My Perfectly Imperfect Christmas

We live in Publix country and I disclose it is my grocery store of preference, partly because I can walk there (though I rarely do since I stop there on my way home from nearly every activity), partly because the store is always clean, the produce fresh, the prices reasonable and partly because most of the employees have been at the store since it opened in our neighborhood eight or nine years ago (there is a lot to be said for staff sticking with a retail employer that long) and they all know me and my kids by now.

I also confess to loving their ads. They truly hit a soft spot. There was the young doctor on call on Christmas ad, the pregnant mom Mother’s Day ad, the “real” Thanksgiving ad that so sums up the chaos and mishaps of preparing the “perfect” meal, and then there is this year’s Christmas ad:

Tissues needed for every. single. one. Each and every time I watch them.

So, yesterday morning, I had to laugh when I finally saw beyond the sweetness of the commercial and saw the ad a little differently. It’s set-up as a Christmas Eve afternoon, the couple are quietly finishing up some decorations, the daughter is helpful and engaged. She suggests making cookies “for him” at the last minute and mom’s a-okay with that. They meticulously cut-out and decorate cookies calmly as the windows darken into evening behind them when the doorbell rings and it’s not Santa, as we anticipated, but Grandpa. Cue the “awwwwwws!”

But wait?

Where was the last minute wrapping? The overexcited and oversugared children bouncing off the walls? The dinner preparation for guests? The realization they forgot something imperative (a gift, a dinner ingredient)? The frantic calls to your spouse who still had to work but was hoping to leave early? The search for shoes, snacks and coloring books in order to get to Christmas Eve services early enough to get a seat and armed with enough distraction for the wait until the service actually starts? The rush to get dinner on the table after services so you can maybe, just maybe get them in bed at a decent hour knowing that they’ll be out of their beds at least 17 times, too excited to sleep?

I do try to keep the reason for the season at the forefront of our Christmas preparations.  We try not to let the chaos take over and truly attempt to revel in the specialness this season provides. I try to keep the magic alive with meaningful family activities in our advent calendar – from ice skating to ornament making to Christmas movie watching to toy donating. But whether the boys want to do an activity on any given day is a toss up and my fridge is currently littered with the activities we have still yet to finish because they’d rather go play football with the neighborhood kids after school.

And that’s okay. I’m happy to let this season play out and have their days as normal as possible with just a hint of anticipation. I know we’ll get to Christmas. I know I’ll stress out at least three more times before now and then. I know I’ll question my decision to host a Christmas Day Open House until about five minutes before the first guest arrives. But I also know my memory of the season will still be their faces when we saw a house insanely lit with tens of thousands of lights, snuggling in a floor fort for movie night, fellowship with friends, Christmas morning snuggles, bourbon and Die Hard with the husband as we wrap gifts, the 5 year old singing Away in a Manger 153 times a day, the 8 year old’s blind belief, and not the rush of how we got there.

Maybe Publix has it right. Maybe they’re showing us the memory, not the reality. After all, we don’t see the chaos of Santa’s workshop, right? Just the joy of the end result. And Santa must only remember the cookies and the wind in his hair as he flies from country to country delivering surprises and magic to children around the world or else how could he do it every year? We don’t remember the pain of Good Friday on Christmas, even though we know how the story ends, we remember the hope of a new life.

So I know that my Christmas Eve reality will look a lot different from the Publix ad (did you see how clean their house was on Christmas Eve? Who are these people?), but it will feel the same. A season of anticipation, doing for others, moments with our children and big hugs. What more could I ask for?

A Love Letter (of Sorts)

Although I sat down at my desk this morning to focus on the work in progress, I found myself browsing Etsy for my father’s Christmas gift and then scrolling through my Facebook feed. Writers are excellent procrastinators (or at least this one is). While scanning Facebook, I came across the Literary Mama journal prompt for today. Since I had actually started a post about books and reading last week, I thought I’d dust it off, finish it up and share it. Finalizing and ordering my impossible to shop for father’s gift and getting some writing done, even if it wasn’t what I intended…that’s some pretty productive procrastination, if I do say so myself.

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I fell in love with books as a kid. I devoured them. I couldn’t get enough. Beverly Cleary, the Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Choose Your Own Adventures, C.S. Lewis, Little Women, E.B. White, Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High, fairy tales, Where the Red Fern Grows…. I had the shelves of our local library memorized, able to hone in on the section or book I wanted within minutes, scanning for new covers, returned titles, old favorites. Stepping into the cramped space of the book mobile in the busy Food Lion parking lot on a Saturday morning was like stepping into another world where I was envious of the driver who got to spend time with so many books and the strangely intoxicating scent of their plastic-wrapped covers. A small, independent bookstore in a nearby shopping center was cozy, dimly lit and full of magical possibilities to a bookworm like me. I wanted to move in and live there. Sleep with the books, wake with them, eat with them, breathe them in at all times. I ate many a free personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut in my elementary school years thanks to their BookIt! program (by the way, did you know BookIt! was still around!? I didn’t.).

