Exhausted as I was, I was awake again at midnight last night. I didn’t initially fall to sleep at first. I died a little death, one that immersed me into blackness. I certainly wasn’t quietly whispering a prayer for 2020. This was the first year in many that my eyes were open at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The power went out long enough to cause everything to flicker and beckon to be reset. The cat screamed and demanded attention. Because I live in east Springdale, the locals insisted on going out into the cold and rain and using their finest and largest artillery to announce the New Year. Several of the guns were truly cacophonous. I felt the vibrations in my ribs, like a discordant xylophone. It was amusing to note that I ended the year forty-five pounds lighter than I’d started it, with my sanity along for a wild ride.
For all those who made promises to go to the gym, I can save you a lot of time and money, if you’ll listen. Just ask me. I’m wrong about a lot of things, but not this. Even though we tell ourselves that there must be some external and elegant solution to most of our problems and habits, the truth is that simplicity and focus will get you there more quickly. Get those first. Your best resolution might be to take a long moment, even a month, to consider your life.
Running in place won’t get you where you want to be.
“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” – William E. Vaughn
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” -Socrates
“The calendar reminds us when we are. We’d be better served if it told us who we are.” – X
“The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year’s Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you’re married to.” — P. J. O’Rourke
“If you’re making a resolution, I’d remind you that the New Year is just a way to make the same old mistakes again. Don’t make a promise to change. Be the person you are supposed to be and the rest will follow, hell or high water.” – X
“Why would I need a resolution to remind myself that I am perfect just the way I am?” – Unknown
“The most negative word of 2020 was the word ‘positive.'” – Unknown
Judy’s eyes opened to see the projector clock on the opposite wall indicating 4:45 a.m. Before going to bed, she set the bedroom alarm for 5:00 a.m. and her automatic coffee pot in the kitchen for 5:15 a.m. Since it was Christmas morning, she needed to complete her to-do list before Jake scrambled out of his pillow fort. They spent at least thirty minutes last night, carefully building his sleeping fort to his precise specifications. He wanted to ensure that Santa wouldn’t find him awake in the dark. After getting Jake to stop chatting and to try to sleep, Judy pulled the presents for Jake from the trunk of her car and tucked them under the tree. It would be an austere Christmas this year. She hoped Jake wouldn’t mind.
Judy succumbed to the warmth of the bed; she pulled the comforter tightly under her neck.
The last year was beyond difficult. Judy’s ex-husband Richard spent the first four months of the year denying he had abused her. When he discovered that Judy’s decision to flee him was going to last, he turned his efforts to the court to take Jake from her. Even Judy’s mom testified against her. For reasons she still didn’t understand, the judge awarded her sole custody and granted her permission to move away. By September, she had a new apartment, a new job, and a new list of fears. Judy and Jake were on their own in every sense of the word. For ten years old, Jake somehow avoided the anguish others kids might have experienced through such a traumatic year. Judy found herself holding her breath tensely, waiting to see Jake act out. He never did.
At 4:50, Judy imagined she could smell coffee. If she overslept the alarm, the coffee always roused her from the bed. Single parents had to use a bit of creativity to keep their lives manageable. Imagining her first cup of coffee, she realized that she needed to pee. She pulled the comforter over her head as if doing so would erase the imaginary scent of coffee from her nose and the need to go to the bathroom. When she got the edge of the comforter tucked behind her head, she heard the soft melodies of “All I Want For Christmas” by Celine Dion. Most people preferred Mariah Carey, but not Judy. Celine was the voice of her angel. Deciding that she wasn’t going to quiet her mind or rest, Judy crawled from her warm bed and walked through the small dark bedroom to the tiny bathroom attached to it. As soon as she sat, she distinctly heard the music volume increase dramatically. Without a doubt, Celine’s voice played in the living room. Judy tried to finish more quickly, which only increased her need to go longer. As most moms discover, there is no such thing as quiet time, even in the bathroom. There’s always a bang on the door or an immediate need to address.
