an assault—I learned to do my laundry at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, when the muggers were sleeping off the previous night’s excesses).  The uniforms that I wore to my job, which were supposed to be dry-cleaned, I carefully hand-laundered in the bathtub, hanging them over it to dry.  Dry cleaning would have been an expensive luxury, even had there been a cleaners within walking distance.

Oddly enough, although the rigors of my existence at that time were trying, frightening and heartbreakingly lonely, I don’t regret a moment of it. What I learned from those two years of poverty and isolation was resilience. I learned that I could take complete care of and responsibility for myself, and even for another helpless little creature.  I found that I could be so terrifyingly lonely that suicide seemed a viable option—yet that I was strong enough to resist that lure, to fight despair, and to carry on.  I learned that I was competent.  I discovered that I was a survivor.

The experience gained in those two years of living on the raw edge of life, aged only 18 to 19, was incredibly powerful and contributed to my later hardiness in a life that has often been filled, as are most lives, with anguish, tragedy, fear, and difficulty.

I will never claim that I enjoyed that period of my existence, but I will always recognize that it gave me many undeniable and precious gifts. Because of those two rigorous years, and the lessons I learned from them,  I can agree, wholly and completely, with what Fra Giovanni wrote centuries ago in 1513, counseling about the vicissitudes of life:  “Welcome it; grasp it and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a duty, or a sorrow, believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there….”

The gift was, truly, there, and I touched the angel’s hand.

A Tale of Two Funerals

Like so many people, I often bemoan the lack of courtesy and etiquette in modern society, but never so much as during the past year, when I attended two funerals, months apart, and encountered vastly different experiences.

On the first occasion, I did not even know the woman who had passed when I attended her funeral calling. I was making the nod to kindness, in that she was the daughter of a distant acquaintance, and that she had died unexpectedly and far too young. I had already sent a sympathy card, but I felt it would be appropriate to offer my condolences in person, sign the guestbook, make the requisite and banal remarks, and take my leave.

It didn’t turn out precisely as I’d planned.

I arrived at the calling, and, not seeing my acquaintance, signed the guestbook and walked up to the coffin to murmur a prayer for those left behind, grieving. An inherently shy person, I am never at ease in a roomful of strangers, so I looked about, hoping to spot someone else whom I knew even slightly.  Having failed at that, I seated myself.  A few people in the room glanced at me, but no one spoke.  After a quarter-hour or so, I thought I might check the refreshment room and the chapel; perhaps my acquaintance was taking a break from the stress of the calling.  Still failing to locate her, though, I returned to the calling room;  again, a few of the family members and friends present glanced at me, but no one spoke or even smiled.  I had just nerved myself to ask one of these aloof strangers if my acquaintance was present when she finally arrived.  I waited patiently to one side while she talked with family members, and then, when she finally acknowledged me, I spoke to her briefly, extending my sympathy.  Although she thanked me for my condolences, she didn’t introduce me to any of the family members standing with her.  I found that odd, but  attributed it to her stress and grief.  Having nothing more to offer, I left, feeling as though the whole thing had been hardly worth my effort.

The second funeral I attended was so different that I felt I’d stepped off the Transporter. Again, this was the funeral of someone I barely knew—the mother of my daughter’s old friend.  I’d met this lady a few times, years earlier, when the girls were teenagers; her passing, too, was unexpected and sudden.

I was not looking forward to a repeat performance of the first funeral, but consoled myself with the thought that my daughter would be present at this calling, so I wouldn’t be quite alone.  This time, though, arriving at the funeral calling in the same manner, a stranger to almost everyone present, I was greeted.  A young woman, a friend of the family, stepped forward to acknowledge me, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked me how I knew the deceased.  When I explained my tenuous relationship, she assured me that, although my daughter’s friend had not arrived yet, she would be so glad that I had come to pay my respects to her mother.  I was directed to the guestbook and to the photo gallery for the deceased, shown where I might get a cup of coffee; in short, I was given every courtesy, set at my ease in a roomful of strangers, and assured that my effort to be present at this sad affair was appreciated.

People sometimes bemoan the lack of decorum at modern funerals – the casual clothing, the inattention as individuals focus on their phones. And while those are very valid criticisms, they are but a few facets in the overall loss of courtesy, charm and kindness that seems to infest all society, but is never more noticeable than when people are cloaked in anguish and grief.

Charm, I once read, true charm, is the ability to set someone at ease by assuring them that they are wanted, and liked. Courtesy to a stranger is much the same thing: it is to demonstrate to that person that they are welcomed; that their presence is appreciated.

