Let love win and the rest will take care of itself

I was raised as a Catholic, but my religious beliefs have always been a little…squishy. A pastor at one of the non-Catholic churches I attended said technically, I was still a Catholic and a heretical one at that. He said it kindly and with humor, at least that’s how I remember it. These days, most would consider me to be an agnostic. I can’t put God in one tidy box. I prefer to call my particular brand of faith Episcobudditarianism.

My very Catholic mother rocked Christmas. We had two trees; the fancy tree, color-coordinated with our green and gold living room, and the kids tree, which had everything we could load on it. My siblings and I would sing along to classic Goodyear/Firestone holiday albums while we made ornaments for the Carols and Candles service using the eggs from L’eggs pantyhose (drilling the hole in those suckers was hard. They were also quite resistant to glue.)

Over the years, while I wandered through literal and spiritual homes, my Christmas spirit remained firmly in place. When the Dude was little, we used to cover the house with lights, inside and out. The more garish the better. My husband maintained some sense of reason, otherwise we would have had a blow up snow globe in the front yard that projected a Mannheim Steamroller laser show.

With the dude getting older, he’s not really interested in much beyond eating butter cookies, so it was up to me to bring on the Christmas. I was more than up to the task. And when my mother-in-law, in the grip of advanced Parkinson’s, began to fail, I promised my husband I would keep bringing the Christmas. I baked more, decorated more, sang “Sleigh Ride” until he begged me to stop.

Early in my marriage, my mother-in-law and I didn’t connect the way either of us wanted to. We both held on to our resentment and let it get in the way. As her memory faded in more recent years, our relationship shifted into something more loving and open. Her illness was awful, but it gave us a do-over. I wish we’d done it sooner. As she entered hospice care, I thought about my own parents, who I didn’t get to see this Thanksgiving due to the weather, and my siblings, with whom I share so many of those happy holiday memories, the ones I can still page through on demand, and wanted to have them all with me–even my brother who always woke us all up at the crack of dawn.

The hospice nurse said my mother-in-law could hear everything around her, so I played the Pandora holiday channel on my IPhone while I sat with her. A week before Christmas, she passed away.

On Christmas Eve, my husband, my father-in-law, the Dude, and I, went to service at the National Cathedral. Since one has to buy a ticket, it’s the only place I don’t feel like we’re taking someone else’s pew.  It’s an impressive space, built for contemplation and anonymity. So there I was, in the nation’s church on one of the most important days in Christian faith, and I’d been “bringing it on” by playing with cookie dough and glitter. I needed to do something to honor the woman who raised my wonderful husband since it took us far longer than it should have to reach a level of mutual respect and affection.

I looked at the cross and wondered what the heck I actually believed in. I wasn’t looking for a religious awakening, just something absolute that wasn’t bound into any one -ism. They gave us all candles to hold as we sang Silent Night. I lit my taper from my father-in-law’s candle and thought. “Let love win, and the rest will take care of itself.”

I may never be able to categorize my religion, any more than I can describe my career plans or my actual hair color. I do, however, know what I believe in.  And there’s nothing wrong with a  little glitter and cookie dough, too. Just saying.

Happy New Years to you are yours.

Holiday Haiku from the cats

Human–thank me nowIMG_0292

I’ve killed the evil red ball

One less ornament

Holiday ribbon

Makes for a festive hairball

On your yoga mat

Humans don’t get it

You can keep the **** inside

Just leave me the box

The lights on the tree

Aren’t blinking in unison

I will remove them

Go on–laugh it up

While my food bowl goes empty

Kiss dessert goodbye

The coats on the bed

Are the perfect place to sleep

Screw their allergies

Sorry mantel crecheIMG_0666

But I have dibs on this space

Kick it to the curb

I don’t care, grandpa

The dog stays at home capiche?

Or I shred your pants

Dearest Santa Claus

The human lies–I’ve been good

Just send some catnip

Like the humans say

Climb high, and I’ll reach the stars

Up the tree I go

Cocktail party – yay!

