Monday, January 28, 2013

O Tannenbaum

January 28, 2013 – O Tannenbaum

Five days before Christmas my older sister and I walk the three tenths of a mile from my parents’ house to my grandparents’ house. For as long as I can remember Christmas dinner has had the same selection of delectable treats; ham, brisket, potato casserole, spinach casserole, sausage balls, forgotten cookies, peanut butter cookies, coffee, hot cider, copper pennies carrot salad, hot rolls with butter, black eyed peas, corn, green beans, pecan pie and some green Jello thing which I never tried. Even after I slid headfirst into veganism, raw foodism, vegetarianism, otherism I still expected to see all those things on Christmas day—not for me to eat, but for the magic of tradition to stay alive.

For Grandmama Christmas day was a well-orchestrated, time sensitive, gift to all of us. She’d get up at an ungodly hour (something like 3:30 ante meridian) on Christmas morning, don an apron, start the brisket, put the casseroles in line for heating, soldier-line the rolls on baking sheets, set the timers and turn on the coffee makers and cider warmer. By the time the presents had been opened and the smells had already teased us into more than nostalgic hunger we’d take our plates from the preset tables and fill them up hoping there’d be enough for seconds or thirds. And there always was. My brothers would fight over the peanut butter cookies (so much so that Grandmama began to make extra and put them in To Go baggies for each of the boys to take home with them), I’d gorge on spinach casserole, and always hope that there was an extra pan of potato casserole still uneaten somewhere. And almost always there was.
All the planning that went into making the day Timed Perfection was as mythic and wonderful as the idea of Santa Claus. It just happened. It was the squeezing down a chimney and filling stockings and putting presents under the tree kind of magic. I’d never paused to consider what went on behind the scenes, but Grandmama had it down to a science and it worked year after year after year.

Then last year I begged my grandmother to let me help her with some of the preparations. She and my grandfather had had a rough year under the wicked weather of a nasty, persistent virus and Christmas had come around too quickly. I worried that the sausage balls (which I didn’t even eat) wouldn’t get made, the forgotten cookies would be forgotten, and Christmas would be broken into glittering, watery shards like the snow globe I’d broken, and cried over, years ago (on a Christmas day). What I really worried over was the pressure my grandmother might feel to do too much, to stretch herself too thin, to lose the fun of the holidays in the expectations of the past. So I bullied her into letting me and my mom come over and help, and we had. I’d hoped my stepping in wouldn’t mar the beauty of Christmas for her. That the gift of her hospitality would still be all hers to give to us. That she would know how much we appreciated the way she and my grandfather made the day so very perfect. Every single year.     

This year, though, I didn’t have to bully or coerce my way into the Christmas cheer and that’s how Jesse and I find ourselves ringing the doorbell, walking into the kitchen I’ve known all my life, and donning aprons. Jesse gets put in charge of the sausage balls, mixing the sausage and cheese and then palming them into bite-sized balls. I get assigned to making the copper pennies carrot salad; cleaning, peeling, and cutting carrots, mixing in the secret ingredients (it’s sometimes better not to know why things taste so good), and setting it all into the bowl where it’ll live until eating time.

“I like to have Christmas music on while I work,” Grandmama says, “how about you girls?”

“Yeah!” we say.

And soon enough, I’m humming along. When there’s a lull between CDs, something triggers me off and I start singing “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum” adding in my own words to keep it going. Mid note I stop and ask, “What is a Tannenbaum anyways?”

“It’s Christmas Tree in German,” Grandmama says. “I’m a wealth of information. Aren’t you glad?”

And I am.

Before Google was a thought in anyone’s mind, my Grandmother had the handle on all knowledge. If I needed to know what it meant if my nose itched (was it going to rain or was I going to have company?) or my right palm itched (an indication that I should be coming into money which was fantastic except that it seemed it was always my left palm that needed the scratching) I could call her, when I had a question about history and needed a personal spin to it I could call her, if I needed a substitute for a recipe because I didn’t have buttermilk she could tell me what to do. And those examples are just the tip of the informational iceberg. If I’m ever on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire she’ll be my Phone a Friend friend.

