Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Years Eve Watchnight

This morning I read through my Facebook feed, noting Happy New Year wishes and the sharing of plans for the evening. There seemed to be a 50/50 split between staying at home and going out to party. I freely admit the very idea of partying at midnight gives me the shudders.

I've been looking back, way back to the time when I was a youngster. I don't remember any particular celebrations for New Years until I was in my teens. There might have been some, but they weren't very important to me. Our family was what was known as a 'religious' family so drinking and dancing weren't our way, anyway.

I do remember the Watchnights of my mid-teens, though. As I've mentioned before, it was a very turbulent time. The body count from the Vietnam War was posted every night in the upper left hand corner of the TV screen during the news. The numbers were a constant reminder of our soldiers at war. The civil rights wars at home were no less disturbing. Riots, assassinations, burning cities, murders all led to instability and insecurity. Young people held demonstrations against all sorts of things. Woodstock shook up the establishment.

The young of today think they are living in uncertain times. Every generation believes that. Every generation has their own demons, their own problems to face.

But I was talking about my times...

New Years parties were mostly for the wealthy and celebrities. Every day folks might have a small dinner or something like that, but 'good' people didn't go to bars or clubs. They celebrated with family and friends.

Our family attended a church that held a Watchnight service every New Years Eve. We arrived at church around 8 PM for a pot-luck dinner. I always loved pot-luck dinners at church because all the women brought their best dishes. It was a feast. After dinner, some folks visited while others play board games. And then around 11:30 everyone went upstairs to the sanctuary for the Watchnight service. We sang hymns. Several people read passages from the Bible that they found relevant to hope for the New Year. And at midnight we prayed for peace and compassion. After a last hymn, everyone went home.

I can't say if our celebration was better or worse than any others. But when we woke up on New Years morning, we faced that day with renewed hope. Perhaps, that's all we can really do. Face each new day with hope.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Bigger Baskets

As the end of the year approaches, some folks--all right most folks--resolve to lose weight in the new year. And probably 99.99% of them don't succeed. There are a lot of reasons for that. But I imagine the number one reason is lack of commitment. Standing in front of a mirror, assessing the form and figure does not make a commitment. Huffing and puffing as you climb a flight of stairs doesn't either. The truth is... long term commitment to changes of lifestyle usually only happen after a catastrophic event. Heart attack. Stroke. Diabetes.

Some people refuse to buy bigger clothing when their old things no longer fit properly. They believe the discomfort of ill fitting clothes will serve as an incentive to lose weight. And they're mostly wrong. All that happens in the end is you look like you're bursting out of your clothing. If you never leave the house, sloppy sweats and tee-shirts are one solution, but if you work out of the home, tightly fitting clothing with gaping button holes and stretched zippers...well, it's not attractive.

At that point, I support bigger baskets.

No, it's not giving up, giving in, or any of that other nonsense. It's maintaining a positive outlook while you get your act together. Dieting and exercise take a long time to show results--unless you're only working on about ten pounds. For those of us who are looking at a lot more than that, the commitment might take as long as a year or two. In the meantime, there's absolutely no reason to be uncomfortable or unattractive while we're working on our resolution. In fact, there's every reason to do everything we can to heighten our positive outlook on life.

So. Bigger baskets. Attractive baskets with fancy weaving and sturdy underpinning. Uncomfortable people are unhappy people. Get some brightly colored baskets. Colors enhance the spirit. And search out the occasional unusual basket. Something unique that makes you feel special.

There's no reason to choose A or B. Do both. Use that Christmas money to get some fabulous baskets.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Price of Expectation

Christmas 2015. This is the year of unmet expectations. It's the year of discontent, the year of greed, the year of I-want-more. The difficulty with expectations is this: they can never be satisfactorily met. Never.

I believe this is true because so often we hitch our expectations to a price point. One anniversary the hunk brought me a Hersey bar (regular size). A neighbor happened to be present when he handed me the plastic bag from the grocery store and she expressed strong disapproval because it wasn't a BOX of chocolate. She saw his gift as cheap. I saw the wonder of him actually remembering it was our anniversary!

When the Thanksgiving/Christmas/pick your holiday season rolls around, folks lose their common sense. They rush out to the stores, spending money they don't have, to meet expectations that are greedy and foolish. Why do we foster such expectations?

There are soooo many ways to celebrate the holidays. Yet we teach our children the fine art of demanding more, more, more and struggle to meet their demands. Then, the time rolls around when we can't possibly meet their expectations. What do we do then? You see, there is a PRICE for unrealistic expectation.

