Yes, it’s the 26th. The Feast of Stephen. And, amazingly, it is snowy. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this idea. I know, we’ve seen snow here before and even in much larger quantities, but after the overall increased heat and diminished precipitation of the last couple of years I was certainly not expecting anything snowy to happen, least of all right on the great day of Christmas itself. So it’s kind of amazing to have snow on the ground a whole day later. Oh, and pretty.The snow is lying round about, all right, though not so deep. Relatively even, yes, and it’s definitely crisp. And did I mention pretty?Happy winter. Happy holidays. I’m happy to be looking out the window at sparkly, snowy, gleaming prettiness. Sure hope the ice on the road doesn’t slow us down any tomorrow, though, or my shallow delight and appearance-centric enthusiasm will undoubtedly flag. Unless King Wenceslas wants to come out and blaze the trail for us, which might be kind of cool. No pun intended. Aw, what the heck. Let it snow!
Up on the roof there arose such a clatter! Nothing like a good dawn thunderstorm to ring in Christmas Day. No, really. Great rain falling here is an excellent present, and the drum rolls and fireworks that introduced it just made its entrance the grander. It’s not exactly the fabled White Christmas for which so many yearn, but I’ll take a good Texas rainstorm as a true gift all the same. Somehow it makes the need for cozy nesting seem all the more apropos and real in a place where I’ve yet to fully adapt to the concept of a two-week-long winter season. So, Merry Christmas to me.
It also heightens and enhances the glow of our seasonal lights–the few white sparklers on the front porch, the reflection off the shiny little red Texas star ornaments I hung from the dining room light fixture, and the candles glowing warmly at table, as well as the flickering fire in the living room fireplace. Whether it’s for Christmas or it’s my gentile substitute for a menorah, or it’s simply a sign of the inner warmth to be cultivated when all of the world’s holidays converge at this time of year, the beauty and comfort and symbolism of both candlelight and firelight is a gift too.
Then again, a White Christmas really is an extraordinary thing in Texas–northern or not–and at about 1:45 pm local time our lovely rain actually turned into an even more lovely snowfall. First the smattering of sleet that intermixed with the raindrops began to look ever so slightly whiter, and gradually it transformed into genuine flakes falling, even sticking, on the trees, the roof, the yard, the path. Quite a pretty sight, and one that will continue to water the thirsty ground but also look grand in the meantime.
So I can greet you all with a completely sincere sense of winter, Christmastime, and the holidays in general and wish you the same glorious warmth and sweetness my husband and I are enjoying here, hunkered down in our cozy home with my dear mother and father in law [who road-tripped down here from Seattle for the occasion], and sending thoughts of love and peace and hope and joy to all of our family and friends around the globe. Some of the Norwegian contingent (my youngest sister and her husband and daughter) are with the Washingtonian bunch, celebrating the holidays in the cool and rainy Northwest, while the rest of the Norwegians are back in Scandinavia, some nephews and their families in the Oslo area and the youngest nephew having a quick break with the family but back to the recording studio in Stockholm with his band shortly after the holidays, if I remember right. Loved ones all around the world, whether related by blood or marriage or by the strong bonds of friendship and collegiality and camaraderie are all held especially tightly in our hearts at this time of year, adding to the warmth and glow of the candlelit house battened down cheerily against the light crisp cold of the snow.
In my typical fashion, I celebrated the day by sleeping late, and we all snagged Christmas breakfast in bits and bobs–coffee here, toast there, cereal for another, and so forth–while sitting around the kitchen table chattering about everything and nothing. The later meals in the day are more significant times to set the table a tiny bit more formally, but we’re not much for standing on ceremony in our clan on either side, so the food is unfussy so that we can enjoy the company rather than slaving over the cookery. Lunch was pot roast, made a while ago and frozen and then simply heated in the oven, with roasted potatoes and carrots and some buttery green beans, accompanied with Pinotage for the red wine drinkers and hard apple cider for the others, and for dessert, glasses of eggnog and pieces of my homemade fudge with lots of mixed nuts (previously soaked walnuts, homemade candied/spiced almonds, and salted pecans and macadamia nuts) chopped in it so rampantly as to make it fall apart. Not very decorative, but not too bad to eat all the same. Simplicity trumps presentation nearly every time in my kitchen.