I will sit amongst them all

And lick my privates

Opening presents!

How should I know if they’re mine?

Cat’s can’t read, Einstein

I will shed my fur

On your new cashmere sweater

Until you pet me

If that’s what it takes

I’ll wish you Merry Christmas

Now go fill my bowl.

Happy Holidays from Hunter, Sasha, and the Mobyjoe Cafe

The tree, the ficus and the journey towards an ampersand

xmastreeThey were exchanging gifts before they had exchanged the words, which made choosing difficult. To give too much, or too little might ruin everything. If they got it just right, it might cement an ampersand between his name and hers.

Him&her, her&him. Us.

She’d wrapped the Ficus in blinking lights, thinking it festive, but it shed leaves in protest. Fending off the cat was indignity enough. To prove its point, the tree chucked a bauble at her feet.

He bent down and picked up the ornament, his face reflected in the surface, smile broad and open. “I don’t think the plant is feeling it.”

“I knew I should have decorated the palm instead.” She played with the bow on the box. She wasn’t the careful sort, more inclined to rip through the wrapping like a toddler than worry the tape as not to tear the paper. The moment, however, hovered in the space between before and after, and she didn’t want to rush to conclusions.

I hope he likes it.

I hope she likes it.

“You need a real tree,” he said, and she agreed.

They walked into the velvet evening. The city hushed as if it had stopped to watch the snow fall. The lot wasn’t far, only a block or two, and they followed the floodlight like the homing star. She breathed in cold and pine and hope as they wove between the trees, looking for their future hidden among the branches.

“This one.” They’d pointed at the same tree.

It’s a sign.

Definitely a sign.

They carried the tree back to her apartment, each holding one end of the trunk. Snowflakes settled on her hair, melting into tiny gems, her face bright and rosy as she turned back and smiled at him.

He matched his pace to hers, not wanting to push too hard, or hold her back, asking her from time to time if the burden was too heavy.

“I’m stronger than you can imagine,” she said.

“I don’t doubt it.” His imagination was infinite.

He let her choose which end to carry, so she opted for the end with the branches. He would try to carry most of the weight, it seemed his way, but she could bear the scratching needles. Ever prepared, she’d worn gloves. The bag holding the stand dangled from the trunk, the contents jostling with every step. She could almost hear sleigh bells.

They crowded into the elevator, the three of them, then pushed their way out, down the hall and through the apartment door. He stood the tree while she set the Ficus free. It shivered with pleasure, shedding a few last leaves to remind her to never, ever impose in that manner again. It sneered at the prickly new neighbor. Sucker.

The pine wouldn’t dignify the Ficus with a response as it received the lights and ornaments with open arms.

When they had finished, they lay under the tree and gazed up through the branches. Unwrapping boxes could wait. They had ampersands to exchange first.

Photograph : Christmas 2013 by Ed Suominen © 2013 Creative Commons/Flickr

I want a vacuum for Christmas. Really.

My husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Every year it gets more difficult to answer that question. I really don’t need much. So I thought about what would really improve the quality of my life, and decided that I need a Roomba.

Writing and anal-retentiveness are not happy cohabitators. I freely admit to both. The chaos that is my house distracts me from my work, but not enough to actually do something about it. If it comes down to vacuuming the bedroom and banging out a new chapter, the chapter wins every time. Frankly, if it comes down to vacuuming the bedroom and staring at a blank screen cursing my lack of inspiration, that would win as well. Just because one likes a clean environment does not mean one likes cleaning.

My cats also work at cross-purposes to me. They are petty and vengeful creatures. Look Sasha, the big cat just finished tormenting us with the big noisy thing. Let’s retaliate with an epic fur-tossing argument. You just ate, right? Maybe you can hork up your breakfast. While you do that, I’ll go downstairs and walk across her keyboard.

