Holidays


I hate writer’s block.  Especially when it seems to be selective writer’s block, only specifically blocking the one thing I really, really, really need to be working on right now.  And I was on such a roll this morning before I had to stop to go to my first class.  Why can’t I get back there now?  Arrrgh!

So I’m blogging.  Because that helps with writer’s block, right?  Right?  Well, at least it’s an attempt.  It’s better than reading Veronica Mars recaps on Television Without Pity.  Not that I’m, you know, doing that at the moment or anything.  Though it would be research for when Justin trades me his DVDs of the first two Veronica Mars seasons for the Heroes Season One DVDs I just finished.  (I still like Sylar the best, except for perhaps Mr. Muggles.  Is this wrong?)

Ok, moving on… I had a good Easter break.  I dug the vegetable garden and planted sweet peas and lilies of the valley.  Hopefully the seeds haven’t frozen in the ground by now, what with all the random snowflakes flying around, but they’re cold-weather plants, so I think they can take it.  I think.  It was one of the happiest times of the last couple months digging out in the garden under the wide, open sky.  I forget, during those months when I don’t have access to the ground, how much being outside helping things grow fills me up inside.  I don’t know how people could live in urban concrete jungles with no access to growing things.  I couldn’t do it.  I think part of me would die inside.

The Easter Vigil was fun.  I wore my new peep-toe shoes (Liv: “Peep!  Peep!”), and got to sit next to Eric, who is one of my favorite relatives ever.  (No, really, ever.)  We can’t sit next to each other in church too often.  We find the same offbeat things utterly hilarious, and can’t help pointing them out to one another.  It makes for a very distracting sort of Mass.  The Easter Vigil always starts with the lighting of the new fire, followed by the candlelight procession into the church.  After the Easter proclamation, everyone blows out their candles and sits down to listen to the Bible readings.  There are a lot of them since this is the Easter Vigil.  Eric was fidgeting with his candle during the readings, peeling layers of wax off of it, then breaking it into segments and folding it into a figure 8 which then got reinserted into the paper cuff that’s supposed to catch the wax.  This meant that when the time came to relight the candles later in the Vigil, his candle had two ends we could light.  So we did, giggling silently as we watched them burn down extra quickly.  Then I had to recite him the oh, so apropos Edna St. Vincent Millay poem (“My candle burns at both ends,/ It will not last the night./ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,/ It gives a lovely light.”)  That was pretty funny too.

The other fun thing was that I took Liv home with me for Easter dinner.  I love watching her hang out with my family, especially the guys in my family.  The thing is that she’s really, really beautiful.  However, she doesn’t see her own beauty, particularly since she pays little to no attention to her looks whatsoever.  In her book, her blond sister is the beautiful one in the family, and Liv is the tomboy that nobody looks at twice.  Plus, she grew up rough-housing with two little brothers, so she doesn’t quite understand how the same behavior that’s really annoying in an older sister could be, well, really encouraging in a cute young woman sortof your own age.  It’s a kind of innocence.  Mikey is still young enough that they can play together without worries (plus he’s the one she trusts enough to carry her from my car into the house), but it was interesting watching Larry, my oldest brother.  He had just gotten his hair buzzed really short, so she had to rub it (she rubs her little brothers heads when they’ve just gotten a buzz cut).  It was awesome watching his brain melt and dribble out of his skull right there in my aunt’s living room.

And the other good part about Easter?  I got to talk to Joe.  When I was getting ready to leave my aunt’s house I saw that I’d missed a couple of calls, one from Ella, and one from a number I didn’t recognize.  I didn’t really think it was him, but part of me hoped (I’ve been missing him a lot, and it had been over a month since I got his last letter).  So I listened to my messages right then and there.  One of them was from him, telling me that he’s in New Orleans and giving me a number where I’ll be able to contact him from now until May.  Do you know how long it’s been since I had a phone number I could dial and connect with Joe any old time I wanted?  Years.  I mean, first he was in Afghanistan, then world traveling, then sharing a phone with the whole Jesuit novitiate.  It’s been a long time.  I got myself and Liv home as quickly as I could, went directly up to my room and called 14.  We talked a long time, the first time I think we’ve been able to talk ourselves out since he left town a year ago.  Then last night I called him again, just because I could. 