Supper will be even less glamorous and perhaps equally quirky for holiday feasting by the popular standards, yet equally edible. We’re having homemade macaroni and cheese with champagne. I think that pairing pretty much says it all for how I operate as a hostess and as an eater, and the tolerance with which family and friends treat me when they spend time in my company. And that, of course, is the acme of celebrating, to my taste: surround yourself with the best and dearest of people who will love you no matter what you do or don’t do, and sit back with them and enjoy it. I wish each and every one of you the same privilege and pleasure, whether you’re celebrating any holidays yourself or not, and to all the world, I send my hopes for peace and comfort and hope for all the days ahead.
I can’t help but think of the holidays as an equal-opportunity treasury of over-the-top delights for those who want to dig in and enjoy them. Seems evident to me that no matter what the origins–religious, practical, philosophical, historical, cynically greedy or purely spiritual–many holidays ultimately become part of the cultures from whose centers they spring. From there it’s a small progression for the holidays to gradually suffuse and/or be avidly imitated by hordes of people who had no previous connection to said origins. Thus we have masses of westerners rejoicing in the marvels of the Chinese New Year, loads of gentiles gathering around feasts of latkes and brisket and rugelach, and a secular Christmas celebrated by tens of thousands of people who’ve never set foot in a church.Happy holidays, y’all. I don’t doubt that there are some holidays, just like many other elements of the belief systems they represent, that are sacrosanct and oughtn’t to be co-opted by even the most well-meaning people, but if it’s done with a good heart and not with offensive intentions, there’s something childlike in the desire to share in everyone’s celebrations that still cheers my heart.I’m not even remotely related to those who go all-in to the degree of decorating every square millimeter of their homes and gardens, cooking and baking for weeks on end and stuffing the freezer to bursting, throwing extravagant parties for dozens of my closest friends, and sending out massive missives full of hilarious and heartwarming news about my astounding accomplishments from the last year and poetic best wishes for your own holiday celebrations and year to come. My version is oh so very much humbler, as of course it ought to be.I’m quite happy to embrace the good in any holiday that comes my way, though, so there are a few essentials on which I’ve focused my attention. Yes, there are a small number of sparkly white lights lining our front porch roof and touches of the requisite scarlet and Kelly green here and there. The holiday greeting cards that others have thoughtfully sent to us are hung on a broad gold ribbon between the living and dining rooms so as to broadcast their goodwill around the house. I’ve stocked the larder with a few favorite treats for all of us (Mr. Spousal Person, his parents and me), not least of all the requisite quantities of chocolate. Not that that item is limited to holidays, admittedly.
The best present I can give myself in celebrating any holiday whatsoever is, naturally, to surround myself with the love and joy of good company, whether eating chocolate or not. So I am sending out my best wishes to all of you lovely people for peace and happiness, good food, glimmering decorations, swell parties, and lots of love and joy throughout the celebration of all the holidays. And throughout a Happy New Year.
Ebenezer Scrooge was far from alone. And the holidays are certainly not the only time when Scrooge and his ilk get wound up. Still, big events and celebrations are and always have been pretty predictable catalysts and triggers for bad moods and attitudes of any sort. If we aren’t happy, we’re remarkably good at being as far opposite to it as we can figure out how to make ourselves. High horses are not so high that people don’t try to climb aboard them mighty often. High dudgeons are terribly popular dwellings with the general citizenry, who move into them and dig in our heels as though to that manor born.
Add to this our natural gifts for finding clouds obliterating every one of our silver linings, and t’s not much of a stretch to think that many of us are in a cynical competition to see who can be the snarliest, gnarliest meanie in existence. We’re always looking for the way to shoehorn yet more nasty junk and grim excuses for hideous horripilation into the darkest corners of ourselves and the universe. And when one looks for something hard enough, one almost always finds it. We may be a crotchety breed but we’re still good at some things. The latest news reports are always brimming over with greed and violence and hate. We make the news and we eat it up, too. More’s the pity.