My husband, the tech dude, is convinced that the Roomba will not do the job as well as a regular vacuum, and might only work on half of the rooms in our house. My response was that the Roomba does a better job than he does, even if it sucks and only works on a quarter of the rooms in our house.

The Dude  also thinks the Roomba is a stupid idea, and doubts that it would actually work.  I said it won’t work on his room because it won’t climb over laundry, at which point he suggested they ought to make a Roomba that vacuums up one’s laundry, washes and dries it, and spits it out folded and ironed, like a laundry Zamboni machine. The child is a genius. Not that he could build this, however, he can barely remember that electronic items need to be plugged in. He’s an idea guy.

What I really want is a house elf. My husband says he’d give me one, but with the plethora of socks the Dude leaves around the house, he’d be free within hour. In any case, he’ll double-check to see if Hammacher Schlemmer sells them. I think I’ll have to stick with the Roomba.

After all, the Roomba might have entertainment value.  I’m hoping my cats will ride it like the cat in the YouTube video. I won’t bother with the shark suit, however, nor am I getting a duck.  If they don’t, I can live with that. I might have five minutes of a cat-hair free bedroom each day. As long as they don’t hork on the Roomba itself, I’m ahead of the game.



If you want Christmas, you gotta bring it

This Christmas was my son’s personal Rubicon. He’s not a kid anymore. As if learning to drive, the start of his college search and growing from nose-to-nose with me to nose-to-nose with his father didn’t clue him in already.

It didn’t come without warning. Over the last few years, his pile of presents has gotten smaller and smaller as he wants more expensive things. Electronics don’t come cheap. An IPad is in a totally different league from a Bionicle, and hopefully won’t end up in small pieces underfoot. Yet somehow, this year, it hit him like a ton of bricks. Being an adult often sucks.

He tried to hide his feelings, but he is a lousy poker player. He was totally joyful and grateful and did and said all of the right things, but some essential dude-ness was absent. That, he can’t fake. After the holiday was over, he and I talked about it.

He said that he got really cool gifts, and assured me that he really liked them. It just didn’t feel the same to him–it wasn’t like it used to be. The day lost some of its immediacy—that new truck, or Nerf gun, or computer game he’d spend a whole day immersed in wasn’t part of the deal anymore. His gifts were…useful.

And it occurred to me—I know exactly where my husband and I went wrong.

Children are Petrie dishes for the holiday spirit. You don’t even need to do very much. They watch endless Rudolph videos, make holiday art projects, and beg you to visit Santa while editing their wish lists over and over. You have the school assemblies to attend, and cookies to decorate, and they don’t roll their eyes at you when you suggest driving around to see the Christmas lights. Children drag you into the holidays kicking and screaming whether you like it or not.

This year, both my husband and I were preoccupied with worldly concerns—his proposal, my novel submission deadline. The tree stood bare for two weeks before we got around to decorating it. We took care of tasks, but we didn’t prepare. We expected our son to bring Christmas, but without the infrastructure of childhood surrounding him, he didn’t know how.

I explained to him that as you get older, Christmas changes. The anticipation, the preparation, is the event. Getting gifts is great, don’t get me wrong, but what I cherish is all of the warmth and joy that the season evokes. My son now needs to be a part of that process, not just the recipient of it.

We talked about how to create that feeling. We decided that next year, he can help me come up with the crazy stuff I get for his Dad’s stocking, ice the cookies, and maybe even dance to some holiday tunes when no one is looking (that’s one of my strategies. He’s not convinced). We can create new traditions to replace the ones that he’s outgrown. Christmas, however, won’t come to him like it used to, so he’ll need to send out the invitation and welcome it home.