Judy quickly put on her Santa pajama bottoms and walked out into the living room. Inexplicably, the small tree next to the front window was fully lit and twinkling. The stereo next to the small television was on. Celine’s voice streamed from it. Judy walked across the narrow living room to Jake’s room. Opening the door, she went to the pillow fort and peered inside. Jake wasn’t there.
Judy quickly backed out of the room and peeked into the front bathroom. Also empty.
She turned and slid the sliding door to the kitchen open.
Jake sat at the small plain wood table. A cup of coffee sat in front of him. Next to that, a simple red box tied with twine.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Jake shouted as he ran over and hugged Judy around the waist. Surprised, Judy stood and rubbed her son’s hair back from his face. After a few seconds, he pulled away and reached over to grab the cup to hand to Judy. “I made this just the way you like it, Mom!”
“When did you learn to make coffee, Jake?” she asked.
“Oh Mom. That’s what YouTube is for! Plus, this is your Christmas!” Jake’s smile was as big as Judy had ever seen it. Though doubtful, Judy sipped the coffee. It was perfect. She laughed, realizing that Jake just volunteered to make coffee for her for the next ten years. “It’s delicious and so much better when someone else makes it!” She winked at him in the way that he loved.
“What are you doing up so early, son? It’s barely five.”
“Mom, I asked Santa to give you a good Christmas. He told me that I should give you a good one. I got you a gift.” Jake reached for the box on the table and pushed it toward Judy.
“How did you manage this, Jake? Do you even have money?” Judy laughed. She pulled the top bow loose to work the lid off the box.
“It was easy. I took out the trash every day for Mr. Johnson and agreed to help the building manager for a few months next year. I got Ken’s mom to get the gift at Target. Ken brought me the surprise to school, and I sneaked it home in my backpack. Simple.” He smiled. Judy knew that it had been anything but simple. Such planning for a ten-year-old was impressive. She was going to act delighted no matter what the box contained. It’s a ritual that Moms do instinctively.
Judy lifted the top off the box. She gasped. Inside the box at the bottom was a single ruby earring. Her eyes welled up as she looked at Jake. He sat, watching her, a smile on his face.
“Mom, do you like it?”
She swallowed hard to avoid crying. “Yes, of course!”
“I know that Dad took your Grandma’s ruby earrings and hid them. I could only afford one this year. I’ll get you the other one next year, I promise.”
Judy abandoned all pretense and started sobbing. She sat down hard on the chair across from Jake. Her coffee sloshed and spilled a little as she did so. Jake came around the table and hugged Judy from the side. She grabbed him and squeezed him hard against her.
“I love it, Jake! I love you.” She fumbled to pick up the single ruby earring and put it into her right earlobe. She smiled at Jake.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!”
As Celine continued to soar in the clouds in the background, Jake and Judy, mom and son, sat at the kitchen table laughing. It was a long time coming. In the living room, beneath the tree, Jake’s presents waited.
Love and Christmas were drowning them both. They swam in it.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the season is inside you if you’ll permit it to overwhelm you.
“Time seldom approaches with a wild machete. It creeps from behind with a small, concealed knife.” – X
But Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Someone more creative than me pointed out that the sand in an hourglass imprisons itself, as glass is made from sand. Don’t you wonder if we aren’t the same, becoming our own prisoners? There’s no emotion or problem that we can’t complicate, escalate, or initiate.
Noted philosopher Coco Chanel said, “Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.” She obviously never worked a real job or dealt with people who have few laughs in their hearts.
My scars insist that time is real, but in the quiet moments, I wonder. I used to assume that most people had these thoughts. It was disappointing to discover that many people can’t imagine that Aslan or tesseracts are real – or walk in an imagined world where they might be the figments of a greater creature’s imagination.
“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” – Bill Watterson. I was equally surprised in later life to find people who deny that sitting in a quiet room can sometimes be better than a vacation. All good lives start with a quiet room. Add your preferred levels of crazy for a great life. Subtract what takes you further from the quiet room. It might be that simple for many of us.
