Monday, December 26, 2016

Word of the Week - 147

Saint Francis of Assisi by Sassetta.
Word(s) of the Week:  SAINT FRANCIS

I first heard this prayer in meetings of 12-step programs.  Among the readings that were part of every meeting, this was occasionally chosen in place of words from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Its message has resonated for me since then, more than 30 years.  Whether or not you subscribe to the form, I feel it speaks eloquently of this season, of all seasons.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Encore: The sisters and brothers throw themselves into Christmas

Last year's two-part Christmas story, revisited in one place.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The sisters and brothers throw themselves into Christmas

Vintage Christmas ephemera.
Episode One

"The trappings of Christmas must be perfectly executed," Ambulancia declared to all within earshot, which included passers-by who looked up, startled, and quickened their steps.  "I know perfection when I see it.  I just can't say ahead of time what it will look like."  This bit of last-minute holiday drama concerned traditional crackers presented to each guest atop their dinner plate at the Christmas table.  While her mother suggested the manufacturer's decorations were quite festive and would disappoint no one, Ambulancia, joined in protest by her sister Sireena, insisted on what she referred to as "tarting them up" with trimmings that would render them extravagant works of art.  Nothing less would do.

Once again, tulle became a material of choice, along with double-faced satin ribbons, gold German Dresden trims and ornaments, Victorian scrap images, sequins, glitter, cotton batting fruit and birds and additional bits of scissored crepe paper.  Fortunately, the girls always created in their room, their atelier as they called it, so the already tidy parlor with its slightly strange but mostly wondrous tree would remain undisturbed.

As had been the case at Thanksgiving, Ellington and Henri's parents found it necessary to be "away" at Christmas, some muttered explanation about a distant, aging and slightly gaga relative or some precarious businss assignation in a wintery, remote locale which, they were sure, would cause the boys hardship.  It was no hardship at all to stay over with their best friends for the entire vacation. They rolled up their sleeves and tested the glue guns for readiness.

Though it may have seemed to the untrained eye that the sisters procrastinated, plunging into last-minute flurries of holiday preparations in general, that was not the actual truth.  They had made all their gifts weeks ago, wrapped them, helped decorate the house, baked, gone to the movies twice with the brothers and eaten lunch in a downtown coffee shop.  They were not idle nor forgetful.  it was simply that when Ambulancia opened the box of Christmas crackers, she felt her heart sink just a bit and could not bear to think of that happening to their guests.  "Presentation," she exclaimed.  "Delight the eye, create anticipation.  Much of Christmas is anticipation.  We will not disappoint."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The sisters and brothers throw themselves into Christmas, part 2

As long as there was someone at home, the girls insisted that any and all Christmas lights be turned on regardless of the time of day.  So it was that they crafted beneath the softened glow of a treasured old Santa, putting finishing touches on the now highly adorned crackers for tomorrow's table.

With one of her favorite holiday magazines beside her, should she need inspiration, Ambulancia sniggered and snorted at the photo of an impossibly lavish cracker, saying in her poshest voice, "Oh, Ree, did we include the Faberge eggs in the crackers this year?  I may have forgotten them.   We'll need to start over."  Her sister answered, "Yep.  Forgot them.  I guess they'll wait for next year."  Snigger, snort, heh heh.  "A witty motto, plastic charm and, my favorite, the paper hat, will have to do.  I love when we all have on our hats.  Nobody thinks they're too silly to wear.  We know the best sports, don't we?"
NOT the sisters' Christmas cracker.
"Will you ask our Dad if he's ready to take us to deliver presents?" the older sister asked Ellington.  Unlike the girls method of, no other word for it, bellowing from room to room, the Garrick brother went and found Mr. Charpentier in his den and asked if he was ready to drive them around to exchange gifts with their friends.  "Yes!" he told him.  "Yes.  And then a tour of the neighborhood lights after, how does that sound?"

"I feel a bit selfish," he told Ellington and Henri, who had joined them, "having the company of you guys while your parents have to be off in the Black Hole of Calcutta or some dismal place without you at Christmas.  Lucky us, I wouldn't trade."  His genuine kindness, his enthusiasm for having the fellows to balance all the female influences on every matter, always made the brothers feel they were as good as at home.

Turning off the lighted decorations, Mrs. Charpentier rounded up all the siblings, each carrying a small, paper-handled bag of presents to be dropped off.  The first year their father asked if they needed a ride to their friends' houses, the girls clapped with delight.  They also jumped, just a bit, and may have let out a shriek.  Christmas was so much fun.

With the mysterious packages, some of which were exceedingly lumpy, patterned paper wrapped around the contents like a second skin, exchanged, following rather extended chats on front porches and some familiarly shrill exclamations, all were back in the car.   It was officially Christmas eve, the sun had set and lighted trees filled front windows on every block.  Following their tradition, they stopped to get hamburgers to eat en route while they rode through the evening, visiting their favorite neighborhoods, the ice cream family's mansion lit up brighter than a Hollywood premier, the towering deodar trees beneath which all cars drove with headlights off.

"I remember the first time I was able to fall asleep on Christmas eve," Mrs. Charpentier said.  "I was so disappointed when I woke up.  I felt as though I'd lost Christmas, I'd lost the child I had been.  But I was wrong.  She's still here," she laughed.  "You girls and your father helped rescue her from having to be too grown up."  She blew kisses toward them all.  "Thank you," she said.

"Being able to fall asleep when it's Christmas," Sireena said, "I can't even imagine.  How awful that must have been for you."  Her mother nodded.