The meanings of holiday celebrations are lost in our rush to provide more, more, more. It doesn't matter whether it's a foolish embarrassment of food (when folks around us are going hungry) or a gaudy display of decorations or so many presents we don't have room to put them under the tree. What is that all about?

A few years ago, my parents were with my dad's siblings for Christmas. They made a pact that they wouldn't spend more than $2 per person for their gifts to each other...including the wrapping. Then they struck out to see how far their ingenuity would take them. My dad is eighty-five years old. He grew up in an era when ONE present was a big deal. His mother told us the story of the year when she and her sisters received one doll to share. They thought it was miracle.

When we allow our expectations to get out of hand, we pay a terrible price. We lose our appreciation of the simple pleasure of receiving a gift. When was the last time you really took pleasure in something someone gave you? How long ago was that? Too long, I bet.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Home for Christmas

Home. What is the definition of home? It isn't just shelter. Some folks who have shelter don't really have a home. Because...home is permanent. It's a place not only to live, but to feel settled. In our country there are a lot of homeless folks. Some of them are sheltering with friends or family, but where they're living isn't home.

I suspect we've lost sight of that fact--lost sight of the meaning of home. It's not just a place to sleep and eat. It's a place you feel secure, and if you're staying with someone in their home, you're a guest (welcome or not), but you're not home.

I know of a couple authors who are completely homeless due to circumstances they can't control. It doesn't take much. Catastrophic illness. Loss of a job. Loss of income. And with shocking suddenness you're living in your car, trying to stay warm as you huddle beneath a pile of blankets.

We hear a lot about homeless folks across the planet, but very little about the homeless in our country, except for the marginalized due to drugs or mental issues. No one talks about the tent cities of homeless families on the outskirts of our cities. No one considers the families who've moved back home with grandparents or other family members out of desperation, often living in crowded (possibly illegal) circumstances so they're not out in the cold. They keep their living conditions secret so they don't lose their children to the foster system.

When we visualize the homeless, we think of drunks or addicts sleeping on the sidewalk, but that's just a tiny tip of the iceberg. This Christmas, there will be incredible numbers of children who won't wake up to heat or food or running water. A Christmas tree with presents beneath it is just a fantasy they might hear about in school. For them, being warm with food to eat would be a miracle. Having a home is an untouchable dream.

When we sit down to eat our Christmas dinner, maybe just this once we should acknowledge that this isn't the norm. It's a privilege...because we are home for Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Let There Be Peace On Earth

The first time I heard this song was at my oldest daughter's Christmas pageant the year she was in fourth grade. The elementary school had no place big enough to hold the pageant so it was held in the high school auditorium. The program was creative and joyous and enjoyed by all the parents and families.

Near the end of the evening, teachers dressed as reindeer took the stage with a rolicking skit and song. As I was enjoying it, awareness of a shuffle and hiss crept in and I realized that the children were silently lining the walls around the auditorium.

The lights went out. A deep silence filled the huge room.

And then one young voice soared in the darkness. "Let there be peace on earth..." A tiny light flicked on lighting her face.

A few more voices joined in...just a few from points all around us. "And let it begin with me."

More lights. More voices until we were ringed in light and earnest small voices singing about peace on earth. I think about that song often. I think about how we still don't understand the underlying truth of the words..."let it begin with me" for peace does not begin with warriors. Peace is protected by warriors when all else has failed. Peace begins with each of us.

Most people believe that peace is an absence of war. That isn't true. Peace is an absence of conflict. And true peace will not arrive until we as humans refuse to countenance abuse, intolerance, genocide, greed, and famine. As long as we turn away from the less fortunate ignoring the needs of the many in favor of the wants of the few, there will be no peace on earth.

"Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me..."

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Gifts

Christmas 2012. Over the last few days I've read several social media posts and statuses where adults are mourning their lack of Christmas (gifts, lights, tree, decorations, etc.) They're not mentioning the lack for their children's sake. No...they're speaking up for their own lack.

Since this is something I can speak about from vast experience, I had to have my say. For the last innumerable Christmases (not to mention birthdays, Mother's Day, etc., etc.) I could count all my gifts on one hand. Some years I didn't need even a finger to count. And yet, I feel blessed.

I have four reasonably healthy children with their attachments, one healthy husband, two still independent parents, and three healthy siblings with all the attachments--spouses, children, grandchildren. Speaking of grandchildren, I also have four brilliant, healthy ones of my own. Plus a new one this year!

None of them live anywhere near us. But I love them and I am blessed by their very existence.

