What Hud Did

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                               (Photo by Alessandro Imbriaco)

When Hudson Quinlan left town in late September, Jenisse was given use of part of his warehouse. It held his party store merchandise and was 8,000 square feet, not so big for a warehouse but not small, either. Hud owned this property outright. She suspected he’d used it for other business dealings, but she preferred to not think about it. He was her brother, eight years older. His reputation wasn’t one hundred percent stellar. He was a man of many skills and talents; she knew only a few. She didn’t think they were close but they had been as kids and she missed him more than she’d admit.

In the voice mail Hud indicated he’d be back eventually but in the meantime she could use it if she wanted. There was a key left in her glove box; he’d gotten in and out of her aged Pontiac without leaving a scratch.

Jenisse gave notice at her apartment building and moved into the westernmost quarter of the building. She’d been saving for months to find studio space she could rent to work on her painting. If Hud had said he’d be back in a couple months, she wouldn’t have bothered but “eventually” meant as long as a year. However long he wanted or needed to be gone. It wasn’t uncommon that he took off for parts unknown, sending an occasional postcard to her or their parents with alluring scenes of beaches, mountains, cities far away. They weren’t clear if it was business (he owned a big party supply store, a parking lot and, they thought, more) or pleasure, but Jennise knew it was both, ultimately. He attracted lively people and events without trying, and that meant good times and bad. Her brother trusted Jenisse enough to say his life was going well or less than well (never poorly, according to him), and held opportunities or was momentarily stalled. This time he’d said he needed inspiration so she assumed it was important. She might never know what. He didn’t talk shop around family.

Everybody said she was foolish. Hud was a man with some power and more money but his connections were less than commendable. They worried about her being alone. There could be thieves and rodents; Hud’s warehouse workers would come and go five days a week. She was told the industrial district was dirty, gritty, and frequented by petty criminals. Jenisse had visited the spot with Hud a couple times and over a few years the area’s commercial properties became valuable and condos started to go up nearby. Hud had made a savvy investment.

Her parents, unsurprisingly, came knocking on her door after she’d relayed her news. They loved Hud from arm’s length.

Her dad stormed in. “Why are you doing this? We could help you find studio space. You know Hudson and his associates! You don’t know who might show up. My vote: stay here!”

Her mother was out of breath from trying to keep up with him. “Jen. Really. No good. Will come of this. Stay put. You’ll regret this. So will we. Just think!”

Her parents, dancing beams of sunshine. Why couldn’t they give Hud a chance–and her more credit? They had two smart kids.

Jennise stood with arms crossed over her chest. “I’m half-packed already, as you can see. He’d never do this if he didn’t think I’d be fine there. He knew I’ve been scraping together the savings to get a studio space set up. I am going to work on my painting.”

“He’d have done better to just give you money! Now I have to worry about both of you?” He flexed his right hand as though he was getting ready for fight but it was old-fashioned parental nerves.

“Sorry, but I’ve been handed an opportunity I can’t turn down. I’ll invite you over for pizza sometime.”

So she moved. During the day Jennise worked at the art store, which gave her a break on art supplies. It was nothing she’d wanted to stick with but somehow she had been there for three years. She liked being with other artists, walking up and down the rows of paper, ink, paint, and a hundred other common and exotic tools of visual artistry. But it could get dull on slow days.

At night, though. Oh, at night, it was a far different story.

Jenisse had never had the right circumstances to support her creative vision. She’d always wanted to do big work, paintings six feet tall and wide. Maybe panels of paintings. Or constructed paintings, three dimensional. So she got busy making things happen that she’d only dreamed. Between seven and ten or eleven o’clock she painted. Some nights it was after midnight before the weight of sleepiness rolled over her.  She’d turn on Arvo Part or Bill Evans or Gregorian chant–whatever suited her–and it ballooned in the space, adding to her energy, encouraging new calmness. Never had she felt so free of distraction, even when she heard forklifts and men shouting if they worked overtime. At night she ignored random noises and street people with their carts. But Jenisse wasn’t much bothered even when she got cold due to the space heaters barely keeping the chill at bay. Or hungry, since she often forgot to eat as she dabbed and layered, smoothed the colorful textures on each canvas that she had framed and stretched herself. Afterwards, a hot shower and bed, drifting off to the muted cacophony of night’s secret doings. She began to feel at home.

Her parents remained shocked, so they came over with a casserole or took her out to the new Thai place across the street. Her mother had the mistaken assumption that Jenisse needed her help to decorate. Two more lamps for the mammoth living area. A picture and scented candle for the rudimentary bathroom Hud had put in when he set aside an office space. For the cruder kitchen with its tiny stove, microwave and mini-frig and small sink, she brought rooster-adorned tea towels and a basket full of fruit. Jessine was grateful for the fruit.