I keep on cutting carrots and singing. I can’t help myself, that’s the problem with Christmas songs they’re just way too singable. We finish with the food, clean up the dishes, and even have a few moments to sit and visit. Eventually, Jesse and I take off the aprons and say our goodbyes. I’m still singing (under my breath and kind of against my will) on the walk back. “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, your leaves are so appealing…”

“That’s what I’ve been wanting all my life,” Jesse tells me when we’re on the home stretch, ignoring my muttered melody. “Traditions like that.”

“Do we not have any?” I ask. “Maybe the traditions we have are so familiar we don’t even see them as traditions.” I’m thinking of each year, running back over the time to see what we have. The little things that make the holidays special to me, that bring the family more together than ever, that make Christmas a day different from any other.

I know Jesse means traditions that bind our generations together: mother to daughter to grandmother, sister to sister to sister-in-law, aunt to niece to grandmother to mother, but what comes to my mind is  the smell of baking cookies, crushed peppermint, cinnamon chocolate sheet cake, and of course, Christmas dinner at Grandmama and Grandaddy’s house.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Purple Mountains Majesty

January 22, 2013 – Purple Mountains Majesty 

I cried when I drove away from Colorado nineteen months ago not knowing if I’d ever come back. My friend Jill, who’d I’d stayed with while finishing out my two week job notice, got up early to see me off and we hugged goodbye, both surprised to find ourselves getting misty eyed and fatalistic—“God only knows when we’ll see each other again”—at least in our thoughts. My 4Runner was packed to the gills with the things I was going to give away to family or store at my parents’ house, and I could barely watch the mountains fade into tiny hills through my side view mirrors. I was leaving ten years of life behind me. The place that I had truly called home, where I felt I belonged, was no longer a haven. I was, in a sense, fleeing. Breaking away from my comfort zone (in which I was going insane) and heading out for adventure. I had this dream about living my life to the fullest and so the tears caught me off guard. I hadn’t realized I was such a girl. 

No, I hadn’t realized the love I had for this place, for the friends I’d made, for the life I had lived.
I didn’t make any promises to the distance-diminishing mountains. I didn’t know if I could honor them. I just drove away and learned to put that homesickness away from me. To store it in a cold place in the cellar of my heart.

And I wandered; homeless, rootless, carefree. Unconsciously judging each place I encountered against the bar I’d set with Colorado. Could I be at home here? Could I love this place? Is this love at first sight? Along the way I found little corners of comfort. The Sacred Valley of Peru. The desert of Nasca. My cabin on the DALIAN. The sky of Sweden. Croatia’s friendly welcome (and perfect coffee). The artsy corner of Bilboa. My friend’s house in Oregon. And one after the other I left them all behind me, loving some more and some less, moving on and onward, not ready to stop my roaming.

Colorado hadn’t fit in my itinerary although cursory thoughts of the mountains had hit me from time to time (hit me hard with longing, sucker punched me with homesickness). I couldn’t see how to afford a trip and I couldn’t justify the extravagance now that the time had come to tighten my belt and be frugal again. That is, until Jill put the thought into my head.

We’d seen each other in California in October (a trip I’d made fit in my itinerary, a trip planned while I was in Italy, still in a place where I believed I’d never come to a halt and I could make my nomadic lifestyle last forever). I’d gone specifically, taking the Starlight Express train from Eugene to Oakland, to see Jill and our mutual friends who live in California.

It was a good visit and easy to be with them, comfortable.

“It’s like you never left, Leuke,” Jill tells me, using the nickname she’d given me while we’d studied Anatomy together for her massage therapy classes (Leuke means white (or white blood). My last name is White. Ergo). It does feel that way, like we’d seen each other the week before, like the time--and all the distance--between us is irrelevant. That’s what being friends is.

After we’ve both gone home, me to Oregon and Jill to Colorado, she calls me up and suggests I visit for Thanksgiving. “I could help a little bit with the ticket,” she tells me. But the tickets are too much. Even Greyhound, all the airlines, and the trains. We put our disappointment to the side and carry on with our lives. Thanksgiving comes and goes. Then one day I have an idea.

“What if I come to Colorado before I head to Texas for the holidays?” I ask her. It makes sense to me; multi destination travel, rather than roundtrip circles, moving forward in a logical geographical pattern from the northwest to the west to the south.

“You’re always welcome here,” she tells me. “Let me know what you decide.”