“Why is that I never heard these words: ‘Let’s gather by the river, drink moonshine, and tell jokes and the stories of our lives.’ But I always hear stories of obligation and things that don’t linger in the minds of others.” – X
If you’ve never read “The Time Traveller’s Wife,” you missed this quote by Audrey Niffenegger: “It’s dark now and I am very tired. I love you, always. Time is nothing.”
Haruki Murakami said, either comically or seriously, “For a while” is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.”
Hippocrates (assuming it was the father of medicine and not the hockey player of the same name), said: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”
We all wonder about 2020, which ends in about a month. We look forward. Where were we a month ago? The difference between comparing now to then is a question of knowing what lies in the interim. It requires no faith. With what lies ahead, our imaginations seize us. Whether that imagination is fueled by the dread of what will come or the expectation that we will find a way to be who we need to be is our choice.
This is my New Year’s post, written a month early.
If you can’t feel time slipping up behind you with that knife, that is okay. There is no defense against it except to live a good life. You only win by yielding.
One last wise quote: “Time is a great healer, but a poor beautician.” -Lucille S. Harper
For many, the tradition of holiday cards is a dying custom. I don’t envy people for their interests or habits. It’s not a good recipe for living to feel obligated to follow the old ways. For me, though, there are times when the opportunity to send cards brings out the part of me that lives in a vast world full of billions of souls, each wanting a little bit of spectacle and magic. Oddly, even those who’ve scorned social media are as likely to have given up writing letters or sending a holiday card to friends and family. It’s a dying custom.
It’s hard for me to send a simple card. I have to make it complicated and personal!
I don’t send out cards in expectation of reciprocity. That, too, is a poor way to live one’s life. There are times when I put in a little bit of effort and then am surprised when I hear nothing in response, though. That’s part of the bittersweetness of sending unsolicited bits of fun and zaniness out in the world. People don’t have the time – or always make it – to let you know they liked it or hated it. Static sometimes fills the air. It’s a gift to be able to tune it out when you put out some creativity in the world. A good response is to keep sending them cards regardless of their interaction.
A couple of years ago, I created a complex and custom birthday card online and sent it to an acquaintance. I made the card from social media pictures. It was a work of art, if I do say so myself. I used another return address to conceal my identity further. Since the company which printed and mailed my creation sent it, there was no postal marking to identify its origin. My acquaintance was genuinely perplexed and spent DAYS vainly trying to discern who might have created the artwork cards. So great was her interest that she finally posted on her social media page to beg for help figuring out ‘who.’ I was surprised that no one immediately connected the dots to me, given the work’s detail.
In a tradition I don’t always follow or do in the same manner, I send several personalized Christmas cards to people and families that I’ll never meet. In a few cases, I found pictures of LinkedIn, yearbooks from long ago, or social media. I downloaded them, and in some instances, photoshopped them before creating the custom cards that went to each of them. I chose a person at random from a yearbook for one of the lucky recipients I’d never seen before and researched them sufficiently to discover their new life. I also used ancestry to find a distant cousin and pieced together clues to figure out their real identity from the anonymous one used on the ancestry website. Using an inmate website, I found a person’s name and I.D. number and then sent him a glorious card and words of encouragement.
Though it might paint me as a bit of a weirdo, I find it challenging to explain to others how much fun I derive from sending total strangers a holiday card, especially when I personalize each with their pictures.
In each of these cases, I enjoyed each recipient’s imagined scenarios in my head, as they puzzled the personalized card from someone they didn’t know. In some cases, I used fake identities and addresses. In others, I used my real name, which might not necessarily allay concerns. “X” seems more like an accusation in some cases.
Of course, I also sent a few cards to people I do know, without using my real name and address, hoping to give them a bit of yuletide joy as they vainly attempted to figure out who had sent them a card. All those cards were customized and were a pleasure to create. I also sent a few to people using other friends and family members as the sender. I love living in a world wherein it is possible to convince people that someone else sent them a card, no matter how they might deny it.
