Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Identity Crisis....On Paper

Signature rehab. That is what I need, and I need it now.

By that strange statement I do not mean I need to go to an extra-fancy, personally-tailored rehab for some well-researched issue. I mean I need to seriously go to signature rehabilitation where I figure out how to properly sign my own name in a hurry...with style. After all, if I haven't worked out how to write my name nicely by 35 years of age, it's time to call in the professionals. Perhaps I need some tough-love boot camp where they make you do manual labor, take cold showers and eat nothing but stale grilled-cheese sandwiches until you straighten your cursive alphabet out.

Every time I sign my kids' agendas in the morning, I stare in horror at my handiwork, dreading what the teachers must be saying in the break room about how my kids can't get their mother to sign their agenda but have to enlist their little brother's help instead.

I'm so paranoid that I've asked my daughter Ana, "Has your teacher mentioned my signature? Does she know it's mine? What did she say?"

"Nothing, Mama...really. You're fine."

Yeah right.

I'd like to own my own signature, be proud of its "uniqueness", but as it is I really don't know who I am. I just can't figure out what it says. It could be my name - at least a couple letters from it (like the H and a...uh....hmmmmm) - or it could be some lost orc-speak from Middle Earth that could pull the whole world under the power of the one ring.

Scratch that. It's not pretty enough. Even an orc, twisted elves as they are, would be repulsed by it.

Every time I scrawl my X on the line of our tax forms or a check, my husband grunts in pure disgust. Each and every time. Yes, that is very ungallant of him, I agree, and you would think he had gotten used to its illegibility by now. I really can't call him on it, though, because "to love for beautiful cursive or for chicken scratch" wasn't in the vows. I probably shouldn't provoke him, either, because if he sees my signature too many more times, it could be bad.

I recently applied for a passport, and the forms asked for my "legal signature". I froze, started to sweat and stared blankly at the Postal Lady. Honestly I don't think my signature is real or "legal" in any language. Even if the US government accepts it, I could be dragged to the basements of foreign airports, detained by strange men with funny accents as they slam the table in front of me and shout ominously, "Our patience has run out! Now who are you really? Tell us what this says!" Covering my face with my hands and sobbing, "I don't know! I haven't known for years!" probably won't cut it.

If I'm to be brutally honest with myself, it's not just about the signature. My handwriting is atrocious in general. When I was in high school, I'm certain my teachers couldn't read my writing more than half the time and only gave me As because I did well on multiple choice tests.

As I persevered in writing a paper in my excruciatingly hideous scrawl one day in History, the pretty boy in the desk behind scolded me with, "Your handwriting looks like a man's!"

I didn't see what was so wrong with that at the time. It wasn't beautiful or feminine with soft curved letters or artistic curlicues, but what's wrong with writing like a man? Of course, judging by the tone in which he said it, what I think he meant to say was, "You write like a Neanderthal man, and not one who reproduced with modern humans!"

And that brings me to the love letters I wrote to my husband before we lived in the same state. He asked me to send them to his grandmother's address, because he was too embarrassed for his roommates to think he had an ape for a pen pal. His grandma opened a letter from me by mistake one day, and she apologized profusely. Matthew laughed and told her not to worry one bit. Then he held up the missive to show her.

"You wouldn't be able to read this anyway," he insisted.

She agreed, shaking her head and no doubt bemoaning the type of unruly girls her grandson insisted on courting.

But you have to give my man props for that. He spent a good deal of time deciphering each letter before he wrote back....or at least I assume so. Maybe that's why I received far fewer letters than I wrote; he couldn't quite make out my words or my feelings.

But at least I signed them.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Walking with Dogs, Angels

I see people walking their dogs on my drive home from taking the kids to school, and I think, How can they do that? Aren't they scared?"

Yet walking is my preferred form of exercise. I used to love to walk my dog, though I was always nervous when large dogs barked and lunged at gates as we passed.

Then one day while passing a house, a pit bull or boxer mix ran out and attacked our dog, Taz. Danny, my little boy, was with us on his scooter. I yelled at him to ignore the dog and to stay away, and he cried as he watched the big dog grab our terrier by the neck and shake him in its mouth twice, maybe three times. I thought Taz was going to be killed, and that my little son would have that terrible memory of watching his pet being throttled to death. The lady who ran after the big dog did not know how to control it and did very little except to squirt water from a bottle onto its muscalur neck. Then she asked me to pick up my own dog. I am ashamed to say that I didn't want to, terrified that her animal would turn on me. When I finally grabbed Taz, the larger dog stalked us, eyes concentrated on my poor furry friend. I told Danny to go ahead of us, to keep his distance, but at one point, as the other animal still trailed us, I looked around, rotating, and cried aloud, "Where can we go? Where can we go?"