I decide to go. Soon enough, I step off the plane at the Colorado Springs airport. I’ve flown out of and into a lot of airports, and this one is the friendliest airport I’ve ever been in. It’s cozy, small, unfrantic. Something inside me relaxes, sighs out a long held in breath, rejoices. I collect my bag and head outside. The sun is out, the air is crisp, and the sharp altitude is refreshing like a cold drink. The mountains range off to the west where they belong. The sky streaks with color, orange, pink, hazed out blue, as the sun lowers itself behind the curtain of the mountains. I check the time. It’d already be dark in Springfield, it’d be the eternal eight o’clock that heads straight into midnight. I catch a shuttering breath; I’ve come to daytime. I’ve come to sunshine. I’ve come to light.

“Oh,” I exclaim (probably out loud), “Colorado, I’ve missed you so much.”

I blink away the water that seeps up into my eyes. I belong here. This is home. Sure, I remember why I left and I’m glad I did. But I hope that one day I’ll find my way back to this place and on terms that I can be happy with. When will that be? I have no clue. There’s still a whole lot of world left to explore. Even with that thought seeping out of me, there’s no recrimination in the air, no anger for being left, no jealousy for my fickleness. I can come back any time. I’m welcome here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Two Faced Gemini and Fears

January 14, 2013 – Two Faced Gemini and Fears

Two months goes by in a breath. As I shoulder my bags and check my room one last time to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything my Gemini dual nature exerts itself. I want both sides of the coin. I don’t want to leave this Oregonian house and I want to flee the pain the weather drives into my wrists and feet. If my body didn’t protest I’d probably stay forever. I’ve been at peace here. I’ve liked the simplicity of this life. I’m sad to be going and I’m relieved. My friend rides the bus with me to her stop, we say “see ya later,” and then I’m on my own to get to the Greyhound station. I’m traveling, I am vagabond, I am free again. 

I’m pleased and I’m distraught. I’m heading to Portland for the night to make my tomorrow’s flight easier to get to with 110 miles cut out from between me and the airport. I’ve booked a bed in a hostel dorm room and made a list of things to do in Portland if I have the time for it. I know the routine. 

The bus is halfway to Portland when I realize I forgot to say goodbye to the Cat. I miss her bossiness already, I miss the kitchen, I miss my room, I miss my office with its view, I miss the backyard spiders. And yet, as I miss these things I push them away from me and stuff them into a treasure memory box in my mind. They’ll always be there to pull out again and look at. My life is an untethered one and I like it that way. Besides, nearly every place has something to miss. I don’t hold on to the missing. I can’t. I don’t want to.

While I’m good at leaving places behind me, each transition chips a small disruptive fissure in my emotional makeup and I battle with myself to either caulk in the crack or to chisel out more. I’m a homebody and I’m a free spirit. I need routine and I can’t abide rutted procedure. I’m emotionally attached and I’m cold as ice.

This time though, I’m having a hard time squeezing out the caulk. I brood as the bus rolls on.

Snap out of it, I say.

I will, I reply. Just give me a good night’s sleep and I’ll be good as new. But I didn’t want to leave… except for the pain.

It’s the except you live with.

I know.

You know what your real problem is, don’t you?


You’re scared.

I can’t argue against that. I’m right. I am scared. I’m afraid of losing my independence. Of being stuck. I’m frightened that money really does create freedom and I’m almost out. I’m worried of accidently slipping back into a “normal” life (and how could I live with myself then?). I’m scared of needing. I’m afraid of the obligations that come with accepting kindness.
Can a thank you really ever be enough? Is there always an unequal balance between giving and receiving?

I think back to my friend’s and my conversations regarding Gift Theory and realize I still don’t know. But I do know that it’s easier (at least for me) to be in the Giver’s Seat.  

Yeah, I’m scared alright.

But you’ll be okay. Trust me.

Ha. Like you know what you’re doing.

We’ll figure it out together.

We’re the same person.

I know.

Sure I’m scared. I’m heading into unknown territory and I don’t know if I’ve packed the right clothes. I’ve arrived at the final phase of this year’s adventure, and have an unknown future after that. But before I get there I’ve got a last minute trip to Colorado and the holidays to keep me feeling the air of freedom under my wings and the vertiginous world beneath me.

