Friday, January 11, 2019

Auld Lang Syne

When my kids return to school after vacation or break, I am not eagerly hurrying them on their way, shoving them on the back as they slouch out the door.

A weird mother maybe, but I'm sad. 

That goes for my husband returning to work, too.  

While we were all together the two weeks of Christmas break, there were squabbles and irritations and arguments over Christmas presents, and there was the stress and labor involved in party preparations and then the frustration when I realized I hadn't gotten to everything on my list.

But we also played numerous games, of the board and card variety.  I learned that while playing Clue I will always be like that slow-witted police detective in crime novels who is forever confounded by the methods and the success of the sweet old lady or eccentric private investigator.  Diligently I would narrow things down, doing my grunt work, and as soon as I knew two things for certain,  someone else would win.  Daniel, who is only eight and had never played Clue before, won our second game! I was proud, not envious at all.

Santa brought Daniel a drift bike (the toy that caused the arguments), and Gabriella and Daniel, giggling, drifted on my tiled kitchen floor for what seemed like hours a day.  Even while trying to load my dishwasher, make homemade bread, or prepare food, I enjoyed watching them do donuts and didn't mind too much when they slid into cabinets, tables or appliances.

A racing video game brought by the man in the big red suit was a big hit with Berto and Ana, but my husband seemed to be the one who liked it most.  Despite not being keen on gaming myself, I actually had fun watching him speed down exotic dirt roads or paved highways, crashing through fences and pitiable trees when he off-roaded into an oddly realistic yet foreign environment.

What tale to tell from New Year's Eve? Nothing.  It was sedate.  In contrast, the snow that fell most of New Year's Day was a beauty that reminded me of the melancholy Dan Fogelberg song, "Same Old Lang Syne".  So I played it repeatedly as I quietly prepared a turkey with all the fixings for my family.  I listened and watched through my kitchen window as the lovely and gently transforming snow drifted for hours, feeling wistful and enamored by Nature's quiet, simple grace.  Tiny crystals almost too minute to notice until I peered into the gray day at just the right point were followed by large, fluffy flakes.

My children marched out into the freezing temps again and again, but I didn't have their bravery.  They even made a miniature ice rink beneath the swing set - something I told them they could do, having a gift for understanding and sympathizing with the sometimes dangerous schemes of childhood, but then regretted when our Phoenix kids tried to turn on the hose in below freezing weather.  (What were they thinking?!)

On one cold evening, I took a walk with my kids, endeavoring to find the sidewalk beneath the snow, trying not to slip or trip as we admired our neighbors' still blazing Christmas lights, greeting many of those neighbors, including some teenagers who were going about at their mother's behest or their own volition, shoveling neighborhood drives.

All the time spent with extended family around Christmas was cherished.  We caught up with my husband's uncle and aunt whom we have not had the good fortune to see in many years, and his aunt shared family stories and pictures with me.  My husband Matthew and I were both grateful to his brother Steve for making a point of spending a lot of time with his nephews and nieces, because our children enjoy his company so much.  Matthew's parents accompanied our family to Albuquerque's River of Lights, and though it was freezing, we got many keepsake photographs of them with the kids by huge, incandescent displays.

On the last weekend before a return to normal routines came the amusement of watching all my children and their cousins, including the teenagers, don crowns for Three Kings' Day while their parents snapped pictures.

The laughter, the aggravations, the snow, the craziness, the relaxation, the late nights, the long sleep ins, the boring stretches, the busy days, the craving for the company of family, and the moment when you want a break from them for months  - that's Christmas break.