I was not very brave, and later I agonized over how well I protected Danny by merely telling him to stay away from Taz and me and the other dog. I also wondered why, in situations where I find myself controlled by fear, I do not cry out silently to God for guidance. For I have asked him for guidance in other situations, and often his answer has been instantaneous.

However, with my wail of, Where can we go?,  there came an answer. Two good Samaritans, male neighbors of the woman, showed up. One had a garden rake or broom in his hand, and he used it to keep the dog away from us. Then he brusquely told the woman to grab the dog by his collar. As she did so I wondered why neither of us had thought of that. I wondered for no more than a moment, though, because I was busy telling Danny to go quickly on the scooter to stay ahead of me as we made our retreat. Sobbing, I did turn my head as we went, and threw several garbled thank yous back at those gentlemen.

Our dog survived that attack, and as I bathed him that morning, I did not even find the blood and lacerations I was fully expecting. I can only think that his long hair and collar offered protection. I was a bit of a mess as I told my husband of the events and later a close friend on the phone.

We never ventured down that street again. Trying to walk my dog after that, I kept a golf club close at my side, but the excursions became successively shorter and closer to home. I was terrified of another incident and became even more fearful for my children's safety, something with which I already struggle a great deal. Several homes in the neighborhood have large dogs who are kept confined much of the time, making them aggressive I suspect.

Nevertheless, our dog still desires walks, and he would prefer it if we actually journeyed more than a few yards each way down our street.

One Sunday I caved in when my kids begged to take Taz on a walk. My husband opted out; walks bore him. I wanted him to come, because fear holds little sway with him, but I comforted myself that Berto, my big twelve-year-old boy, had more than triple my courage in hairy situations.

The loop around the block went alright until we got down the main drag and saw a little black dog running free. Our Taz goes spastic in the presence of cats or other dogs, so I picked him up in order to avoid even the smallest fight. As we rounded the corner onto our street, we no longer saw the other critter, but I still nervously scanned the road as I cradled Taz in my arms. Then just as we passed a home with an open gate, a pit bull charged out at us.

Fear grabs me by the neck in such cases, making my eyes bulge as everything seems to happen simultaneously at lightning speed and agonizingly slow. Foolish woman, I had been walking too fast in my anxiety and was ahead of all my children, though not much. I turned and saw the animal brush past my kids, and I thought clearly, He is going to bite one of my children!

Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone off to the left on a bike, someone we had not seen on the street when we turned. The dog charged the person and then without any perceivable cause abruptly turned tail and ran back inside the gate.

I was already telling my children to come NOW! Ella took off on her scooter. Daniel was fumbling with his, so I told him to leave it; we would come back, and I grabbed his little wrist in a vice grip and trotted with him toward the house. Ana followed us close behind, and Berto grabbed the scooter and brought up our rear, holding the metal toy at the ready.

The dog never came back out. Daniel rebelled against my propulsion.

"You're hurting me, Mama!" he cried. I hadn't meant to, but I was desperate not to let my littlest one be in another scary situation.

As for the biker, our friend, he came slowly behind us, an empty baby trailer attached to his bike. Realizing his pace and that he was basically securing our escape, I turned and said breathlessly, "Thank you for being braver than I am."

He responded by saying he was glad he was there.

Ella said, "That was a pit bull, wasn't it?"

He nodded. "It doesn't help the perceptions people have about them, huh?"

We were at our house, and he paused at the sidewalk by our property and said, "My buddy lives there. I need to tell him about that." He pulled out his cellphone and gazed at it for a moment. I thanked him again, and then the kids, Taz and I went inside and started spilling the story to Matthew. I pulled back the curtain as I told him of the man, but he was already gone. Again, as always, I agonized aloud over how quickly I had reacted, how I could have better protected my kids. Gratefully, I turned to Berto and thanked him for keeping a cool head and bringing up the rear, protecting his siblings. I scolded Matthew for not coming with us. He responded that I needed to let it go; we were safe, and there was no use in beating the subject to death.

Late that night I lay awake in bed thinking about the strangeness of the morning's encounter: how we didn't notice the bicyclist on the street until after we saw the dog ---(Did he come from the other direction? Where did he come from?)---; how neither the pit bull nor Taz made any noise at each other; how the pit bull inexplicably ran back inside the fence after confronting the man on the bike; how I never heard the bicyclist shout anything at that muscular animal to frighten it; how the dog never ventured back out as we walked the remaining several yards down the street even though the gate stood gaping, and we were a noisy, anxious bunch; and how the man followed us with his empty baby trailer to our home and paused as we went in.

I also reflected on how my prayers for my children had changed since our car accident a few years ago. I felt at the time that their angels kept them completely free from harm, and that changed my prayers. I began not simply to pray to God for his protection over my kids' each day but to pray more specifically that their angels would walk with, watch over, and guard them.

