community, Relationships, spirit

Season of Light

Solstice Android Jones

My Unitarian Universalist congregation rang in seven new members at an exuberant ritual following our annual Joy Service last weekend. This gives us one more reason to celebrate in a season already packed with celebration. It also gives me a chance reflect on our congregation’s many members and friends, and the variety of ways we experience our faith journeys this time of year.

The days grow shorter still. All around, twinkling lights frame homes and shops, even our own glittering sanctuary. Yes, December radiates holiday cheer, but not all of us feel warmed by the light. Some of us may instead feel the chill of absent loved ones, uncertain finances, national political turmoil and minute-by-minute news of mounting global crises. The festive glow surrounding us can make things even gloomier as it illuminates the distance between ourselves and the holiday spirit. And because our hearts already feel two sizes too small, we may just keep these troubles to ourselves.

Continue reading “Season of Light”

community, Friends, Giving, Uncategorized

A Gift of Need

We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.

Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

Fruit Gathering

A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays. Continue reading “A Gift of Need”

Children, Giving

Present Moment

Last night, my Mister and I talked across our nightly distance. We told each other stories of gifts. What had we received that had really knocked our socks off? What were we proud to have given? Both of us had to reach far back for the most shivery memories. A brother’s model aircraft carrier. A first double-cassette stereo materializing in the bedroom on Christmas morning. Continue reading “Present Moment”

Choices, Family

Keep Stirring

When you heat the sugar and butter, you have to keep the temperature low. Never stop stirring. This means either working backwards or having a helper handy. Ideally both. When it is time for the vanilla, you will not be digging in the cabinet for it, unless you like your caramel smoked. The candy thermometer will become goopy and steamed, the phone will ring, and you will remember you forgot to butter the pan. Do not turn around. Whoever is on the other end cannot chop the pecans for you, and that person has already bought Christmas cupcakes for her kid’s class.
You wanted to use your hands. This is what you get: a burnt fingertip from believing the thick taupe suede to be a solid thing, just because your tongue was fooled into longing for something it would have had anyway, given one teaspoon of restraint.
Nothing you buy from the store will be half as good as even your most mediocre effort. This is what you know to be true, even if the sequined and tiara-studded confections behind the glass case whisper their siren song. Keep stirring.
Do not check the recipe again or grab ice for your blister. You know the steps by heart. You know the hard-ball stage cannot be rushed and will never be passed – never, because the kitchen clock always moves as if treacle has gummed the gears. Turn down the flame. You should not be able to hear it roar. The only sound that will come is the low moan of the air making its sluggish escape from the candy as it roils. Keep the spoon moving.
The recipe card is written in your grandmother’s script. Shaky, even then. What a thing, her hand: here and also not. Perhaps alive somewhere, in its way, because of microbes and the relentless pull of decay and rebirth everywhere, even in that crimson box they lowered into an Oklahoma hilltop a decade ago. A decade!
This, too: she, alive and also not. The jagged flourish of her script is frozen in motion all the way onto the next line. The 3×5 card is yellowing and blotched with boiled fat, caramelized Karo, and something hard. Another dish, maybe? This recipe, caught in the holiday crossfire. Cornbread stuffing, perhaps, or the clove and orange peel glistening on the crusted pink hide of the sacrificial ham.
She did not stop until her heart did. But which was she? The heart? Or the girl whose powdered cheeks betrayed a heady blush as the boy whirled her across the dance floor? She kept her hands so pliable, the old lady skin as delicate as honeysuckle petals and just as fragrant. How she managed this is one of life’s great mysteries. She stood over boiling sugars and popping Crisco. She took up the catfish who’d been, just that morning, blissfully sucking mud at the bottom of Murray lake, and dragged the poor fellow through bread crumbs and egg before releasing him to his oily fate. She donned the apron and held at least one corner of that restaurant’s kitchen on the hollow bones of her narrow scapulae.
Even so, nothing caved in. No part of her contracted into hardness. The blisters didn’t callous and the wounds of her unplanned servitude never thickened into scars.
When she was in her final year and no longer venturing near the stove, she asked me to rub her hands. Beneath that most delicate tissue purpled like Monet’s garden were thick, arthritic roots delving down to the springs below, blocking the way. She ached all over. “Oh, sugar, it hurts something awful.” She had spent a lifetime trying to restrain the tears ducking just behind her voice. She’d spent that same lifetime failing.
I took her hand and pressed into the tender meat between the thumb and forefinger, holding back my full strength because by then, she was made of air and moonless night. Her marrow had long since leached out into the prairie grass for the copper cattle and oil rigs to pull back up when the time is right.
Those last years, she was draining away but age had not taken her best self, only the extra, the unneeded weight, the constraining thoughts. The only things left were softness and pain. Also those relentless tears. Also the bottomless hunger for touch.
They say that if luck favors us (or scorns us, as the case may be) with a long enough life, each of us returns to infancy.
With my fingers, I drained what I could of the useless strength in her hands. What was the use of muscle and its dedicated ache? What did she need with holding? I had taken up her place at the stove, the ink, as the bearer of a name on my own more robust shoulder blades. My only job was to help guide her back gently to the womb of a woman waiting on a hill in the morning sun. That matriarch had herself returned to forgiving clay. At last, the serrated edges were worn from her mother’s tongue.
In the trunk I hauled from the foot of my grandmother’s bed into my own home 1500 miles away, I find the gloves she had worn in an earlier life. The embroidered delicacies are white kid and cotton, hand stitched and studded with graying rhinestones. Also from that steamer trunk rises a gust of the same aging honeysuckle that clung to her and forever softened her.
This was her secret? Something so simple? The gloves do not fit over my swollen knuckles. Thick digits already leathered in the first third of my time on this planet strain at the seams (though I do try to force myself into that silken sheath. Who wouldn’t?) I put them away for a keepsake since they will never grow to envelop me nor will I, God willing, ever shrink sufficiently to squeeze in.
I close the trunk and wonder if her determination to stay soft was the toughest part of her. Her man may have cornered her in that crucible in the back of the restaurant. Necessity may have demanded she plunge her hands into whole chickens and dice bushels of yellow onions for the soup. She may not have had any real choice but to stir and stir those cauldrons of beef and butter beans for paying customers. Kids and mortgages greeted the young, bewildered families at the end of the war. And maybe it was impossible to buck a man built of the same stuff of stud bulls and dust bowl hickories.
Maybe all of this is true.
Also, she chose.
Do not be fooled: selecting from among just one option is its own act of defiance. Submission is never truly complete as long as the one doing it decides to submit. Somewhere down below even the most bending grass is one deep root that cannot be split, not even with the sharpest spade.
And so she stayed. With him, she stayed:
Soft, the most tender, and forever threatening to tremble into a watery mess. She stayed:
Alive ten years beyond him, then a few more. She was the one whose hands rested in the warm grip of her grown sons and granddaughters during her final months. It was her timeline that claimed a stretch in which the tears could come without reprimand. She let them come and found, to no one’s surprise but her own, that on the other side of pain, when someone finally rubs it free, all that’s left is a heap of stupid giggles, memories of first kisses and big-eared boys, and a craving for the caramels made in the cluttered kitchens of the women who taught us to keep stirring.

