Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas Report

The Wednesday before Christmas, I finished wrapping the presents, baking the cookies, and got the house cleaned for the holidays. I welcomed my mother-in-law into our home, cooked a nice dinner, put the children to bed. Around 10 p.m. my stomach started feeling a little funky. Around 1 a.m. I threw up in the downstairs bathroom.

Yes, that's right, boys and girls, after all that talk about leaving myself time to spiritually prepare for Christmas, the minute I was ready to walk through the Great Mystical Christmas Doorway, I got sick. Two days in bed-terrible nausea-deeply exhausted-nothing jolly about it- sick.

Ain't life grand?

The problem with nausea is that it zaps you of strength and hope. You can't look forward to the future--to eating Christmas dinner, for instance, or playing with your Christmas presents--because your thoughts can't escape the nausea you feel as you think them.

So here's what I did: I slept a lot. I let my mother-in-law run the show (thank goodness she was here!). I thought about the people with cancer going through chemo over at the hospital a few miles from my home and prayed that they would feel some relief during Christmas, if only for a few moments. I thought about my friend Kathryn, who is in her fourth month of pregnancy and still experiencing all-day morning sickness. There's nothing I can do to relieve her symptoms, but at least I could for a time feel the deepest empathy. I called her up and said, "Doesn't feeling nauseated all the time suck?" We talked about how tired it makes you, how depressed.

When you've got a stomach bug at Christmas, it's hard to feel merry. But Christmas stripped bare of all its ho-ho-ho's isn't all bad. It reminds you that all sorts of folks feel like hell all the time, and that's it particularly awful to feel like hell at Christmas. There's not much you can do but say "I feel your pain" and actually mean it, but I think maybe that helps a little. Being sick is so isolating when everyone around you is healthy.

I'm still sick as I write this--apparently this bug lasts between two and three weeks--though I feel much better and not nauseated, just sort of tired all the time. I'm not alone--a bunch of people around here have the same thing--which makes it better, and once I learned that the bug would hang around for a while, I just decided to ignore it and get on with things. So it's not so bad.

Christmas day was lovely. Santa Claus came (despite Will's Christmas Eve fears that the big man would be a no show due to Will's evil ways), the roast beef turned out nicely (I used the recipe from the January Cook's Illustrated, and it worked perfectly), and everyone seemed happy with their new stuff. Wednesday and Thursday we hung out in our pjs and played board games and read. I stayed in my pajamas until 2 p.m. on Thursday, a personal best.

Slowly we're emerging from the Christmas dream state. My husband went to work today. I've been surreptitiously carting toys up to the boys' room and doing loads of laundry. Jack is already anticipating Christmas next year.

Tomorrow we'll take down the tree and put away the decorations. I'm ready. But I think in spite of being sick, I'll look back on this Christmas fondly. We visited with friends, went to a Boxing Day party, and enjoyed seeing Jack play a Wise Man in the Christmas pageant. I managed not to feel too sorry for myself, and I got all of the books I asked for. Really, it was lovely.

Monday, December 17, 2007

It's Eight O'Clock in the Morning ...

And I'm in the mood to write something funny and cheerful, though I have absolutely no idea of what to write about. I will spend my morning cleaning Will's room to bring it up to Health Codes before my mother-in-law's arrival on Wednesday. My big plan--Martha Stewart, take note--is to throw piles and piles of things in a box and shove the box in the attic until after Christmas.

Will's room is a collection of tee-tiny pieces scattered hither and yon. Lately, he's been getting sent to his room quite a bit (the last month or so his automatic response to any sort of instruction has been "No!", which is tiresome, as is being called "Stupid Head" at least three times a day during the Christmas season), and during his protracted stays, he gets out all his little pieces of things and examines them, makes up secret lives for them, and then throws them under his bed or in his closet with all the other little pieces, which, when they get a little time alone together, seem to breed as steadily as rabbits.

Put simply, Will has too much stuff. He's the younger brother, so he gets all the stuff that once belonged to Jack, and then he gets new stuff every Christmas and birthday. This stuff adds up to a ridiculous amount of toys, puzzles, games, guys, Legos, Lincoln Logs, crayons, books, trucks and so on. I do occasional purges, to no avail.