Was that man one of those guardian angels? Laugh if you like. My husband looked as if he thought it wasn't a sound idea when I confided in him the next morning....and yet after the man supposedly called his "buddy", the yard gate still remained open that whole day.

Yes, I know. He probably wasn't a supernatural being, but I think of him often with gratitude, because I do not doubt one bit that, angel or no, his presence at that moment on a Sunday morning made a big difference for my family.

Some time ago a priest asked me to compose a personal prayer for peace, because he rightly discerned, I think, that I am often restless, passionate, and fearful - controlled by my emotions. I liked his idea, so I built one from several Scripture passages that had spoken to me reassuringly. This was that prayer, and I pray it or some form of it often when my emotions hold too great a sway over me or my fears nag me with a plague of ugly pictures:

Where sin increased Grace overflowed all the more

Lord Jesus, give me your peace

Let not my heart be troubled

Neither let it be afraid

But send the Holy Spirit

To give me courage

In every circumstance


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

With A Little Help From Our Friends

My dad wrote me a message on Facebook telling me to post something on my blog. I know he meant it, too, because he called me Hillary instead of Hoodoo.

Sorry I've taken a hiatus. Truthfully, I haven't been on email, Facebook or my blog hardly at all in the past few weeks, and it's been great. Really great - and very easy, because I don't have a smartphone. Instead, I have been cleaning and organizing my home, reading a book and the newspaper, and playing several mini-pool, Uno, and Doodle Dice tournaments with my kids, particularly my youngest boy, my Dan Sam. It has truly been peaceful and enjoyable. I have always been a lover of home, a bonafide homebody, and to me that means staying out of the virtual world, too.

But it's time to come back, so here you go, Dad.

Picture by Holly

Going on a nearly six-mile-loop hike in the Superstition Mountains with close friends is one of the most amazing things I have ever done to begin the Christmas season. May it become a tradition!

(Though I had several pics to share with you, I had to steal the above from my friend's Facebook, because I lost our camera. No surprise there, but it kept me from posting about our adventure for a while.)

Holly and Chip, our best hiking buddies, invited us on the excursion. The way to the trail was a long way off the highway, and as our car rocked and heaved over the rutted, winding, narrow dirt road, I gaily said to my husband, "Think of all the adventures you'd never have if it were up to you!"

Our friends had said they didn't think there was any off-roading involved, nothing like that terrible drive to the creek that one time. When we finally reached the trailhead, they got out of their car laughing, saying Matthew would never, ever come on a hike with them again after another awful drive. But I think it's a bit like labor. Once you get to the beautiful destination, you quickly forget the travails that came before.

I stand before Weaver's Needle. Pic by Holly
Matthew, athletic though he is, is not a born hiker, but when we were in those mountains with our kids and Yorkie and with Holly and Chip's family, including their Pug, he was glad to be there; that is always true. As we gained elevation, passing by red rocks, wild trees, a tiny stream, sporadic saguaros and towering, spindly stalks sprung from American aloe plants, we did all wonder now and again when we might reach our destination, a landmark called Weaver's Needle. Since none of us could fly as the bird goes, we had to be content to wend along Peralta Trail until we rounded a rock behemoth and suddenly spied our goal. There we had lunch by some huge boulders, from which vantage point we could see the Needle against the bright, open Arizona sky. A lone pine tree stood on the heights to its right, our Christmas tree for a Christmas hike.

Later we scrambled up the boulders in whose shadows we had shivered and munched, inching through a miniature slot canyon and then scaling rocks for a view. The rocks were so strangely cold to the touch, they hurt our hands if we lingered for more than a moment against their surface.

After lunch and some more exploring with friends and dogs, it was time to tread back down, but the return is always easier and shorter when the longed-for panorama has been viewed. At the end of our hike, we enjoyed some chocolate-dipped peppermint shortbread, and I hoped with all my heart then and there that we would eat similar Christmas victuals with our friends at the foot of another beautiful Arizona mountain Christmas Eve 2015.


I can hardly believe our luck, but New Year's found us again in the company of dear friends, sledding down some hills near Prescott.

That had not been our plan. Our plans were to clean and paint our house on the first day of the new year, prepping our home for our annual Three Kings' Day party. Thankfully, Alex and Dana rescued us from a busy but boring day by inviting our family to go sledding with theirs.

Matthew said no at first...until I got to him.

The kids really wanted to go sledding in Flagstaff, and I had told them that they should all come together and ask Papa for that Christmas gift. There had been no snow at the time of the kids' request, not even in Flagstaff, but 2014 had cried its goodbyes on a frigid wind, dumping snow and rain on the new year as it departed. This invitation was the perfect way to fulfill our kids' wish. It would be even easier to grant since their Grandpa had bought them sturdy inner tubes years before, and a friend had left us her long sled when her family moved.

