Happy Days, Living in the Moment

Happy 100 Days: 1

The trail splits. It bends to the left, arches to the right, and also continues straight. Where next? Choices, choices.
 
A shrug. A grin.
 
How about all of them?
 
We have plenty of time. We find the road, grimace, double back. We pass a playground. The narrow path is bluestone gravel wet in places. We come out by a library. Then we swing around, make the right we previously ignored, and weave our way along the roughest trail of them all. It takes us into the woods. Three white-tail deer stroll through the tangle, browsing on the green remains poking up through the brown. They barely notice our presence and do not leap away when we pass. A single bird calls from a bare branch.
 
The wild place only lasts so long. Soon, we find ourselves spilling out into a trimmed back yard near a trampoline. We wander along wide streets past broad-shouldered houses up on hilltops. It is silent. One woman walks a dog wearing a muzzle. He looks very hard at us. There are no children. The window boxes are still twinkling with Christmas lights. Wreaths still adorn the oak front doors.
 
Once, I coveted. The hunger was intense enough that I sucked the marrow from the imagined misery of the inhabitants. Now, I am happy for the faceless and silent neighbors who have found their moment here. I wish them well. It is strange to enter the place where the Schadenfreude used to reside and to see its absence like a shaft of sunlight across a bare wooden floor. I do not need to live in one of those sprawling mansions. I live here, in this skin. I live in this walk. My home is this forever changing scene and these legs carrying me past houses that belong to others who are my community.  I inhabit the wide ribbon of road that winds down to a creek and sends me up and over the contours of this place.
 
It is all gone by. This I know, so it is not so hard to claim this blade of grass, this low branch, as my own. The people at one address or another will grow old. Like me, like you. They will have their moments of laughing so hard the tears come, the clock stops, the earth shudders to a halt along its trajectory around the sun. I wish them more such moments. I hope someone inside right now knows nothing but Yes and spares no thought for me.
 
Today, a haze blankets the sky. It keeps us warm while making us lose our way. A single airplane rubs its back along the low-slung atmosphere. Conversation sputters. We find two long breaths and the pause makes us nervous. We forget where to turn. It does not matter. We find a way back to where we started.
 
It is not the same place we left.
 
It never is. Never. No matter how close we get.
 

Happy Days, Living in the Moment, Music

Happy 100 Days: 2

I stumble into the house, dump the groceries, take note of the dishes in the sink, and walk the dog. I tell myself, “After I fill her water bowl, I can relax.” I fill the water bowl. “As soon as I’ve put away the groceries, I can sit down.” I put away the groceries. “I’ll just start the laundry and then I’ll read the paper.” I start the laundry. “I could just do the dishes quick.”
 
Before crossing the kitchen, I turn on the radio. Bug’s favorite station is programmed: 94.7, all pop, all the time. I stop halfway to the sink. The music comes at me in a crash, sweeping me off my feet more completely than a riptide. There is no staying put on this shifting shore.I don’t even know the song even though I have heard it a dozen times. It doesn’t matter.
 
I dance.
 
The cat is yowling to go out. The dishes are waiting. The suitcases are not unpacked and there are five unanswered voice messages on the phone. Every bit of it tips off the edge of the earth and churns to the splintering deep. I ride the black and starlit crest of a wave.
 
I dance.
 
Through one song. Then another. My eyes are closed as I move there on the kitchen tile, wedged between the table and the counters. Still in my coat, I lift my arms and let the rhythm move my spine, swerve my hips, and turn me in small revolutions on this swelling stage. The undertow carries me further towards that misted moon.
 
I dance.
 
Three songs. Part of a fourth. Then, I feel sand beneath my feet. I tumble to dry land. I come back to earth. I stand there in the empty house and notice that the contents of the place have all come back to where they were before, yet they are somehow off by the slightest degree. They exist just beyond my immediate grasp. Everything has landed where it happens to be and not one bit of it needs me.
 
Forget the dishes. Forget the messages. I go upstairs and put on my comfiest sweats. The rest of the evening is for a soft couch and love songs. The rest, just for me.
 

