When All is Said and Done

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It is surprisingly quiet in my world this afternoon, and it creates a mild state of reverie. The dryer stopped tumbling. I ignore it. Marc is on the couch, designing a Sudoku puzzle. Our busy street has emptied itself midday. One of our five children left with her partner to meet/talk/eat/coffee with friends, and in three more days they will journey back to the place where she attends grad school. Two more live in our city; we will see them sooner. Two others and a grandson reside back East, and for a moment I feel the  shape of their absence and want to curl up in it. To have them all here would be a miracle.

I drift and follow one thought-picture to another. The last two weeks are a mental collage of people, places, objects. Mounds of bright wrapping paper and ribbon figure heavily in the picture, and a meticulous gift list to which I referred until the last minute. Bits and pieces of conversation slip in and out of my mind. They are accompanied by a chorus of laughter, eyes closing and opening, hands that wend through the air as though independent messengers of the real story. There have been candles, at least twenty of them, lining up on the coffee table, throwing light from bookshelves, casting a steady glow over several family meals. I think that each child and grandchild is like those candles, aflame with life, softly or boldly. Beautiful fires. In the center of the oak dining table is an angel chime powered by four miniature candles and its sweet dingdingdingding is a background accompaniment to this Christmas imagery.

Christmas Eve and Day 2012 007There were gifts upon gifts; the fir tree presided over such abundance. I admit to a tendency toward extravagance. It has little to do with money and more to do with an intense desire to offer surprises and items of use for both external and internal possibilities. I still want to nourish this family although they move away from me daily as they design and administrate their own lives. I wish to give their children ways to support dreams, stretch the parameters of mind. And encourage opportunities for fun. I think I did alright. No one sneered or let escape a sigh, at least in my presence, which is appreciated in an increasingly uncivil world.

The candlelight service at church replays against the greys of this waning Saturday: songs luminous and familiar reaching the rafters; prayers for the living, those leaving or gone; communion, that mysterious melding of earthy and divine. It was good to  see people gathered, knowing we each harbored complex humanness rife with needs and wants yet came, anyway. There was a moment when members of the choir took places among us, and music enveloped us, entered my blood, connected my spirit with all. Moved us to tears. Then, finally, we took small candles and all those vivid points of light were ignited from person to person, then raised in the wide canopy of darkness.

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But here’s the thing: it finally ends, the fanfare and bustle, the gorgeousness of this season. That pause wherein the holy is made more palpable and the contrasting secular is given its due is left behind. It all has a prelude and finale. We take up our workaday posts as family members and friends, workers, students, dreamers and doers. The gifts may or may not figure into anything we start and accomplish. We learn early on when the toy breaks we can’t count on things, and before the new year begins they may be forgotten despite our best intentions.

What we are finally left with is something else. What we snared from the feasting and communing will help define the tone of the coming weeks. The light is fanned and fed or allowed to fade. Perhaps even the angels breathe quietly and wait and watch.

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There are few days between this old year and the new one we try to envision. As they pass, my home will be emptied of the once-gallant tree. Trimmings will be hauled to the basement. My children will have again departed. I will have more work to do, projects to consider, worries to corral as will we all. And yet I will sit in the middle of each new day and night, and I will surrender to them, and to this, an essential solitude. There is reassurance in this. In the end, when all the trappings are gone, I have my own self within these moments. And even though I keep intimate company with a failed will, flaws and errors, I am still at home with the truth of who I am. And with God, in the most pedestrian ways. What I make of things remains up to me as I sort through odds and ends.

Let this year, this time pass, and come what may, let the living continue with expectant gratitude, a savory dash of merriment. Let us be captivated, made more present. Alive.

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Making a List and Keeping it Right

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I start to feel almost domestic around the holidays. This is no small thing, as my talents and interests do not include a burning desire to cook or decorate, sew or craft. But I experience a longing to do so at this time, and I find simple ways to compensate. This year, since I am not currently working, I got into the holiday mood before we even consumed platters of turkey, mounds of vegetables, and four delicious pies. It wasn’t about the preparation and sharing of great food; Marc, my spouse, does the bulk of that. I happily weigh in while he plans: perhaps yams instead of sweet potatoes without gooey marshmallows, stuffing without chestnuts this year, and every pie possible–that sort of thing. My usual contributions are getting the drinks and slicing the sausages and cheeses, getting them all nicely arranged with water and wheat and rice crackers on my special glass platter, the one with the graceful swans gliding on water. I also look forward to setting out the blue, rose, and clear glass candy dishes, the best ones my mother gave me. Mixed nuts, chocolates and peppermints fill them and I think of her, and how her table looked: elegant and welcoming.