I have shelter. I have food. I have everything I need to be comfortable, plus some to spare. It was not always so. There were years when I wondered how we would feed our children, but that is not the case this year. And so I am blessed.

I have a closet full of decorations for the holidays. This year I chose not to haul them out. But even if that closet was empty, it wouldn't leave me less blessed. Christmas isn't about decorations or carols or gifts. It's about love.

For those of you feeling loneliness or depression, my heart goes out to you because you are devoid of the greatest of gifts--love. Love for yourself. Love for another. Love for your neighbor. If you have any of those, you are blessed.

Light a candle and give thanks.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Joyful Noise

For those who follow my blog, you know I post several Christmas Vignettes from my past throughout the month of December. Mostly, I do it to remind myself of all the blessings I've been given through the years.

Christmas 1959. I was ten years old. Our family lived in Globe, Arizona, but we had traveled by automobile to Gary, Indiana. It was before the days of interstate highways and my parents drove many hours, late into the nights, to arrive by Christmas. My younger brothers and I occupied ourselves by discussing and boasting about the snowmen we were going to build when we arrived “up North.”
We arrived safely (our first miracle) in the cold pre-dawn hours. It was a cold, damp, windy morning with nary a snowflake in sight. Dad stopped at a gas station so that we could freshen up. The restrooms were unheated, providing us with an excellent reason to speed through our clean-up. With our faces washed and our hair combed, so that we were presentable, we piled back into the car and traveled the few blocks to my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house.
There, as we shivered under a barely lightened sky, my Dad was struck by an inspiration. He gathered us in a tight group on the small front stoop—and at 6:00 AM—we began bellowing out the strains of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Now it stands to reason that SOMEBODY would want to shut us up, but nobody came. Dad led us into a second verse, urging us to sing louder.
Still no reaction.
The wind whipped up, cutting through our light coats. Lips turned blue and strands of hair blew across our eyes as he led us through a third teeth-chattering verse.
Nobody came. Mom rang the doorbell as he launched into the first verse again. Uncle John flung the door open and demanded, “Who is it!” before he recognized us and invited us in.
Later there were a few chuckles when he described his mad dash from room to room searching for the radio that someone had left on. During our visit, my brothers and I waited in vain for snow, knowing we only had a few days to spend there. At last, our hopes for snow dashed, we headed home. Oh, we had a great time milling around with our cousins, roaming in small packs from room to room, but in some small secret place within, a little snow would have been perfect.
After a long boring trip, suffering from holiday letdown, we arrived home safely (another miracle). Dad parked in front of our small house. We sat in the car staring out the foggy windows in amazement at our snow-covered yard. The cactus plants in the corners had spiky snow beards. There wasn’t enough snow to build a snowman, but we had a great snowball fight before we unpacked the car.
A miracle.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Christmas Assignment

