Backstory


Today as I was heading out to lunch, I saw the most beautiful thing. Across the street from where I work is a large-ish, block like apartment building with a green lawn stretching down a hill in front. They haven’t mowed the grass in a while, so it’s tall, and thick with puffy, white clover blossoms. Toddling through the grass and clover was the most wonderful baby, maybe a year and a half old, with white-blond dandelion puff hair and a pacifier firmly fixed in her mouth. Just behind was her mother, who was kneeling in the tall grass, plaiting the long clover stems together to make a garland. As I waited to turn the corner, she rose to her feet and headed toward her daughter, holding what she’d made. I saw that it was a wreath of clover, just the right size to put on the little girl’s head. Just then I made my turn, so I didn’t see any more, but the image was so lovely: the mother and daughter together in the clear, golden sunshine, the quiet love between them, and the light outlining both of them against the green grass. Beautiful.

It seems like a very long time ago that I used to make clover garlands too. I was in southern Louisiana at the time, my second year with NET, a traveling youth ministry team. It was spring there, and the grass was thick and lush with the biggest clover blossoms I’d ever seen. I love their sweet, grassy scent, and would pick huge handfuls of them every chance I got. Most of the grass hadn’t been mowed yet, so the stems were long and sturdy, perfect for braiding. I don’t know how many garlands I made. I left them behind at host families, at the foot of saints’ statues, and hung them from the seatbelt supports in the team van. One time I got my whole small group on a retreat into it, and we returned from our time away wearing necklaces and bracelets and thick anklets of clover. I wrapped the dried wreaths in paper, and took them home with me. For a long time I kept them in my drawers with my clothes. I still run across them sometimes – odd little paper packets folded up around dried memories.

Memories can be mixed blessings. You don’t get to pick and choose what you remember. Associated with the clover wreaths isn’t just the hot Louisiana sunshine on my arms, the taste of cherry limeades at Sonic, the total security of having my NET Team around me. At the same time it’s also inextricably tied to the total exhaustion that comes at the end of a second year of NET, the fight I had with one of the guys on my team right before my birthday, the way the whole world went surreal when one of the girls on our team got sick and had to leave us for a while. But there’s also the memory of sitting at a picnic table in the shade on the side of a bayou, feeling the breeze against my skin as I looked around the table at the people I loved, the memory of walking arm and arm through a Wal-Mart parking lot with Isabelle, belting out “L Is For…“, and the taste of Zapp’s Cajun Dill potato chips on my tongue. I can’t have one part without the other. I guess I’ll keep it all.

I was planning this very happy-go-lucky sort of blog post, all about the gardening I did this weekend, and my new summer job working one and a half days a week for the admin of another division in addition to my regular job. (They have windows! Windows, I tell you!) I was maybe even going to mention the continued, almost-sickening cuteness of Justin and Lori as they venture deeper into mutual gooey-eyed-ness. If I’d been feeling particularly open, I would have shared about Rocco’s latest (and hopefully final) intrusion on my life. It would have been a good post. And then yesterday I got the message that Zeke is dead.

Zeke’s family went to the same small parish as mine, and attended the same Catholic schools. They live a few houses down from my sisters, a block away from my parents. However, he was seven years younger than me, so I didn’t actually meet him until he showed up one night at the Wednesday night swing dance. This was when I was just starting to learn how to teach, so the Powers That Be decided that I should get some teaching practice by teaching the Free Beginner Lesson to him, his cousin, and their friend. They picked it up quickly, and it was a lot of fun, assisted by the fact that all three were pretty darn cute. Except Zeke kept staring at me, and it was starting to creep me out. Then at the end of the lesson he said, “You’re a [Family Name], aren’t you!” I looked at him warily, very weirded out, and admitted that I was. He laughed. “I’m a [Other Family Name]!” And then I laughed too and relaxed completely, because that explained everything.

We were friends. He could make me laugh like no one else, especially when we were dancing. He would make these faces – it was like you could see every panicked thought that went through his mind as he led. It was awesome. One time I laughed so hard I came perilously close to peeing my pants. He took my odd-ness in stride, which made me want to be even a little more odd just to provoke him. It made me sad when he eased away from dancing, and then moved to another city an hour away, but I was sure I would see him again sooner or later. We still talked from time to time, and I reminded him that he had promised me a ride on his motorcycle one day. He always told me not to worry, that I would get my motorcycle ride.