Likely, I’ll never hear any of the stories that resulted from most of these custom cards. That’s how it works, though. Not knowing is often more rewarding than discovering the mundane answers.
Many people received Xmas cards over the years without knowing the person they thought sent it had nothing to do with it. Also? People don’t always look closely at the pictures. You wouldn’t believe the people and things I’ve edited into images without anyone noticing.
I can imagine several of the recipients scratching their heads in bewilderment, wondering who, what, when, and where – all without an answer. They may half-expect a repeat this year. Because I used an online address book for most of them, I could go back and send them another card this year. That would get them thinking.
Because much of our modern lives are now redirected by technology, the old ways provide another road to have a bit of fun.
P.S. If you are not familiar with Postable, it’s a great way to have some of the fun without needing to do the actual creation by hand. Postable – Create and Send Custom Cards You can upload pictures and design custom cards. They’ll also put it in an envelope and mail it for you – using any return address you might dream up. If you want to do Christmas or holiday cards, I highly recommend that you give Postable a try.
My day started with bursts of restless sleep, punctuated by a cat insistent that I get up. Truthfully, I lay there writing stories in my head and attempting to gather the threads of my own life together. After giving the cat his beloved morsels of treats, I made a staggeringly strong pot of coffee. My first cup was black as tar. The bitterness, as always, renewed me.
Writing these words, I fully realize that the pandemic has changed everything. It’s the new baseline. Whether it has emboldened you to waste no further energy on things which don’t bring you joy, or robbed you of the pieces of yourself that make your life meaningful, I hope you can find refuge in this day. Gratitude is a daily affirmation more than an occasion.
For years, I tried to get the tribe to accompany me to Clarion Inn, try a new tradition, and trust me enough to experience something that I once loved. They resisted until one day, the Clarion closed. I’m not bitter about it; disappointed, yes. (It was their loss more than mine. New experiences aren’t as common as we’d like to think.) Likewise, I hinted and asked if we might try another type of food, with anything on the literal table for options. Those who needed turkey and the fixings could still have those. I offered to ensure that they would if they would join me in something unexpected and non-traditional. It’s not the food that makes the day. The people around the table, the spirit of the day as originally intended – these combine to make the moments worth doing. With each hard pass, they’d futurize and point to a vague moment in our shared future in which we could be creative and spontaneous. Moments delayed often never materialize. The players find new games, and lives scatter. It’s the way life is.
If you are counting the wrinkles on participant’s faces to determine who might not be with us in the years to come, you are foolish. From experience, I can tell you that youth is no shield from loss. I call this tendency, “The Clarion Misconception.”
One of my favorite people in the world hates Thanksgiving. For her, the day was her mother embodied. She’s faced more loss since, and the holiday has yet to recover any joy for her. It’s hard to enjoy some of the day when someone you love is hurting. Ache and loneliness are holes that seldom fill. As for my loved one, she is at least opting to have an extraordinarily simple meal of her choice to celebrate the day. In that way, she is lucky beyond compare. It’s ironic that our simple choices are envied by others. Those with a full table often envy a small personally chosen meal, while those with simplicity often find themselves wondering what a full table might bring.
While I’m no fan of the holiday, I am a genuine fan of the opportunity that the day can bring. At its heart, it is a day of companionship and love. It is a gong being rung in our hearts to remind us that this day, like all others, is not a given. I wish people could stop looking toward the pomp and ceremony of the preparations and instead take the chance to use the day to sit and laugh. And eat, too, yes. Whatever suits them, no matter how ridiculous or unexpected. Even the first Thanksgiving, the one we supposedly observe, resulted from what was available rather than what people wanted. Traditions are meaningless to me if they cannot be bent or broken when people want them to be something else.
Things? I need none.
Food? I’m more full now than I ever was while eating unhealthily. By focusing on less, I have more and enjoy it more.
Love? No gauge can ever read full in this regard.