The shack was the smallest home on the short gravel road.  At first glance its origins as a storage shed were obvious.  A quick second look revealed the crooked mismatched windows and a shadowy doorway with the torn screen door that flapped idly in the cold fitful wind.
            Inside it was dark and cold, so cold the water dregs in a dirty cup on a crate next to the sagging bed had a thin skin of ice.  The man stretched out in the bed struggled to breathe, wheezing and groaning with each breath.  He shivered as he huddled beneath ragged blankets and two old, dirty coats piled on him for warmth.  Snow flakes whirled through the broken window pane above the bed, settling in the worn fabric folds covering him.
            In the tiny bathroom, a desperate conference occupied the old man’s companions.  Harold the rat moderated, earnestly leading the discussion about what to do for Otto, their human sleeping in the next room.
            "He needs a doctor," Harold growled.  "We need to call 911."
            "No one will come because none of us can tell them what's wrong."  Sally Squirrel sighed, close to losing her patience.  Harold just wouldn't listen.  "In the TV shows, the operator always asks what the emergency is.  We can't tell them."
            Mick, the chipmunk tentatively cleared his throat.  "Siggy could bark."
            Harold's whiskers bristled and he snorted in disgust.  "And what good will that do?"  One ear, ragged and torn, twitched in agitation.
            "It always worked for Lassie," Mick's wife, Daffy retorted while pulling her scrap of blanket closer to her thin chest.  "It worked for Benjy, too."
            "Those are TV dogs.  Of course it worked.  TV isn't real, you know," Siggy woofed softly.  "I don't mind barking, mind you, but I doubt that it would do much good.  Besides, even if the emergency people came, that wouldn't solve our problem.  How are we going to let them know who he is?  How are they going to know he's the Christmas Angel?  If they just think he's a bum, nobody will ever know how generous and unselfish he is.  And his family might not find him."
            Gloom settled over the small group.  Then Daffy hesitantly offered, "If we could get his treasure box open, we could place one of the money bundles on the bed with his red coat and hat.  There can't be that many red cowboy hats or red and green coats made from a Navaho blanket in Cleveland and they'll take a closer look because of the money."
            "How do we get the box open?"  Sally's reasonable question was unanswerable.  They had no idea where Otto had hidden the key.
            Siggy sighed gustily and softly padded from the dank bathroom out into the main room.  The others could hear faint clicks and scratches.  Then Siggy reappeared with a battered basket stuffed with odds and ends clutched precariously in his mouth.  He dumped it on the floor in the center of their little circle and tipped it over.
            Pitty Paw, a mottled gray cat, who remained silent until then, patted through the rag-tag collection until she spied a broken nail file.  "Aha!  Isn't this what that silly woman on CSI used last week?"
            The whole group studied the broken file dubiously.  Finally, Sally slowly nodded.  "It might work.  The rest of you keep looking through this junk while Pitty Paw and I go try to open the lock."
            Sally and Pitty Paw went out into the main room and trotted briskly over to the bed.  Wiggling through the small space between the boxes stuffed under the bed, they wove through Otto's jumbled belongings until they reached the treasure box against the back wall.  Sally brandished the rough little file and then poked it in the keyhole.  Immediately, it jammed tight and they couldn't get it unstuck.  After several more futile attempts to free it, Pitty Paw silently went to fetch help.
            In a few minutes, she returned with Jacko, Harold's right paw rat.  Jacko silently studied the problem before worming around in the dust bunnies until he was flat on his back with his powerful hind legs pressing against the file.  "You two brace me so I don't slide all over," he directed a bit breathlessly.  "I'll push on three.  One…two…three!"  Jacko lashed out with both hind paws.  There was a faint ping before the file when flying off into the darkness.
            Sally sighed.  "Bother.  Thank you, Jacko.  I'll just go see if I can locate the stupid thing so I can try again.  Next time, I'll try not to get it jammed."
            "Hold up there," Harold whispered loudly behind them.  "We found a key."  He dragged it up to the treasure box and dropped it with a faint clank.  "Try this, Sally."
            She clutched the key in her tiny paws and carefully inserted it into the keyhole.  "It fits."  Jacko helped her maneuver the key back and forth until they heard a tiny click and the lock sprang free.  The lid tilted up revealing a narrow gap. 
            Harold tilted his head and peered into the box.  "I see the money bundles.  Let's drag one out so we can get this done."  They huffed and puffed and tugged and pushed and pulled and it was all in vain.  The box lid, jammed against the bottom of the bed, wouldn't open any further.  There just wasn't enough clearance to extract one of the thick bundles of money.
            Pitty Paw crouched down with her head on her paws and thought.  "Do we need the entire bundle?" she asked.
            They all stared at each other for a few moments before Harold shrugged.  "I don't think so.  What's your idea?"
            Pitty Paw crept forward, grasped the tattered green pile of bills poking out through the opening with her sharp teeth, and yanked.  There was an ominous ripping noise, and abruptly, she crouched in front of them with a mouthful of money, sticking out in all directions like so much lettuce.  She spat it out with a grimace and poked it in Harold's direction with her nose.  "There is the money.  Now what do we do?"
            Sally and Jacko gathered up the money while Harold scampered back to the bathroom to work out the next steps.  By the time they crawled out from under the bed, Siggy was trotting across the room with Otto's red and green coat clutched in his mouth.  He dumped it on the bed across Otto's feet and went back for Otto's hat.  When she saw that Siggy couldn't shake the hat loose from the hook where it hung, Sally skittered up the coat tree, pushed the hat until it teetered on the very edge and then flicked it once with her fluffy tail.
            Seconds later, they all stood around trying to stifle their laughter because the hat landed squarely on Siggy's head, slumping down over his ears and one black eye.  His damp black nose poked out from under the brim.  He sniffed and tossed his head, dislodging the hat.
            In a very few minutes they had everything arranged so that they were ready to make the important call to 911.  Sally tipped the phone off the hook and methodically poked at the numbers with her tiny fisted paw.  Shortly, the operator answered and Siggy began to bark…