Family, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 8

The three grown sisters are in the kitchen attempting to make the cranberry sauce. “Where’s the zester?”
“Just use a grater.”
“Don’t give me ‘just.'”
“I don’t know how to work this food processor. Where do I put the stuff in?”
“Here, geez. Snap it like this.”
“But how do I get everything back out?”
“Just use a spatula and scrape it into the bowl!”
On the stove, the berries are boiling hard. Sugar in, orange zest in. Their mother is back in her bedroom “resting.” This is code for preparing for the next bout. When the avalanche of family has pushed tempers to their limits, napping is the only way to re-boot. I have done so twice already today and Bug is back on his little pile of blankets right now taking his siesta.
We started out the day at the local Y. The nice man at the counter must have seen the desperation in our eyes. He smiled gently as he handed us a week guest pass.
“How much?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.
“It’s on the house,” he whispered. “Merry Christmas.”
Bug climbed non-stop in the Adventure Zone for kids, I shimmied in a mega-Zumba class that had three rotating instructors and took up the entire gym, and my dad fought his way onto an elliptical for some hard sweating. The place could not spare a single square inch for stretching. Every medicine ball had been claimed. We were not the only ones looking to pump endorphines into our systems to offset the pre-Christmas crazies.
Naps and exercise are sure bets, it seems. At least until we start drinking.
People enter and exit my grandmother’s house in threes and fours. The front doorbell rings then the sliding glass door squeaks. More cousins and uncles. Unfixed dinner plans. Re-routed afternoons. We crowd into the breakfast nook and leave the sprawling rest of the house unoccupied. “Why does everyone always sit in here?” Bug asks. “That dining room has a lot more seats.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Anyone?”
A cousin shrugs. She is tucked into the corner in a low chair. “Because this is how we have always done it.”
Three bottles of wine are on the counter.
The wheels on the ancient drawers scream in protest as an aunt digs in the back for missing tools. My mother is on her knees in front of the buffet. Her head is halfway into a cabinet searching for a China bowl which may have been here once.  She pulls open a drawer, looks in, and sighs.
“Well, here are the candles I was looking for.” She still has not found the bowl. She glances up at me typing here in the dining room and narrows her eyes.
“Don’t you dare write about us.”

