Re-inventing Advent

Two years ago, when I first started blogging, I ran a series of posts every day in the month of December.  This series was in lieu of an Advent calendar, which had been a big tradition of my family.  Back then, I had only a handful of faithful blog followers, instead of more than 400.  So, I intend to re-gift these entries.  After all, I am in the resale business! (Check out Scholar & Poet Books – there’s  a link in the side bar.) For my family and for Helen (God bless you!), these will be repeats.  For the rest of you, I hope you enjoy opening your daily presents!

‘Tis A Season

When I was a kid, I always had an Advent calendar to count down the days from the first of December until Christmas Eve.  I had the same tradition with my own kids.  The secrets hidden behind each door were often Scripture verses.  It was important to tell the story of Jesus’ birth and make sure my kids knew that was “the reason for the season”.   There are other little treasures we could open each day, though.  When my son was taking German in high school, they sold Advent calendars with chocolates in them.   My father used to make us calendars out of magazine pictures and various old rotogravures with fortune cookie strips for the daily message.  We made our own calendars for each other, too, with simple crayon symbols behind the cut out doors.   The season has multiple images in my mind, and now I’m trying to figure out what it means to me at this point in my life.

I will always have respect for Jesus and the Christian story.  They were supremely important in my life for many years.  My spirituality was formed around them.  I think it is good to examine and re-examine beliefs, though, and strive for genuine and authentic expressions of experience.  My experience is expanding as I age, and I want to include more of those experiences in my belief system.  I want to include respect for other cultures, other religions, other parts of the planet and the universe.  I have a sister who is Sikh, a son who identifies with Buddhism and Native American spirit stories and a father who once taught science.  There is a lot going on all over the world in this season.  What do I want to acknowledge or celebrate?

My youngest daughter has always loved this season.  She used to go to the local Hallmark store in the middle of the summer to look at the Christmas village set up there.  What was that about?  Sparkly, pretty, cozy, homey, yummy expectations of treats?  Possibly.  Peace, love, joy?  Possibly.  Emotions?  Definitely.  Why not focus on pleasurable human senses and emotions?  Up in the northern hemisphere, we are spinning away from the sun and plunging into a cold, dark time.  Light becomes more precious, warmth becomes holy, food is life itself.  Why not celebrate that dependence?  We are sustained by the sun and the producers of this planet that make food from its energy.  Evergreen trees remind us of that.  Gifts remind us that we receive from the producers; we are consumers.  Gratitude is the attitude of the season.  Giving is the action that sustains us.

Vernon Marsh, sunset (click to enlarge)

I sent a text message to each of my kids this morning saying that the gift for Day #1 this season is sunshine.  The sun is shining here, showering us with Vitamin D and all kinds of other goodies we need to be healthy and happy.   We are blessed, saved, sustained, given life in this universe by an amazing set of circumstances that we did not originate.   However you acknowledge that and whoever taught you to acknowledge that deserves attention.  May you be happy as you think and act in awareness of this.

Winter Holy Days

The world did not end yesterday. We are in a new cycle, heading closer to the Sun once more.

In years past, I would have spent this day at an Episcopal church, practicing with the choir, ushering my children through the Christmas pageant, greeting friends, and sneaking private moments in the candlelit darkness whispering devotions to Jesus and His Father. I would have sent more than a hundred letters through the mail to people far and wide with Scriptural messages and personal anecdotes illustrating the great salvific actions of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world. I would have asked for and promised prayers for numerous specific ailments and misfortunes. I would have spoken and written my heartfelt greetings using words like “blessings”, “gifts”, “faith”, “Emmanuel” and “Savior”.

 This year is different.

 I have no tree; I have no gifts wrapped and waiting; I have not sung a hymn or carol; I have no creche with empty manger awaiting the figure of a baby. I am the same person, though, with the same heart and breath and life blood. I use a different language now to try to express my deepest hope for peace and love to rule my life and the lives of those with whom I share this planet. I no longer profess to know a single Truth; I no longer presume to belong to a select portion of humanity; I no longer pretend that the concepts in my brain adequately reflect very much at all of reality.

