Backstory


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.

I remember the first time I got a blister from dancing. I’d only been dancing a few months, but I’d heard people talking about dancing so much they got blisters. That, plus the vague memories of foot machismo from my childhood ballet days, gave me a sense of awe at such things. Those must be the real dancers, the ones who were really passionate and cool. Then I organized a mini-swing dance for some friends from out of town, complete with a lesson (taught by other friends who had also just learned) and dj-ing by yours truly. It was in a basement with a patterned linoleum floor over concrete, and I danced in my socks. By the end of the night I had a truly impressive blood blister on my big toe. It didn’t hurt at all, and for the first time, I really felt like a dancer.

I also remember the first time I looked at the strap of my favorite pair of Bleyers, and realized that it had been worn out from much dancing. (Well, and from the buckle slicing it to pieces, but who’s counting?) Then there was the first time I got dumped on my butt (jerky lead doing bad Lindy to a Balboa song + follow with balance issues = disaster), thankfully coming out of it with nothing more than a bruised hip and a dose of humility. Each time it felt like a hurdle successfully cleared, a challenge behind me. I had punched another hole on my swing dancer card, proved once more that I was no poser or amateur, but a real Lindy Hopper.

Last night I was at a dance, part of a regular event the next large town over throws every Saturday after Thanksgiving. I danced quite a bit, and had some truly lovely dances. The problem is, well, my shoulder hurts today. A lot. It’s the muscle of the biceps, and also something in the joint itself that twinges when I hit certain positions, or turn the key in my car ignition. It’s pretty painful. My roommate Liv, no stranger to shoulder injuries, has diagnosed something to do with the rotator cuff, and advised ice and ibuprofen. I’d heard other follows complaining about rough leads, and I’ve danced with guys that left me feeling like I’d been doing push-ups. There’s also been a very few times when Something Unfortunate happened, usually because I wasn’t where I should have been, or didn’t keep my frame. Still, this is the first time it’s been anything like this bad, also the first time that I can’t pinpoint when it happened or who did it to me.

Now, it’s true that along with the lovely dances there were some not so nice ones with newer guys, and some guys who have been around long enough that they should know better (this includes anyone who’s been dancing over a year and still Lindy’s like he’s clogging). I didn’t know a lot of the guys at the dance last night, so I didn’t always realize that I should have begged off until I was already in the middle of the song. I was aware of sometimes having to be very careful with my frame, and that my arms had gotten tired by the end of the night. I didn’t realize how much I was hurt until I woke up this morning and didn’t want to move my arm.

So… who was it? The experienced dancer from Far Away who liked to lead lots of reverse spins using the upper arms? The jerky clogger-Lindy boy? The guy from the scene with lots of turnover who mostly dances with new girls, and leads like it? The brand-new guy who’s so tense in his upper body it’s a little like dancing with a robot (all hard metal and no give)? Or maybe all of them combined. Sigh. I’ll know better next time. Meanwhile, I’ll ice my injury, and chalk one up to experience and the risks you take when you’re a real swing dancer.

I know it’s a cliche beyond cliches to write about what you’re thankful for on Thanksgiving.  Regardless, sometimes you just gotta embrace your own unoriginality.  So, just in case you wanted to know, these are the things that I am grateful for this year:

  1. Liv. A year ago this time we barely knew each other.  Today we’re living together.  A girl couldn’t ask for a better roommate.  We share the same slightly macabre sense of humor, the same fondness for plain speaking, and the same understanding that the world is a strange and wonderful place.  We’ve only lived together for about five months now, but believe me, they’ve been an eventful five months!  She was with me through the ups and downs, the boy-crankiness, the days when all I could think about was dancing, and all the rest.  She is a great blessing to me, and I am deeply grateful to have her in my life.
  2. My new home. When I moved this summer, it had been six years since I had lived in a place that I could really call my own.  First I was traveling non-stop with a national youth ministry retreat team, then I spent a year back at my parents’ house, then three years with another family first as their nanny and then as a roommate with increasingly little ownership of my living space.  It’s the kind of pressure you don’t notice until it’s released.  To live in a place where my presence is welcomed, not merely tolerated, where people want to know how I am and are willing to rejoice with me in my successes – it’s an amazing thing.  I am deeply grateful to live in a house that is truly my home.
  3. Being able to leave unhealthy relationships. At my old living situation, I was stuck in between a controlling mother and her immature but increasingly rebellious teenage daughter.  I considered it part of the price I paid for living in what seemed an ideal location for school.  The money rent was cheap, but the emotional rent was pretty high, particularly when they were fighting.  I can remember too many times hiding up in my room trying not to listen as they screamed at each other.  Last Christmas the mother was diagnosed with liver cancer, which is killing her.  I moved out in June, and haven’t had very much contact with them since.  Recently I went back to visit, and found out, among other things, that the mother and daughter are choosing to spend their last days fighting viciously with each other.  I am grieving for their short-sightedness, but also so glad that I am not there, and not in the middle of this.  This is one mess it’s not my job to clean up, and I am deeply grateful.
  4. Anna helping me dance better. About this time last year Anna put out the call for people willing to learn how to teach.  I knew that I wasn’t anywhere near the skill level necessary, but I also knew that the university swing club I belonged to needed to start training teachers and I was one of the few even remote possibilities.  One of Anna’s requirements for teachers is that they be serious dancers, committed to constantly improving their dancing, and she’s willing to help them get there.  Last December I was videotaped for the first time, and started coming more regularly to the weekly practice sessions.  I started to work seriously on my Lindy basic, and on Charleston.  I learned partner Charleston, reworked my frame, and began learning how to style and improvise within my dancing without throwing off my lead.  It’s been a great joy to feel myself get better, to experience the pleased reactions of those I dance with, and to finally start being able to have the joyful, playful, fun dances I had always dreamed of having.  Today I am three or four times the dancer I was a year ago, and I am deeply grateful.

You know what’s wonderful? When you go to a Lindy Exchange (like, say, PittStop 7) where absolutely no one knows you from Eve. You see a guy dancing, and whatever he’s doing looks good enough that you decide to ask him to dance. So you do, and he says yes, cuz, you know, he’s a nice guy. Only he says it politely, not enthusiastically, and as he starts dancing you can tell he’s not expecting great things from this. But you know better. When the opportunity presents itself you do something unexpected and cool, or maybe he feels the connection and starts to suspect that you’re more of a dancer than he realized. His face sorta… wakes up. He leads something really neat, and you follow it perfectly. Then you throw a little something in or he leads something else, and it goes really well. And that’s how the dance goes. It’s a darn good dance, but the best part, the part that’s utterly wonderful is when the dance is done (ending with some kind of big finish or a dip that you didn’t know you could do), he sticks his hand out, looks eagerly into your face and says, “What was your name again? Where do you dance?”

I had so many dances like that this weekend. Sigh. It makes me all happy just thinking about it.

I had some rather lovely Bal dances too. One of my goals for this Exchange was to kindof see where I was with that. I’ve been working on Balboa more the last nine months or so, and while I know I’ve improved a lot, I didn’t really know what that meant in real terms. I wanted to see if I could hold my own with guys I don’t dance with every week. Friday night I got to talking with one of the event organizers, who pointed out who she thought was the best Bal lead in Pittsburgh, a transplant from Montreal (and you know those Canadian boys…). I watched my chance, and finally snagged him at the Saturday afternoon dance. And you know what? I’m not bad. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m really not bad at all. He, of course, was phenomenal. I’d go to PittStop next year just to dance with him again. Really.

The icing on the cake, however, was getting to see Luke. He and I were on the same traveling youth ministry team some years back. We criss-crossed the country together in a thirteen passenger van along with nine other random Catholic young adults (and, yes, we were very random). In the process we saw each other at our absolute best and absolute worst – and became something like each other’s family. He’s getting his doctorate at Duquesne, and just got engaged to an absolutely wonderful girl. I was delighted when I heard about his engagement cuz, well, it’s Luke, who deserves to be happy in every way, but I didn’t know anything about who he was engaged to. It turns out that she’s really great – smart and funny, the kind of girl who I could probably be good friends with if we were in the same city. It makes me hope that Luke and I end up on the same university faculty one day, not just because it would be so wonderful to work with him, but because then I could really be friends with his wife-to-be.

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