Whatever number of days you have, you now have one fewer to sit and laugh. Take the small moments and hold them close to your heart. As you do, the larger moments will take care of themselves. You can’t have an empty life if you fully appreciate who and what you love in the small moments. Most of your life is lived in the intervals.
After all, the day is about having a hungry heart. Mine is ravenous.
P.S. A couple of links below, if you’re interested…
In a strange place, as dusk approached, I was alone, as if the world stood still. I heard echoes and booms. The frequency and intensity slowly intensified, much like a novice drummer tentatively using his sticks across the surface of a drum set. Peering through the window, I realized I had a front-row seat to a fireworks display at a church slightly more than a hundred yards from me. Because I was higher than the display, I had the best view in the house. It was a moment crafted just for me, though the dozens of spectators packed on the lawn and the parking lot behind the church would disagree. Before light succumbed to dusk and encroaching darkness, I could see the dozens of mismatched lawn chairs assembled in random order across the pavement. I could see the dots of both adults and children restlessly moving around. Though they anticipated the commencement of the ceremony, I’m sure many of them realized how quickly it would come and go, much in the same manner as the days we take for granted overtake us. One of our modern curses is to be thinking about getting out easily after whatever event we’re attending is over; it is the opposite of living in the moment. “Parking prevails,” a wise man once said.
I pulled a desk chair in front of the large window and sat down to observe.
Because I continue to believe that 90% of our lives lie in the spaces between the grand moments, I couldn’t help but think that somehow I knew I would always remember this moment.
Though I’ve forgotten the majority of my incredible trip to D.C. with the band in high school, I’ll never forget the backdrop of the national fireworks display in the distance. Though we were confined inside due to rain, the moment was majestic and shared. We’d burned under the July sun earlier in the day. All of us were on an upper floor of the hotel. Perhaps the fireworks display I observed at Lake Atalanta 30 + years ago was more exciting because I was dangerously close to the firework system itself. I was within feet of it and found myself mesmerized by the colors and brilliant reflection of the charges on the shimmering surface of the lake as they exploded. As each charge fired, I could feel the heat and the tickle of the powder discharged from the nozzles.
This year, I had the best view, the best outlook and the most colorful advantage. In the background, the approaching dark skies blossomed with intermittent bolts of lightning above the horizon. Mother Nature competed against man and I was a sole witness.
It was an unplanned moment. Unplannable, really.
The subsequent booms and explosions of color ejected streams of dense smoke that floated slowly across to the west. The dark clouds behind and above seemed frozen in place, even as the lightning bolted from within. The smoke billows seemed artificially 3-D as they moved across the sky in front of me.
Across that same long horizon, I watched the dueling lights of the radio tower blink intermittently and the illumination of the coal electricity plant light up a small portion above the vista. Dotted all along the expanse were other fireworks displays, some large, some small, all equally observed by craning necks and fascinated watchers.
I could sense the anticipation of those at the church after so many confined moments and small rooms, behind masks, away from shared experiences.
This unscripted moment will not be rivaled.
Afterward, I watched the human dots and the lawn chairs as they dispersed back to their vehicles. I didn’t need to hear their private conversations to know the content. I now wonder why they didn’t remain there, congregated, and joined. Even in silence. The homes they’ve become too accustomed to in the last few months undoubtedly will echo falsely upon their return. How long will their memories of this exotic Fourth of July remain in their minds? Like the fireworks, things are moving explosively and with no preordained velocity, as if life must be packed into a single instantaneous moment that escapes our grasp. Amidst the temporary sizzle, all of us would probably agree that life is simultaneously on hold and flying past us with hurried feet.
Because you were not here to see, I’ll carve a tiny slice of my witnessed memory to share with you in the most imperfect way possible.
Now that everyone has departed, I remain at the window observing Mother Nature illuminate the dark clouds and the enveloping night with immense bolts of electricity. I feel that those attending the display should have remained to see this too. This eternal power abides restlessly and insistently, ignoring our movements with disregard. It needs no Fourth as an excuse; its power conjures a glimpse of a timeline so mammoth that it drowns out our concerns.