 The posture I hope to adopt is openness. To face the world, the people in it, the marvel of change and mystery beyond my control, without hiding behind a mask or label or system, is a severe challenge. Had I not already buried a husband, fledged a flock of four, sold a home I had for 20 years, and left employment, I might not believe that I could live without clinging to conventional structure. I test my ability to be flexible, graceful, alive and aware every day. I hope to learn. I hope to grow. I hope to love the world (and myself) more genuinely as I do. This is my holy quest, and every day is a holiday. I celebrate the mingling of material and spirit, the incarnation of life in the substances of Earth. I will eat and drink and hug the bodies of people I love with festive joy as before – but differently.

 I include the entire Universe in this celebration. Yes, this means you! Peace to you all. Love, joy, humility and grace be with us all together….scillagrace.

front porch view

Weekly Photo Challenge: Happy

How ironic.  Today is definitely a day of SAD.  Last night, Steve & I had another epic “relationship discussion” that left me with swollen eyes.  I simply could not stop crying.  This morning, I got my period.  So typical.  This week’s pert little challenge topic just made me laugh.  What does it mean to be happy?  “May all beings be happy.”  Even with puffy bags and stinging eyes, I believe that I am happy.  Even clinging like a wreck for survival, I believe that I am happy.  Maybe that’s my grossest delusion.  I willfully believe that I am happy, no matter what. 

So what makes me happy?  Sunshine.  Family.  Christmas.  Here’s a photo of my kids on Christmas Day last year. 

How About Love?

My December countdown was completed yesterday.  I did not have a chance to post about the gift of love because I was living it.  My four children plus two “significant otters” came over for feasting and gifting and sleeping over.  All six of them ended up on the living room floor under mountains of sleeping bags and pillows and blankets, just like they used to when they were kids in a cousins pile.  Except now, they’re all adults — beautiful, interesting, caring, amazing adults who actually like each other.  And me.  How did I get to be so blessed?  This morning, I repaid them all for years of running in and jumping on my king-sized bed full of eager energy at an early hour on Christmas.  I dived onto their sleeping bags one at a time and gave them a great big hug and kiss.

We have lived through a lot together.  And we have lived through a lot separately.  Their lives matter to me in a way that I can barely describe.  Steve keeps challenging me to come up with ways to articulate what this is.  He has no children, and philosophically wonders why family is esteemed so highly.  “Oxytocin,” my daughter replied one day.  That explains one level of it, I suppose.  My biology has loaded me with hormones that make me love my kids.  My religion loaded me with beliefs that urged me to love my kids.  My experience of life has loaded me with the joys of loving my kids.  And my kids are just plain lovable.  I can agree with the reasoning behind his argument that all people are equally valuable, but I just can’t help feeling that my kids are more valuable…to me.  Yes, I’m playing favorites shamelessly without really understanding why.  Is it possible that evolution favors fiercely loving families?  Do they tend to be larger and survive better?   This might have negative effects on the planet in terms of population.  Would it be better for the world if we were less filial and more agape in our love?  Less sentimental and more altruistic?

Table fellowship

I don’t think that I am going to do justice to the topic of love in a scholarly way when I am full of mince pie, chocolate, and happy memories of the hours I just spent.  I am starting to sink into that melancholy that bubbles up when all of the guests have gone home and you ask yourself if you can be truly happy without that rush of energy and affection.  Of course, I am happy and even more peaceful living without all my children still under my roof.   I am in love with the world, in love with my partner, and in love with my children every day.  And it is marvelous.

Christmas 1982

Ever had a piece of music bring up a memory, a time and place from the past, with such clarity that you felt you were actually there?  Last night it happened.  I came home from my Memoirs class, having read my essay aloud with such a rush of nervous adrenaline that my heart was still pounding.  I decided to have  a glass of Chardonnay and listen to some of Steve’s recently acquired CDs with him.  So, I was relaxing and in “memory mode” when he put on a CD of the Tallis Scholars singing a mass by John Taverner, written around the turn of the century – the 16th century.   Oh, the flood of my heart!