Why even mention it? Because we have choices. And now, in the shadow of the latest awful tales of murder and depravity and betrayal and any sort of human ugliness you can (or maybe can’t) imagine, it’s holiday time once again. Christmas, yes, and Hanukkah, Ramadan, the New Year (westerners and the Chinese, for example, celebrating it in full gear), Kwanzaa, Tet, a birthday or two zillion. So many opportunities for blow-ups and melt-downs and general cussedness. And we don’t have to succumb to any of them. We can be better than that.
And we should. We should, most of all, when it’s time for all that holiday innocence-wisdom-love-light-and-warmth, stuff that can both exacerbate and offset darker things, choose to enhance it rather than the opposite. The greatest possible gift we can give to others and ourselves for any celebration is to be agents of innocence, wisdom, love, light and warmth instead of any passing urge to give in to crass or cranky behavior. Hugs and kisses are the order of the day. Make peace; be nice–it’s a holiday. Give in to it!
There are numerous living things that spend time up in the trees besides the trees’ branches and leaves. All sorts of insects and animals, not least of all various nutty sorts of anthropoid mammals that might be not only cousins of ours but a little more similar to us in character than we generally wish to acknowledge. There are, of course, also those companion plants we know as parasites and, more mellifluously, their subtler siblings the epiphytes.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a pleasant enough excuse for familiarity with such entities, but mistletoe isn’t necessarily a specially handsome bit of greenery on its own, being a modest clump of small leaves with some inconspicuous pale berries clinging to them. Mistletoe, in fact, only really comes into its own in wintertime when the host oak trees shed their seasonal clothes and the puffs of the mistletoe’s tidy presence reveal themselves among the branches against the winter sky. This is not only reason enough for the plant to be a fitting representative for the winter holiday season but for us to appreciate it as a remarkable and pervasive and even likable presence in oak country, particularly since it does no notable harm to its host plant, unlike many parasites of all species.But if we’re to talk about the kinds of plants that make their homes in the trees, I’m even more of a fan of the epiphytes, many of which were only vaguely familiar to me some years ago thanks to occasional visits to botanical gardens and conservatories and parks. I find their ability to live, virtually, on air astounding and, somehow, poignant. Oh, I knew lichens and mosses and algae pretty well, what with living in the moist and miraculous Pacific Northwest among the old-growth rainforests and craggy granite faces and the richly green shores of Puget Sound and the ocean. But I can tell you that, like most people who live in treasuries, I knew the sparkle of the jewels but nothing of their true nature.
When I had closer contact with those parasites and epiphytes at last, it made for a short descent to fall in love. My lifetime romance with moss and seaweed expanded to welcome bromeliads and all sorts of pretty flowering epiphytes. I found all of that mighty attractive when I would get drawn in by the strangler figs and pulled into the pretty gloaming of the tropical house at the conservatory, the steamy glass room of the jungle displays at the horticultural center. So, so lovely. Then there was the trip to Panama. Ahhh, Panama.
Opportunity enough to see firsthand a whole lot of gorgeous bromeliads and previously unknown green joys in situ, to experience a whole new level of admiration for the variety and intricacy in the plant universe. Poinsettias, my natal flower as a December baby, meant little to a northern-born kid who’d only seen their showy bracts in hothouse display and known them merely as holiday decor: suddenly, on their own turf, I was able to learn that they can grow as tall as four meters and thrive like showy weeds in the sparest of small dirt patches. To see coffee growing in its accustomed shade on the slopes of a dormant volcano, overlooking rainbow-crowned valleys and orange plantations. And to look up into the cloud forest canopy and see tree trunks hugged all ’round by glorious orchids. Among the many wonders of the region, we stumbled into an orchid farm. Bliss!For one who had been impressed by but hardly addicted to orchids, to arrive in the environs of a farm specializing in orchids to the tune of about 2400 varieties was a stunning and heady shock of new delight. Finca Drácula, named for its showpiece orchid variety, was a superb baptism in the beauties of the breed. And yes, it did make me want to swing from the branches of the trees like my monkey cousins. What an irresistible lure is an orchid smiling down from the heights. Funny that the Christmas crop of mistletoe has led me the whole winding way to Panamanian orchid country. Then again, they could both inspire an urge to engage in frenzied kissing if one got caught up in their fantastic beauty.