And so on the first day of a fresh year, I stood in my pajamas, wet from scrubbing showers, and pleaded with my man to consider an abrupt change of plans that would give our kids their gift and lasting memories of this New Year's; after all, it would be Daniel's and Gabriella's first time sledding. He stared back at me in disbelief. This woman with the limp hair, the one who always went insane before parties while trying to get the house and food prepared, was asking him to abandon the practical work she had asked him to do in order to blow a whole day on fun, and fun that would require a long drive north, too. I saw irritation etched on those handsome features, but I also saw a hint of understanding. I hastily forsook my cleaners and sponges and threw myself into the hall closet, dragging out every forgotten mitten, thermal cap, glove and heavy winter coat.

And that was how, after some near heart attacks while trying to park in a small area with a hundred other cars off a country road, we ended up in the snow watching our kids play with their buddies, yelling advice at them to keep their bottoms up in the inner tubes to avoid the rocks and then applauding and laughing with each successful run or not-too-painful turnout into the snow. The day wouldn't have been complete if the adults had not had their turn. I'm afraid we did some damage to the sleds, but we zipped and spun and yelped and laughed with the most childlike child there.

When at last our Phoenix toes and fingers complained of alarming numbness, we drove into town to eat a hearty celebratory meal at Prescott Brewery. On our walk back to the car in the nasty chill, prancing like ponies at stoplights to keep warm, we saw the territorial Courthouse and the many trees on its square ablaze with thousands of colorful lights.

2015 began in that unexpected, joyous way.


Three Kings' Day, aka Epiphany, being my favorite feast - a celebration of the revelation of the promise of Christ to the Gentiles - we threw a party. I lined up my Three Kings nutcrackers and nativities on our table, and around them I placed dried fruit, pita with hummus and yeast breads that I make once a year: Apple-Cheddar Vanocka with saffron threads and a Cardamom Christmas wreath. I also piled the tablecloth with pound cake, gingerbread camels, raspberry coffee cake and cinnamon scones as it was - no surprise to those who know my love of baking - a dessert party. I love pampering people with food on special occasions; it has something to do with growing up in the South and with my own Mama's generous kitchen offerings.

For Catholics the Christmas season lasts for a few weeks beginning with Christmas Eve, so the house was still decorated in all our Christmas finery, including several handmade decorations from the children, when many of our dear friends came for the celebration on January 4th.

I had warned everyone we would sing carols, and so after time to relish the goodies that were hauled in on platters by every arriving family, I pulled out my burgundy guitar and gathered the kids around - more specifically, the girls, because the boys were outside wrestling each other in football and making Taz, our Yorkie, jump for his Santa toys and had zero desire to sing. The carol book was propped upon my lap, but I lost some chords and pitched some notes. Yet, my friends did not abandon this amateur musician as they sat on the couch or floor by their daughters. We gloried through Angels We Have Heard on High, belted out Feliz Navidad and ha-had our way through Jingle Bells. Holly helped me with We Three Kings, and we all merrily sang Joy to the World in the tempo my dad always preferred. Then my man Matthew, good man that he is, marched all those rowdy boys inside. I assigned one day each from The Twelve Days of Christmas to groups of kids crowded about our small living room, and Geraldine, Holly and Dana all helped by taking days themselves. We got mixed up several times, and I twanged my strings and butchered some chords again in my exuberance, but we were united in our silliness. The adults on the outside of the circle laughed as we counted off our list of oh-so-useful gifts from our true love. After the finale I rewarded the kids for their lively participation with English-style crackers, a Three Kings' party tradition.


Later that week as I strummed my guitar, reminisced and dreamed of next Epiphany, it occurred to me yet again just how beautifully, like long strands of bright bulbs on an evergreen tree, our whole Christmas season had been illuminated by the myriad gifts of friendship. We did indeed have a very Merry Christmas with (much more than) a little help from our friends.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Figs and Dates

I feel like a little child writing this, and that's probably a good thing.

I discovered something this past Christmas; specifically I found it on Epiphany, aka Three Kings' Day. Actually, my husband found it for me. I wanted to spread my table with good and exotic breads and fruits to represent the region the Wise Men likely came from, so I asked my husband to please go to the store and find for me some apricots, dates and figs.

He brought them home, dried fruit, and teased me about how expensive they were - particularly the small bags of organic, unsweetened dates and figs. I was delighted as I placed them in little bowls before the wooden carving of the Wise Men on my dining room table, three little bowls for each of the Three Kings. Of course, I had to try the dates and figs first myself. The dates were good, delicately flavored, but the figs! Shesh, that was quite a strong flavor and texture, very chewy and very spicy. A little bite went a long way, I promise you.

