Living All The Way

Amaryllis, © Joan Z. Rough

© Joan Z. Rough

“This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek.” 

Terry Tempest Williams

Brody 2008 – 2013

I am bereft.  I cannot possibly write about it now.  Maybe later.  Just know he was a very small dog with a huge personality and lived his life living with joy until the very end.  He taught me many lessons while he was with me.

Brody RIP March 15, 2013

Brody RIP
March 15, 2013

Compassion And Being Enough

Hellebores ready for the garden.

Hellebores ready for the garden.

During the last seven years of my mother’s life, I was her caretaker.  Except for the last five months of her life, she lived in my home with me and my husband, Bill.  It was a hard time for all of us.  My mother was narcissistic and difficult in the best of times.  But as she  crept slowly into the world that awaits all of us at the end of our lives, she became even more difficult.  Her behavior triggered responses in me that I regret and have been difficult for me to come to terms with.  No, I did not physically abuse her.  Above everything else I wanted to help her through the darkest of days and to feel loved by her.  Now, six years after her death I know that she did love me, but at the time I did not see or understand what was happening.  I searched for comfort where ever I could find it, especially in books.  I often read the following quote from Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s book, The Dance, to help me through those dark times:

“In My humanness I forget that who I am is enough, especially when I am hurt or afraid of being unloved.  Immersed in the pain and fear that are part of this forgetting, I sometimes hurt another.  Yet even this failure, for which I must take responsibility, calls me not to change who I am, to hold myself within my innately compassionate heart.  And I learn about the expansiveness of who we are, an expansiveness that makes us capable of compassion where we thought it was impossible.”

Gift Of The Magi

Christmas in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with Deena, Lisa, Zoe and Noah

Christmas in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with Deena, Lisa, Zoe, and Noah

My annual Christmas doldrums stayed away until the week before the big day. They slowly made their way into those early mornings hours when I worry myself awake. They like to sit on my chest, heavy and soggy with tears, insisting on staying put until I get up and take Sam for his walk.

It helps to watch the eastern sky begin to glimmer with the rising sun in the crisp air of dawn. Robins not yet chilled enough to fly south, greet us with cheery chirps as they scatter dead leaves and broken twigs, looking for a small breakfast morsel of worm or bug.  As the night fades my spirit lightens. The heaviness begins to drop away and when I catch my first glimpse of that brilliant orb of light, the burden is gone.

A few other early risers and their dogs, shuffle by, nodding and raising a sleepy hand in greeting.  When we meet in broad daylight, we often stop and share stories about what is happening in our lives. But early in the morning, it’s far too cold and blustery to stop and chat.  We all rush home for eggs over easy, bacon, and toast. The stretch of daylight before us won’t last long enough for all of the things we need to get done.

The days are hopscotch quick and this year it’s difficult to get things organized for the coming holidays. In order to avoid the madness of Christmas crowds, I order gifts online or buy them from friends who create simple things like bees-wax candles, gingerbread soap, or spicy brown sugar scrub for making one’s skin feel like the softest silk.

I sometimes make a few things myself, like the elderberry syrup that my son loves. It is medicinal and filled with the goodness of not only dark and delicious elderberries, but also elder flowers, rose hips, licorice, orange rind, all steeped together in raw honey and brandy for four to six weeks. Mark pours it over ice cream and other sweets. His interest tends toward the gastronomic, but if his luscious desserts happen to keep a cold or the flu at bay, so much the better.

This year I couldn’t seem to get it together and as the holiday grew ever closer the pall of the shootings in Connecticut stayed with me.  Christmas eve was especially difficult and I’m still bereft for the families who lost their loved ones that cruel, sunny day.

I did make Mark his dream syrup, but the rest of the things I told myself I’d get together didn’t really happen. Despite my sadness, somehow it all worked out and everyone is happy with the tidbits I did managed to gather and pass around.

When Mark and Lisa were little, Christmas often found too many packages under the tree. While unwrapped toys littered the floor, they preferred rolling in torn gift wrap or hiding in empty boxes. When they got beyond that stage, the looks on their faces were more confused than filled with Christmas joy, when they couldn’t figure out which toy to play with first.