Now I’m trying to finish up school projects, clean the house to make a good impression of the potential roommate who might come visiting this weekend while I’m gone, and getting ready to leave for Boston.  Yup, friends, it’s time for the Boston Tea Party!  I’ve been waiting for this since I came home from my first Tea Party last year.  I’m so excited and nervous and stressed thinking of all the things that have to happen between now and when I fly out of Columbus on Thursday.  Thank goodness this year I have a room in the actual hotel, and if all goes well I’ll actually make it out for Thursday night instead of missing my flight like last year.  I’m also registered to compete in the West Coast Newcomers Jack & Jill.  Also, John Lindo owes me two dances.

Eeek!  Just thinking about it makes me nervous.  Breathe, Bernadette, breathe.  Ok.  I’m going to take another stab at that paper writing, and if that doesn’t work, I’m doing laundry.

Jenn just messaged me that K-Mart is selling roses for cheap!   Maybe I’ll have my rose garden after all!

I love Valentine’s Day.  I really do.  I like the hearts and flowers, the sappy commercials, the overpowering use of red and pink.  One of my favorite things is passing out Valentines.  Every year I buy a box of the cheap little ones made for kids to pass out at school, usually of the Disney Princess persuasion, and inflict them on everyone around me.  This year’s box came with a sheet of glittery temporary tattoos, which made for extra fun.  I took them to swing dancing with me last night, and gave one to every person there, including the couple I met for the first time that night.  Then I and the girls started playing with the tattoos.  Meghan and I tried to put one on Danny by stealth, but were defeated by the amazing hairiness of his arms.  By the time we were done all of the girls but one were wearing tattoos, and three of the guys.  Good times.

Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I was a little, oh, cranky about Valentine’s Day. There have been very few February 14th’s on which I have been in the sort of relationship that would give me grounds to expect anything. Not that that stopped me. I’d spend the whole day on a sort of demi-pointe of expectation, hoping that perhaps this year some secret admirer would suddenly emerge from the woodwork waving a dozen roses. Or maybe the Man of My Dreams (whoever that was at the time) would abruptly realize the depth of his affection for me, and choose to express it with chocolate, pink hearts, and perhaps something lace-adorned. At the end of the day I’d go to bed sad and disappointed, knowing that my hopes were completely unrealistic, but annoyed with the world for not fulfilling them anyway.

Then one year I had an attitude adjustment. I got tired of being bitter, and took a look around. I realized that Valentine’s Day (although completely divorced from any pseudo-Christian roots it may have ever had) is the day on which our society celebrates happy ever afters. On this day we collectively express belief in the notion that true love does exist, that people really do sometimes find the person they’re meant to be with, that faithful, lifelong love is not only possible, but beautiful. It may not be happening for everyone (or, um, me), but it really does happen. Dreams do come true, people do fall in love with other people, and this is a good thing.  I celebrate Valentine’s Day because I am glad that human love exists.  And so, my friends, I propose a toast: To True Love and Happy Ever Afters, and To Those To Whom They Come – may we each be one of them one day.

So I was thinking about putting together a few New Year’s Resolutions for myself, which caused me to realize a few things. First, I realized that absolutely nothing that I hoped for last year came true for me. Then I realized that this was because pretty much all my hopes were bound up in Carlos making good on all the promises his flirtatious behavior had seemed to make. I had kindof a half-formed goal of becoming a better dancer, but I hadn’t thought much about what that actually meant. My dancing has improved immensely, but if I were to judge the year’s success by my current relationship status, things would look pretty bleak. Sure, there was the Actual Date with Basil, but at year’s end I’m pretty much where I started. So this year I decided that not a single one of my goals should involve romantic relationships in any shape or form. For a while I toyed with the goal of having gone on another Real Date, but in the end I decided even that was too much. Instead, this year I want to focus on other things, like:

  1. My dancing. I have some basic things I know I want to work on (my balance, spinning, not drifting when I spin, relaxing into the lead, etc.), but those are things I’ll be working on probably my whole dancing career. This year I want to work on my solo Charleston. Specifically, I want to be comfortable enough with it, comfortable enough with my own body, that I can dance a whole song by myself without needing anyone else dancing along side me. One of the very few sad things about PittStop was that no matter how infectiously Charleston-y the song was, I couldn’t get anyone to form a Charleston circle with me for love or money, and I wasn’t confident enough to go it alone. Lucy has traditionally been my steady Charleston-circle partner in crime, but there’s a good chance that she might be leaving town later this year. So I need to work up the chops to go it alone. We’ll see how that goes.
  2. My friends. There are too many people I really care about whom I hardly ever see. This is partly because for the last two years I’ve been consistently choosing to spend my available free time dancing, and too many of my friends don’t dance. Still, I care about them and I don’t want to let them slip through my fingers for lack of a little effort. I’m a person who needs structure, so I’ve been trying to think of ways to structure friend time into my life. So far what I’ve come up with is having friends come over to watch TV with me, now that I actually have a TV night again. I know there’s got to be other ways to work this in. I’d be happy to hear other people’s ideas on this.
  3. My finances. I’m not gonna lie – I’m pretty much a spaz when it comes to money. I do stupid things. I buy stuff I don’t need. I either don’t plan ahead or I don’t follow the plan I have. I’ve bought the financial software, but I don’t use it. I never turn necessary paperwork in on time. I’m just awful at this stuff, and I know it. The accumulated impact of failure after failure becomes so overwhelming sometimes that I become emotionally paralyzed and can’t do anything at all until something snaps me out of it. However, little by little I’ve been improving, planning ahead, taking necessary steps to make sure every thing’s covered. I’m still far from perfect, but I have hopes that finally, this year I’ll get my stuff together.
  4. My writing. I took first prize in a poetry contest in 2007. Now I have two publishing creds under my belt. I’d like to have more. I don’t want to set a goal for acceptances or prizes, but I would like to send out at least two submissions every month. It’s not a lot, but I think it’s an important step for me. In his latest letter Joe sent me information on a poetry competition for a magazine he reads. I think I’ll start there.

And that’s what I have. I think they’re pretty good goals, challenging but achievable. The best part? None of them involve romance!

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!!!!

Jenny called me Sunday night. Her mother is dead. She called me about an hour after it happened. This was not unexpected. A year ago this Christmas Eve Shelly was diagnosed with liver cancer. At the time I had been living with them a little over three years, first as Jenny’s nanny,  then as a roommate.  I helped raise Jenny, but she was never like my daughter, more like a favorite niece whom you spoil and scold and expect much from.  My relationship with Shelly had always been more ambiguous.  She trusted me and relied on me, but we were never really friends. We lived in the same house, but somehow we never got past firm acquaintances. And now she’s dead.

I still remember the shock of Christmas Eve. A week before she’d seemed fine, if a little under the weather. She had a cold she couldn’t seem to kick, but that was all. We’d all been supposed to go cut a Christmas tree together, but then both Jenny and I got pulled away by other commitments. So Shelly had gone out and done it herself. She was like that. Then she threw up at work, and for some reason her doctor ordered a CAT scan. It showed a mass in her liver. The biopsy came back cancer.

And then it was Christmas. On Christmas Eve I watched Shelly and Jenny baking their family’s traditional Christmas breads. Jenny was doing most of the work while Shelly bossed from the other side of the island. I saw something in the way Shelly watched Jenny, an anxiety that Jenny really know and understand what she was doing. I saw a mother saying good-bye to her daughter, passing on the generational knowledge she would need as an adult. I knew then, though I didn’t want to know, though I wouldn’t let myself know for months.

We were pretending everything was going to be fine, celebrating while we waited for the oncologist’s office to open again after the holidays. The only real treatment was surgery, and the surgeon she needed to see was in Texas. She left the day after New Year’s, and just as quickly she was back again. The tumor was already too big. The only hope was chemotherapy, and pray that it would shrink. It didn’t. And here we are, not even a year later, and Shelly’s gone.

What do you say to a girl an hour after her mother’s death? What comfort is there in words? Do you say, “It’ll be ok.” No. There is no ok here. There won’t be for a long time. Do you say things about “God’s will,” and “a better place?” As true as those may be, when death is so fresh they sound like obscenity. Platitudes are useless here.  In the face of death, sometimes there are no words to say.

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 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.

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