And it was good.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Berto and St. Nick (in his own words)

         I am 15 years old, and I believe in Santa Claus – although I haven’t always. When I was young, Santa was an intriguing topic for me. I believed in the jolly old man with an extreme case of dad-bod, dressed in a red suit because I trusted my parents. My parents told me he was real. Besides, what evidence did I have against them? Santa Claus showed up every Christmas. Every year, my siblings and I would awaken before the crack of dawn to wake up our parents, who we assumed would be well rested and willing to sacrifice an hour or two of sleep to see what Santa had brought us. The moment our parents stepped out of bed, we were in the mentality of an Olympic sprinter. Our finish line was just down the hall and to the left, where our presents sat under our 7-foot-tall artificial tree, with a blanket wrapped neatly around the base. Each year we experienced the rush of Christmas morning. But then I grew up.
            As I became older, I pushed the thought of the magical man to the back of my more logical brain, simply accepting but not quite believing. At that point, I found more magic in the presents than the man who delivered them. Around the age of 10, I began thinking about Santa again. My parents explained where St Nick’s magic came from by telling us that Jesus gave the jolly old man the power and ability to deliver presents because what he was doing gave so much joy to children all around the world. As a devout 10-year-old Catholic, it made some sense. After all, if Jesus had the power to do anything, why not? In my heart though, I knew. It was illogical. Santa Claus wasn’t real; it was my parents. After all, why else would I be unable to request one million dollars from him?
            I finally went to my parents, taking them aside as to not ruin it for my siblings by declaring I did not believe.
            “I have a question,” I told them.
            “What is it?”
            “Is Santa real?”
            My parents paused.
            “Do you really want to know?” My mom asked, in that moment unintentionally answering my question.
“Yes,” I said. “Well, I already know, but…”
“No, he’s not,” my parents responded kindly.
My parents continued to explain to me that now that I knew, I was “part of the magic.” Whatever I did, I couldn’t expose what I knew to my siblings. Each year I had to act as if I was just as steadfast about believing in Santa Claus as I had been five years ago. I assured them it wouldn’t be an issue. However, I didn’t really feel so magical.
            The first Christmas that I was in-the-know, setting out the festive snowflake shaped sugar cookies and milk in a bowl of ice (to insure it was cold), I felt a little empty. I didn’t understand why, but it wasn’t the same. The joy of Christmas had mostly filled me up, and the wintertime spent in our humble house in Chandler, Arizona, reflecting on the birth of Jesus was still thoroughly enjoyed. The topic of Santa just didn’t feel the same, however. Christmas Day, the presents came, taken out of their hiding spot in my parent’s closet. In my mind, I was torn. I saw how happy my siblings were, as was I, and I knew what my parents were doing was special. But it didn’t feel magical.
            Over the next year I matured. I became taller, more intelligent, and was able to wrap my head around more things. And I think that made all the difference that year.
            That year at Christmas I felt especially good about everything. As my family and I watched the Nativity Story, I felt the spirit of Christmas fill up inside me. I felt happy for my siblings, and my mind was free of any “stress” I had felt the year before. I went to bed excited to wake up the next morning and find presents under the tree. Sure enough, my siblings woke up before the sun on a once again frigid yet snowless Arizona Christmas morning. I felt a crazy sense of anticipation that felt almost nostalgic, as if it was from three years ago. I felt good, but the magic of Santa still wasn’t quite there. For the sake of my siblings I rushed out through the hall to the tree behind them, taking time to turn on the light so we could see our presents. But I still didn’t see the magic completely.
While we were opening the presents I looked at my siblings, pure joy lighting up their eyes in a Christmas fire as they tore through presents and stockings, and at my parents, looking tired yet completely overjoyed at the experience and feeling they were giving their kids by being Santa Claus. In those two seconds, something clicked. I recognized the magic. The magic was real. Santa was real. I was experiencing it. It wasn’t about the magic sleigh, or the immortality of Santa Claus – it was about the spirit of Christmas, the feeling of giving and receiving gifts, and the elation of it all. My parents were not obligated to be Santa, but out of a desire for us to experience that magic, they were. But it was not only them, it was me too. I was Santa. I was keeping the magic alive by convincing my siblings of the existence of the mythical, yet very real man.
            What I realized that year was very important, and made me truly believe Santa Claus was real. Believing in him will make all the difference. I will be able to keep that spirit alive for my children and all the little kids in a world where Santa’s magic is dampening, being smothered by newer generations who believe children need facts, not hope. Indeed, what would Christmas be for kids without the jolly old man?