It’s not too late, however, for me to capture some of the spirit, albeit belatedly. I’m baking some cookies. Sprinkles always bring out the kid in me, and if he refuses to help, I’m eating them all myself.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph by Richard Masoner © 2007 Creative Commons


Winter Break

This story was written for the Wordsmith Studios December Fiction Fest

Emma could have gone to her parent’s house for Christmas Eve, but there is nothing more pathetic than a 33-year-old woman standing next to her mother wearing a matching holiday sweater. She could hear her mother’s voice, explaining to the neighbors in a loud whisper, “She’s getting divorced. A least there are no children.” Like that made her feel any better.

Instead, she sat on the sofa watching old movies while drinking heavily spiked eggnog. Season’s Effing Greetings, she thought. She wondered what Grant was doing, if he was busy assembling bikes for Kristin’s kids—Kristin, Grant’s coworker with two kids just like the ones Grant insisted he wasn’t ready for. “I’m such an idiot,” she said out loud then downed the rest of her drink.

The television cast its cold light across the darkened room. She’d turned the sound down to a low murmur. The happy dialogue didn’t match her mood. Wrapped in her blanket, she could still feel the cold seep through the sliding glass door. She’d have to put plastic over it. Good. It would give her something to do tomorrow.

She was finding lots of tasks to keep her busy with the new apartment. Putting up a Christmas tree, however, hadn’t been one of them. In the great divvying of belongings, she’d taken possession of the lights and ornaments, but they were in one of the many unpacked boxes stacked along her walls. She’d moved in two weeks ago, but was in no hurry to get settled. It would only make the break feel more real.

holiday lights 2With the snow swirling outside her window, it was like being inside a snow globe. Greetings from Divorce Village! Instead of a tree and presents, however, hers had a sofa, a television and a half-empty bottle of red wine, which she’d get to that once the carton of eggnog was empty. It might take a while. She had a couple of pints in the fridge. It helped her sleep, or maybe it was the bourbon.

Baxter raised his head from his place on Emma’s lap, his bushy eyebrows forming a curious V. Emma chuckled, and rubbed the terrier’s ears. Baxter was their child; she and Grant would joke to their friends. He was as destructive and costly, with the same propensity to drool and chew. Grant magnanimously offered to let her have the dog, as Kristin’s oldest was allergic.

Baxter whined. It was an axiom of nature, Emma mused. The worse the weather, the more the dog wants to go outside. She stood and looked out the window. It would only get worse as the evening went on. The lamp lit snowflakes cast a sharp edge of between light and dark, ending in bright pools on Main Street.

Baxter knew once Emma stood, they’d be going out, and padded towards the door. She sighed, went to the closet and pulled out her boots. She’d need full gear tonight. Baxter sat, tail whipping back and forth while Emma pulled on her coat and hat, then fastened the leash on to his collar. “Let’s go,” she said, and the dog happily obeyed.

Emma expected the cold to hit her like a slap, but she was surprised that the air felt almost soft. What struck her more was the quiet—the sense that the whole world had stopped to watch the snow fall. Baxter tugged on his leash and Emma began to walk. She started up the street, past the church, then cut over towards the park. Baxter loved the park, the one remaining piece of home he had since Emma and Grant sold the condo. She probably could have stayed, but thought that moving on would be easier without the memories chained to her ankles. Now she wasn’t so sure.

There is no Christmas for single people. Not after thirty. She walked faster. She was relieved to cross over Lee. The park had no decorations, thank God, but she couldn’t help herself and looked over at the gingerbread houses iced with snow, electric icicles dangling from their eaves. All except for one—a dark unlit space among the line of tastefully decorated homes. One of these things is not like the others.

When Emma looked away, it was worse. All she could see was the snow covered play structure. She breathed in the cold, took it deep into her lungs, closing her eyes against the sting. Baxter tugged, but Emma’s feet wouldn’t move. A sob caught in her throat.

“It’s too bad dogs can’t tell time. Or maybe they can, and just have a perverse sense of humor.” Emma whipped around to see who spoke to her. The man was elderly, dressed in a dark wool coat and checkered cap, a plaid scarf around his neck. He was smiling. He looked harmless enough. If he was planning on attacking her, he would have done it already.