Children, Family

Happy 100 Days: 9

In the midst of the comings and goings

Angry Birds on the aunt’s iPad

Great Gramma asking for the 13th time, “Did I feed the birds?”

(Yes, Mother, we put seed out this this morning)

Plans for ice skating foiled by the human gridlock at the mall

Chips and margaritas at Tupy’s

Hollering out headlines from the Dallas Morning News

“Do you believe this jackass is still trying to arm teachers?”

Cowboys at noon, iced beer cracking open

Kitchen counters piled high with Chex mix and peanut brittle

Coughing, hacking, interrupted sleep

Futon frame collapsing under us in the wee hours

An after-midnight arrival of the Colorado kin

The stash under the tinsel-draped tree growing with each new arrival

Somehow, Bug and I find our way behind a closed bedroom door. Freshly bathed with jammies on, we sit cross legged on the floor. He has found cards in the drawer where his great Gramma keeps the supply from long-ago bridge games.
“What do I do next, Mommy?” He consults the fan in his hand.
“Same shape or same number. Also, you can put an eight down at any time and change the suit.”
“Is this one a club?”
“Yep. The one shaped like a clover.”
We play up until bedtime. Bug places a final three of diamonds and wins the game. The grin on his face is as bright as the lights on the tree.
The last time Bug and I tried to play a proper game of cards, he was a year younger. He could not count the numbers and I did not have the patience to help him. In this chattering, crowded moment, we carve out a corner of the universe just for the two of us. Just for play.

Family, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 10

In the hours before we leave for the airport, the erratic artillery fire of footsteps rattles the house. Four of us, up and down and in and out. We somehow manage to eat a full breakfast and pull off an early-morning pre-Christmas gift exchange in the midst of it all. Bug purchased surprise tchotchkes for all of us from Colvin Run Mill’s gift weekend for kids. Volunteers take children through the country store with their lists and budget helping them both pick out and wrap the presents. Parents are not allowed. It if fun to see my little boy growing up enough to take pride in selecting treasures for each of us. He bought me a lime green kitty cat ring-keeper. Considering how much he loves to play in my jewelry box, the gift is especially sweet.
During our morning exchange, Bug crawled around behind the tree and made a pile for each of us. It is amazing how quickly he has put the alphabet together into words. He reads the names on the tags easily, tossing each gift into a pile. Never mind that the tags are hand-letters and a little smeary and that each of us goes by different names to one another. He understands whose is whose. He counts them out and makes sure we take turns.
Then we are done and off to the bath, the laundry, the packing. Giovanni stops by to drop off gifts and to say goodbye. This is not an easy moment. He is moving out of his apartment in a few weeks and we are seeing less of each other. The New Year will be very different than the last. After giving Bug the winning gift of the morning — a Lego minecraft set  — Giovanni kneels down and says, “Listen, buddy. I won’t be seeing a lot of you. If you ever, ever want to talk to me, you just tell your mommy that you want to call me. You can call me anytime, okay?”
“Okay,” Bug says, only half looking at him. Giovanni sweeps Bug into a bear hug and tells him he loves him. Watching him attend to my son through this farewell makes me shiver. I can feel those arms as if they are holding my own heart. I take a breath and decide not to cry as he kisses me hard before driving away.
Soon, we are at the end of the morning. We take out the garbage, empty the dishwasher, set up the cat’s food bowl for the kitty-sitter. All through it, the bump-bump-bump the overstuffed suitcases and the last remembered items shake the rafters.
Another Christmas awaits us when we land at DFW. My grandmother, still kicking at 92 despite the dementia and the broken hip, will have all five of her children and a good fraction of her assorted grandkid under one roof this year. It will be bright chaos. It will be a story to tell.
And we never know when it might be goodbye.