When our dear friends left after the party, I had almost two full bags of dates and figs left, and my husband admonished, "You better eat them or take the unopened bags back to the store!"

"I will; I will."

The dates were not a problem, but the figs...I wasn't so sure I could grow accustomed to them. Yet, I didn't want to return them. I was sure they were good for me, so I began cutting those dried bell-shaped fruits into manageable pieces, twisting off the hard nub at the top, and then eating them slowly, relishing the natural spicy kick in the little seeds.

A strange thing happened. The more I ate the more I began to think about Jesus. Each time I bit into a fig, I felt connected to him (like all those times I tell my youngest children to eat their fish, because it's good for their brains, and Jesus ate tons of it while hanging out with his fishermen disciples). Did he like figs particularly? I don't know, but when he came to a fig tree one day, very hungry, and found leaves but no fruit, he cursed it. When his disciples discovered that it had actually withered to its roots the following day, they were astonished, and Jesus told them, "Have faith in God." (Mark 11:12-14, 20-23)

He also used figs to help illustrate a point about people professing themselves to be what they are not: "By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit." (Matthew 7:15-20)

There is also the parable about the need for repentance and the great gift of a second, third, fourth chance, the gift of mercy and intercession, in his story of the fruitless fig tree. (Luke 13:6-9)

So, you see, I began to have this warm glow every time I ate this strange, dried, chewy fruit, and I felt a little childish but happy when I confessed to my husband, "Every time I have a fig, I feel connected to Jesus. I know that's funny."

But my husband must have understood what I meant, because when my sweet daughter Ana and I had eaten our very last fig, he came home from the store one day with another bag as if to say, Hey, whatever works, works.

Whatever reminds you of the love of Christ is a good thing.

This was first published on my faith blog, Seeking the Prince of Peace, in February 2014. I am presently working on two new, very different posts and hope to present them to you, my readers, soon. Happy 2015 to each and every one of you!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Gifts

A few weekends ago, as I was putting up all over my house many happy little snowman figures - cookie jars, plates, snow globes, tea light holders, and soft, fluffy fellas - I listened to some Gordon Lightfoot records. They and a record player had just arrived from my sister Vinca as a late birthday gift. I played one LP right after another, because my siblings and I were practically raised on Gord's music, and the whirr of the player transported me straight back to my childhood. In particular, the album Salute held charm for me, because I distinctly remembered being with my dad when he bought it in Nashville. I stopped decorating, sat in our drab recliner and just listened, rocked and rested. All I needed was a really nice glass of wine to make my afternoon perfect.

I entered a sort of "great gifts" trance in which I recalled all the wonderful gifts I have received from my brother and sisters over the years, like that time Natie sent me the soundtrack to "The Last Unicorn", my favorite movie from my childhood...or the book of Opera Librettos he gave to me one Christmas. I thought of all The Beatles CDs my sister Vinca had given to me in my teenage years. And Annie? Well, she introduced me to my future husband. Natie then flew me out to meet him in Texas, and Annie paid for my wedding dress!

But...what great things had I given to my siblings? Certainly not a spouse or a really expensive dress or wonderful records from their favorite singer of all time. I could only hope there was something somewhere that I forgot but that they treasured. Sure, I've given them Christmas and birthday presents, sent flowers, and written about them, but I could not think of any really great treasure I had bestowed. That doesn't mean I didn't try, but I just don't feel my gifts were up to snuff, really.

Simply looking around my home, I saw precious gifts from family and friends. Each and every snowman that smiled at me from his sweet, frozen face beneath his stocking/top hat was given to me by a beloved someone who knew they couldn't go wrong with a snowman for Hillary. My parents gave me an enchanting snow globe and one of my first cookie jars, a rotund guy with little birdie footprints on his belly. My friend Geraldine just dropped off a baker snow lady currently presiding with her gingerbread over my shelf. Matthew gave me my favorite cookie jar after we married. Later, he bought me cherished plates with dapper dancing snowmen, of which, sadly - as is my habit - I have broken three.

Thinking of Matthew brought memories of how he gave me something that would begin a life-long infatuation on our first Christmas together. Of course - shame on me - I didn't think it was going to be a great gift. I thought he was going to give me something entirely different at the time, for my dad convinced me that Matthew had confided in him what he'd chosen. I began to dog Dad with questions about whether the present was useful (heaven forbid!), shiny, wearable, precious or edible. Dad told me things like:

"Well, it looks really good underneath the window - it reflects the light nicely. Might be best on a, wait - too heavy! It's kind of oblong...ish. Pretty big actually, but not too large! The perfect size..."