I knew we’d hit the neighbor jackpot yet again. We have a history chock-full of fine neighbors between us, my husband and I, of that sort who are not only great to chat with at the mailbox but offer help and led tools when they see projects underway, share their mystical gardening secrets, and advise on who’s the best resource for automotive care, where there’s still an independent pharmacy in town, or what the local ordinances are on right-of-way maintenance.
But we all know that the best neighbors of all have not only generosity in their hearts but also food in their hands when they show up at the door. Rhonda was known to trade her fresh-picked raspberries for our over-abundant plums. David–actually the manager at our then apartments–went door to door delivering home-grown green beans, tomatoes and zucchini that he and his wife grew in the ‘bonus’ plot on the complex’s property. Peter rang the doorbell at our place in Tyee bearing bending boards of fantastic barbecued meats and salmon and vegetables.
Add to this that we had not only other great neighbors but also heroic postal carriers, pest treatment and HVAC specialists, and remodeling contractors who have become admired friends, and you know that our standard for being spoiled is very high.
So when we moved to our current home, perhaps it was only par for the course that our new next door neighbors would arrive with welcoming smiles–and food. But what food! We didn’t have to lift a finger for anything other than unpacking and furniture-dragging for at least three days after arriving in this house because we were handed an enormous platter laden with an assortment of deliciously varied homemade salads, another piled with home-baked breads and rolls and biscuits, a plate of tender, moist cream cake, and a gallon pitcher of sweet tea. If it hadn’t been love at first sight, it would surely have to have been at first bite.
The flow of gustatory glories has continued unabated (and ably washed down with Mr. Neighbor’s lovely wine-selecting and punch-making skills as well as his fine Scotch collection) from that day forward. You will have no trouble believing and understanding when I say that we are devastated that these neighbors have retired and have the temerity to plan to move back to home territory in another state. Who will phone us in Canada when our sprinkler system fails during a hot spell, to tell us that they’ve already hired the company that installed it to do repairs before we come home? Who will deliver our entire stash of newspapers they collected over our out-of-town trip, updating us on the rest of the neighborhood or sharing delightful stories of their own adventures? And who will show up at random, numerous and very welcome times bearing, say, cake or cookies or pie, or a handmade bread cornucopia with a massive vegetable-and-floral display in it at Thanksgiving, a gorgeously crafted Bûche de Noël at Christmas, a sprightly spring assortment of cookies and cupcakes and jellies at Eastertime?
The answer, as you well know, is that it is our turn to become those neighbors, to show up unannounced with that very special something-extra whenever we can, to lend tools and perhaps the hand to use them, and to spread the joy of hospitality whenever and wherever we can. The torch–or the torchon de cuisine–has been passed. I hope I’m up to the task!I’ll probably start with something supremely simple like the nut-and-seed crackers that have no real recipe and change every time I make them. They make a handy vehicle for dips, salsas and salads when I want a quick bite of lunch or a not too terribly naughty snack. This time they were thus:
Nut and Seed Crackers (and Tuna Salad)
8 cups of finely chopped mixed nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamias, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds) tossed together with about a cup of grated extra sharp cheddar cheese plus coarsely ground salt and black pepper and good chile powder to taste, all mixed with just enough water to clump together into ‘dough’ and rolled or patted onto a non-stick cookie sheet (I use a silicone lining sheet in the pan so I can be extra lazy on the cleanup), and then baked at 325-350 degrees F (depending on your oven) until golden brown. I let these ones cool in one big slab and then just broke them into uneven pieces about the size for carrying, say, some bacon and cheddar cheese dip or guacamole or seasoned labne or some tuna salad. Tuna Salad, around here, is nothing more than a good quality tinned tuna (one of the brands that cooks its filet directly in the can and adds nothing other than a little salt; I like High Seas and Tuna Guys and can order it online from both, but there are other excellent sustainable-fisheries purveyors as well) seasoned with ground pepper, dried or fresh dill, smoked paprika, yellow ‘ballpark’ style mustard and sometimes chopped capers, and bound with good mayonnaise until slightly creamier than just glued together (spreads better that way).