As grandchildren have arrived on the scene I’ve become what some kids might consider a Grinchy grandma. I’ve sworn off buying them toys. I go instead for books, games, puzzles, art supplies, or once, it was a fun pair of dinosaur PJs for Noah and a frilly dress for Zoe. Last year, I asked their mom what they needed most. We gave Noah a new pair of prescription glasses, while Zoe got the running shoes, with pink accents that she wanted in order to participate in Girls On The Run.  It may not sound very exciting, but everyone was happy.

This year we gave them a few books and money that they are required to spend on helping others rather than on themselves.  We did that a couple of years ago and they spent their money at the local nature center, adopting wild animals that live there. The money helps pay for food and other expenses for the red wolves, otters, black bears, or other native species that they choose to adopt. Noah and Zoe loved the idea so much that they asked if we could do that again this year.  This proud grandparent thought that it was an awesome request. I was once again reminded of the true spirit of Christmas.

The kid’s handmade gifts to us are magical. Noah built a colorful hanging bird feeder with the help of Deena. Zoe created a small and hysterically funny version of our dog, Sam, using pipe cleaners and small fuzzy balls.  We’ll treasure them for years to come.

We especially treasure the few days we had to spend with them, seeing the fantastic one-man show, Marley’s Ghost, and walking around Lake Tomahawk, while trying to keep hissing geese from chasing us. The ease and simplicity of Christmas day itself was a gift.

Zoe, at age twelve, is suddenly as tall as I am. We now stand eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose when we talk. She has a fantastic eye for fashion, especially when it comes to shoes.  I’ve always teased her that once we wear the same size shoe, I’d be borrowing hers and maybe even taking them home with me if they are comfortable enough. This year Santa brought her a pair of black and pink zebra striped running shoes. I was sorely tempted to try them on, but even though I love wild shoes, I must say they were just a tad over the top for a woman of seventy.

Noah, at nine, is into Big Foot, looking for signs of the beast that so many claim really does exist.  When I told him that I’d probably be scared to death, if I met Big Foot in the forest, Noah told me that Big Foot is a guardian of the earth and would never hurt me.

Christmas is not about the glow and glitter that is touted in the media. It’s not about electronic gadgets, toys, and having more. Christmas is about the birth of one of the greatest teachers of all time. And though I do not consider myself a Christian, I celebrate Jesus along with all of the other great spiritual teachers, as I learn from their lessons in kindness. We all need to remember that when the Magi brought their gifts of Frankincense and Myrrh to the child asleep in the manger, they were gifts of spirit …  irreplaceable symbols of love.

Tolerance and Generosity

Rockefeller Center, New York City, Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2007

Standing on what seemed like an endless line Tuesday afternoon at Wholefoods, I noticed my attitude beginning to slip and slide down a peg or two. I was impatient, judging what the person in front of me for buying foods that were really poor choices, and just wanting to go home and sit in my cave.

When I finally unloaded my groceries onto the belt, Ms. Attitude had moved further down a notch. I did smile and made happy holiday, small talk with the cashier. I’m positive I looked joyous, confident, and unbothered by what seemed like chaos surrounding me. Really! I’ve lived with my actor husband far to long now not to know how and when to put on a cheery face and be a comedian, while the world goes on its way, clinking and clanging around me, generally making me feel nasty.

But on the inside, my body wasn’t buying my “deck-the-halls” facade. The usual holiday dread was beginning to take hold and I was sure that I was going to blow it if I didn’t get home fairly soon. Even I hate me, when I get grumpy. As I sat in my car, at every single red light between Wholefoods and my house, I asked myself why I turn into such a grinchy curmudgeon every year at the end of November.

I don’t remember being that way as a kid. I was always excited by the holidays and started sneaking around in early December, to see if I could find the stash that Santa would eventually be leaving under the tree. I usually did find it, and even though I knew what I was going to unwrap on Christmas morning, I was still very excited.  The gifts I remember best were the Alice In Wonderland doll, with long blond hair that I could comb. And later, when I was getting into boys and rock ’n roll, a pink portable radio, I could take any where as I listened to The Platters, The Everly Brothers, and Johnny Mathis.