And, well, no I won’t. He was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in Florida, a hit and run accident. Although he was wearing all his protective gear, the injuries to his head were so severe that he was pronounced brain dead. His whole family had flown down to Florida to be with him. They’re making arrangements to donate his organs. They think that he might save eight people’s lives.

It’s selfish of me, but I’d rather have Zeke back.

Recently I was catching up on some posts on danceprimer.com, and I found the following quote in Amber’s interview with Jojo Jackson:

“I would consider my recent teaching partner, Dax Hock, to be one of the best mentors I’ve had in my career. Not only from the vast amount of knowledge he shared on and off the dance floor, but for his exceptional level of public interaction at every workshop weekend. On any given night, he will invariably be seen dancing with every single follow in the room, and if the energy starts to drop, he will boost everyone’s spirits with an all-inclusive group dance or jam session.”

When I read this I instantly thought of Sam, one of the first guys I ever danced with. He was the president of the swing club at the Other Big University in town, where I had my second ever swing dancing lesson. He asked me to dance as soon as the lesson was over, the first time I’d been asked to dance by A Guy I Didn’t Know. (The entire song he chanted, “Triple step, triple step, rock step,” and let me say, it wasn’t for his benefit.) Over the course of the evening he danced almost every dance, not sitting down until he’d danced with every girl there. He did this every night, every time he was at a dance. New dancers struggle with insecurity, wondering whether, if you go to the dance, anyone will actually dance with you. Knowing that if Sam was there I would have at least one good dance was a little anchor I could cling to, making it much easier to keep dancing through my insecurities and fears until I had a chance to improve.

Sam’s help didn’t stop there. He cared about my progress as a dancer, and encouraged me to be better. I still remember the first time he took me off to the side of a dance and told me we were going to work on this thing called “frame.” When I was terrified of being dipped, he worked with me, dipping me again and again until I started to relax a little. Other teachers have taught me more, but he was the first to care about me as a dancer.

Sam was a good lead, but more importantly, he was a good Leader. The fact that he danced with every girl at the dance is a little thing, but it made a huge difference in the club. I can remember watching a new follow leave the floor after dancing with him, looking flushed and happy, and immediately grab another new dancer, dragging him onto the floor for the next dance. His energy was infectious, and the dance floor was rarely empty. He traveled to neighboring school’s dances, and took us with him. He pushed us to move beyond the university club into our city’s swing scene. Several of the better dancers in our local scene got their start in that swing club. It was great while it lasted. Then he graduated, his successor wasn’t nearly of Sam’s caliber, and things fell apart.

It’s been a long time since I danced with Sam (the last time I laid eyes on him was when I dj’d his wedding reception), but he is still my gold standard of what a lead should be. It’s not just strength, clarity and precision, musicality and playfulness – although Sam had those in spades. It’s something more. It’s having an attitude of service, an understanding of what it takes to build up a swing community, and a willingness to do what that requires. It’s being willing to dance with the new follows so they can actually learn how to dance. It’s caring about other dancers. My ideal lead isn’t just a leader, he knows how to serve.

Once upon a time, in a blogoverse far, far a way, I had another blog. It was my starter blog, that first taste of blogging crack that created the blogging jones I live with today. In the beginning I thought it would be a fun way to keep in touch with the girls from the junior high small group I led at my parish youth group. Then I publicized it to my friends in far off places, and it started to take on a life of its own. One day a young man suddenly showed up in the comments section. His name was Andy, and he seemed a nice enough guy. He shared an interest in C.S. Lewis, and seemed to have a similar offbeat sense of humor. We commented back and forth, getting a little flirtatious at times. It never really went anywhere. We came close to meeting each other in person once or twice, but never quite made it happen. Things petered out, and I almost forgot he existed.

In the meantime, I started wanting a somewhat different blogging experience. My previous blogging service was regrettably teeny-bopper-ish. Plus, I had too many close acquaintances reading it – people I saw regularly, but with whom I wasn’t close enough that I really wanted them knowing too much. I started self-censoring a lot, and feeling the pressure to be cute! and perky! all the time! And then, what if I wanted to blog about a guy? No way was I going to do that on my old blog except in the most oblique fashion. After all, even if the guy himself wasn’t reading the blog, I knew for sure that people who knew him and would be able to readily identify him were definitely reading it. It all got to be a lot, and so I started this blog, the blog no one knows I have, the grown-up blog on which I write about grown-up things and also crushes. (Contradiction? What contradiction?)