If there were rats–her only real fear–they didn’t bother her. The workers left her alone. The foreman, whom she had met and was memorable for smooth skin and crooked nose, knocked on her door one morning.

“Doing alright by yourself?” He ground out a cigarette on the cement floor, then picked it up and thoughtfully tossed it outside. “Hud says to keep an eye on you.”

“Okay, all is well. Thanks. Have you heard from him?” She didn’t want to say she wondered where he was this time.

“Naw, you know he’ll show up as needed.” He turned to leave then swiveled around. “Let me know if you need anything.”

So Hud had made sure of her safety, just as she’d thought. She worked even longer, easier hours, her body moving from paint to canvas to paint with a blood-deep rhythm, the music on her stereo a chorus of encouragement.

By December, Jenisse had nine paintings lined up against the cinderblock wall, most of them as big as she had hoped, a few smaller and oddly delicate. She had loosened up; her landscapes had morphed into undulating swaths of color and motion. The small ones were of watery iamges. It had been taxing to develop a quality of light that had long been elusive but she saw it was beginning to emerge, paint illumined from within, rich hues vibrating. She took photos for her portfolio and posted them on her website, hopeful.

A couple co-workers she enjoyed were spontaneously invited over to see them. They stood with hands to chins.

“Gorgeous,” the guy said. “Really good stuff.”

“I didn’t know you did all this.” The woman looked around at the huge space. “I didn’t know you had all this!”

It was then, three weeks before Christmas, that Jenisse got the idea for a public showing of her work along with the other two. They would put a sign outside, post a few ads in weeklies, announce it at the store  and online, and see if anyone came. A holiday art sale might bring in some appreciative persons–and they could mention the store to stir up interest in business.

Jenisse had worn her short fake fur coat for warmth with good black slacks and silvery sweater. She stationed herself with the others at the entrance. She’d cleaned up the area and set the paintings against the walls. Coffee carafes and cookies were at the ready. The lighting was great thanks to the foreman. Her parents were studying their work along with a few curious souls, a couple on their way to the next thing down the street. Some of the store’s staff were chatting amiably.

It was seven-thirty, a half hour into the show. Nothing had sold. The street was dead. Disappointment bubbled up even as she told herself it didn’t really matter, they made art for love, after all.

At seven-forty she could hear a low murmur with a few laughs, and then she saw them come down the street, some in twos and threes, some in larger groups. They were coming to the warehouse in elegant dresses and suits, high heels clicking on the street. To their little painting show. As the first woman passed through the door she smiled, tossing a mane of ebony back from her burnished face, then leaned in to Jenisse.

“Hud said this is just the beginning for you, darling, so let us in to see!”

Then she handed Jenisse a postcard with a picture of the lustrous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Jenisse flipped it over to read. The name he called her was the one only he could use when they were kids.

“Merry Christmas, sister/artist Nissey! Get ready for a fabulous New Year! Later/love/Hud.”

(Photo prompt supplied by Patricia McNair.)

Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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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What Awaits Us Behind Closed Doors

The homes in my neighborhood are  putting on the glitz, just as they are all over the country this time of year. A thirty minute jaunt yields houses that have undergone a transformation from ordinary to lively or stately to very grand, depending on the block.  Some of my favorites are Arts and Crafts style homes; they boast a sturdy grace and warmth when festooned with crayon-hued or starry-white lights. Doors are festive with ribboned wreaths, and winking blue snowflakes or silvery orbs brighten some porches. Shining in a spotlight are icicles so impressive that for a moment there is an impulse to feel the chill burning my fingers from a stolen touch. But, of course, illuminated plastic ones bedeck these eaves.

The walks bring chuckles and appreciative comments from my spouse and me. There is Santa in his sleigh with three lively reindeer, only they are leaping from a treehouse (where Mrs. Claus smiles widely alongside a deer left behind–what is his story?). The treehouse is as attractive as the main house. One of our favorites is a giant fir tree that, being too mighty to fully decorate, morphs into a smaller one as a more manageable Christmas tree is outlined among branches with traditional lights. A proud bright star tops it off. From a distance it looks as though it could almost rival the fabulous tree that watches over downtown Portland in our “living room”, Pioneer Square. Which is breathtaking, I might add. After Thanskgiving, I couldn’t get enough of its beauty and cheer; neither could dozens of others.

Yes, we live in a beautiful city. I am thankful more than usual for shelter as the weather turns ornery and demanding with rain-driven winds and persistent cold sweeping across the streets with no mercy for those who have no place to rest. It reminds me that reality is only partly what we determine, despite our work hard to make it so.  It is also comprised of unforeseeable circumstances. No one expects to be trolling the streets looking for a place to lay his or her head. There isn’t always a plan B or C for those who lose jobs, become ill and use up their money to pay medical expenses, escape from domestic violence, or struggle and bargain with demon addictions or severe mental illness. And for many of those folks, seeing those warm, vividly decorated houses only brings grief.