As they wound their way home, the children examined the presents they'd been given and thought of what they would do before going to bed as late as possible.  One thing they loved to do and not just on Christmas eve was lie on the floor under the tree in the darkened room and look up through the branches at the lights and they way they were reflected by ornaments and tinsel.  It seemed like a wishing place, a fairy place of pine scent and candles.  There would be carols playing softly and everyone knew, not just believed but knew, that the best things were entirely possible.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Word of the Week - 146

From our grandparents one Christmas, my siblings and I each received a Steiff puppet: Jocko, Gaty and Witty.
Word(s) of the Week:  SISTER AND BROTHER

I use the word Christmas rather than holidays for it was Christmas that my family celebrated.  It is our tradition.  It is the past to which I return this time every year.  It is my personal version of the Twilight Zone where I know it will be the mid-1950s, where my sister will be around five or six years old, my brother around eight or nine and I somewhere between 10 and 12.  When our mother isn't looking, we will make compressed balls of the tinsel and toss them at the tree, rather than draping it strand by strand as she  instructed.  When the lights are on, we will lie on the floor with out heads beneath the branches, and let our wishing minds carry us away.

The three of us have spoken as adults of the brief interlude, perhaps only one year or at the most two, when our mother sought the short-cut of what we called the Ready-Pack Christmas stocking.  A dime store standard of scratchy red mesh with a festive, stapled image atop a bag of, well, stuff.  We were used to receiving one of our father's socks with a splendid orange in the toe and a handful of personally selected treasures to open in the middle of the wakeful night.  We fussed terribly about the indignity of it, though the Ready-Pack gave us a lasting tradition:  the Chinese finger trap, ever after one of Santa's constants.
The Chinese finger trap found its way into the Novelty Items Hall of Fame.
They say that the act of recalling an event changes our memory of it.  Physics may one day prove that remembering can alter the event itself.  What I know is that, among all the joys that Christmas continues to bring to my life, the most enduring times, the ones etched most deeply into my heart, my very core, are the ones when Laurie, Mike and I were young together, almost swallowed whole like Jonah by the impossible magic of those days.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Word of the Week - 145

From Austin Kleon's STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST.
Word(s) of the Week:  MAKE THINGS

My sister, brother and I grew up following the model of a mother who made things.  She was a fine arts major and everything, including the elementary school newsletter, became art in her hands.  I have a faint but I believe accurate memory of one of her newsletters, featuring patterns for Three Little Pigs finger puppets.  She launched us each on a lifetime path of creating, each according to our specific muses.  Music, sports cars, carpentry, cooking, building, sewing, retail display, vintage fashion and accessories, drawing, coloring, paper craft, writing, my siblings and I continue to expand and explore the places our minds and hands can take us.

When fully immersed in the doing, I find it impossible to think other thoughts.  Existence in the moment shrinks to the point of a pencil, the heft of the scissors, the accuracy of glue placement.  It is another world, the realm of alchemy.  We are transformed, returned eventually to ordinary life, perhaps with the ability to see it through new eyes.
In a Facebook post a few days ago, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, sharing a video of extravagant, traditional tulip-pattern cookies, said this: "I often think of this in our fast food world, and HAIL! to the cooks and bakers. I find you to be HOLY people who bless others with your daily works. Thank you!!"

All that remains for you to do is GO.  Go to you studio, your garage, your kitchen, your garden, your shop, your factory and make stuff.  It is never too early, it is never too late.  Go.  Now.


Monday, December 5, 2016

Word of the Week - 144

James Thurber, self-portrait.
Word of the Week:  ENGAGE

I feel as though I do a poor job of explaining myself when called upon to do so.  That is probably because I believe we should not be asked to explain ourselves.  Years and years ago I realized I would never find words precise enough to say who I am to someone who couldn't or didn't want to know.

A recent conversation with my most capable, kind and interested nurse practitioner about why it was my priority to re-establish too-long neglected drawing as a daily habit before moving on to doing the same with chair yoga backed me into that corner of trying to say why this was so.  A few days later it came to me that art generally is how I engage with the world.  Writing, images - either my own or borrowed from the internet - are my voice when not conversing one-to-one.  How I am in and of the wider world is better expressed through essays or fiction, through the work of my own hand or photos of what has meaning for me.  The conundrum of how to be known without explaining.  The long and short-term benefits of a chair yoga practice are not lost on me.  However beneficial, though, they take a backseat to an act which carries me outwardly forward while inwardly grounding me more firmly as myself.

This is, you realize, my process.  It may not match yours, nor does it need to.  Had the internet not been invented, had no platform been offered for creating a free daily (or less often) written musing on any topic I chose, I could easily be, if such a thing still goes on, in downtown Los Angeles' Pershing Square shouting my truths at passing cars and uneasy pedestrians.  I could be pressing leaflets into their hands rather than having professional representation for my snowmen, cats, cupcakes, roses, suns, moons, flowers and citizens through rubberstamp companies that turn my drawings into product and send them/me forth.

That I am here for a reason I accept as fact.  What I interpret as the reason may shift, may adjust itself with circumstances though it never strays far from a notion of service in the form of that which brings more light than it takes.  We've no idea how long we have to complete our assignment, as though we ever could, and I feel some urgency about doing what I think of as my work better, more fully even at my decidedly slowed pace.  I can only be here, part of my own support staff, in so many ways on any given day.  I swear chair yoga is next.  Meanwhile, there is lettering to practice and pages to fill.