Posted in A Day In the Life

Joy To The Choir

This is an older post, but one that I had a lot of fun remembering and writing.  I’m sharing it here again in the spirit of the season.  Happy Holidays, friends. Thanks for being a part of my world. All good wishes and good will for the new year!

It wasn’t fair! For two years in a row, Cheryl McAdams got to be Mary and wear the blue veil and hold the baby Jesus doll in the Christmas Pageant. Cheryl McAdams stepped on my feet whenever she could, leaving black marks on my white socks and scuffs on my Mary Janes. When we were lined up, waiting to go into assembly, she would turn around stomp on my one of my feet, laugh, and then turn to the front of the line again like she hadn’t done anything. No way she should have been Mary two years in a row!

I sang in the choir, directed by Mrs. Luella Pearson. Mrs. Pearson had bluish grey hair that she sprayed into a helmet on her head. Her face was heavily powdered. “Like a porcelain doll” my mother said, but I thought she looked more like a powdered donut.

Each year our school, which was a private school, a fact that my mother liked to share with relatives in a way that didn’t make it private at all, put on a Christmas Pageant. The local television station invited the school to the studio and filmed the entire thing. It was the big event leading up to our winter break.

In parkas and scarves, boots and mittens we marched off of the school bus by grade, so bundled against the snow and cold that we looked like a little troop of Michelin men. Volunteer parents and teachers took us to dressing rooms where we were greeted by rows of freshly pressed, neatly hung choir robes. Sizes were found, parkas and boots were stashed and soon each kid had on a black robe with a white collar and a big red bow that tied under the collar.

Mrs. Pearson inspected us, standing in lines just that way that we would when we sang. She walked up and down, heels clicking on the concrete floor and gave us instruction.

“Be like angels,” she said. “Look directly into the camera and smile your best smiles while you are singing. Remember that smiling helps to raise the note so that you do not sing flat.”

Hearing these instructions, I vowed to hold them dear in the hopes that Mrs. Pearson might notice and cast me as Mary next year.

It cannot be easy for mere mortals to deal with 70 first through sixth graders. Our excitement was ramped up by the robust supply of cookies and candy, supplied by the television station. Like fat little puppies at the trough, we practically licked the floor when the sugary treats were gone.

The thing about so much sugar is that it makes kids think of doing things that they normally wouldn’t do. Leonard, a boy from my class, had already eaten several cookies and quite a bit of candy. He regularly got in trouble at school. Leonard could bring class to a raucous stand still. He liked to put his hand in his armpit and then flap it like a wing in such a way as to make loud farting noises, bringing bouts of laughter. Girls were not supposed to laugh, but secretly I thought Leonard was a very funny kid.

Leonard was running around the television studio with the baby Jesus doll that he’d taken from the manger, and using it as a machine gun.

“Leonard, I told you last week, none of this nonsense! Stop all this fussing now. Do you want to do sit in the dressing room by yourself? Do you,” she repeated, bending down and placing her hands on his shoulders. She straightened the large white collar on his choir robe, and fluffed the big red bow.

I was standing right next to them, so I saw all of it happen. Leonard listened to Mrs. Pearson with an intense look on his face and then a little smile. Mrs. Pearson straightened up and smiled back just as Leonard let rip a real fart. Loud, rolling and fragrant. Leonard started to laugh. All of the kids around him started to laugh. Mrs. Pearson turned whiter than the powder on her face and grabbed a handful of her helmet hair so hard that you could hear it crunch in her grip. For the rest of the day she had a dent on one side of her head.

Now Mrs. Pearson had to avoid Leonard because whenever he saw her, he started to laugh uncontrollably which brought on more laughter from other kids, except from the group of girls that included Cheryl McAdams, in her stupid looking blue Mary veil. They stood in their little pod and glared at Leonard.

“He is so rude,” I heard one of them say.

“My mother would never let me play with him,” said another

“Why would you want to?” chimed in Cheryl McAdams.

Finally it was time for the choir to line up and sing. The adults herded us to our places and we stood in two neat rows, kids in the back on risers so that everyone could be seen. Excitement bubbled over as bright lights shined down and a big camera focused on us. Mrs. Pearson stood behind the camera and raised her arms to direct our singing. I remembered what she had said about looking right into the camera and singing with a smile on your face.

We sang the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Hallelujah Chorus first. Then we sang Away in a Manger. Each time the camera went by I looked right into the lens, and without really meaning to, leaned slightly forward, as I smiled my best smile. What I didn’t know at the time is that none of the other kids followed Mrs. Pearson’s instructions, so they didn’t look right into the camera. They didn’t smile and none of them leaned forward as the camera went by.

As we came to the end of Silent Night, Holy Night, I leaned forward a little too far and fell onto my face taking three other kids out with me. It is to the cameraman’s credit that he did not follow my descent with his lens– and to Mrs. Pearson’s credit that she didn’t put another dent in her helmet hair. As I went down I could hear Leonard laughing uncontrollably.

On Christmas Eve my mother, my aunts, some cousins sat in our living room and watched the Christmas Pageant on television. My aunts were laughing and calling me a little ham. I scowled my best eight-year-old scowl and said, “I did exactly what Mrs. Pearson told us to do and I was the only one.”