I spent the rest of my afternoon, thinking and trying to figure out my hang-up. I thought, “Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety.”  Or, “Maybe I wasn’t an introvert back then and now I am, unable to handle the holiday wear and tear of being with all those people intent on getting the biggest turkey for the lowest price.”

Like Scrooge, I revisited Christmas past, when my kids were small and we stayed at home for the holidays, because Santa wouldn’t be able to find us if we went somewhere else.  I couldn’t remember any difficult times.  I loved watching them digging through wrapping paper to find their most wanted toys and usually felt a bit of melancholy as we took the tree down and packed up the ornaments until next year.  I do miss those times.

Then 1987 came to mind. My dad had died several years earlier. Mom and my brothers came from New England to the spend a week with us.  My kids were in their teens by then and Mom had started giving them money so that they could buy what they wanted.  They loved having dollars to spend and it usually didn’t stay in their pockets for very long. One year, Lisa, spent her’s on a boa constrictor and live white mice to feed it. Mark usually spent his money on books and recordings of music by his favorite musicians.

On that particular Christmas morning, while everyone was sitting around the tree happily opening gifts and eating Blueberry Boy Bait, my yearly holiday coffee cake, Reid, my youngest brother noticed that Mom had given his son, who was at home with his mother, less money than she’d given my kids. I believe Mom’s thinking was that she should give Jesse less money because he was quite a bit younger. When she tried to explain, Reid had a fit, tossing his own Christmas check into the fire and stomping out of the room.

I was in tears, Zed was yelling  at everyone, and the kids slipped downstairs to get out-of-the-way.  While Bill was trying to calm everyone down, Mom and I got into our own little argument. As a result, she insisted that she needed to go to the airport right that minute so that she could fly back to New Hampshire and away from this craziness. Filled with shame and anger, I was ready to leave for the Bahamas.

After discovering that there were no flights out of Charlottesville on Christmas day, she made a reservation for the next day. We spent the day quietly, trying to avoid each other and ate our usual holiday meal of roast pork and perogies, without saying much. Afterwards, someone suggested that we take in one of the newest blockbuster movies. Later, when it came time to choose which one, there didn’t seem be too much interest in going, until my brothers discovered, Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal’s, comedy, Throw Momma From The Train, was playing at the nearest cinema.

The title says it all. Mom naturally decided to stay at home and pack for her escape the following morning. Tired and feeling as though we were about to go even more crazy than we already were, Bill and I decided to go to the movie as well, just to get out of the house.

It was, of course, the makings of a disaster. It was mean, cruel and I spent the rest of the evening feeling down and miserable that Christmas had turned into a Holiday Horror Show.  But no amount of apologizing made it better. Still angry at all of us, Mom left the next morning and called us when she got home, as if nothing had happened.  My brothers drove her car back to New Hampshire a day later and life went on as it usually does in dysfunctional families.  You have a fight over something silly, blame the whole thing on everyone else, and then act like it never happened, until the next time.

As I ran it all through my head, I realized that I was diving into victimhood. My stomach gurgled and hurt. I was anxious. Exhausted. And living in a story that was over, gone, and so very unimportant. But I was the one choosing to replay part of the nightmare, I felt my life had often been.

So instead of allowing myself to get depressed about the holidays being here again, or railing at myself for being a complete idiot, I decided to quit creating another version of Mr. Dickens’, Christmas Carol, and stay put in Christmas present.

It matters not what causes me to go all weird at Christmas. I choose to celebrate myself and those around me for all of the growing we have done over the years.  I want the spirit of holidays to fill me with generosity and tolerance for all of those around me, including myself. I needn’t fuss and fume because somebody else chooses to shop at eight o’clock in the evening on Turkey Day, or how they spend their pennies. I need only to look after myself, and live by my own values, which includes something about not judging others.  Oh, well.

How do you feel about Christmas and the holidays?  Do you love it or do you have demons like mine that come to visit every year at this time?  How do you handle them and send them on their way?