With a more flexible schedule this year, I signed up to help in my son’s elementary school library a few mornings a month. I can’t even express to you how happy I am in that space. I love the books, the covers, the old familiar favorites that are still checked out as eagerly as they were when I was a child. Re-shelving returned books, I can touch and feel new-to-me series, find out about new authors, see stories about magic and powerful girls and strange creatures and mysteries to be solved. Helping the kids check out books, I secretly want to pocket all of their choices. Instead, I exclaim things like “Oh! This looks so good!” Or, “My son loved this, I hope you like it!” Or “I loved this as a kid!” Or “And have you read…?” They kind of look at me sideways, stamp their due dates, smile politely then high tail it back to their classroom. Stocking newly arrived books means I get a front row seat to the classics of tomorrow. Wonder and Sisters and Jacqueline Woodson.

I want to read them all. I want to open each cover and dig in. Perhaps, more honestly, I want my old Pink Panthers pink plastic framed classes. I want a quiet spot on my twin bed, a rainy afternoon and a stack of these books. I want the innocence and wonder of magical worlds and endless time with little responsibility other than to show up at the table when my mother called me down for dinner. I want stiff legs and lost afternoons. I want that feeling of rebirth to the real world by stepping outside into the reality of kids on roller skates and bikes and jump ropes after being immersed in the haze of some other person’s far away fictional reality.

I still experience magic when I read. I still can be immersed in a story. I have cried at the end of a book, not because it was sad or tragic, but because it was over (most recently, Tell the Wolves I’m Home). I have felt lost in the days after a great book, afraid to start a new one that it wouldn’t compare to the greatness I’d just imbibed.

But that initial magic that the titles of my youth still hold over me? That newly minted miracle of words is special and reserved for the younger readers among us. The novices. The rookies. They are in the midst of falling in love, experiencing that mystical, heady time when they are engulfed and obsessed and can’t possibly fathom what life was like before…before they could read, before Harry Potter’s scar, before a wimpy kid’s diary, before a magical tree house or a principal donned underpants. As an adult, I still love books, but it’s like a long relationship – sometimes you take them for granted or are disappointed or simply forget to call.

Then I spend a morning at the elementary school library and remember what it felt like to fall in love with books. I already know which shelves are home to my favorites. I keep a list of ones to recommend to the 8 year old. I hold their weight and remember what it felt like to roam and wander and seek and discover. I breathe in the ease that being surrounded by words provides. I am home in that library. Any library.

I have the unique privilege of watching my boys fall in love one word at a time. The 8 year old comes home every day with five new books from his classroom library or we catch him under the covers well past his bedtime reading by the light of a tiny book lamp. The five year old has started sounding out words, spotting sight words and imitating his favorite characters (Mo Willems’ Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie being favorites).

It’s true that money can’t buy you love. But perhaps, just maybe, a library card can.

Holding Hands: What America Needs Right Now

I don’t know if seventh grade relationships have changed much since I was in middle school in the 1980s. But back then, as we maneuvered around those awkward years of development and floated from group to group looking for our own pack and tried out sports and clubs and navigated changing classes and took foreign language classes and experimented with drama or chorus or band electives, we also started taking notice of the opposite sex. There were dances where we desperately wanted to be noticed nearly as much as we desperately wanted to not be noticed. A slow dance was awkward and jumbled and the two feet of air between you and your partner was charged with the anticipation of this grown-up thing you were doing and you couldn’t wait to get back to your group of girlfriends and discuss every minute detail. “Going together” meant not actually going anywhere together, unless you counted walking from homeroom to the cafeteria at lunch or perhaps a group mall trip with friends where you’d cruise the food court and all the guys ended up in the arcade with the girls giggling and watching, maybe going with a safe game like Pacman or an attempt at the claw game. Holding hands was the extent of most relationships with kissing being the goal but no one quite sure how to get there, especially when so much of your relationship was conducted in the corridors of your middle school. I tended to be the follower girl. The one who would start going with the best friend of the guy my best friend was going with. She was the more confident one getting the more confident guy. Their respective wingmen often getting paired up simply because we’d all be sitting at the same cafeteria table anyway.

Until the time I went out on my own.

I grew up in the south. My parents grew up in Massachusetts. They relocated to North Carolina when I was five. The entirety of my schooling took place in the unairconditioned hallways of the Durham County School system. The apartment complex we moved into when we first arrived, and was home until I was in the fourth grade, was my introduction to my new city. The small Massachusetts town we came from was old and historic with large lots of fields and colonial homes and town ponds and quiet streets and a public library building that had a turret. Our neighbors were reached by cutting through hedges and going outside to play meant squishing caterpillars, chasing bunnies away from the strawberry plants and picking blueberries at the edge of the woods.