While I filmed both fireworks and lightning in their respective moments, I won’t share them with you. I’d like your imagination to fill in the gaps of what I witnessed, much in the same way I hope you fill in your life with as much curiosity and interest as these times permit.
The picture I used is not real, no more than the already-forgotten pictures you might have taken during the holiday. For me, the surprise and delight of experiencing fireworks spontaneously would overshadow the reality of data I could see. I stole that moment from a night otherwise absent such delight.
Noted Etch-A-Sketch artist Beth (a notorious yet talented cousin) conspired with my other favorite cousin Lynette, aka ‘Operative Cheetah.’ Beth, using Lynette’s meticulous input, created and designed a permanent Etch-A-Sketch of one of my favorite places in the world: the plank porch at my grandparents’ house on the hill in Rich, a tiny place located in Monroe County. She then installed it in a shadow box stolen from the attic of a noted philanthropist who curated at the Smithsonian. Somehow, despite the current apocalypse, it arrived at my house without damage.
For those who didn’t know that Etch-A-Sketch artists exist – or that they can be rendered permanent by those with the knowledge to do so.Beth’s Etch A Sketch Facebook Page
Although unintentional, Beth provided my cat Güino with an immediate resting place. He pawed and clawed until he separated the 14 meters of wrap and created a nesting spot for himself.
This picture is of Güino later, after I pushed trash in around him to determine how long his planned residency in the box might be.
This was one of the apologetic notes written on the packing box: “I only had gift tape and this is the apocalypse.”
These are actually two-sided porcelain ornaments. The colors are rich for the size. I bought these from Snapfish. One of my favorite rituals after the holidays is to take advantage of using last year’s photos to make a few new Xmas ornaments. I have ornaments made frequently, regardless of being on sale; having the ornaments available for what I would call a pittance certainly doesn’t hurt my feelings though. I’m especially proud of catching 3 ̶v̶i̶c̶t̶i̶m̶s̶ people in one picture to make an ornament. Having my stepson smile for a picture almost caused a natural disaster.
At my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party yesterday, we all had a laugh. The church we invaded for the party is in Fayetteville, not too far from the U of A campus. About halfway through, some of us heard a loud bang, followed by immediate darkness in the church. Because the game was about to start, we could only assume that a higher power was expressing disinterest in the game rather than our party. We were without power for the last half of the party. As it turns out, the Razorbacks were without energy for most of the game themselves. We got the better end of the bargain, in my opinion.
I was tasked with getting the balloons for the roadside for the party. I bought mylar balloons and triple-tied them to each other and to a large traffic cone at the roadside entrance to the church. About 45 minutes later, I glanced through the frontside vestibule doors. A man was walking past on the sidewalk. He was holding a colorful balloon similar to the ones I displayed. It occurred to me that the odds of an adult man coincidentally having a balloon similar in appearance to mine on an early Saturday afternoon were about zero. I went out the side entrance and walked around. It turns out that the odds were indeed slim. For reasons unknown to me, he had cut off one of the decorative balloons as he passed. He looked happy, so I can only assume that a balloon was just what this fellow needed to improve his day. Besides, I couldn’t imagine calling the police to report a stolen party balloon, especially if it improved the gentleman’s day.
One of the surprises I made for Julia’s birthday was a 90-page bound book, stuffed with pictures of her life. Its contents did not reflect a life reduced to mere pages. Somehow, what filled it was greater than the sum of its photographs.
There is no greater juxtaposition in life than of age and youth unless it is the smile of each generation celebrating a year, a life, and fellowship. That one of the participants in the picture has a touch of frosting on his lips further proves the efficacy of a life of humor and good food.
I unabashedly stole the picture of Julia and Marie’s children from Marie, who I finally met after a long social media friendship. The picture best reflects the life I hope Julia has experienced and for the years awaiting her.
Given that the lights were out for half of the party, it was a success.