Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Do You Hear What I Hear?

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my daughters and I went to breakfast at the grand Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. Then, after eggs and bacon and pastries in the elegant ballroom, we walked a few short blocks to the mall. 

We do this every year. It’s how we officially kick off the holiday season. We spend a day in the city to do a little shopping, wave at Santa sitting in his big chair beneath the giant tree, and enjoy the crowd. 

By the time we made it to the toy store, I was tired. My favorite boots were pinching my feet, so I motioned toward the bench in the mall just outside the store and told my youngest daughter that’s where I would be. Her sister was in another store.

“Take your time,” I said, glad for the chance to sit for a minute. “Take as long as you want.” 

While she looked at the art supplies and the model horses, I looked at the people around me. There were busy men and women carrying shopping bags and hurrying from one stop to the next. And there were strollers who were only window-shopping, moving leisurely through the crowd. 

A group of carolers, dressed in Victorian costumes, appeared and began to sing. The songs were old and very familiar to me. I didn’t need a book to sing along, I had heard them since the day I was born. Songs I had sung and songs that had been sung to me for as long as I could remember. 

As I sat on the bench listening, I noticed a man sitting at a table nearby. He didn’t look like the other shoppers thronging the mall. His clothes were dirty and ill-fitting. His hair was too long and shaggy. His shoelaces were tied around his ankles to keep his hand-me-down shoes from slipping off his feet. 
The man was someone who had come into the mall, away from the street, to get in out of the cold. He wasn’t a shopper, he was just passing through. 

When the carolers started singing, the man looked up and then slowly rose and left the table. He moved, a bit unsteadily, in their direction. And it was the way he walked, like a sleepwalker or a toy being pulled by a string, that held my attention. I watched him as he found a place to stand and watch the performers.

The carolers sang one song after another. And the man never moved. He stood there, focused on the four young singers and the music. 

As I studied him, struck by his reaction, I wondered where the music was taking him. I wondered if the old familiar carols filled some empty place inside him. 

I suppose it’s possible he was remembering some really dreadful holidays, when hands were raised, voices were harsh and comfort was in short supply. But I don’t think he was.

When something triggers a memory like that we move away, not toward, the reminder. We duck our heads and hurry past, anxious to get out of the line of fire. But the man in the mall did everything but levitate in the direction of the singers. His face was rapt and open. He was pulled into the music, not pushed away.

My daughter called me to come into the store with her so I got up off the bench and did as she asked. When we came back out into the mall and met up with her sister, the man was gone.

I looked down at my little girl’s face and I linked arms with her sister. I thought about the man. Somewhere, some time, he’d been someone’s little boy. 

I don’t know where he went at the end of the day. I went home. But deep inside us both, we sang the same song.

This column first appeared in The Spokesman-Review in December 2006. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ebenezer's Ghosts Still Carry the Spirit of Christmas

This column first ran in The Spokesman-Review in 2007 under the headline Revisiting Scrooge.
This week, losing the fight with a miserable cold, I decided to surrender and rest. I turned off my phone and crawled back under the covers with my copy of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. When I finished the book I may not have lost the cold but I was warm and comfortable and filled with the spirit of Christmas.

 I pulled the book off the shelf, plumped up the pillows on my bed and settled in for a good read. The book is old, almost 100 years old, and the pages are dog-eared and as brown and fragile as dried leaves. I’ve had it since I was a girl.

Alone in the room, a blanket over my feet, I opened it and read the first line: “Marley was dead; to begin with.”

Six little words and I am deep in a familiar landscape.

Over the years I’ve picked up my old copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol many times. I don’t read it every year – I should – but I do try to read it often enough to retain the feel of the piece. There’s simply nothing else like it.

This year, like every other time, I was struck by the power of the bleak and frigid scene described. By the vivid images painted by words.

You know the story … It is Christmas Eve, but that doesn’t matter to Ebenezer Scrooge. He doesn’t keep the holiday. Scrooge is a cold man, frozen by the coldness within him. He is a bitter and lonely and miserly man who has forsaken every human comfort. He eats only what he needs to live. He has no use for celebration or financial – or emotional – extravagance. He is, Dickens tells us, as self contained and solitary as an oyster.

By the time I’d finished the first chapter I was so deeply absorbed that when I looked up I realized I had burrowed down under the comforter until it covered me completely. It was even draped over my head.

When I peeked out, still under the spell of the book, thinking of the “piercing, biting, searching cold” of London streets, I half expected to see my breath hang in the air like little clouds. But the lamps were on and the room was warm and cozy.

I covered my head and went back to my book. I was swept up in the visits by the spirits. By the quiet dignity of Bob Cratchit. By the gradual softening of Scrooge’s heart.