The next time I asked, the reply went something like, "It's something you should put on the floor, come to think of it, probably by the TV. It's really kind of boxy - no, semi-circular. Very unique!"

I was so confused...and gullible. In the car on the way to work one morning, I begged Dad to tell me outright what the heck my present was from Matthew. Dad darted a glance at Mom and then at me in the rearview.

"Well, Hillary, I really didn't want to tell you this. But, here goes. What Matthew really got you was a...uh...a pair of skiis!"

I sat bolt upright in the back seat of our car. My face felt hot and my eyes bulgy.

"Skiis!" I shrieked. "Wh...what? I told him I will never go skiing! I am not going to break my neck on some slope, darnit! What was he thinking? He can just keep them for himself then - I told him I do not like adventure sports! How is he even going to get those here?"

I was so busy with my rant that it took me a few moments to register Mom's hysterical laughter and to notice Dad's wicked grin and twinkling eyes in the rearview. Shoot! He had been teasing me the whole time.

Of course, when Matthew did give me my gift, I didn't exactly say the most ladylike 'thank you'. Instead, I turned to my mom and said with as much excitement as I could muster, "Look, Mama...he got me a box!"

It was a ceramic, red and green, present-shaped box. Not exactly my sort of thing.

Matthew laughed and admonished, "No - open it up!"

Inside was the most beautiful turquoise bracelet. I was bowled over. He confided in me that the ceramic gift box had not been his idea. He had wanted to get a simpler cardboard one with a snowman on it, but his aunt had told him it was not fancy enough. I assured him I would have loved that cardboard snowman.

Ironically, I also gave him a bracelet that year, an I.D. bracelet with his name on it (in case he ever forgot while on a walk after drinks in a strange city) and a sappy inscription on the back that told him he was my knight. He stopped wearing it the day after we got married, I think. However, the bracelet he gave to me has yet to be usurped in my estimation. It is my absolute favorite piece of jewelry.

And that brings me back to the point: I am given the best gifts, but I am not the best giver. I mean, I did give Matthew tickets to an Arizona Cardinals game last year...but they lost that game. And they were already out of the playoffs anyway.

Meanwhile, surrounding me are a thousand blessings from loving friends and family. There's the teddy bear, Oonie, that my brother Nate got for our Gabriella that she adores more than any stuffed animal has even been adored, I think. There's Tigey, the stuffed white tiger, that Uncle Roberto gave to Danny. And, ah yes - the games. I have raised my kids on games, taught them their numbers and colors with games, and Doodle Dice, from my husband's brother, is currently Danny Sam's favorite game; he nearly always wins, too! There are the multiple books on my bookshelves that Vinca has sent to my kids with inscriptions in her beautiful handwriting noting the date and the occasion, and those just keep giving each time I read to my children. There's the very special Book 3 of Kelven's Riddle that my dad signed for his namesake, Daniel. Upon our tree hangs an abundance of ornaments that Vinca has sent to the kids, reflecting their ages and interests from year to year. Yes, none of these last mentioned gifts were given to me personally, but the joy they have brought to my children brings me joy, too.

What did I do to earn these wonderful presents? How is it so many people I love know just what will bring happiness? I can only try my best to give what will bring joy in return and say thank you.

And gratitude brings me at last in my reflection on great gifts to that first and most extraordinary gift of Christmas. What can any of us give in return for Him but love and gratitude? No other gift can ever compare. Because none of these other things I've received - however lovingly and thoughtfully they were given - could ever top the Gift that truly and continually keeps giving what we really need and long for, strength, guidance, community, hope, faith, and awe, this Gift bestowed on whoever will and can accept it. He was humbly bestowed upon all mankind in a stable, and the joy I feel when I think of Him is boundless. I can never repay Him or earn the Gift. I can only say thank you every day as I attempt to comprehend and reflect His infinite love and try, Try, TRY to be like Him.

This Christmas I thank God and all my family and friends for the joy I have found because of that great catalyst of gift-giving, that eternal spring of generosity in which I hope to grow every year: Love.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Merry Christmas and may God bless us, everyone!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Oh, Christmas Tree!

I hit the sauce three Sunday nights ago. After upending an entire box of ornaments on the floor, I knew the wrong Christmas spirit had gotten to me. Normally a family tree-trimming party wouldn't drive me to drink, but it just so happened that this one took place without ornament hangers, and those ancient, taken-for-granted, rusty ornament hangers - wherever they may be, God rest their souls - refused to show up for the occasion, like the Van Trapp family singers in "The Sound of Music".

I ended up in high dudgeon, ferreting through closets, cabinets, and storage boxes with increasing negative energy. The more I searched futilely, the more my heart shrunk a few sizes too small until I was tempted to tell my kids to grab some glitter, stale cookies and silly string and have at the tree.