Fear. What is fear? Fear is my friend. It’s the force that propels me forward, keeps me trying new things, sends me out into the world and keeps me from being confined, cooped up, fenced in, enclosed, locked away. I may be Gemini. I may be two sided and contradictory. But one thing I know for sure, I will never trade my freedom in for any kind of cage.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Neighborhood Spy Association

January 7, 2013 – Neighborhood Spy Association

I spend my days spying on the neighbors, and sometimes I write. My desk is set up in the front room and I have three windows to watch from—one of which gives me a splendid view of the bus stop. There’s endless watching to be had there. When I’m not focused on the young things dancing under the bus stop’s rain cover, the old man who looks like a down-and-out Santa, the dark headed girl who always walks by in the afternoon with her head bent over her fancy phone and her fingers moving fast, the camo dressed and army booted girl who makes her way past at the same time each day, the homeless guy who carries all his things on his bike including his dog, and the school bus that comes in the afternoon to discharge its young charges the house across the street gets my nearly undivided attention. A lot of activity goes on over there. Throughout the day the mysterious neighbors receive a barrage of packages and an uncanny number of visitors (some bearing packages going in, others carrying bulging wallets going in and coming out again). The man of the house, a T-shirt wearing, long bearded creature, leaves for short periods each day in his dusky blue car always returning with new and size-varied packages. I decide they’re drug dealers and not very subtle about it. Later on, when I’m giving my theories to my friend she reminds me that she’d told me they’re glassblowers. Suddenly, the six foot tall bag of green Styrofoam peanuts makes a lot more sense. I’d spent half my day trying to come up with a good theory on why drug dealers needed all that packing material (and come up sadly (for a fiction writer) blank). I spend the second half of the day trying to decide if I’m thrilled or disappointed to know the truth. 

When I’m not sleeping or spying on the neighbors I go and wash the dishes or chop vegetables or bake scones or follow the cat around the house to see if she has food (she lies about this a lot) or to turn the upstairs bathroom sink on at just the right level for her to drink (she prefers running water to still). The Cat has wasted no time in training me to do her bidding (she thinks I’ve moved in to serve her). Apparently I’m a sucker for providing creature comforts (the Cat is probably right), or I just want an excuse to leave my desk.  

I feel I’m doing surprisingly well in this rainy environment. For instance, I’ve been here weeks and have yet to succumb to Seasonal Affective Disorder. I even get out once a week or so to walk to the store whether or not it’s raining. Despite my belief that Oregon never has a dry moment, it’s not all dreary and grim and the perpetual duskiness of the Northwest is occasionally broken up by fifteen minutes or so of completely clear blue sky and sunshine before the clouds roll in from west and take the sky back over. During those brief moments of brilliance I drop whatever I’m doing (I’m not immune from my solar dependency after all) and rush outside to turn my face sunward. 

It’s a simple existence and I revel in it.

Here in Springfield all day feels like breakfast time until dinner time comes along and then it feels like bedtime. Each day seems comfortably the same. I settle into a beautiful routine.

Day after day after day.

But it’s not all spy games and jet lag recovery, I do actually get work done. I revise my novel again cleaning up the language and dialogue, and then send out twenty-six queries to agents. I start the research for my next project and agonize over if JFK will be a part of the story or not (he keeps jumping in willy-nilly). I start the book from four different points of views and reject each opening with artistic temperamental disgust. To cover my anguish and the despair that perhaps I’m not a writer after all, I have conversations with my friend and/or the Cat about plot structure, hummingbird tears, gift theory, Derrida, Aztec sacrifices, strategic essentialism, and insane forgiveness. 

The house is cozy, inviting, friendly. There are books on the shelves I’ve been wanting to read. There’s easy companionship with my friend. The only places I really need to go are within walking distance. I could stay here forever. I threaten this several times. My friend doesn’t seem overly alarmed and the Cat thinks it probably a good idea to keep the trained help around.
It’s the kind of life I’ve always dreamed about. The perfect place for a reclusive writer to live. How could I go wrong with cats, spiders (there are a lot of them--mostly outside), interesting neighbors and the best vantage point for spying on them?

Maybe every perfect thing comes at a price. The price for me to stay here is too high; my body betrays me to the barometric pressure, and the arthritis I’ve kept at delicate bay for the past several years asserts itself in fury.

Ah pain, my old distracting friend. I cannot in any kind of honesty say, “Well met.” But I can take each day as it comes. I can delight in this place. I can be happy in the sun or the rain. I can take it slow and easy. Of course, I can also spy on all who venture past my three windows and, as always, I can struggle along with words.