I was interrupted and had to put the book down and I didn’t pick it up again for a few days. When I did, I fell quickly back into the story and read it to the end.

It’s a shame about Scrooge. Oh, I don’t mean what happened to him the night the spirits came to show him the error of his ways. I mean what has happened to him in the more than 160 years since he was created by Charles Dickens.

To most people, Ebenezer Scrooge is a cantankerous character from a movie or a cartoon. He is an actor dressed in stylized Victorian garb, a caricature of greed and heartlessness. He scowls and spits Bah Humbug to anyone who approaches. He is a symbol of penny pinching and stinginess. The lack of Christmas spirit.

But the real Scrooge only comes alive when you read the book. That’s when you see the deepest message in the tale. It wasn’t just his greed and lack of charity that nearly destroyed the man. It was the isolation. The lack of human closeness and comfort. His world drew in tightly around him and he learned “To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.” He forgot how to be tender. He grew hard and flinty. He became “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

That is what the spirits revealed to him. When he saw the damage done to himself and others, Scrooge begged to be allowed to make amends. And his gift – his Christmas miracle – was that the night was rewound and he was allowed a fresh start.

For the rest of his life, “Scrooge was better than his word,” Dickens tells us. “He did it all and infinitely more.”

Tonight is Christmas Eve. The night when each of us, in our own way, is visited by the ghost of Christmas present and that yet to come. And when, like poor old Ebenezer Scrooge as he clung to the ghost of Christmas past, we will be “conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys and cares long, long, forgotten.”

God bless us every one.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holiday reality isn't wrapped with ribbon and pretty paper


 This column appeared in The Spokesman-Review on December 5 2005, and is one of my most popular public radio audio essays. I think that's because it addresses something most of us learn sooner or later: Life, even when we wrap it in pretty paper and decorate it with bows and ribbon, isn't always pretty. CAM

My daughter came to me fighting back tears. She hovered at my side for a moment before drooping dramatically and bonelessly, the way girls do so well, onto the sofa beside me.

“What’s wrong,” I asked, warily because I never know what’s coming.

“I don’t know,” she said with a long sigh. “Christmas just isn’t the same anymore.”

It was my turn to heave a deep sigh. There were still Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator, for goodness sake. It wasn’t even December.

I offered hugs and sympathy, and gave a little pep talk about how we see things differently as we age and it’s really up to us as individuals to make any day, not just the holidays, wonderful, but what I wanted to say was, “Oh yes it is. Christmas is exactly the same.”

The truth is the picture-perfect Christmas my child was pining for never really existed. It was the magic castle at the top of a fairytale beanstalk that I planted for her.

She was blissfully unaware of the times the checkbook wouldn’t balance or I was reduced to tears over a must-have toy that couldn’t be found anywhere in town.

She didn’t worry about the tree that died weeks before Christmas and stood in the living room like ornamented kindling.

It all looked perfect to her.

In some ways the holiday season is a beautiful but empty package. We’re driven by the belief that we can create this one perfect day, or season, and the warmth generated by it will carry us through the rest of the year. We spend, bake and shop. We decorate around worry, unhappiness and dissatisfaction pretending they aren’t there.

As my daughter rested her head on my shoulder, I recalled a conversation with a friend. We met for coffee, and she told me she was getting a divorce. “The thing is, the marriage has been over a long time” she told me, slowly stirring the lukewarm coffee in her cup. “But every year I’d make this gut-wrenching decision to leave and then I’d think about the holidays, and I just couldn’t do it.”

It was bad enough to know she was ruining her children’s lives, but the holidays, too? That was too much.

Facing the truth that the divorce would tarnish every Christmas, and every other special occasion the family would celebrate in the future, she surrendered. It was that important to her.

Year after year she put on another perfect Christmas for a family that was broken but just didn’t know it.

Finally, no amount of scotch tape and silk ribbon could keep it all together. The marriage fell apart, she left – in the summer – and the family learned how to do things, how to do everything, differently.

It wasn’t pretty or perfect, and it wasn’t easy, but it eventually worked. She told me later, after she had remarried and reconciled with the child who had struggled the most with the situation, that if she hadn’t been so focused on making perfect memories for her children she might have made better decisions about a lot of things.

As I petted and consoled my daughter I tried to tell her what we so often gloss over this time of year: the truth.

Nothing shines quite as bright in real life as it does in our memory.

Growing up is hard because it means our eyes are opened to what a gift box won’t cover. We make peace with what was and what is and, eventually, move on to caring more about making the ones we love happy.

What I wanted to tell my child, but I’m not sure I got across, is that the real gift of any season is learning to find a way to see the magic in the holidays – in every day – even when you know better.