So… back to the story about Andy. A few months ago he found me on facebook, and we became friends there. We chatted a little, but then things dropped again, and I was happy to let them go. Then I decided to have a party, a nice, quiet party for my Catholic young adult friends. I created an event on facebook, and when it came time to invite people, I threw him in for good measure.

He accepted the invitation.

It was surreal, like some postmodern piece of fiction in which the characters come to life and start arguing with the author. This guy… actually existed? As in, the real world? Lived, breathed, walked around, and was coming to my party? How… odd. And then, why was he coming? Sure, we’d read each others blogs for a couple of years, but that didn’t mean we really knew each other. What did he want? I didn’t think he was romantically interested – I hadn’t gotten a flirtatious vibe from him in a long, long time. It was almost as if Bingley from Pride & Prejudice had announced he was coming to my party. If it had been Darcy, there would have been swooning and frenzied preparations to ensure that everything was picture perfect. But… Bingley? I wasn’t frazzled or nervous, just puzzled.

The party was last night, and about fifteen minutes in, he walked through the door. A slight, reasonably attractive young man, just like his facebook pictures. He was shyer than I had expected, but very nice. He laughed at my jokes, and helped carry things. He seemed to have a good time, hanging out with lots of different people. He didn’t pay me much particular attention, though he seemed to generally drift to the part of the downstairs where I was. He stayed until close to the end, and said he had a good time. My sister was encouraging him to come to our Catholic young adult group, and I seconded the invitation. I hadn’t thought to invite him before since he’s pretty Methodist, and we’re pretty Catholic. But maybe he would like it after all.

I just don’t quite know what to make of it.

People who read my blog are actually real?

And now back to my Regularly Scheduled Life…

Really, that’s what going back to school has felt like for me. I was telling someone a couple of months ago that this past year has felt like I was stuck in a time warp. I did things, went places, learned stuff, but always some part of me was stuck back in the kitchen where I used to live, listening to Shelly use the word “metastes.” She couldn’t say tumors then. Not yet. So much changed this year, but part of me was still there, standing between the stove top and the door to the laundry room, watching her sitting in the chair at the end of the counter. I don’t completely remember the words she said, but I’ll never forget seeing the marks of tears on her face. That was what made me realize this wasn’t some kind of sick joke, that she really meant what she was saying. Shelly had been one of the toughest women I’d ever known. If she was crying, then the world quite possibly might be about to end. In a certain sense, it was.

Then Shelly died, and the time warp snapped. It was completely disorienting. It didn’t help that, since it was Christmas break, I didn’t even have a regular routine of classes and work to rely on. Seriously, there were some days when I couldn’t have told you what day of the week it was.

This week school started again. I never knew having a schedule of classes could feel so good. It’s been like snapping gratefully back into place. There can be so much security in knowing that this is what you’re going to be doing this week, and next week, and the week after that. Don’t worry – before long I’ll be back to my adventure-craving ways, but for now, this is what I need.

I have decided that, regardless of the difficulties involved, I will have a merry Christmas. In order to encourage this, I have compiled a small list of things that I particularly enjoy about this time of year. I thought I’d share it as a small blogging Christmas present from me to you. May it help you be happy too!