I was 20 years old.  Jim and I had become engaged on my birthday over the summer.  I went back down to So. Cal. to school, to continue with my bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance.  Jim and my mother were in a Bay Area singing group together, called Renascense (or some archaic spelling pronounced ren-NAY-sense).  I came home for Christmas and was invited to one of their concerts.  I close my eyes and picture them:  Jim in his black tuxedo, ginger mustache,  the smatterings of a beard he’s grown for Rigoletto.  He is 22, teddy bear-like with twinkling blue eyes, blonde hair and a killer Italian grin.  But while he’s singing, he is an angel, mouth perfectly forming straight vowels, eyebrows imploring heaven.  He is a tenor.  His voice melts butter.   My mother is dressed in a mail order catalog nightgown, polyester, rust-colored, that has been trimmed with gold & black cord around the waist and across her bosom in an X.  Only women who have sung in choirs can imagine how absolutely ludicrous these outfits can be.  No woman looks good in a choir uniform, let alone one that has been made to look “period” on the cheap.  It is ridiculously embarrassing, but I forgive her.  She sings alto in a hooty voice that blends well.  Her quality is not stellar, but her musicianship is indispensable.

I have been so homesick away from school.  I have been staring at my diamond ring, counting the days until break.  I sit in the concert hall and look at these two people whom I love more than any others on the face of the earth, and I am so proud of them.  I’m proud of their dedication to music and their fond relationship to each other.  I admire them completely, and I am jealous.  I want to be with them; I want to be them.  I want to feel the music in my breast float to the clerestory of the church and entwine in that beautiful polyphony.  I ache for this memory.  And then the tenor line soars above the rest, and it is Jim himself, singing to me.  The recording is perfection.  I can tell that it isn’t Jim, but there are moments when it definitely could be.  My will takes over and I make it him, in my mind.   I am there, in that sanctuary, and Jim is singing to me, alive, young, vibrant with love and mystery and warmth.

Jim before his Carnegie performance - 2001?

Music folds time in patterns that defy chronology.  I sail far away on its transcendent waves.  It is a grace to travel toward those we love without limits.

Handmade, Naturally

Today I had an opportunity to get into the holiday spirit by doing some arts & crafts with kids at the Nature Center.  Unfortunately for fundraising but fortunately for me, not too many people showed up this morning.  That meant that I got to play with the materials myself.  I was at the wrapping paper station with an array of washable paint colors and objects to dip into them.  Leaves, cedar boughs, fir needles, spruce branches, feathers, pine cones, sponges and whatnot.

Years ago, I went into the prairie with scissors, came back with leaves and seed pods, spray painted my treasures in gold, silver, and clear varnish, and decorated a mask with them.  That hung on the wall of the den for ages.  I’m always looking for ways to decorate indoors with pieces of the outdoors.  And all for free, essentially.  (Cheap & Weird – my kids’ nickname for me)  That reminds me of the dried macaroni gifts I gave the Christmas I was, what, 9?  Too funny.  Spray paint macaroni, glue it to a box, call it a gift.  I suppose I could get away with it as a kid, but what is it called when I’m almost 50 and still messing around like that?  Okay, call it messing around.  I have fun.  Here are a few examples:

Imagine me gleefully slapping a piece of butcher paper with a paint-soaked cedar branch ala Jackson Pollack!  I tell you, kindergarteners should not be having all the fun.

The best things in life are free.  So far on my December countdown, I’ve received Sunshine (Dec. 1), Fresh Air (Dec. 2), and Water (Rain – today).  Each day I go outside to receive some miraculous gift, and there’s always something.  No need to wrap it or trap it.  Martha Stewart or Andy Goldsworthy, I’m not.  Just a kid in a fabulous universe, trying to stay happy with what there is.

‘Tis A Season

When I was a kid, I always had an Advent calendar to count down the days from the first of December until Christmas Eve.  I had the same tradition with my own kids.  The secrets hidden behind each door were often Scripture verses.  It was important to tell the story of Jesus’ birth and make sure my kids knew that was “the reason for the season”.   There are other little treasures we could open each day, though.  When my son was taking German in high school, they sold Advent calendars with chocolates in them.   My father used to make us calendars out of magazine pictures and various old rotogravures with fortune cookie strips for the daily message.  We made our own calendars for each other, too, with simple crayon symbols behind the cut out doors.   The season has multiple images in my mind, and now I’m trying to figure out what it means to me at this point in my life.