This combination may not exactly constitute sweets for neighborly delivery, but then we know that the sweetness derives just as much from not needing to fix any food oneself, if only for a brief moment. Or for days on end, if you happen to get one of our neighbor’s fabled deliveries!
Christmas was a genuinely Big Deal in my family’s household when I was a mere stripling. Not only were there the churchly obligations and celebrations inherent in a pastor’s (that would be Dad’s) profession but there was being in a Norwegian-American extended family quite fond of eating, partying and jamming into one or another of the aunts’-and-uncles’ homes, all thirty or forty of us, to mark the occasion with the annual family gathering of the season. There was the feasting, of course, with mountainous platters of lovingly baked Hardanger and potato lefse*, meatballs, and all of that tasty stuff, not to mention all of the traditional cookies–rosettes, fattigman, sandbakelser, krumkaker and the like–enough to get kids and adults alike surfeited with sugar for the rest of the week. There were the much-anticipated visits from Julenissen, who in a stunning development was a dead ringer for Gramps at his jolliest and arrived bearing a big burlap sack full of surprises stuffed into other surprises, and all secreted in a multitude of newspaper-mummified little packets that had to be carefully unrolled, unwrapped, unfolded and unwrinkled from the mass in the sack, one by one, to reveal anything from a single nut in its shell to a dime-store toy to a larger gift earmarked, one for each specific kid among Granny and Gramps’s–ahem, I mean Julenissen’s–much-loved passel of holiday-hyper children.
At home, Christmas Eve was the biggest day of the season, thanks to the Norsk roots on both sides of the family, and always included the midnight candlelight service but also usually had its own bit of household festivities, not least of them the opening of the gifts; only the Santa stockings were reserved for that “lesser” festival of Christmas Day morning. Perhaps the most distinctive Christmas Days were in the years when we would have some of the family, often from Dad’s side, at our house since they weren’t always at the big gathering of Mom’s much more extensive family. Then, if Dad’s relatives were with us on Christmas Day we might well do another post-Norway-inspired deed, moving the Christmas tree into the middle of the living room and circling it slowly, hands joined, while singing a couple of old Norwegian Christmas carols. Lest you get the wrong idea here, we were so far from the von Trapp family as to mostly stumble around in our circle, forgetting half of the songs that we only half understood anyway (the pantomime bits that went with the songs were the best part, for all that), and on two occasions our beloved great-Auntie Ingeborg tipped the tree right over. But of course it was entirely worth it to get through that ritual to reach the package-unwrapping mania that followed, so we dutifully did our attempted tree ‘song and dance’ without too much impatient grumbling. After all, the tree might get tipsy yet again if Auntie was with us, one hoped.
Christmas Day, if it risked being anticlimactic after the big splashes of family visiting and diet-busting and gift-giving on and before Christmas Eve, wasn’t without its own attractions. First and foremost, it was a day when we were allowed to recover somewhat quietly from all of the foregoing extravagances, always rather oversized and glamorous in our eyes because of the time spent with our crowd of cousins and the general extremity of differentness from the rest of the year. Not that we slept in, I imagine, because despite the family focus on Christmas Eve we young twerps certainly didn’t object to getting a morning surprise from the depths of those stockings we’d hung up by the fireplace, along with the expected in-shell nuts, coins and orange, the latter best enjoyed by rolling the fruit against a hard surface to release its juices, cutting a small square opening in the side of the orb and stuffing a sugar cube in the hole through which to suck sweetened orange juice. After the hurried discovery of the stocking-stuffers we could concentrate on Christmas breakfast; the best and most traditional of the offerings on that morning would be a big pot of Julegrøt, a sweet milky risotto-like rice dish best enjoyed with plenty of melted butter and cinnamon and sugar, with a blanched whole almond buried somewhere in the pot to provide the lucky recipient with a particularly excellent year to come.