And I haven't even talked about the food and drink he secrets away in his room while no one's looking. And the hermit crab carcasses and the two cups of kidney beans scattered all over the place--where did they come from? (Well, I know where the hermit crab carcasses come from--they come from dead hermit crabs, several of whom, while alive, Will so thoughtfully released into the wild. We are done--done, I tell you--with hermit crabs in this family, no matter how much the boys beg the next time we go to the beach).

You can imagine that writing all this down is increasing my enthusiasm for tackling the project. But it will be so satisfying when I finish. And it will last all of five minutes, but it will be a lovely five minutes. Maybe I'll drink a cup of tea in there and read poetry and not think one single thought about the futility of cleaning a five-year-old's room a week before Christmas, when two million more little pieces will roll in, and I will be done for.

Friday, December 14, 2007

An Advent Story

This story begins many years ago, when I was packing up my things to move and listening to the radio. There was a story about a recently re-released recording, a symphony of sorts, composed around the looping of a tape of an old man singing a hymn. Over and over, the old man sang the hymn, and little by little strings were added on top of his singing, and then a full orchestra.

At some point, I stopped packing and just listened. It was such a compelling, beautiful piece, and I'd never heard anything like it. I wrote down the title and tucked it away somewhere where I wouldn't lose it. This was in the early '90s, in the days before or I-Tunes, but I thought maybe after I moved I could go to a record store and see if I could find a copy or order one.

Of course, I never did find where I put the piece of paper with the title on it, and I couldn't remember exactly what the title was. Eventually I forgot about it. And then, some years later, I heard the recording on the radio again. Did I write down the title then? I don't think I did--I must have thought that this time I would remember.

But later, when I thought how much I'd like to listen to that music again, memory failed. I'd do occasional Google searches, seeing if I could hit on the phrase that would help Google work its magic--"old man singing blood of the lamb hymn"--to no avail.

And then yesterday, a day that found me feeling vaguely despondent, feeling God was far away and not accessible through the usual available channels--through church, through books, through other people--I was catching up on one of my favorite blogs, Don't Eat Alone: Thoughts on Food, Faith, Family and Friends, and I found this:

Since I worked brunch today, Ginger and I both got to be home together tonight, each at our respective MacBooks writing away. I plugged the speakers into mine and turned on Gavin Bryars’ recording, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which is a classical piece built around the singing of a London street person. Here is Bryars’ description:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song - sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads - and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith.

And, of course, that was it. Finally, finally the song had come back to me! I always knew I'd find it again. Oh, it felt like a gift. I downloaded it from I-Tunes and have been listening to it ever since.

Here's what I wrote in my journal yesterday afternoon while listening:

Sometimes I try to think my way into faith and faith eludes me.

The last week or so I have felt stressed and not connected to the Advent stories I've tried to read. I've gone to Morning Prayer and for the most part not felt prayerful or moved. Do I even believe? I want to believe and I wish I did and most times I do and sometimes I don't.

There is something about this song, how it starts with one human voice, one voice looping over and over for almost five minutes:

Jesus' blood has never failed me yet,
never failed me yet,
never failed me yet,
Jesus' blood has never failed me yet
It's one thing I know
For he loves me so

The loop slowing, speeding up, and then overlaid lightly with strings, harps, building into a full orchestra, another voice, the raw, broken voice of Tom Waits, and the beauty of it, which is beyond what I can say, other than it makes me hopeful that there is a God too big for words to contain.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Sweater that Would Not Die

This is the picture of the sweater I will be sending to my brother for Christmas. Note: I will be sending him the picture, not the sweater. The sweater has sleeve problems. The sleeves are too big in circumference. When I try to put them in using the various methods suggested by the experts, the sweater looks bunchy and bad. My plan is to frog the sleeves down a bit and decrease the number of stitches by ten.

Edit: My plan is to frog the sleeves down a bit and decrease the number of stitches by ten when I get around to it. Which may be before Christmas, it may be after Christmas. In the meantime, my brother will have this lovely little picture to keep him warm.

A Christmas Carol

Yesterday Jack and I went Christmas caroling after church. I did not want to go Christmas caroling after church. I'd been at church since 9:30 that morning (pageant rehearsal). I'm a big fan of God and everything, but an hour or so of church will do it for me on any given Sunday.

I tried to talk Jack out of caroling, but he wouldn't budge. He's the world's biggest fan of Christmas carols, and he loves to sing. I suppose I could have put my foot down. But who wants to discourage an 8-year-old kid from singing and being part of church life and all that? Not me, brother.