Durham was busy and vast and exciting. Our neighbors were a mix of white, hispanic and black families. There were Catholics and Jews and Mormons and Baptists. There were families with two and three and four kids. Our row was full of families – big families, half-families that were going through the painful process of divorce, and everything in between – and we spent our days running in and out of their apartments like they were simply separate wings of our bigger home. Going outside to play meant throwing a tennis ball off the cement wall in the unused tennis courts, spinning endlessly on the merry-go-round until we were sick to our stomachs and our hands burned with blisters from holding on so tightly and our palms smelled of tangy metal, swimming in the pool in the summer. Our school was a mix, too. Back then it was mostly white and African American families. Our school was representative of our community and I loved it. I never saw color because I was surrounded by it. Teachers, administrators, neighbors, classmates.  We were all in it together. I’m sure it wasn’t as simple as all that, but for a kid growing up, it was the equal footing school provided that taught me people are people and we are all on this road of growing up together.

Enter middle school. I sat next to a boy in science class. He was funny and smart and smelled nice (a rare treat in boys that age) and was nice to me. And he was black. I am not. We started “going together.” I was nervous and excited and he wasn’t the best friend of the boy my best friend was going with. This was me. I liked a boy. He liked me. Seemed simple.

Until it wasn’t.

I started to see a part of my hometown I’d never seen before. Classmates – black and white – started saying nasty things about me, near me, to me. The boy’s mother didn’t approve of this budding “relationship,” if you could even call it that. We weren’t allowed to speak on the phone much. We passed notes in class. We held hands. And his hand was so soft and warm and lovely. I craved it, placing my palm flat on the work table in the science room where we sat, hoping he’d place his close to mine and our pinkies would touch while we learned about vast oceans and prehistoric time periods. We tried to stay in our bubble. But apparently, our relationship, whatever a relationship is or can be to a 13 year old boy and girl who were both oldest kids, rule followers and pretty naive, was bigger than the bubble.

My parents may have had questions, but never aired them to me. And if they did, they did so in a manner that must have been supportive and trusting since I don’t remember them denying me this, in fact, I think my dad drove us to the mall once. They may have been worried about what I may hear or encounter, but they let me walk that road.

The outside world was cruel and the fact was no matter how accepting my friends and classmates were when it came to kick ball teams and birthday parties, it was still the south and old cultural norms die hard, or not at all. By “going together” we had somehow broken a code, crossed a line, done something wrong. Which I never understood. I was young and painfully naive. Why didn’t people understand we just liked each other? It wasn’t a political statement, it wasn’t forever, it was middle school and a boy liked me. Didn’t everyone see that to a girl in glasses who walked in the shadow of her best friend a lot was happy to find someone who shined a light on her?

Eventually, it ended. We broke it off because his parents were making it hard, our classmates’ words did hurt, despite the old adage, as did the occasional well placed foot to trip me on the bus or the unidentified flying object from the back of the bus. We were 13 and ill prepared for a stand to both of our respective communities. And that was that. I held onto a lot of anger that outside forces could be so powerful that they interfered with my small measure of happiness. I still didn’t truly understand. I still don’t.

In recent days, I see the fabric of the American quilt, where my seventh grade relationship is merely a minuscule stitch, ripping apart again in its already weakly sewn parts in the wake of recent events. I am still that young and naive girl who doesn’t understand why we can’t all just be people. Why we can’t all treat people like people. I see the riots and the protests and the pain and the screaming and the gnashing of teeth and find myself not understanding those that don’t understand why that is all happening, necessary, overdue and righteous. Will burning a police car solve any problems? No. But have you ever been angry and punched a hole in a wall, slammed a door, yelled at your kids/your spouse/another driver? Didn’t solve any problems, but it’s a natural response to anger, frustration, rage. Back in 1988, I watched a 13 year old boy’s eyes open to his black man reality while we were “together.” He wrote so many words to me where he tried to express the expectation, the challenge, the realization that it was going to be different for him than it was going to be for me. And that hurt both of us.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m not condoning violence. But I’m saying that this world needs a little more compassion. Compassion that your life experience varies very greatly from someone else’s, really everyone else’s, and that your truth and their truth are just as true. One doesn’t negate the other.

I wish I knew where he was now. I’ve tried to Google and Facebook search him before and always come up empty. He moved or went to a different high school, I can’t remember, and I haven’t spoken to him since we left the eighth grade halls of our middle school for the next big thing. I wonder what he has done, what experiences have made him who he is, if he remembers me at all in the way that I so fondly remember him. I wonder if he has kids and how he teaches these lessons. I wonder what he’s afraid of and what makes him happy and what he would say about all the angst and misery and confusion right now. I wonder if his hand is still as soft.

I wish I could hold his hand again and then join our hands with all the other hands of this troubled nation then use those hands to raise up those who need help, guide those who are lost, soothe those who feel pain, clap with those who feel joy, hug those who are lonely, feed those who are hungry, wipe away the tears of those in grief, pick up the burdens for those beaten down, unclench the fists of those who are angry, and clasp them in prayer for those who refuse to take the hand of a neighbor whose skin is different from their own. And this time, I won’t let go. Will you?