I will always have respect for Jesus and the Christian story.  They were supremely important in my life for many years.  My spirituality was formed around them.  I think it is good to examine and re-examine beliefs, though, and strive for genuine and authentic expressions of experience.  My experience is expanding as I age, and I want to include more of those experiences in my belief system.  I want to include respect for other cultures, other religions, other parts of the planet and the universe.  I have a sister who is Sikh, a son who identifies with Buddhism and Native American spirit stories and a father who once taught science.  There is a lot going on all over the world in this season.  What do I want to acknowledge or celebrate?

My youngest daughter has always loved this season.  She used to go to the local Hallmark store in the middle of the summer to look at the Christmas village set up there.  What was that about?  Sparkly, pretty, cozy, homey, yummy expectations of treats?  Possibly.  Peace, love, joy?  Possibly.  Emotions?  Definitely.  Why not focus on pleasurable human senses and emotions?  Up in the northern hemisphere, we are spinning away from the sun and plunging into a cold, dark time.  Light becomes more precious, warmth becomes holy, food is life itself.  Why not celebrate that dependence?  We are sustained by the sun and the producers of this planet that make food from its energy.  Evergreen trees remind us of that.  Gifts remind us that we receive from the producers; we are consumers.  Gratitude is the attitude of the season.  Giving is the action that sustains us.

I sent a text message to each of my kids this morning saying that the gift for Day #1 this season is sunshine.  The sun is shining here, showering us with Vitamin D and all kinds of other goodies we need to be healthy and happy.   We are blessed, saved, sustained, given life in this universe by an amazing set of circumstances that we did not originate.   However you acknowledge that and whoever taught you to acknowledge that deserves attention.  May you be happy as you think and act in awareness of this.

 

Flak Friday

I hate shopping.  It’s eerie to come home from a cozy, loving holiday weekend and find news that the larger world has sunk into madness.  While I was enjoying a two hour Swedish massage in the comfort of my daughter’s home, others were dying to obtain merchandise.  Fighting, heart attacks, assault with weapons and overnight exposure to the elements remind me of wartime conditions.  Are we at war as consumers?  Where’s my flak jacket?

Good grief.  I’ve never celebrated Christmas in a very commercial way.  As an Episcopalian, I tried to focus on the sacramental aspect of the holiday.  I spent a lot of time in church, singing in the choir, rehearsing the Christmas pageant and taking my kids caroling to shut-ins.  We made Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, wrote Advent letters to friends and family and donated money and gifts to charity in each others’ names.  It was never about Stuff.  As a kid, I made presents for my family.  My kids made presents for each other.  One year, Becca just wrapped stuff we already had.  My toaster, with crumbs, surprised me into a fit of laughter.  I could get sore about not being appreciated with a gift, but I took it as a joke on the whole scene.

Perhaps this is just my personality.  I am gift-challenged.  I’m not very good at giving or receiving them.  It’s not one of my Love Languages.  My husband truly enjoyed giving gifts.  My eldest daughter is a very creative, inspirational gift-giver.  They have a knack for finding grace and meaning in Things.  I have trouble with that.  I probably have an aversion to Things, actually, and definitely an aversion to shopping.  When I was about 9 years old, my mother took me Back to School shopping at a huge discount department store called Zayre’s.  It was August.  It was hot and humid.  Our station wagon had no air conditioning.  The store was not in our village.  It must have been somewhere in the Sahara.  It took forever to get there, forever to get the job done, forever to get home.  I was sick with heat stroke.  I remember my mother putting me in the bathtub and bringing me bananas to eat.  Sitting in the cool water, eating bananas was like heaven to me at that point.  I couldn’t imagine why I had been made to endure the ordeal that brought me to that state.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Christmas this year.  I don’t go to church anymore.  I don’t think about Jesus in the way I used to.  I do love to celebrate with food and family and lots of love.  I like appreciating others and being appreciated.  I’m not sure how I want to embody that, though.  I always write a letter to my children for them to read on Christmas morning, a letter of hope and pride and blessing, I guess.  There are ideas I want to give, but not things.  However, William Carlos Williams keeps whispering “No ideas but in things” and I keep trying to understand.  Shall I give everyone trees this Christmas?  Or soil?  Or double helix shaped jewelry?  The sun?  Words?

A shelf full of ideas

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you….The Universe!  Applause, appreciation, celebration, Holiday.  Think I can pull it off?