Friends, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 3

The cake sticks to the pan and breaks into pieces as it lands on the plate. This means a trifle is in order. Having never made one, I look online. Recipes abound. It is only four hours until the party starts, so I skip the recipes and wing it with what I can scrounge from the fridge.
 
I make chocolate sauce using light cream, vanilla, and cocoa powder before whipping the rest of the cream to a light froth. Chunks of cake line the bottom of a glass bowl. I dig around in the liquor cabinet, trying to choose from among the assortment of gilded, dusty bottles. Brandy? Grand Marnier? After a sniff of each, amaretto is an easy choice. I poke around in the kitchen for the proper tools. The turkey baster is the right size. The little sweet sponges of cake soak up the amber liqueur. A layer of chocolate sauce, a layer of whipped cream, another layer of cake. More amaretto. The scent makes my knees weak. The trifle heaps to the top of the bowl. Flecks of Ghirardelli chocolate dusts the top of the white cloud.
 
Into the fridge it goes.
 
The guests arrive with their bags and boxes. One man hollows out a giant bread boule and fills it with spinach dip. A woman has brought guacamole she made by hand, leaving the seed perched on top to keep it green. One guest shows up with three different bottles of vodka. Martinis are mixed in a chrome shaker. Ice rattles. Apple, raspberry, straight up and frosting the clear plastic cup. Chatter, a round of cards, hellos to the new member of the crowd. Stories pile on top of stories. Germany, Istanbul, Singapore. Holidays, movies, crazy exes.
 
A guest brings out a tart piled with eye-popping color. Glazed berries and kiwi glisten atop a golden crust. The trifle comes out of the fridge. Everyone oohs and aahs. The consensus is that a stuck cake is a blessing in disguise. We dig into the sweets. The cork pops on a red zinfandel then a pinot noir. We stand in a circle in the kitchen.
 
In the brief lull between laughter, the request a request to the group bubbles up: “Share an experience or accomplishment you aim to have in 2013.” The quiet deepens. People turn briefly inward to seek this truth. Strangers, acquaintances, friends. In this way, we introduce ourselves all over again.
 
To go on a week’s vacation to Italy. With a girl.

To finalize my divorce and move into my own apartment with my son.

A career change.

To let myself relax when I am relaxing.

To light a candle, put on music, and dance in the living room of my very first own home.

To box in my first real match.

To travel somewhere totally crazy for a stupid reason, like flying London for the weekend just to catch a concert.

To practice being content with what I already have.
 
We listen and nod, we hmmm in resonance. We decide we will keep tabs on each other and gather here again next December.
 
2013 will be a fine year. We hatch our big plans. When they break into pieces as they most assuredly will, we craft them into something new with whatever we have on hand. It is when we share that jumble of mess and redemption with friends that we notice how sweet it really is.
 

Change, Happy Days, Love

Happy 100 Days: 4

It takes me six days to work my way up to looking at the gift. On the DVD, he has hand-written “Merry Christmas,” and “Love.” I know it is photos. I can’t bring myself to take it to Texas, so it is waiting for me under the tree when I return.
 
“Have you watched it yet?” He asks.
 
We are not supposed to be talking. After dozens of half-hearted attempts, we said a final goodbye before Christmas. Still, it is never easy to walk away when there no one has inflicted harm. The reasons are real yet vague. On even days, we understand it cannot work. On odd days, we are each the solace and the best friend.
 
“So, have you?”
 
“No, I have not found time.” Which is not true. I have willfully forgotten the presence of the gift under the tree. Even when I sit right there in the living room, I cannot see it.
 
Against our better judgment, he comes to the house. He carries a sack of take-out kabobs and an uncertain smile. He sets the table and I fill the water glasses. We eat buttery rice and talk all the way around topics we have agreed to ban from this intercut. Instead, we make a show of getting re-acquainted. It feels like a first date (or the first after a long drought).
 
We make a show of discussing everything non-us. We chat. It is very civilized. This is how we break the chokehold of unanswerable questions. This is how learn the true scope of the narrative.
 
This is how we write it.
 