Other posts about the Jolly Old Man and his magic:
Berto and St. Nick
Santa and St. Nick

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Home for the holidays

Snow on the Sandia Mountains

This time of year makes me think of Albuquerque, of the road trip from Phoenix through Flagstaff, Arizona and Gallup, New Mexico  to this mountain town dominated by its peaks in the east, tinged an unusual shade of pink at sunset (hence their name, meaning watermelon in Spanish).

It reminds me of struggling to find presents for nieces and parents-in-law; of sewing felt ornaments in the form of stockings with stitched names during the car ride, scissors, glitter thread, and scraps of felt scattered at my feet; of favorite road trip music (country stations, Allison Krauss and Union Station, Gordon Lightfoot, Bryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Diamond, Journey and more) and holiday tunes by Jewel, Michael Buble and Nat King Cole; of a crowded, packed car and fast food lunches; of taking the same route through town to my in-laws house each time we came.

But here we are.  In Albuquerque.  Now.

No Christmas road trip necessary.  We can see family easily, scant preparation and only a few minutes of travel required.

I like road trips.  I'll miss taking the one between these southwestern sister states.

But, if pressed, I must confess that I like living here more than driving hours to be here.

It is a very good sign, I think - an indication of openness and happiness - when you move to a place that reminds you of every other place you've held dear.  While walking or driving around in Albuquerque, I have been reminded of the expansive park near my grandparents home in Idaho and of the many small towns in that state where my relatives yet reside.  I have recalled Tennessee, because I finished the first book about my childhood here, and I am again in an environment where the leaves on broad, beautiful trees hail the seasons. Of course, Arizona is present in my thoughts: the culture, history and landscape of both states are similar in several regards, and Arizona and all the loved ones there are just a reverse trip across state borders.

So this is Advent, and here we are already, in what could be characterized as our Christmas town.  The first snow has already come; snowmen were promptly built by my snow-starved children.

Gifts for relatives this year will be delivered on Christmas Day with smiles after traveling but a few miles from our own home, taking a fresh and already oft-traveled route.  Over the hills if not through the woods, to my in-laws house we'll go.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Gratitude is ne'er too late: holiday tables and runners (of the road)

On a small brick wall beside me was this guy:

I was walking my dog while my children played on the park equipment nearby, and I noticed something move and looked up.  Like a member of the paparazzi, I followed him around, snapping photos.  Though he seemed nervous, he couldn’t help but pose and show me his tail feathers.

His kind I have seen before, you know; I live in New Mexico, and they are the state bird for a reason.

Have you seen one run?  It’s charming.  Two were sprinting across the dusty expanse near the glass recycling bin one day when I was pitching my myriad fragile receptacles in.  Watching those roadrunners fly (not literally) across the dirt - as if they were in a race and had left competitors in the dust, out of sight, far behind - made my day.  Maybe they were being chased by Wile E. Coyote.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but I wanted to share that I’m thankful to live in the land of the roadrunner.

I’m also grateful that my father-in-law helped my husband and me build a grand table for our larger home that has room for the company of plenty of family and friends.  The new table in this friendly house is an entertaining dream come true. 

It’s pub height, so loved ones can stand or sit around it comfortably.

Of course, I wanted it pub height – taller than the original plans pulled from Ana White's website. 

Then I despised it for being so tall, as if it had chosen to be so against my will.  Without stools, it felt like a giant in my kitchen, devouring space while crowding the wall.  I argued with my husband on and off for weeks, practically demanding that he help me chop of its legs or at least bring me the ax.  He insisted that we would do nothing until we found stools for it; then, we would see!

It wasn’t until Halloween night when family came over for trick-or-treating, and all the adults stood around the behemoth with their sodas and pizza, gabbing, that I realized I had known all along what I was doing, and it was perfect.  The next day the extra-tall stools for it were delivered, and my table and I have had amicable interactions ever since.  It no longer sulks, pushed against the wall, out of place and under-purposed.  I no longer glare at it, wishing it were different.  My children sit at it every afternoon and evening, twisting on the swivel stools that look as if they were designed for it.