“You were definitely the only one sweetheart,” said one of the aunts. With arms folded across my chest I continued to watch as I tumbled over the three kids that became part of the great Silent Night fall. Leonard could be heard laughing in the background.   The screen faded to black and then to our principal, with a sick look on her face wished everyone a “Very Merry Christmas and a Good Night.”

Somewhere in another part of the city, a powdered Luella Pearson, replete with helmet hair was watching the Christmas Pageant too, and she was on her third martini.

Posted in A Day In the Life

The Transformative Force of Grief

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Is it uniquely American to pick and choose emotional states, as if from a menu? Be happy. Don’t be angry. Choose joy, not sorrow. Aim for bliss. A positive attitude can be a strength in our lives, but what happens when it’s at the expense of authenticity?

There’s A Time and a Place: Ecclesiastes reminds us that to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven… So doesn’t that mean that there is a time to celebrate and a time to grieve?

The Lotus Grows From the Mud: Nature is rich with metaphors. The lotus plant roots itself in dark mud. Beauty and compassion are born from grief. Why then do we seem to hold it back, especially when it shows up as the unfinished business of healing?

Permission to Grieve: No one in this world escapes grief. Yes, it’s present in death, but grief is also the little losses that pile up over time. In these instances grief can reveal itself as melancholy, angst, or unexplainable tears. If we run from what is asking to be felt, is it any wonder why we are a nation preoccupied with psych meds? So, is grief a negative emotion? I don’t think so. Mostly, we turn our face from grief, because we are not well versed with being in its presence. It requires us to sit still with suffering and be its witness.

Winter’s Descent: For me, winter is the great descent. I’m prone toward the disconcerting rumble of low-grade depression this time of year. I’m also more likely to be quiet and reflective, figuring out things about my writing, my life, and myself. It’s the Persephone myth, playing itself out, and each year since I realized that, I weather the assault of the dark a little bit more easily. I’ve come to respect the place where emotions are just under the surface of my skin bringing me closer to the vocabulary of my heart.

Everyone Keeps Secrets: You don’t need a Ph.D. to see that the personas we craft for social media are all rainbows and unicorns. It’s as though the struggles of our lives are shameful and must be kept secret. We need places (probably not social media) to give air to what it means to be human. Too much energy convincing everyone of how positive you are while holding sorrow in abeyance, can turn a person numb.

No Apologies for Grief: The deep psychic dive into what hurts is liberating. We should all take a little more time to cry and wail, allowing tears to baptize us into fresh starts and new beginnings. No apologies for doing your personal work in the dark. Hang a Do Not Disturb sign on your door and know that nurturing a deeper understanding of grief grows us into better, more compassionate human beings.

Advocate for the Authentic: I am more interested in keeping it real than I am in any preconceived notion of what it means to be positive. In fact, I’d like to kick the whole “positive only” movement in its little ass, and shout to the world, that we are connected by our shared experiences of sorrow and longing.

Human beings tend to most deeply bond over shared stories of broken hearts and retrieved pieces. Each time that I sit with my grief, it teaches me something. And that is the transformative force that pushes this messy, awkward, wonderful life toward greater love and fullness.

Posted in A Day In the Life

November Means Thanksgiving

Prayer is gratitude and gratitude is prayer. It’s not in the asking that the heart is filled, it’s in the recognition of God in all of life that soothes our inevitable suffering.

The thing that I love most about Thanksgiving cannot be found in family gatherings or over-indulgent meals. Instead, Thanksgiving has become a day of grateful reflection. It took years of reflection for me to admit to myself that “honestly, I don’t really like roasted turkey.” So Thanksgiving dinner is either turkey vegetable soup or a stuffed acorn squash. And I always make something with pumpkin. I’m grateful I finally gave into simplicity.

My husband and I are pretty much orphans. There are no kids or grandkids to light up the day. Our parents have long been star dust somewhere far away. We spend our Thanksgiving walking in the woods, quietly absorbing the beauty of the natural world. Though traditions are the rich markers of time passing; the touchstones of living that cause us to reflect upon the past and aspire toward the future, it’s easy to be seduced by the Norman Rockwell / Hallmark version of the holiday. I fear that it sometimes stresses us out. I mean, who can really do dinner like Martha Stewart, except for Martha Stewart?

Each of us in our own way needs to find the traditions and ceremonies that hold the most value and meaning for us. For Dean and I, there are no longer large turkeys, or big gatherings. We have sifted through all of those things over the years and found our own path. It’s made up of slow simmering soup, a pumpkin dessert and most especially a long walk on a crisp and cool day that will fill our senses with the delights of the Oregon woods.

The things that I am grateful for could fill volumes, but here are a few: I am grateful for good health and the ability to walk for miles. I am grateful that my husband Dean is by my side in life and on the trail. I’m grateful for our faithful friend and four-legged companion, Jeter.

I am grateful that I have such a cozy office that welcomes me each morning when I come upstairs to write. I’m grateful for words and books and other writers and all of the literary things that I love.

I am grateful for small and tender things — the blue jay that sits on the railing of the deck and cocks his head at me; the last of summer’s blooming geraniums; movie night with a husband who always wants to hold my hand; mornings of sweet, hot tea; a stack of greeting cards sent by a fellow writer, now tied with string, and featured prominently on my desk.

Life is good. Life is God. Prayer is gratitude and gratitude is prayer. May your heart know joy. May you be blessed with gratitude, purpose and contentment in your life. May your life seem good.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear reader. I am grateful for you.