With all the insanity that I heaped upon myself just within those first days of December, I - very predictably - began to reminisce about the "good old days", the "simpler times" of yore: my childhood Christmases.

How lovely those tree-trimming days were, how organized and how traditional in rural Tennessee! I thought. But as I watched Matthew and Berto, my oldest son, wrapping and unwrapping and rewrapping out artificial tree in lights, fussing all the way, I had similar visions of my dad uttering choice words under his breath as he battled strings of old lights and a metal tree stand with a profound preference for a tilted tree.

Most years in my childhood, we walked across the field behind our house and into our own woods a couple of weeks into December, Dad's loyal Lab Rueben carrying an ax in his mouth. Mama was the evergreen aficionado, so she had no qualms about turning down cold our suggestions for trees with "character", instead marching us through that forest until we found the fullest, tallest, most evenly branched tree that would fit into our humble living room. Hauling it home was a snap; Dad did all the work while we kids crowded behind, trying to jump over its tip-top. When we reached the porch, we stood back - except for the poor kid assigned to keep the door flat against the wall - while he and Nate shoved that big tree in the house and leaned it in the far corner.

Next we ascended up to and then rummaged through that dimly lit lair of poisonous spiders, our attic. Mom and Dad did most of the reconnoitering while we kids supported them by digging industriously through boxes of abandoned, broken toys. When they finally found the Christmas boxes, Dad hauled them down the rickety, fold-up stairs.

That evening he wrangled first with the temperamental tree stand, sometimes nailing it loudly to the floor, and then with the bunched lights, muttering sweet nothings under his breath at every tangle and busted bulb while we kids giggled into our sleeves, sometimes using those sleeves to wipe our mouths of the hot cocoa Mama had made.

Every year there was the same debate between Mom and Dad: to flock or not to flock. I'm pretty sure Mom kept hidden canisters of flocking in the dark recesses of the attic to conjure up when she got her way. She loved a white tree. It must have reminded her of  growing up in Idaho. Dad was against anything unnatural, and a snowy tree was hardly likely in Tennessee - even in winter - indoors. Plus like all of us, I think he hated the fake-snow initiation, for as Mom busily flocked that poor tree with a wicked smile of delight upon her face, the rest of us were standing twenty yards back, coughing and waving our hands in the air to move the cloud of chemicals off to our neighbors. It was a toxic holiday experience. Sure the tree looked nice and snowy, but when we had adorned the tree with miscellaneous decorations, white residue abided on our fingers for weeks, evidence of Mom's dastardly deed to that poor evergreen tree...

Finally, when prep work was done and Dad and Mom sat on the couch, reconciled, they began to pass out the decorations to us kids. The colored balls came first, and a color was assigned to each child.

"Blue for my firstborn," Dad said to Vinca as he handed her the first ornament.

"Gold for my golden-haired girl," he said to Annie with her long, blonde hair.

"Red for my only son." That one for Nate, born on Dad's birthday.

Lastly, he handed me a green ball. "And green for my nature girl." I was his only bonafide tree-hugger.

After that we each took turns coming to the couch for the next ornament, treasured ornaments like Natie's little baseball player and my felt snowman and a suncatcher unicorn of Annie's. I guess it was because of that yearly ritual that I remembered our Christmases being calmer, more traditional. Our ornaments were always the same year to year, the only additions being any baubles we made in school, like clothespin soldiers. Our tree topper never varied and was always welcomed excitedly each December. She was a smaller paper angel with short, gold curls and a plastic hoop and face, humble like our home. We four kids took turns putting her atop that tree, her little hymnal bent in her tiny fingers. She had blonde hair and had been purchased after Vinca was born. Vinca and Annie both were towheaded as babies and toddlers, and the angel reminded my dark-haired parents of their first baby girl.

Ah, those were the days! And yet I think that perhaps - just perhaps - those days were simpler because we were poorer; we had less to fuss over and about. Nevertheless, as my parents hunted with four rowdy rascals for a tree, dug through a dirty, spider-infested attic, and wrangled with lights and an heirloom stand, they probably had some stressful Christmas moments. But - God bless them - they were good at keeping traditions, even the tradition of arguing over flocking.

As for my family? After replacing those AWOL hangers with a package of flashy fresh gold ones for a whopping 79 cents, I practically threw my kids' special ornaments at them the moment they woke up; whoever awoke first got to attack their ornaments in mass before school. It was a race to see how quickly in spare moments we could deck the tree, because all the boxes piled in my tiny living room were freaking me out and causing me to OCDrink. There was no rhyme or ritual, I'm afraid. And, yet, my children's excitement over favorite ornaments, many from Aunt Vinca, was not abated by my slapdash approach to decorating.