            By the time the first police car responded, Siggy was nearly hoarse.  The officer quickly called in a request for an ambulance.  While it was enroute, he noticed the animals, all sitting in a composed little group next to the bed.  Keeping his eyes on them, he called out to his partner, "Joe?  Come in here for a second."
            Joe poked his head inside and demanded, "What?  I'm trying to talk to the guy that lives across the road."
            "Look at the animals, Joe.  When have you ever seen a bunch like this all together?  A dog, a cat, two rats, four squirrels and three chipmunks--all together in a little group.  They aren't acting like they're afraid of us, either."
            While the two officers watched, Sally climbed up on the foot of the bed and sat next to the bright red cowboy hat.  Tilting her head to one side as though to say, "Well?", she waited for them to make a move.
            Cautiously, Officer Joe slowly approached and lifted the hat.  He turned it in his hands, noting the name printed in the hat band.  "Mike, I think this guy is that Christmas Angel that hands out money every Christmas.  You know the one that gives away fifty dollar bills down in the projects?"
            "This guy?"  Mike scoffed at the very idea.  "He's just some bum."
            "I don't think so.  The name in this hat is Otto McKenzie."
            "Otto McKenzie?  What would a millionaire be doing in a dump like this?"  Mike held out his hand for the hat so he could see for himself.
            Joe handed over the hat and pushed back his own hat, scratching his ear in thought.  "I seem to remember reading that McKenzie walked out of his headquarters one day and just disappeared.  There was something about him resigning because of unethical business practices by his board of directors.  He turned them into the SEC and most of them went to jail."
            "Well, if he's really McKenzie and also the Christmas Angel, I guess we know where the money came from.  Wasn't there a special program on TV not too long ago about him?  I think his children have been searching for him.  I'll bet this will make for a real happy Christmas for them."  Mike heard the sirens approaching and went to direct the EMTs.  In the hustle and bustle of getting Otto ready for the ambulance, the officers lost track of the animals.  When they finally had a few minutes to close up the little house, the animals were no where to be found. 
            Both officers looked very carefully before conceding that the animals were gone, but when they had locked up and returned to their patrol car, they both agreed that there was something very odd about the little group.  They acted like Otto McKenzie's guardian angels.

            From their observation point, deep in a bush at the corner of the little house, the animals watched the patrol car slowly move down the gravel road.
            "Otto will be alright, now," Harold declared with satisfaction.  "We did a good job.  His family will appreciate him now and be glad to have him home."
            "Well," Pitty Paw observed thoughtfully.  "I hope on the next assignment God gives us, we get to have hands." 
            "And can speak to humans," Siggy growled hoarsely.  

Then with a flash and twinkle, they were gone.

The Christmas Assignment by Anny Cook, copyright 2006

Friday, December 4, 2015

Santa's Helper

For those who follow my blog, you know I post several Christmas Vignettes from my past throughout the month of December. Mostly, I do it to remind myself of all the blessings I've been given through the years.

Christmas 1979. That was the year we stretched the budget to get the kids’ bicycles. At our house, Santa always brings a stuffed animal. It was my feeling that Santa bringing tons of presents sets up kids for unrealistic expectations. No matter how the year goes, a stuffed animal is always doable. And after that, whatever Mom and Dad can come up with is great.

My kids had a realistic idea of our money situation from the time we sat them down and let them pay the bills with real money. My house hunk had his check cashed at the bank in $1 bills. Then we sat down with the kids and let them count out the money for each bill. We did that for six weeks. If there was any money left over after the bills we let them do the grocery shopping with a calculator and count out the money for the food.

After that when we said there was no money, they understood that reality. To this day, they’re all very good managers. This particular Christmas was important to us as a family as the previous Christmas had been very, very bad. We didn’t have a lot of money, but there was a bit more than usual so we decided that we could afford to buy bicycles.

Of course when your kids are pre-teen age, hiding bicycles is a pretty tricky proposition. Finally, we simply made the garage off-limits. Late Christmas Eve the house hunk and I were out there trying to assemble three bicycles. The store would have assembled them, but that cost money that we couldn’t afford. One needed training wheels. Things did not go well.

Around 2 AM, the door opened and my second son trotted out there with his hands in his pockets. First of all, I was startled that he was still dressed. And then of course I demanded to know why he was awake.

“Well,” he said, “I thought I would see how long it took you to put them together. But it’s late. I’m tired. And I would like to ride my bike tomorrow. So I gave up. Do you want me to put them together?”

His father handed him the wrenches. “If you think you can do better than we are, go for it.” Thirty minutes later all three bikes were assembled and parked by the tree.

My son was nine years old that Christmas. Until he left for the Navy, it was always his responsibility to assemble all the gifts marked “Some Assembly Required.”