Friends, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 11

“We had a birthday party for Winter today,” Bug tells me, pulling the last of the Oreos out of the crumpled blue wrapper he found in his backpack.
“Winter the dolphin?” We are leaving after-school care on the way to drop the pooch off with a friend for the Christmas break.
“No,” Bug says, black cookie dust drifting down his chin. Winter is a dolphin with a prosthetic tail that lives down at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida. Bug has been dying to go down to visit ever since seeing a movie about the rescue. “Not that one. How old is Winter anyway?”
“If it is someone in your class, I assume she’s six.”
Bug gives me a blank look. “Is there someone named Winter in my class?”
I stop and bend down. “What are we talking about?”
Winter,” Bug says, as if I haven’t heard him properly. “It’s the short day, and then it starts all over again.”
“Oh! The solstice!” I say.
“Right! We had a party for Winter’s birthday. We had cookies and juice.”
We get in the car and drive through the night past all the houses decked out in twinkling lights. We arrive at the friend’s place with the dog in tow. Bug sits on our friend’s living room floor and digs through a box of old toys belonging to boys who are men now, off exploring unmapped corners of the world. The pooch snuffles around and makes herself at home in a nook behind the dining room table.
After a little while, we go over to the common house where a small group of folks has been cobbling together army-sized vats of vegetable stew and cornbread. Candles are waiting to be lit, wine is opened, and slips of paper with bits of blessing are passed from hand to hand. Soon, a group of friends and neighbors is standing in a circle sending wishes to the four directions. Each of us holds a candle. Bug finds a glass bauble shaped like a star to hold his. When we reach our part of the recitation, I bend and Bug holds his light up to the slip of paper.
“Can you read that word?” I ask.
“West,” he says.
“That’s right. West. And that?”
He looks a moment longer. “North,” he says.
“You got it.” I read the rest of our share of the blessing. After a few laughs and shared breaths, we eat. Bug finds older kids and joins them at their table. He is a perpetual narrative-in-motion machine. He asks me not to watch him so I only do through sideways eyes. My friend stays near Bug and me, making sure we have enough to eat and that we have met the folks who are sharing this moment with us.The room is alive with the scent of cinnamon, smiling faces, stories of trapeze classes and the lament of kids growing up too fast.
It is dark so early now. I barely noticed, what with all the light.
We had a birthday party for Winter today.


Office Party 2.0

We were able to dispense with the requisite “Secret Snowflake” office gift exchange this year. While I am reluctant to snub tradition, who needs another $10 tchotchke? We agreed to try something a little different.

The assignment: identify a favorite charitable organization, and come prepared to talk about it.

Our student services gathering was early this year due to the early departure of one among us to a lengthy holiday in Brussels. On Monday, we brought holiday treats along with our own brown bag lunches. It was low key, in a conference room over lunch. Nothing fancy, which was exactly right for us. Folks came bearing festive, chocolate-y, sparkly yummies to share.

Anyone who wanted to participate anted up a few bucks. While we ate and chatted, each participant in the “Charity Stocking” dropped his or her organization’s name in a stocking. We listened as each in turn shared that group’s purpose and describe why it mattered. This gave all of us the opportunity to hear one another’s brief, sweet and revealing personal stories.

We not only learned about a range of organizations and how they serve a greater good, we also became more familiar with how our co-workers think about service. I had not known before that one of our coordinators used to volunteer as a counselor at one of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camps, and that another has a relative who has recently returned from Afghanistan and has become involved in the Wounded Warrior Project.

We chose the team-member who is the most recent hire to draw from the stocking. He pulled our winner: Canine Companions for Independence. The organization raises service dogs to help folks with disabilities. I had a vague idea about such work from a documentary I watched a hundred years ago, but I did not know it can cost $40,000 to raise and train one of these pooches! Our small group of ten collected over $125. This will not transform the world, but it sure is nice to know our pocket change is going somewhere that matters.

Then we consumed vast quantities of sugar.

Since our Monday gathering, I find I am paying a little more attention to the food donation boxes and Toys for Tots collections scattered around my campus. I am also trying to tone down Bug’s fixation on what he is going to get from Santa. It is not easy, but even just having him help wrap the gifts or write the notes seems to get us on the right track.

I recently asked for Bug’s help choosing and bagging canned goods for the food drive. He was full of questions about who and how and why. I explained that the food was for people who do not have enough to eat.

“Why don’t they go to the store and buy some more?”

Well, of course, that would be the logical approach. So began a straightforward but carefully worded conversation about money and hunger and “enough.” It was all very strange and without context, but my boy took in as much as he could before he was ready to get going to the delivery site. “Come on, Mommy!”

In the frenzy of buying, traveling, feasting and festing, it is a fine thing to remember about giving.

Below are the other organizations that made it into this year’s Charity Stocking but did not win the cash:


Children’s Inn at NIH

Donors Choose

Girls on the Run

Mary House

Painted Turtle Camp

We keep their good work in our thoughts during the holidays, and on our lists when we have a few dollars to spare.