All of this tells you that I came from family traditions with no special recognition of the Feast of Stephen, let alone a clue to the existence of the great traditions of Boxing Day. When I first heard that name I might be forgiven for having thought it was a reference to the fisticuffs that followed less congenial families’ stressful Christmas Eve and Day events, and later for thinking it a reference to the pugnacious behavior of those returning and exchanging imperfect or disappointing Christmas gifts to a thousand thousand overworked retailers. It was both a pleasant surprise and a relief to discover that while both of those aspects were undoubtedly real in some unfortunate lives, Boxing Day was happily celebrated in many more households than those where it was feared.
This year’s Boxing Day at our house will be spent in rejoicing at the chance for a peaceful recovery from the unusually busy return this fall to a combined university-plus-church choral season of ‘all choirs all the time’ for my conductor husband, as we’ve been happily immersed in that good craziness now since September. So I think it’s time to introduce yet another optional definition for the day’s name, perhaps, something along the lines of a ‘Day for willingly Boxing ourselves into the house incommunicado and attempting to reverse the effects of all the wild busyness and cheerful excess that has gone before’. With that, I bid you all Peace!
* Tomorrow: a recipe for Mama’s Justifiably Famous Potato Lefse
My friends, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, between that and the coming of the New Year this is certainly a time of year in the western world when the presence of Christmas and New Year advertisements and discussions and preparations are ubiquitous to the degree that many of us still get drawn into the whole element of assessing our lives and our places in both the temporal and our inner worlds. It’s not a bad practice to do a bit of examination and evaluation from time to time anyhow, I think. Regardless of beliefs and philosophies, hopes and dreams, politics and projects, we can all benefit from a bit of gentle thinking-through about what matters to us. Somehow, for me that makes the end of a calendar year a cleansing time and a happy one in which I can look forward to a grand and hopeful entrance into the year just ahead.
With that in mind, I wish all of you great happiness in this time. I hope that you can find all the friendship, healing, comfort, peace and joy you desire, now and in the year ahead. And if you do celebrate Christmas, I wish you a truly happy one. If it’s Hanukkah for you, L’Chaim! If you’re preparing to celebrate any other holy days or holidays or are simply going forward full steam ahead with life, I send you my most heartfelt wishes for these delights to fill you now and in the year to come.
As the midday bells are sounding,
Morning light sharpens to blue,
Quiet moments find their grounding;
Thought needs no more things to do
To resolve all unsolved queries,
Weary, troubled, trying times–
Now thoughts rise to higher aeries
In the bell tower, where chimes
Ring new peace, and calm awaken,
Where new joy can sweep away
All the old thoughts, now forsaken,
At the bright noon of the day.
With trumpets blazing bright as stars
The grand procession moves apace
To urge us from a darker place
Into the light no shadow mars
Nor chill cuts in; no drop of gloom
Can enter when this day springs forth
And blossoms cross the secret north
And leave no sorrow any room—
Let each take up the pageant’s pace
To follow at the trumpets’ call
And sing their joy to one and all
Mom has taught me a whole lot of things. One of the most useful is how to turn one of my most frustrating shortcomings into a strength. It’s a skill I’ll still spend the rest of my life polishing, but having been taught the basics, I know what I need to practice, and that is a tremendous boost.
My lifelong shyness and social anxiety rose to a not-at-all-surprising high level when I started college. The small university I attended was hardly an unknown element to me, as my parents and a couple of other relatives, as well as some friends, had attended there and my older sister was already starting her junior year there when I arrived. But being predisposed to fear and intimidation as my responses to all social situations, I was guaranteed to struggle with extra doses of my old hauntings by the terrors of interpersonal experience in the new to me surroundings, with a roommate I met the day we moved in to our shared dormitory space, all new classmates, new teachers and administrators and a neighborhood where I’d never more than visited briefly before.
For the most part, I muddled through just as I’d done since I was old enough to know how to be afraid of new people and situations, and even had, as always, plenty of the enjoyment I was capable of having. I did acquire a number of grand new friends, including my roommate, who turned out to be a fantastic companion and like-minded girl. I took classes that challenged and intrigued me and I dragged up enough courage to participate in some events and extracurricular activities that broadened my scope significantly. I was surrounded in my living quarters in an all-female dorm by a cadre of terrific young women who bolstered my puny sense of self and cheered me on like the best of good neighbors.