There are greater things to be grateful for post-Thanksgiving, beyond state birds and tall tables.

For one thing, I have the courage to keep writing even when it seems I may never be successful or have not worked hard enough yet or don't have the "right" ideas or the best methods of executing them.  And I am amazed by the support that my husband has and continues to give to me in my endeavors.  

More than anything I feel I am extraordinarily blessed to be surrounded by my family, so insanely, incalculably grateful to God for Matthew and our four children, Berto, Ana, Ella, and Daniel.  We are happy together in our new home.

And this year we spent Thanksgiving with extended family for the first time in many years, and in addition to our appreciation of the company of those loved ones, I'm thankful that I didn't have to make the turkey! (Mine always seems dry.)

Thanksgiving has passed.  This is my belated letter of gratitude.  I have done my duty. 

Come now, Advent.  Come Christmas.  My candles are lit.  I'm ready. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Post in Pictures: Why Albuquerque?

Nearly every afternoon during summer, storm clouds crouched on the Sandia Mountains, and then sprang upon the valley in the evening, hurling lightning bolts and sometimes hail. 

This autumn rain we've experienced this week, though, is just a persistent drench with no drama, like a sourpuss who stands around looking gloomy, bringing everyone down without saying a word.

Yet, the fall colors on the trees are heightened by this moisture, and that brings me again to a realization I had soon after we moved here:

I love Albuquerque.

Ironically, I believe I'm happier to be here than my husband is - and he was raised here!

It was a surprise to me how quickly I embraced this region, how easily charmed I was by the novelties and the enchantments that drew me in and helped me feel at home.

When I first had an inkling we would be moving to Albuquerque, I began to question it almost immediately with some anxiety. I wondered why God might want us here.  I couldn't think of a soul who needed us - whereas there were other places in which we could be useful. 

Why did I assume it had to be about necessity?  Though it isn't deserved, perhaps it's about Providence and these blessings:

My husband really likes his new job in town, and there are far more opportunities in his current company to grow than there ever were in his last place of employment.

My children see their grandparents almost every weekend, and their aunts, uncles, and cousins often (something that was missing for the first many years of their lives).  They have all made new friends and gotten involved in their schools.

As for me?  I am just plain happy.  Sure, I worried when we first arrived - about good friends for my children, about finances, about how I could best serve my family and the larger community.

But even if someday we roam again, searching out a new place to call home, I will forever be grateful to Albuquerque for one beautiful thing: here I finished my book, a story based on a childhood Christmas.  In Albuquerque I accomplished a long-held dream; I was successful.  

What are the other reasons I love it here?  Why is it "The Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico's state nickname) for me?

The Summer

We moved from Phoenix, so you can only imagine my awe and wonder when I was able to sit outside all morning until lunchtime quite comfortably, reading or jotting down ideas in my writer's notebook.  It felt miraculous not to be chased inside at 8 am by terrible, rapidly rising heat.

The Balloon Fiesta

There are few things that can enthrall and make one recapture childhood joy as swiftly as a hot air balloon gently riding a wind current.  Early each October here in Albuquerque, the city hosts its annual Balloon Fiesta, and people come from all over the world to pilot these lighter-than-aircraft or to watch their colorful shapes fill the expansive southwestern skies in the early morning.  I stood outside in the street and gawked unabashedly.

The Autumn Colors

It has been a very long time since I lived in a place where I noticed the change of seasons, because Nature alerted me so dramatically to their passage.

In Phoenix I strained and searched to find one tree that hailed the fall, and if I spied even the slightest change, I applauded it.  But Albuquerque trees put on a parade of hues as the weather cools: plum, red-gold, burgundy, orange, and even florescent yellow.  It thrills the soul.  I had forgotten the splendor of autumn.

The Sandia Mountains

I've seen these mountains before while visiting my in-laws for Christmas and never really cared about their majesty.  But things have changed, and they are there before me every day as I walk my Yorkie friend Taz, and I'm in love.  I've come to stay, and they will always be there.