There was a winter in Texas a little like that when I was still young enough to rebound despite circumstances. Times were lean then, too. The economy was not as robust as hoped and work was elusive for the father of our two young children. I was working at an ice cream store and making next to nothing, my hands tired and sore after hours of scooping the sweet confections and working in a huge freezer. Water, electricity and rent for the small apartment had to be paid. After that, there was little left for food. The cupboards were not completely bare but they glared at me with a half-full cereal box, a few cans of soup, a box or two of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and crackers, some white rice. The children, two and four, had mattresses on the floor for beds in their room but managed to enjoy that, though I furtively checked each night for spiders and the assortment of other insects that made Texas their preferred habitat. For fun my son and daughter climbed and slid down a bright wooden slide and hideaway combo their father, an artist and carpenter, had built for them.

They counted on me, on us. And I was not sure I could be the parent I needed to be with stress and discouragement wearing us down. There was just too little to meet so many needs. The truth was, I wasn’t sure I could even be the human being I wanted to be as I wondered what would become of us. My oldest sister lived in the area and she helped as she could. But angry and embarrassed,  I told her as little as possible, like how mammoth cockroaches scuttled underfoot in the dark nights when using the bathroom. Or when I spied them in the kitchen and grabbed the children and ran to the neighbors. They had them, too.

Signs of Christmas seemed like rumors of doomsday and it advanced despite our desire to forget it that year. I found praying strengthened and soothed me, as usual, although I was getting impatient for more immediate assistance. I had gone to church at times in Texas out of a lifelong habit, but didn’t quite feel connected to the well-fed, content congregants. Still, I nurtured a strong sense of God’s steadfast presence in my life and the world despite the blows life had unleashed. So I hung on by my fingertips.

Yet as the days passed, a persistent dis-ease nagged me despite my best intentions: where was the succor I needed this December, that very day? Where was the job that could help us get back on track? Most importantly, where was the old persistent hope that was essential to remaining strong, finding more love in our lives, and designing a safe and sure way through the trials? I contemplated these things as I sat in the empty living room and my family slept fitfully. I looked in the corner where the tree should have been, and was not. I remembered the resplendent beauty of fresh snow, toboganning down an icy hill and making igloos in the Michigan snow we had left far behind, and the memories felt like a burden.

One Saturday morning a few days before Christmas, someone knocked on the front door. I peered out the drawn curtains and found two strangers on my stoop. Smoothing back my hair and quieting the children, I  opened the door a crack.

“Yes?”

A man and woman smiled shyly and said my name, the person they meant to see.  “We’ve brought you a couple things. From the church you attend.”

I fought back the terrible urge to tell them they had the wrong apartment number, that I wasn’t who they thought. I wasn’t a real church-goer, at all.  There must be a mistake, as I did not take charity; I survived one way or another like everyone had to do and I would get through this. But two big boxes were in their arms and they looked at me with a simple sweetness. I bit my lip, recalled my manners, and allowed them into my spare, cold living room.

And they showed me their gifts of food for our family and wrapped toys for the children, and decorations for an artificial tree that waited outside the front door. They did not make a fuss. They did not pat my toddlers on their heads as they pawed through the food with squeals,  grabbed the tree and the lights, eyes wide with amazement. The couple just smiled and turned to leave. Tears broke through my astonishment. I tried to speak, but could barely stammer out a whispered,  “Thank you.” And then they were gone.

I stood with my smallness and debated whether it was good to receive or not. The humiliation of having to accept such gifts battled it out with gratitude and relief, with a restoration of hope. Thankfulness won out as the children and I set up the tree and made a hot breakfast. I realized later that the gift-givers had not told me their names. But their acceptance and warmth–those stayed with me.

So we had a Christmas Eve and morning, after all. We had food to last a couple weeks. And what I learned was that pride can be a damaging thing, and that people care more than we even imagine. That we get what we most need if we have even a little faith. Gifts of Spirit first and last: kindness, compassion. Basic human good will when all else is failing, if we open ourselves a little.

The places in my neighborhood give me happiness. I love good architecture, bountiful plant life all year ’round, families coming and going as they busily live their lives, joggers running, their faces flushed with health, dogs and cats sidling up to me. I feel my good fortune like a surprise bonus.

But this time of year I remember how it was, how it can be, and, surely, how it is for countless others. I hope you will remember them, too, and share a little more –quietly, maybe even secretly–and hearten someone with whatever is needed and good. And if you are on the other side, the far side of joy, open your door. See what happens.