After we finish dinner, he helps me make the hummus and marble cake for tomorrow’s party. He forgoes the electric beater and asks for a whisk. The butter and sugar whip to a froth and he adds the eggs one by one. Vanilla. Sour milk. In the top of a double boiler, chocolate melts. I let him taste from the spatula. We both lick the spoons.
 
I make two small cupcakes so we can have something sweet for ourselves.
 
Then, he takes me to the living room and turns the lights low. The Christmas tree is still bright. “Enough stalling. We’re watching this tonight,” he says.
 
“Okay.” I plop down on the couch. He gets the DVD player up and running. And then, there it is. “This is our past,” the screen tells me. The Grateful Dead kicks in and the familiar pitch of Jerry’s voice sings the opening strains of “Scarlet Begonias.”
 
As I was walking ’round Grosvenor square. . .
 
Then the photos roll. I recognize the first few and then I see some I do not remember him taking. Our first walks. That first morning he dropped me at work. The first time I met his family when we went to sing karaoke on his cousin’s birthday at a bar west of town. Him there, goofing and laughing. Me there, flirting and singing.
 
I knew right away she was not like other girls.
 
Me, making an acorn mosaic on a rock in Shenandoah. Us, raising our glasses with our friends at a winery. Bug as Harry Potter at Halloween when he was still so little, his hair dyed brown and those big glasses sliding down his nose. Drinks at the bar of that awful, crowded Thai restaurant where the meal took two hours to arrive and we were so hungry, we ate the soggy maraschino cherries out of our mai tais for sustenance. Bug playing legos on the blanket Giovanni hammered into the ground for him at our campground. Family parties, guitars, line dancing. My birthday balloons. His birthday hike. Me balanced on the side of a fountain. Him balanced on the top of a mountain. Us standing in the blustery night, bright-cheeked before the National Christmas Tree.
 
I had one of those flashes I’d been there before, been there before.
 
The music changes. The photos spool on.
 
We are a couple. I understand this now. He is more than some in-between fling. This is not “dating after divorce.” He is real, as he has been telling me for over a year. We are something substantial. Whether we leave it or keep at it, we are far more than just an idea. We are two people with a shared history. The pictures capture so much of it. Some are melancholy. Some of the images precede or coincide with white-hot arguments we both recall. Much of our past, though, is just plain old happy.
 
As for the rest? I don’t know. The DVD ends with a video he captured one night when we were in his house eating cookies he had just made. We are talking sweet, melty cookie talk to the camera. I am chattering on without realizing he is taking video. Near the end when I realize it is being recorded, I burst out laughing.
 
The image fades to this: “Our future is unwritten. . .”
 
We have nearly a year and a half behind us now. We have said goodbye, yet here he is, holding my hand on the living room couch in the glow of the tree.
 
He says, “I have never fought this hard for a woman before.”
 
I say, “I hope I’m worth it.”
 
He chuckles. “Yeah. Me, too.”
 
He leaves for the night but we do not say goodbye. We are not disposable. Something different than what I intended has happened here.
 
I have no idea who this Us is. We are just meeting now for the first time.
 
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

 

Family, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 6

As we round the second hour of opening gifts,  the 17 people crowded into the living room press on. The Christmas spirit will not be defeated. Neither will the commitment to go in turn around the circle, youngest to oldest, until every wrapper has been ripped from its mooring.
 
“Wait, who gave you those earrings? Who? I can’t hear.”
 
“What are they? Gold? Let me see.”
 
“Pass them over here. Who were these for?
 
“Where did she find them? They’re beautiful! Really!”
 
We holler over each other against the silvery tree. Its branches spread out over the only window in the room. All day, a relentless barrage of icy steel has been raining from the sky. No one has walked or run. We eat giant handfuls of Chex mix and leftover sausage balls. The mimosas are flowing.
 
“Who’s older? Who’s next? Come on, you’re not next! What year did you graduate?”
 
Cackles and shrieks. 1965? 1966? My grandmother argues with her youngest son.
 
“Mom, you graduated in 1938!”
 
“Don’t tell me. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not that far gone. It was 1937.”
 
“You were born in 1920.”
 
“I know when I was born!”
 
“Geez, leave her alone! Not everyone is 18 when they graduate!”
 
“Let it go, people! Who’s next? Someone open a present!”
 