But one day, as the first year progressed, I was visiting informally with a handful of those girls and we got into a discussion (as college coeds still often do, from what I’ve seen) about First Impressions. One of the girls, to whom I will be eternally grateful, let it slip that on first meeting me she had thought, and had since learned that others had too, that I was Stuck Up. That’s the simple classification among my tribe of someone who thinks herself superior to others and disdains and dismisses them. I was dumbstruck.
She went on, hastily, to add that on getting to know me she had realized that the reason I often refused invitations, that I didn’t look people in the eye, and that I evaded interactions and conversations instead expressed a defensive retreat into my giant ossified shell of shyness and my fear of all things new and unknown and that, in fact, she and others really enjoyed my company. That was some consolation, but realizing through her honesty that I projected an image far less benign and far more distancing than I guessed, I knew I’d have to somehow wrest my way out of the armor I’d built around myself and at the very least learn to act the part of someone with social skills even if I didn’t have them.
Naturally, I went whimpering off to Mom. And she surprised me by going beyond the sympathetic and consoling mother needed in the conversation. I’d never imagined that this person I’d always known as having not only a mother’s authority but a certain status as both the recognized Favorite Mom among all of my friends over the years and a kind of built-in First Lady of all of the organizations in which she participated, not least of all as the pastor’s wife–that she had another side, one not so entirely different from my own. That she had been deeply intimidated by being expected to play the roles of guide, hostess, chief female church member, community do-gooder and cheerleader, and all of the other philanthropic and social leadership parts inherently assumed by others to be part of her place in the world. And that, when Dad was busy being the speaker, preacher, chairman, boss and whatever his role of the moment happened to be, she was stuck in meetings and receptions and services and classes full of strangers who expected her to carry not only her own weight but that of whatever they thought was required for the occasion.
I almost wilted, thinking of what it must have been like for her.
But then she imparted the piece of wisdom that ‘cracked the case’ for me. I got the MacGuffin: social anxiety and extreme shyness assume that I am the center of the universe. That the rest of the world is watching me and is dependent on my doing or being certain things for its success and happiness. And that I am suffering the most for the cause. She put it in much more tactful terms, I’m quite certain, given that I was a flimsy excuse for an ego, a fragile not yet twenty year old still unable to see my path in everyday life clearly.
I think what she really told me (from which I extrapolated the above) was the incredibly handy ‘trick’ she’d learned for coping with all of these unreasonable social and activist demands. When you arrive, immediately look for the one person in the room more uncomfortable and more out of place than you. Even when you’re absolutely sure it’s not possible, there’s always someone more scared, more intimidated, more inexperienced or at the very least, who thinks that they are. It’s true, by the way; I’ve seen it proven over and over since. Go and gently introduce yourself and ask this person about him- or herself. Make this person the most interesting part of your life while you’re there.
That’s it, really. Suddenly, it’s not my job to be perfect or achieve the goals of the event or even to be interesting or brave; it’s my job to make another scared person feel more welcome and at ease. I don’t have to spend any energy on worrying about how I look to others or whether I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because nobody with an ounce of sense is going to argue that taking care of someone in need isn’t what we’re all supposed to be doing, that recognizing that there’s someone whose need is greater than our own isn’t precisely the most attractive thing we can accomplish, and that a friendly smile isn’t the most fashionable item anyone can wear for any occasion.
I fall down on this effort often enough, still, and do my well practiced imitation of an additional pillar holding up the dimmest corner of the room. I haven’t Saved anyone else from the brink of doom through my heroic attempts to cheer them up for a half hour. I still have impressive dramatic skills in making faux pas and pratfalling my way through the day and then doing my best to make the earth swallow me whole.
But afterward, I remember to quit imagining myself the cynosure of Creation, let go of my need to be correct and impressive and likable and spend my energies on helping someone who doesn’t know Mom’s useful little technique to feel more correct and impressive and likable. I will put on my shiny smile and play the role of somebody better than me and hope that someday, if I practice it hard enough, it will become second nature and I won’t even have to work at it at all. It makes me smile just thinking about it.