“It’s payback for making them wear little sweaters and do tricks for food,” she said.

He knelt down and Baxter began to jump. “Aren’t you a friendly little fella,” the man said as he scratched behind her ears.

“He’s rather indiscriminate with his affections,” Emma said, “although I’m sure you’re very special. At least that’s what he’ll tell you.”

He chuckled and stood up. “It sure looks like Christmas out here. Even the houses are joyous.”

He must have seen her admiring the houses. Emma watched the lights blinking, winking at her, in on the joke. “I’m very happy for them,” she snapped, then felt guilty for being rude.

“I’ve had years like that,” he said. “It gets better.”

“God, I hope so,” she laughed, shaking her head. “I’m Emma,” she extended her hand. “I’m getting divorced. At least that’s how my mother would introduce me.” She pointed to the dog. “This is Baxter.”

“I’m Thomas. My wife died six years ago. That’s how the women in my church would introduce me.”

Emma felt her cheeks burn despite the cold. “I’m so sorry.”

“Me too, Emma. Me too.” She didn’t know what to say. Luckily, Thomas continued. “The first year is the hardest. That’s what I thought until the second year, anyway.”

She laughed despite his depressing assessment. “Then I have something to look forward to.”

He chuckled. “Holidays are never the same, but they can still be happy.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” She took a deep inhale. “I’m barely going through the motions.”

“Family far away?” he asked.

“Not really, not that it matters. I really wasn’t up for hanging with Don and Trish while drinking crème de menthe and watching It’s a Wonderful Life in reindeer sweaters.”

“Too holly-jolly for you?” he asked.

Emma shrugged. “Instead, I was sitting in my apartment drinking eggnog watching White Christmas. No reindeer sweater though. I have my standards, just no Christmas tree.” She shuffled her feet and Baxter ran around her in circles, wrapping his leash around her legs. “I thought it would be easier, but I’m regretting it.” She coaxed Baxter to run in the other direction before she was totally bound and helpless.

“Well then,” Thomas replied while laughing at Baxter’s antics, “we are going to go get one.”

“You’re joking,” she said. Thomas smiled. He was serious.

“How will we get it home?”

Thomas brushed off her excuse like a pesky gnat. “We’ll carry it, but I’m an old man, so think small, Emma.”

She didn’t even have her purse with her—just keys and emergency coffee money. “I only have ten dollars in my pocket,” she countered.

“Then you’d better think really small,” he said.

“This is insane.” Baxter started to tug at the leash. He’d tired of sniffing, and Thomas was no longer petting him.

“This, Emma, is Christmas Eve.”

Emma thought about refusing outright, but decided that maybe, just maybe, he was right.

They passed by several churches on their way to one of the tree lots that sprung up every December, much to their neighbors’ dismay. Churches were even more prevalent than Starbucks around here, Emma mused. In a college town surely there are far more coffee drinkers than faithful. Perhaps she was getting cynical. She didn’t used to be. But then again, she was walking the streets of Evanston to buy a Christmas tree with a man she didn’t even know.

They reached the lot, but looking at the selection Emma’s face fell. The trees were mostly sold—after all, it was Christmas Eve. All that was left were the stragglers that no one wanted—lopsided, with broken branches and loose needles. They were getting ready to load them up and shut down until next year. She felt at home among them.

Thomas, seeing her expression, said, “You have to look at them with kind-heartedness.” Emma raised a brow.

“It won’t kill you,” he chided her. “Isn’t that what we all need? To be seen through loving eyes?”

Emma closed her eyes and thought about how the night had begun, the snow, the quiet of the night, the warmth of Baxter’s weight on her lap, the surprise of friendship. She was alone, yet, unexpectedly, not. She had married Grant on her happiest day, but at the same time her saddest. They coexisted; it all depended upon what she chose to focus on. She opened her eyes, and saw the little tree, stunted and lopsided, like the one in the Charlie Brown cartoon, and she smiled. “That one,” she said.