Bernadette’s List Of Christmas Cheer

  1. Fresh pine. The first year my sister was in college while she was studying for finals she happened to watch an episode of Martha Stewart Living that showed making fresh pine garlands. As soon as she got home she went on a scavenging expedition all over the neighborhood surreptitiously gathering evergreen branches. She spread them out on sheets laid on the living room floor and turned the heaps of branches into wreaths and swags and sprays for the windows. They were beautiful, and they made the whole house smell so good. Today at the grocery store I picked up a fresh pine spray and took a deep breath. It smelled like Christmas.
  2. Roses. The first Christmas that I lived with my grandmother roses happened to be dirt cheap. I love roses more than almost anything, so I bought dozens and dozens, filling the house with them. They were in big vases on the dining room table, in little vases in the bathrooms, in pitchers in the bedrooms, with single blooms in bud vases tucked wherever there was space. I loved it so much that I made it my personal Bernadette Christmas tradition to have roses ever since. Things have been so disorienting that I almost forgot this year. Then today I walked into Meijer’s to do some last minute grocery shopping. The flower stand was by the door, full of roses as usual, and I remembered. It’s Christmas. I need roses. So I got some. I could only afford one dozen, but they look beautiful in the large vase to put by the nativity set and a little one for my bedroom. If I have roses, then it must be really Christmas.
  3. Pomegranates. Every year I watch and wait for the pomegranates to arrive. They’re one of the few foods you can’t easily get year round. Now the season is a couple of months beginning in November, but back in the day you were lucky to find them during just a few weeks in December. They were expensive, so my parents would buy just one for all of us to share. We carefully peeled back the red, leathery skin, revealing the seeds like jewels nestled inside. We broke the sections apart and portioned them out between us, careful to make each share exactly equal. I would eat the seeds one by one, feeling the burst of sweet tart juice on my tongue. They’re still one of my favorite fruits. Besides tasting good, they’re so beautiful. It’s like eating garnets. Plus they’re romantic. In the Song of Songs (the sexy part of the Bible), when the groom is praising the bride’s beauty, he tells her, “Your lips are like a scarlet thread; your mouth is lovely. Your cheek is like a half-pomegranate behind your veil.” (Song of Songs 4:3) It’s a wonderful thing.
  4. The Messiah by Handel. When I was growing up this was one of the things my mom would put on while she was working in the afternoons. Most people only know the Halleluia Chorus, but we were used to listening to it all the way through. I know it so well it’s almost seeped into my subconscious. The strings in Thou Didst Not Leave His Soul In Hell, the trumpet aria in The Trumpet Shall Sound, the fierce choral parts in But Thanks Be To God. I think I could sing along to it before I could understand the words. The parts I love the best are actually all from the section about Christ’s death and resurrection, but somehow it’s still associated with this time of year. I was listening to it as I drove around today. It felt like home.
  5. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I love that song. When I was growing up, during Advent before dinner every night we would turn out all the lights, light the Advent wreathe, and sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We’re a musical family, so often it would be multiple verses in four (or five or six) part harmony. I know there were nights that I couldn’t stand it, nights when I really, really didn’t want to hold my sibling’s hand and sing. When I look back, however, all I can seem to remember is my family gathered warmly together in the glow of the candlelight and the song rising from our hearts to God’s.

That’s what I have so far. Merry Christmas!!!!

The other night I was talking with Jenn, who launched into her list of Christmas cookies. There’s the standard cutouts, and chocolate pretzels, and Russian tea balls, (which gets amended to Russian tea cakes with a look at Mark, her husband, who just can’t resist going there with his dirty mind), and Lord knows what else. She has peanut butter dough and gingerbread dough and sugar cookie dough, and then there’s the plans for when she’ll get each kind made, and how she’ll arrange the platters and who she’ll give them to. Her associates at work each get one, and then there’s family, and… yeah, like that.

I remember when that was me. I would be reading the food and housekeeping magazines, with their feature stories on cookies and families who make lots and lots of cookies in a heartwarming and family spirited sort of way. There are gorgeous pictures of these cookies, arranged tastefully and appetizingly in ways that just scream, “Omigosh, the person who made these is amazing!” (No, really! They do!) I would clip recipes and make shopping lists for ingredients and garnishes. I planned out days and baked accordingly. There were some memorable cookies in those years. I particularly remember the chocolate sandwich cookies with Bailey’s Irish Cream flavored filling. And then there was the year of the gingerbread people. I baked bazillions of them, icing them to resemble various members of the family, and hung them up as an edible part of the Christmas decorations. Of course, it was one of those unpredictable southern Ohio Christmases. Somehow we got a spell of humidity, which softened the gingerbread, making them slowly start to fall off their hangers. This meant we had to eat them quick before they fell. I still have the recipe somewhere, along with the one for little gingerbread mice with black licorice tails (too insanely cute) that I just never got around to making.

Then I went back to school, and the first weeks of December became irretrievably associated with exams instead of Christmas preparation. I’m all good with the holiday fun up through Thanksgiving, and then life becomes a blur of final projects, final papers, and tests on books that, oh yeah, I might want to actually read. The holiday hype buildup becomes reduced to vaguely noticing the Christmas songs playing at the grocery store as I’m blearily stocking up on necessities before another all night study session. In my world, school is all there is. People keep inviting me to Christmas parties (I have four this weekend alone), and I think to myself, don’t you people realize it’s exam week? I become very grateful for the liturgical season of Advent, which gives me a good reason not to be thinking about this stuff right now. I’ll do that later. When exams are over, and it’s actually Christmas.

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