And this year my son Berto just happened to find our first angel for the top of the tree. For years I've looked for her. She had to be simpler and considerably smaller than many I saw in stores with elaborate and wildly different attire. Berto found her one happy Sunday afternoon in a discount store as we waited for takeout pizza. Unlike the angel of my childhood, she is fragile. But as our lights reflect off her simple white porcelain, she has, along with our abundance of eclectic ornaments, helped me to reclaim that good, old-fashioned Christmas spirit I sometimes think I left behind with that little girl in Tennessee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sunlight on the Forest Floor: Preparation and Celebration, Old and New

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 (NAB)

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight his paths."
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Mark 1:2-5)
And this is what he proclaimed: One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."(Mark 1:7-8)

The huge, beautiful wreath is on the altar steps at my parish. Two Sundays have come in with that Advent wreath. Two of its purple candles have been lit; a pink and purple one remain.

How I love Advent, that time of reflection and preparation for the second coming of Christ and for the celebration of His first, His birth. I am grateful for Advent. Instead of hustle and bustle through malls, guided by lists, it is about contemplation and watchfulness in our lives, guided by Scripture.
Church is the place, the most serene place, where I can go to prepare my heart and soul for Christmas, though I do a very imperfect job of it. But without that spiritual haven I fear I would be a very stressed-out Scrooge, lost in a sea of consumerism.

My parents always made sure that Jesus was foremost in our home, but for most of my life Christmas was a day out of the year. It showed up on the 25th of December, and what came before was mostly a bunch of wishing and hoping and scrambling. If there was a season leading to it, it was a season of worrying about gifts, cleaning house, decorating, preparing food, and listening to holiday tunes. After December 25th passed I did not know the Christmas season continued through the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, that feast commemorating the Three Kings, representative of all gentiles, bringing gifts to our Lord: Prophet, Priest and King. I didn't know that for many the Christmas season only ended after the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus on a Sunday in January. I didn't know, because I wasn't Catholic.

I never grasped the joy and depth and spiritual variety there was to be found in a year - not even the joy to be found in Christmas and especially Easter - until I understood the times of preparation in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Then something strange occurred; as I contemplated that calendar, I began to make a deeper connection between the Old and the New Testament. Before - undoubtedly through my own fault - there was a big disconnect.

As Christians we know that God told the Israelites to observe certain fasts and feasts every year. Passover was to be ...a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution. (Exodus 12) God also commanded, Three times a year you shall celebrate a pilgrim feast to me. (Exodus 23:14) Many times the Israelites were to abstain from leavened bread and make designated offerings to God. Now, because we have received the spirit of adoption, all our feasts and fasts - Pentecost and the Mass of the Lord's Supper, for example - revolve around Christ, and we believe that those Old Testament observances were a prefigurement of the New Covenant Jesus established. He was the fulfillment.

So when we fast and give alms for the forty days of Lent before Easter - in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are truly suffering in this world - we are imitating Christ's fast in the desert (and the wondering of the Israelites before entering the Promised Land) and thus preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter in a more profound way. For we believe Easter, like Christmas, is not just a day that shows up out of the blue. Before we welcome it, our hope is to deepen our relationship with God by truly examining ourselves and our sins and picking up our cross and following Jesus. A week before Easter we attend Palm Sunday Mass, carrying palm branches and singing, "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" and reading Jesus' Passion aloud. During the Triduum we celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper when we read the account of the First Passover and the Last Supper, and the priest washes the feet of twelve people - men, women and children - in imitation of Christ. The next night we attend Good Friday Mass, and parishioners carry in a wooden cross, pausing three times, in imitation of the one our Savior carried. Then comes Holy Saturday Night when we trace salvation history through multiple Scripture readings from Genesis to the Gospel, and finally dawns Easter morning, and again we rejoice and sing at Mass, Alleluia!

Advent and Lent are our spiritual journeys - following Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, walking and fasting with Christ in the desert - to the holiest days of the year: Christmas and Easter. The purpose is always the same in these seasons of our year of faith: to remind us of important events in our salvation history and to prepare us to welcome more fully the bountiful blessings and grace we receive from our Maker.

Our liturgical year began anew the first Sunday of Advent, and again we will try, yes - try - to prepare ourselves for Christ. Not by making lists and checking them twice, not by cooking mounds of cookies, not by worrying about whether we're spending enough or too much on gifts, and not by sending Christmas cards will we ready ourselves. Instead, we will prepare ourselves by coming to Mass and lighting the wreath to remind us of the Light of the World. We will hopefully ponder how we can reflect more of that Light as we kneel and pray and receive communion and, along with thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christian churches around the world, sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Shall come to you, 

O Israel

And Jesus will be our Lord of the Dance throughout the liturgical year.