I'm home.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The genesis and the realization

Last week I gathered up and organized manuscript pages from two different drafts of the book I mean to publish this year, putting them once again into numerical order and placing them, feeling fulfilled, in a neat stack on my humble writing desk.

I am done with my book.  And this organizing was a sign to my husband and to myself that I will no longer let my work litter the floor of our room and, more importantly, that I consider this story finished, as far as writing is concerned.

The desk at which I write and have worked for more than two months revising my story since we moved here is one my husband had before we were married 17 plus years ago and one that had its surface attacked by silver sharpie, wielded by the hands of our firstborn when he was little.  Its knobs fall off occasionally, and its varnish is worn away on the edges.  

But small and humble though it may be, it sits before two large windows with two more windows on its right hand side.  I have always wanted a desk with a view, and now I have it in our Albuquerque home, looking out over trees and flowers and bright blue southwestern sky each morning, dreaming and writing.

Those windows caused my manuscript to wander away a few pages at a time from their piles on the floor by my writing space; I often pushed the panes open to let in the breeze.  If I wasn't working from the pages that floated like miniature magic carpets stitched with words, I didn't mind that they seemed intent on leaving me for more exotic places.  Yet for weeks now it has been a huge mess, a reminder that work was ongoing, like some huge remodeling project: Pardon our Dust!

But now I am done.  And I wept tears of joy over my laptop.  I'm satisfied.  I have completed it.  It's finished.

My heart is in this story and has been since I first wrote a much shorter version of it for my high school creative writing class.  

I wasn't the star student of that class.  For one thing the teacher, a charismatic woman with long, wavy blond hair and a younger husband, often couldn't read my writing, even noting on one of my assignments, I bet this would be a pretty good story if I could read it.  I also struggled with dialogue and devising interesting plot lines.  But when I wrote this short story based on something that happened to my family when I was a kid growing up in Tennessee, the whole class applauded it and gave me wonderful encouragement and feedback.  Our "cool" teacher had that look on her face and tone in her voice that every creative person wishes to see and hear.  My story had touched her.

So I began writing the whole story, and from the beginning my dad and my writing mentor, author of the The Dragon at the End of Forever series, supported and encouraged me.

Wow, what a long road to fulfillment.  Over the years I have written many drafts of this novella, trying to improve it.  I didn't always succeed, for at least in one draft, I managed to completely destroy the tone of my tale while trying to satisfy my critics.  Early on, I sent off copies to publishers and received form letter rejections and personal rejections that addressed me by name in typed or handwritten particular notes of encouragement.  I saved those.

I sent this manuscript to my future husband before we met in person, and he thought it was a great story, and from then on he believed that I was a writer, believed in my dreams.  (And still does, though I have yet to bring in loads of money from my efforts.)

I've also, as I alluded to above, shared this beloved story of mine with a couple people who did not like it at all.  Even though it broke my heart, I did find nuggets of wisdom in their feedback, and I hope I have used those experiences to mold my novella into something greater.

A couple of years ago I read one of my earliest manuscripts - I went back to the beginning, one might say - to my children, and as they listened intently they revived long dormant hopes and plans.  Still, I wondered aloud as I read my own words, "How was I a better writer then than I am now?"

After my recent painstaking efforts, I know that is not true.  I have grown as a writer, and I know my story reflects that metamorphosis.

Now I will put it out there for everyone.  And it's a terrifying thing to let go of something held so dear, the genesis and realization of a dream, at last.  I could edit for years, tinkering endlessly with little words, and make excuses for not showing my heart, my work, to the world, but I have been guilty of telling my husband, "If I die young, please make sure my book is published.  Have my dad edit it, but make sure it's published."  So I know what I must do.

And I'm doing it.

I've done it! You can find my book, The Christmas List, on Amazon HERE.  It is a holiday story of love, family, struggle and faith based on real events.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A tragical birthday

Our family of six moved from Phoenix to Albuquerque four days before my daughter Ana’s 14th birthday.