So off we went. Now let me point out a few things: It was seventy degrees outside. It was December 9th, which is entirely too early for caroling. Very few people are truly in the Christmas spirit by December 9th. Oh, we may be in full-on Christmas prep mode, we may have freezers full of cookies and presents under the tree, we may want to feel Christmas-y, but it's not time yet. Personally, I don't truly get in the Christmas spirit until around December 22nd. Often, around the 16th of December, I start to despair because I'm not in the spirit yet, and there are years when I never get there. But normally, right around the 22nd, when it gets dark so early and the lights on the tree seem especially beautiful and necessary, the spirit enters me and I'm as giddy as a child.

But I felt no giddiness as we set forth down Kimberly Road yesterday. I felt awkwardness, since most of the group was from the choir, and like all choirs, bands and theater groups, there was a certain clubbiness. So for the ten trillionth time in my life, I felt on the outside of things. Plus, our choir has an inordinate number of young men, and so there was a lot of joking that felt less than, well, spiritual.

But at every house we went to, Jack was front in center when the singing began, and he was clearly having a good time, so for the first thirty minutes or so, I was a trooper. Look at me, I praised myself, aren't I a wonderful parent, sacrificing my afternoon for my child's happiness.

Around minute thirty-one, a definite crankiness set in. I was tired of feeling socially awkward. I'm 43 and overall have come to terms with my misfit state, have learned to suffer through it quietly, have learned to silence the defensive thoughts that creep into my mind when I'm hanging out at the edge of large groups ('I bet I'm smarter than they are, I bet my friends are smarter than they are, I bet if they knew I was a published author, they'd talk to me,' etc.). But sometimes it still wears me out.

I was also plain tired. I was wearing heels. We were walking up hills and down gravel driveways. I'm an alto and was having a hard time finding a comfortable place to pitch my voice. I kept telling myself maybe a redeeming moment would come, something wonderful that would make it all worthwhile. Look for the light, I told myself, blah blah blah. Quite frankly, I wasn't buying it. Some events have no redeeming moments. Some things are just a waste of time and the only lesson to be learned is Don't Do This Again Ever.

Oh, I was getting crankier by the minute. Neither the church rector or curate had joined us, and I found that irritating. Okay, so they'd been up since dawn probably, preparing for the Sunday services, but still, even if they'd only joined us for thirty minutes, it would have been meaningful. It would have made the caroling feel more communal, less like a field trip for the choir. It felt wrong to me that they weren't there.

And we were caroling in the neighborhood around the church, a country club neighborhood. Why weren't we spreading good tidings and cheer downtown, where people could actually use a little Christmas comfort? Why were we circling a golf course instead?

Finally, seventeen hours or so later, we reached Marian's house. Marian is an elderly parishioner who still dyes her hair jet black, Lord love her. We stood outside her door and sang two songs, and after we were done, she invited us in. Oh, please God, no, I thought. Please, don't make us go in. I turned to Jack. "Do you want to cut out and go home?" Of course he didn't. He never does.

So into Marian's house we trooped. She led us into her small dining room. She brought out a cold litre of caffeine-free Diet Coke, my most hated beverage, a stack of plastic cups, and a package of store-bought mini-cupcakes. Kate poured each of us a cup of Coke. Ben asked Marian if there was anything else she'd like us to sing. "Oh, 'Silent Night'!" she exclaimed. "My grandfather used to sing that to me in German every Christmas."

So we sang "Silent Night," and Marian teared up and said, "That was my first Christmas present of the year, thank you so much," and we trooped back out into the balmy afternoon.

I was still cranky, and if you want to know the truth about it, I was still pretty sorry I'd come. But even I could recognize that I had been received into Marian's home in the way we are all meant to receive strangers into our homes. And I suspect that in years to come what I'll remember about the one time I went Christmas caroling after church is Marian and her Diet Coke, which tasted so good after walking all that way in my high heels, and her lovely little cupcakes from Kroger, which were delicious.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Is It Time to Panic Yet?

Every day this week I wanted to sit down and write something here. I wrote a bunch of posts in my head. But I never did sit down and write, because all week I was constantly seized with the feeling that I had to be doing something to prepare for Christmas. So much to be done, so much to be done!