If you happen to be headed to yet another office holiday party or first-of-the-year reception any time soon, you can test this theory yourself. Thank my mom. Or, if you happen to subscribe to a certain story that is commemorated on this very night, thank the Person who became most vulnerable of all in order to protect and rescue everybody weaker.
This is the anniversary of one of the truly important days in world history. No, I’m not as confused as you think. (Not in that way, anyhow.) I’m not referring to Christmas and getting the date all wrong (nor Hanukkah or Ramadan or Eid or the Chinese New Year or Samhain and getting the date that much wrong-er). December the twenty-second is, in fact, the anniversary of the birth of my Number One Sister. And that is a very big deal.
Believe me when I tell you that there are not enough superlatives in the world to describe how fortunate I feel to have followed in her footsteps, even if I make up really cool sounding words for the occasion.
My big sister paved the way for me. She test-drove our parents through child-rearing for nearly a full two years before entrusting little me to their care–and hers. She trained them in the ways of infants and toddlers admirably, and continued to lead the way right through our developmental (emphasis on the last two syllables) years, both for the parental party and for her pesky little sister. Why, in fact, she didn’t “accidentally” lose me, sell me to a traveling circus or bump me off on certain occasions remains a complete mystery.
Instead, she was a great playmate and co-conspirator. She was both a good enough student to set up positive expectations of the family lineage when I followed her into her former teachers’ lairs and also enough of a strong-minded individualist that they dared not assume we should be compared–thank goodness, as not only were we always distinct in our personalities and tastes but she was easily a more natural scholar than I was and I’d have drowned in those expectations. And she was Firstborn enough to assert her right to test all boundaries and, occasionally, the parental patience, just enough to make my follow-up look that one necessary shade paler by comparison. That’s us in succinct terms, one might say: I’m pretty good at life’s tasks in general–learning, adventuring, inventing, enjoying–and she’s always a notch more substantively and colorfully so. The great thing from my perspective is that I never felt this as a shortcoming on my part but rather that I’ve lived in the presence of a fine example of levels to which I can aspire. I am working on it.
Meanwhile, back in the land of sisterhood, I have this amazing friend who was waiting for me the day I showed up for my first public appearance and has embraced, cajoled, guided, teased, taught, humored, chastised and entertained me ever since. The exemplar of Big-Sisterhood. One I can say anything to and ask anything of, and she still loves me. Even when I’ve been utterly unlikable (I know, it’s hard to believe I’ve ever been a stinker, isn’t it!), she’s stuck by my side. Or at least waited somewhere backstage to reclaim me when I finished my big scene.
Now, I won’t immerse you in treacly lies and say that I think anyone is perfect, not even my sisters, as fabulous as they all are, but I wouldn’t dream of changing a thing. When I showed up on the scene I was immediately gifted with a built-in mentor and companion, and that has never altered. So when I say Happy Birthday to my big sister, it’s always doubled by my sense of having received her as my own first birthday present too.
From that point forward, she has been coaching me in all of those skills and arts most meaningful in living a full life: curiosity, assertion of self, living by one’s convictions, passion for those people and things that matter, playfulness, generosity and a good appreciation of the ridiculous. She taught me, more than anybody else, how to laugh until my face aches and my lungs are bursting and tears are shooting out of my eyes as though I’d had a squirt-gun transplant. And she taught me the proper respectful adulation of all-things-chocolate.
How’s that for a long way of saying there aren’t enough words! But you know what I mean, especially if you have been lucky enough to have a sibling (let alone three) so worthy of hyperbolic paeans. Yes, I think it’s grand that all of those other marvelous and perhaps more widely recognized holidays and celebrations are right ahead, but I have every reason to celebrate this date with elation and a great deal of gratitude, so if you feel like raising a toast or hugging your sister or setting off some nice fireworks or sending my sister a chocolate cake (with chocolate filling and chocolate frosting and hot chocolate on the side) or anything, feel free to join right in and consider this a very worthy day for such things. Happy Twenty-second of December!