I start envisioning how my table will be when everything is arranged on holiday tablecloths–usually a yellow for Thanksgiving and a red for Christmas. I look for the best deal on brilliant fall bouquets and spend a long while arranging the flowers and green sprigs in tall vases. I buy softly scented pine or cinnamon-spice candles for odd spots in the apartment, and plain tapers for the dining room table. Generally a fragrant green something adorns the front door. People shall feel cheerful entering this domain.

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After Thanksgiving the adult children choose names for gift-giving. That rings the start bell for me. I begin to scan the online shopping sites or the neighborhood stores and wait for whatever calls to me. I ask for their short lists even now, in the hope of finding something they really would enjoy or need. But the truth is, I always think of many things I want to give them. They have varied interests: skateboarding and snowboarding, art and music, fashion, food, reading everything from anthropology to religion to the natural world, all genres of fiction, poetry, and so on and on. I am cautioned by my husband to not get too enthralled, but it is hard to resist the tantalizing call of all the wonderful things–not generally expensive–I want to share with them. They are my children, after all. Then there are my grandchildren, who need surprises. Marc reminds me we have twelve to buy for at the least, often more. And I am not working this year. I get that. But I have ways to manage on any budget.

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Next I study the events that are happening about Portland. There is the ScanFair which we enjoy despite not being Scandinavian and the Grotto’s glorious Festival of Lights which is a tradition for the whole family even in the rain (an alomost sure thing). The Pittock Mansion displays all her grande dame finery. The Zoo Lights are an awesome experience for children of all ages and Peacock Lane is a whole brightly lit block of fun for the younger ones.

And the music that surrounds the holidays! We will start with a Trinity Christmas Concert, Bach for the Holidays. Follow it up with the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols later in the month. There is The Nutcracker which we have seen a few times; I remain enchanted. There is a Singing Christmas Tree which has not yet been experienced. The symphony always has a rousing program or two. This list will grow, as music is an embodiment of what I most appreciate about this time of year.

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I am making my list as I write, but wondering how we will find the time to enjoy it all,  how we will get together all the kids and their kids, too. The unadorned truth is, we won’t. Three children live near us, and two do not. Four grandchildren live here, but one does not.

Between the cost of travel and the time their work duties require, the two daughters far away will not be here this year. One is a chaplain needed by many; her son is in college and working. Another is a college professor and an artist whose art works require a lot of money and time to create and exhibit. Our youngest daughter is in graduate school in a city two hours away but will be here a few days, then return home again for more work and study. How fortunate that our only son will be here as well as a fourth daughter, both with their families.

But, oh, how I long to have all my children gathered together at one time in this home, the dozen white candles I set around the living and dining rooms pulsing with light inside the soft shadows, the tree gleaming in all its decorative beauty. I want them here talking, dozing, singing, eating, being quiet as they look around them. I want them to stop and really see one another fully as I do: deeply. See their kind eyes so reflective of souls lit from secret places. To hear what I hear: a symphony of laughter and smart ideas delivered readily. To know what I know: their great, good courage, for they each have undergone painful trials and twists of fate. Their talents of imagination,  empathy,  adventure and insight. And their unique imperfections, for who can say what they–we–would be without the rough edges of personality, those cantankerous thorny parts that make us think twice and then reconfigure things? Deficits teach us compassion; may they never forget.

I want them to have one another not just this season but every season of life to come.

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These grown up children: three were birthed by me; two were shared with me to raise. Each one has been a surprise in my life, a flurry of energy and needs, hands wide open, hands circling the breadth and depth of life. They have been bright lamps upon my winding path, made my wild heart tamer and stronger. When I make lists for the holidays, prepare for feasting and music and light shows, I am mindful of these things. How can I give enough to those whose lives have given me far more? Who I am is this aging mother-vessel filled with complicated human love. I have been mended, redefined, transformed by this life, both with and without them. Without a lot of hope of having the necessary skills to mother back in the beginning, I have learned by doing, have been taught by the giving and receiving that has happened.

In the end, what we do this season and the ones to come reflect who and what we most value in our lives. And there is another who is always welcome in my home. Long ago, two parents had a child in Bethlehem under a holy star. Jesus was embraced by them with such joy. He grew up to be a rule-breaking, radically minded revolutionary, all for the sake of perfect Love. He offered and still offers us healing, grace, mercy. May I keep my door open. Let the light shine on me, on you, the family of humankind.

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