Thomas looked at the tree. “I said kind-heartedness, not pity,” but her smile showed him her mind was made up, and his showed her that he agreed with her choice.

The manager of the lot was incredulous that she chose the scraggly little tree. He told Emma to put her money away, saying he couldn’t possibly sell it to anyone else. No one would be that desperate, not even on Christmas Eve.

Thomas helped her carry it home, each one holding an end, Baxter trotting alongside, his leash looped around the trunk. A car passed by and honked at them as they walked, opening their windows to shout “Merry Christmas.” With every step, she felt the jagged edges soften, the broken pieces finding their place. She wasn’t healed, but it was the most whole Emma had felt in months.

By the time they reached her apartment, Emma was tired, hot, sweaty and at peace. They loaded the tree into the elevator, leaving a trail of pine needles behind them, along with a small pile in front of her door where the branches brushed the frame on the way through. She located the box with the decorations and pulled out the stand. Thomas helped her set the tree up in the corner.

They untangled the lights and strung them around the tree. One by one, they hung the ornaments while Baxter ran in circles around the trunk. When they were done, she wouldn’t have recognized it as the tree they carried through town. Emma squinted, and the tree looked larger, perhaps even dazzling. To be seen through loving eyes–the gift she needed most, yet never expected.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked.

“Do you have any eggnog?” Tom answered.

Emma smiled. She might get to that red wine after all. “As a matter of fact, I do. Bourbon?“

“Is there any other way to drink it?” Emma brought out their drinks, and they stood back to admire their work. “Once they’re dressed with lights and baubles,” Tom said, “you don’t notice the imperfections.”

Emma agreed. “Because compassion gives joy the space to grow.” She raised her glass in a toast. “Merry Christmas,” she said, “To the beauty of the imperfect.”

“Merry Christmas Emma,” he replied. “Maybe next year we can get matching holiday sweaters.”

“Bring the crème de menthe and you’ve got a deal.” Baxter turned in circles under the tree, then settled in for a nap. He’d found a place to rest, and so had she.

Just like the ones I used to know

Christmas LightsIt doesn’t feel much like Christmas in my house. A good deal of it is due to the chaos in our lives–I’ve been buried in my novel since early November, my husband’s workplace is busy, and my son’s high school workload has him buried in paper. Most of all, it’s because there aren’t children in our house anymore.

Having a young child is holiday Viagra. The activities that seemed routine and automatic take on new meaning. My son and I used to merge Deck the Halls and Extreme Home Makeover. Our house looked like it had been pranked by elves on crack. There was not a surface left uncovered by bows, lights, glitter or Santa. We would camp out under the Christmas tree and watch holiday videos and cry when the snowman melted.

He used to start his list sometime around Halloween and edit on a daily basis. I used an Advent calendar to help him keep track of the days before he understood that time moves slowly when you’re excited about something. He would wear a Santa hat and reindeer antlers to school without a trace of irony or embarrassment.

As of now, the house isn’t decorated, the tree is lit but bare and the Advent calendar chocolate is another form of breakfast he has no time for. There is very little he wants, and I see that as a good thing. Maturity (or his version of it) has dimmed his need for acquisition. We’ve done something right.

I miss his excitement, however, his mounting anticipation. I loved how he’d remember where we got each ornament. I am alone in humming Sleigh Ride.

Since I no longer have a small child, I will have to become one myself. It’s possible. I’ve done it before. The first year my husband and I were married, we didn’t get a tree because we’d be traveling to both sets of parents for the holidays. It was a practical decision. A week before Christmas, however,  I was beset by melancholy, so I decorated our scraggly Ficus. It died happy.

So beginning today, I will see Christmas through a child’s eyes and hope that it is contagious. I’ll skip the chocolate for breakfast, but will get those elves good and hyped. We’ve got some decorating to do.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph by Dena Burnett © 2005 Creative Commons