“I am! I’m opening this one!”
 
“What is it? I can’t see. Wait, who’s it from?”
 
On and on. A cousin steps away from the melee. A moment later, I stand to stretch my legs and refill my glass. The silhouette of the towering man, that cousin 10 years my junior whom I held as a baby, barely registers. He is loitering on the back patio smoking a cigarette. My head is half down. My attention is only on seeking relief for the pounding in my head. A third mimosa will certainly not help, but it is easier to come by than a nap. I wince when he slides the shrieking glass door open a crack.
 
“Hey. It’s snowing.” He grins and the door squeals shut.
 
I glance up through the glass and see giant globs of wet snow plopping onto the concrete. The white lumps splash between the puddles and mix to a slush. I grin back and nod.
 
Sneaking into the living room, I catch Bug’s eye as he waits with commendable patience in front of his pile of unopened gifts. I beckon him to me and whisper, “Come here. Look outside, out where your cousin is.”
 
Bug leaves the living room and steps through the den. He stands at the glass door and stares out, trying to make sense of what he is seeing. My big cousin looks down with his signature wry smile. Bug catches his breath.
 
“IT’S SNOWING!” He screams, races into the living room, and pounds right into the middle of the crowd.
 
“IT’S SNOWING! IT’S REALLY, REALLY SNOWING!”
 
“What? Now?”
 
“In Dallas? No way.”
 
Everyone drops their packages, their plaster smiles, their stiff endurance. All 17 folks unfold themselves from their couches and corners. The heavy wooden door sighs open and the assembled mass piles out onto the front porch.
 
“Lookie there! Snow!”
 
“Well, I’ll be.”
 
Bug is dancing from foot to foot. “See! I told you! It’s real snow!”  The other kids tiptoe out in their socked feet, mouths open, faces turned to the sky.
 
“Snow! On Christmas!”
 
“In Dallas. If I wasn’t looking right at it, I’d never believe it!”
 
All 17 folks get their fill of wet, frosty air and make their way back into the living room to finish what we started. No more order. Just opening, just trusting there is enough attention. Just smiles and noise and happy gathering. It is an embarassment of riches. No one can remember the last gift or the next. It doesn’t matter. We sit surrounded by tins of candy, books and Xboxes, jewelry and soup mix and hand-painted santas.
 
Outside, the snow turns to flakes and soon the white fluff dusts the yard. My headache is long forgotten. The gifts lay abandoned at the foot of the silvery tree in the empty living room. All 17 folks clatter around the kitchen, gabbing, running dishes under the hot water, laughing. The older kids run outside and have a snowball fight. Their bright eyes flash as they come in and press their red fingers to our warm skin before running away giggling.
 

Creativity, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 7

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, everything was exactly right. Everything, that is, except for one little burr under my saddle.
 
The cheese grits and cranberry sauce were prepped and ready for morning. Presents were heaped under the tree. Shrek on the TV was babysitting my kid while the grownups sat in a circle around the kitchen table gabbing about things that were of no interest to him. The cousins who happen to be near Bug’s age were off with their other grandmother for the evening. The only other big kid in the house had grown up so much, he was more interested in finishing up Ulysses than in playing cards or hide-and-seek with the resident 6-year-old.
 
Between the raucous stories in the kitchen and Shrek in the living room, everyone seemed content.
 
So, why was I feeling like the Grinch?
 
This Dallas gathering has been a bright cacophony.  We are immersed in family and busy-ness, yet somehow, I am unsatisfied with the familiar chaos. Something is missing. Of course, this is the first time I have had Bug at Christmas since Tee and I broke up. But it is more than just not being with Bug’s dad. It is also the loss of ways we had created together when we became a family. Where are the Christmas carols? The nighttime walks? The outings for ice skating? The group games?
 
Why won’t anyone here sit down with my kid and play with him?
 
One thing about Tee that attracted me to him was his tribe.  They have created ways of being together and being in community that expand a person’s spirit. Hell, the first time I met his family, we attended his older sister’s wedding which took place at a YMCA camp. We celebrated her marriage with canoe races and zip lines. Tee’s family’s annual caroling party is a city-wide epic undertaking. Every holiday is an endless string of group sledding adventures and multi-generational board games. These activities are not grafted on; they are woven deeply into the fabric of their family. A person barely has to try. It is all there for the taking.
 