But, so help me, I tried to make it good. I tried!

With boxes still enveloping us, I made homemade pancakes. A good beginning if not for the fact that we had no syrup. Midway through cooking, I ran to the store and picked up a store brand variety called “Old-fashioned Syrup” which I thought might be code for “slightly healthier.” Why, oh why, was I thinking healthy on a birthday?

Unfortunately, old-fashioned meant pure unadulterated molasses with a hint of sugar to take the edge off. We should have made gingerbread cookies with it.

“Yuck!” my kids exclaimed in unison with properly contorted faces.

“What? What is it?” 

Even with my penchant for gingerbread men, I couldn’t stomach the flavor.

Out I trot to a different grocer to pick up some that was unapologetically sugar, and since we had just moved, ran to the discount and dollar stores next door to find laundry hampers, curtain rods, and waste baskets. Feeling guilty about my long absence, I picked up a bunch of sunflowers to present to my birthday girl.

I still needed to figure out the cake. It was supposed to be a purchased ice cream cake instead of a homemade confection per tradition. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where any creameries were and before I could find one, I had to spend an hour on the phone with our insurance company sorting out the new home and auto policies with a very talkative, if helpful, young man. When I finally was released to call an ice cream shop near us, the lady nicely informed me that I should have placed an order yesterday.

I dove into boxes for missing baking gear. Then I went to the fridge to lay out ingredients for cake.

We had no butter or eggs.

Well, I still needed to get my daughter gifts anyway, so I rounded up Ana and her younger siblings, and off we went to two more stores. At a home improvement store Ana got her wish: plants to place in a large flower bed that was all her own. Though she fretted they were too expensive (I guess her dad and I had been stressing a lot about the new mortgage), she finally choose four blooming beauties, and we headed to my sixth store of the day.

I may say that I am disappointed that Albuquerque did not fly a banner over our heads at this point declaring exuberantly, “Thanks for helping our economy, you fabulous, frustrated new residents!”

We grabbed butter, eggs and a can of whipped cream topping.

On the way out of that shopping center, I turned right onto a busy street, and we nearly got hammered by an aggressive sedan that raced up behind us. I thought rush hour was supposed to be better in Albuquerque!

At home safe but flustered, I labored over a fatty chocolate cake for my sweet girl and offered to spread mint chocolate ice cream between its layers.

My husband came home late from his new job, and after I had irritated him by crying and complaining about crazy Albuquerque drivers, told us that we shouldn’t physically put ice cream in the cake. Instead of homemade ice cream cake, my daughter was to have plain old cake with ice cream!

Valiantly my son Berto and I attempted to write “happy birthday” with the whipped topping on the barren expanse of the cake. Alas, the pressurized cream ejected from its can with all the force of a fire extinguisher. It was all we could do to make the carnage resemble “Happy Birthday Ana”.

As we woefully surveyed our erratic clouds of whipped writing, we realized we had no matches, no lighters, nothing to spark her candles, those candles we had lumped together from the junk drawer the movers had packed with the kitchen stuff. (You cannot imagine our relief when we came up with 14!)

“Really?” said Ana.

My husband and I argued about what to do. Try to start a flame with flint and knife? Search all the boxes yet unpacked for matches that were overlooked? Go yet again to a store for a lighter? He left to procure a lighter.

After his return and a chorus of Happy Birthdays, I sliced into the cake which quivered and…

“Oh, Ana, it’s crumbling,” I moaned.

My daughter and I looked at each other and burst into tears. It had all become far too "tragical", as Anne of Green Gables would say.

But we soon realized that such a mad birthday must surely be more hilarious than heart-breaking 10, maybe 20 years from now – give or take a few.

Nevertheless, I vow that Ana’s 15th will be a different level of celebration. Perhaps I’ll launch fireworks, organize a parade, buy her a pet ferret, send her up in a hot air balloon, or hire a boy band to serenade her all evening.

But we will never – EVER – move near her birthday again.