It finally occurred to me yesterday that I was stressing way too much for the the first week of December. Especially given that I've already got most of my shopping done, which for me is the hardest part (that and the wrapping--I'm much too left-handed to wrap presents).

The primary source of my stress is the sweater I'm knitting for my brother. I can knit just about anything, but the finishing kills me, particularly necklines and sleeves (shoulder and side seams aren't a problem). It's a v-neck sweater, and I'm having a bit of a problem with the V in the neck. First, the instructions, badly translated from the German (it's a Lang pattern) are useless. I followed them to a tee and did not get a V. So now I'm having to make it up as I go along. This could take years.

Yesterday morning I started to despair as I knit and watched "The Waltons" (a favorite show of my youth). This sweater is eating up all my available time with its infinite do-overs. I felt the need for a cigarette, a sure sign that the stress was taking over (especially given that I haven't smoked in ten years). I turned off the TV and thought. What if I don't finish this sweater? What if I don't get the Christmas cards out? What if I don't get all the out-of-town packages mailed on Monday, per my plan?

Well, the world would fall apart, naturally. Christmas would come to a dead halt. History would collapse upon itself and the baby Jesus would never get born in the first place.

Clearly, I needed a little perspective.

And then, in a flash, I had an idea. I could take a picture of my brother's almost-finished sweater, and if I don't finish the sweater in time to mail it with the rest of the gifts I'm sending, then I will put the picture in a nice box and wrap the box and put a pretty bow on top, and I will send the picture in the sweater's stead.

I like this idea so much, I may not finish my brother's sweater on purpose. Because a picture in the box will make him laugh. And it will make me laugh to send it.

On top of that, I did finish the quilt for my sister-in-law (which I will take a picture of before I send it and post the picture here) and it looks grand, despite the fact that there are no right angles or straight lines anywhere, and its general shape is more that of a rhombus than a rectangle. But still, it's really cool and will make her happy, and that will make my brother happy. Happiness all around! Christmas is saved!

So today I don't feel so stressed out. I have some other things I want to write about, and maybe I will write some more later today or tomorrow. I want to write about how I've been looking for light every day and how cool that's been, how when you're driving and keeping an eye out for light--the sun breaking through the clouds, a tree that has held onto its outrageously bright yellow leaves, etc.--the world becomes amazingly beautiful in the most ordinary places. So, more later. I'm off to chill out some more.

Monday, December 3, 2007

And so it begins ...

Last night Jack set fire to the Advent wreath.

It was a brief, small fire. The wreath is artificial, and plastic evergreens, as it turns out, burn slowly. Jack wanted so badly to light the first candle of Advent, but he doesn't know enough about matches to know to hold them sideways and not vertically. The flame consumed the match quickly and burned Jack's thumb. Jack dropped the still-lit match. The wreath caught fire. I blew it out.

You know, you plan things, you map them out, you dream of perfect results, and then real life kicks in. I had imagined the first Sunday of Advent as a holy day. I awoke early to read some Advent devotions. Jack woke early, too. So did Will. Will wanted to watch TV. I said no. Will threw a fit. I sent him to his room. Jack set up camp in my favorite reading chair. I barked at him to get out. Holy, holy, holy, indeed.

My husband had to be out of the house all afternoon. I planned on finishing the last bit of the sweater I'm making for my brother. I planned to knit in a meditative sort of way and think about hope and joy. For the last two months, my children have been wonderfully self-sufficient, so I thought I could get away with this. But yesterday they couldn't leave me alone for two seconds, couldn't find a thing to do that didn't involve me driving them somewhere or supervising. I didn't sit down to knit until 9 p.m.

I have found that when I want most to connect to the spiritual side of things, I am least able to. I think that happens to a lot of people at Christmas time. You want to feel the Christmas spirit, and what you end up feeling is irritable and cranky and hateful. You want to wait for the light, but what you're mostly waiting for is for everyone to leave you the heck alone.

Today, I'm not going to try so hard. I'm going to read my devotions and take a walk. I'm going to bake Christmas cookies and put them in the freezer. In the afternoon, I'll see if Will wants to help me bake banana bread. I'll try not to scream at the children too much for being, well, children. And I'll try to remember that Christmas is a beginning, not an end unto it itself. The light remains even after the last Advent candle burns out (or the wreath does).