We should always extend courtesy to the stranger in our midst, for we never know when an angel might be walking among us. I hardly count myself an angel, but the young woman, unknown to me, but who made every effort to set me at my ease in a stressful situation, was most certainly one.

The Speech of Angels

As I was signing some paperwork at an office the other day, the clerk at the counter complimented my handwriting. Admiring my signature, she asked if I was a very creative person.  That’s what my penmanship seemed to indicate, she explained.  Both surprised and perhaps a touch embarrassed, I laughed a little and shrugged; I don’t consider myself to be especially creative, and I said so.  “Well,” she continued, “then I think your handwriting shows an inner beauty.”

Her words sent a little frisson of pleasure spiraling through my spirit. This was, I realized, ppossibly the loveliest compliment I’d ever received, and I told her so quite sincerely as I thanked her.

In simple truth of fact, though, my handwriting is less about my personality than it is the product of eight years of parochial schooling. Each week we students were given a lesson in penmanship.  We spent hours scribing softly connected circles and loops and slashes before practicing each letter with the attention of a calligrapher.  I doubt that all my schoolmates developed fine handwriting as a result, but I enjoyed penmanship lessons and took them to heart. To this day, unless I’m struggling with one of those irritating electronic credit card pads, my handwriting is careful and attractive.

But the true importance of that compliment given me about my handwriting had nothing to do with either my eight years of training or my signature’s appearance and what it might indicate about my personality. Instead, those gracious words were valuable in that they lifted my spirit, suddenly and unexpectedly.  Her observation made an enormous difference to my feelings, both about myself and about my jaded view of the world around me.

You see, I’d been having a, well…shall we say, a challenging week. (That sounds so much nicer and is probably more accurate than, “The week from Hell.”)  I’d wrangled twice with an extremely unpleasant and officious clerk at a county office, managing to keep my temper, but searing my soul in the process.  I’d painfully wrenched my back, so that I was hobbling about like a troll.  I  had barely crossed anything off an extremely long to-do list, which appeared to be growing rather than shrinking.  I was, like Anne of Green Gables, “…considerably rumpled up in spirit…”.  And so that heartfelt compliment about my handwriting fell like balm over my bedraggled soul; like grace and benediction.

I’d experienced this before, of course; I think (hope) that we all have: the words or behavior of a stranger or acquaintance that might well be the speech of angels, channeled through a human entity, and sent specifically to heal us of melancholy. After the incident of the handwriting compliment, I drove home recalling a similar event from another year.  I’d had the day from, well, not Hell, but possibly Purgatory, at the office.  The dreadful hours had finally drawn to a close and I’d dragged my way out to my bus stop, step by lagging step, feeling only about a minute or so removed from tears.  As I sat there waiting on the bus (which was, of course, late) two women, complete strangers, approached me.  Both smiled at me and one spoke, saying, “We just wanted to tell you we absolutely love your hair.  The color, but especially the style.”  I found myself smiling back at them — a big, wide, heartfelt smile — as I thanked them.  The compliment was especially welcome because I’d had a “bad hair” morning.  Unable to get my long hair to behave, I’d sort of smashed it on top of my head with a lot of bobby pins and hairspray, just to get it out of the way and be done with it.  The two strangers’ compliment could not possibly have been more unexpected or more welcome.

My cousin once described to me a similar incident in her experience: an “earth angel”, a total stranger, walked up to her at a store while she was feeling deeply depressed and gave her a compliment. The remark upended everything she’d  been experiencing.  From being dejected, she’d swung into feeling exalted, if only for a moment.  And gratitude (that twin to happiness) poured over her toward this stranger for her moment of unexpected kindness.

So often, that’s all it takes to make a vast difference in someone’s day: a genuine smile, an unexpected kind word, a heartfelt compliment. A courteous gesture, an offer of help.  Holding open the door for someone whose arms are laden with packages.  Offering your place in line to the person who has only one item when you have a cartload.  Courteously allowing in the car trying to enter the busy stream of traffic.

And, sadly, yes, sometimes our kind gestures are scorned. A compliment is shrugged off or denied.  The person in the car behind you honks loudly because you permitted another car to nose in.  Two people cut in when you offer your place in line to another, or a healthy young teenager slides into the seat on the bus that you stood up to offer to the elderly man.  We’ve all experienced this, too.  But though an unwelcome reaction to kindness can cause us dejection, it isn’t enough reason to stop doing it.  Not reason enough at all.  Because a single kind gesture can change a person’s day entirely, can soothe emotional pain or lift the recipient from melancholy to gladness.  It can change the world for one person.

And if just one simple word or gesture can change the entire world for one person, what, just what, might a whole world of kind gestures or words do to change humanity?