Of course, I couldn’t stay married just to his family. It’s a package deal. The just-add-water approach of patching a new name onto the end of my own is not an option (and didn’t work, after all).
 
The holidays are just another reminder that even in the midst of the chattering, loving embrace of my extended family, I do have to grow up and figure out how to cobble the new ways together from whatever I have on hand.
 
I know that in the coming years, Bug and I will be on our own for the holidays. We can make our own traditions. It’s just that I don’t want to wait. I wish I knew how to break familiar habits, or at least bend them enough now to put into place some of the activities I would like us to nurture in our home. It is so hard to push against the settled ways to create room for these things. It gets tiring to suggest them and to face a wall of derision and resistance. It isn’t just me. I have seen others try before me and eventually give up.
 
As the movie wound down, I pulled out paper and crayons.
 
“Sweetie, what are we going to do for Santa?”
 
Bug scooted off the couch and started re-arranging things in the den. He hung his stocking, clearing the conch shells and driftwood out from the unused brick fireplace so Santa wouldn’t knock them over. He put out the milk and cookies. Then, he sat down and wrote the note.
 
“What about the sugar?” He asked when he was finished.
 
“The sugar?”
 
“Yeah. For the donkey.” He explained that Santa has a donkey who travels with the reindeer and helps fly. Something about keeping Rudolph company up front? It was all very vague, yet Bug was firm in his knowledge. This revelation required us to fill a bowl with white sugar to feed Santa’s donkey. We also put out ten baby carrots for the reindeer. Bug arranged all of these treats in a circle around the note on the coffee table in the den.
 
“Alright, buddy. Bedtime.”
 
Bug raced to the back bedroom, leaping onto the bed, bouncing and singing nonsense.
 
“Dance, Mommy!” He had music in his bones. He shook his rear end in my direction and giggled hysterically.
 
“Where’s that iPod of mine?” I asked.
 
We found it and clicked on Bug’s favorite new tune from One Direction, that unavoidable pop number, “That’s What Makes you Beautiful.” Without speakers, the boy-band’s voices came out even tinnier and, well, tinier.
 
Bug marched around the mattresses on the floor in his jammies, bopping his shoulders and spinning in circles. Then, in a burst of excitement, he threw open the door and raced down the hallway.
 
“CHRISTMAS EVE DANCE PARTY!” He grabbed my mom from the kitchen. “Come ON, Gramma!” He dragged her into the bedroom. “DANCE!”
 
Laughing, she swayed her hips. “I can’t even hear it! What are we listening to?”
 
Bug didn’t stop to respond. He just clicked the iPod to repeat and cruised out the door.  “I’m going to get more people!”
 
One by one, he dragged every member of the family into the bedroom. First an aunt, then another, then my dad. The big cousin. An uncle. Eventually, even his ancient great-grandmother was balanced on her cane in the doorway looking both confused and delighted.
 
“Dance, everybody! It’s a Christmas Eve dance party!” Bug called. He leaped and spun and sprang across the floor, weaving between his assembled family members. Everyone swayed and grinned and made embarrassed faces at one another. As the song wound down, they began to disappear.
 
“Whew, that’s enough for me,” said one aunt.
 
“Me, too. I’m pooped!” The aunt’s boyfriend followed her back down the hallway.
 
Chuckling, folks called “Merry Christmas! Good night!”  My mom and one aunt, true troopers, stuck it out to the last chord. Then, pink-cheeked and breathless, everyone said goodnight and I shut the door.
 
“Let’s get ready for sleep, Buddy, so Santa can come.”
 
“Okay!” He said, and collapsed onto the bed.
 
My boy, not realizing that such things are not done, broke the rules and created something new. Santa’s entourage includes a donkey. At Christmas now, this member of the team simply Is and Always Has Been.  Might the same be true for bringing music, dance and play to this place? Perhaps we do not need to wait. Maybe we don’t even need to try. It might be as simple as saying, “This is what we do. Come on! Join us!”