Half-way Out of the Dark

The writing staff from Dr. Who might consider Christmas to be the point of the year at which we’re half way out of the dark, and while I suppose it’s true from a “well, you know, the winter solstice” point of view, for me, that midpoint comes a little later – on New Year’s Eve. You know, tonight. I guess it’s because we’re flipping a calendar page and crossing off days in a new year, and hoping that – with or without specific resolutions – we’ll all be better from the new day forward.

But before there’s the day, we have to have the night. New Year’s Eve…when drunk people sing a song they don’t understand, off-key, loudly, and in public.

Well, not at my house.

We thought about having a quiet night, just the two of us, and watching movies, but the reality is that I wanted to ring in the new year with friends, so we had a quiet soiree, with two other couples, and another friend. I provided cheese, crackers, chips, salsa and beverages that came in hot, cold, alcoholic and alcohol-free. Ms. M.S. showed up with grocery bags, and proceeded to cook us a special meal to be eaten after the year had turned over, sharing her personal traditions with us.

There were black-eyed peas, for luck and collard greens for prosperity (money), and sauerkraut with chunks of tender pork just because she had grown up eating that, and, because none of us has yet learned to cook less than a metric ass-load of anything, there was enough for each of us to have some leftovers.

And so, on this cold, clear night, while the wind whispered love songs in the trees, and the birds roosted in the thickest, most sheltered branches, we talked and laughed and drank and ate. In Mexico, friends of my parents made sure to walk around the block with their empty suitcases, to ensure a year of travel, and while we didn’t do that, we did do some symbolic sweeping away of 2010, and we did toast the new year with sparkling beverages (asti for some of us, sparkling cranberry for others) and shared kisses with each other, and the dogs, and cleaned up, and then had mochas to send those driving on their way.

Fuzzy’s sick, so we sent him to bed early, but everyone else stayed til just after two, and while part of me wanted it to be one of those talk-til-dawn kinds of nights, where everyone crashes in one house, I’m glad to have the still, quiet of my own space back, and I’m looking forward to undecorating the house. I don’t usually do this on New Year’s Day, preferring to keep everything up til Epiphany, but for some reason, even though it’s the same number of days, having the holidays fall on weekends has made the time seem longer, and I’m ready for signs of Christmas to be bundled back into boxes until next year.

“Things have to end. Otherwise nothing would ever get started,” said the 11th Doctor in last week’s Christmas episode, a Dr. Who riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and that’s true of everything: childhood, vacations, weekends, Christmas…years, seasons, winter…everything.

2010 was not the worst year ever for me, but it was particularly challenging and held far too many disappointments. I’m hoping 2011 will be better for everyone.

And as for me, it’s four in the morning on the first day of a new year, and I’m sitting in bed typing on my laptop will my husband and our dogs sleep nearby. I’m sipping the last of the asti, and getting ready to give myself some dreamtime, and as tired as I am, I still have the warm glow of friendship surrounding me.

Because we’re half way out of the dark, and the sunlight that’s coming is bright and clean and new.

Happy New Year.

Half-Remembered Names and Faces

He died when I was five, and to this day I’m not sure if I really remember my great-grandfather or if the stories I’ve heard are so powerful that they’ve created the illusion of memory. Sometimes it’s as if I was a ghost-child in my grandparents house in the months before I was born, because I seem to have vivid recollections of events I never could have witnessed.

And then there’s the dog. My grandparents had a dog named Misty, and I’m almost certain she died before I was born, but I remember her dog breath and her wagging tail, and somehow I think it’s those memories that set me on the path to being a Dog Person, and not a Cat Person, despite the fact that I’m a LEO (and I have the mane to prove it).

But when it comes to him, I remember him as impossibly old (though he was probably only in his eighties), impossibly tiny, with a small voice. He smelled like coffee and tobacco, and sadly, it wasn’t the sweet scent of pipe tobacco, or the heady aroma of la gloria cubana cigars, but the stale, old smell of cigarettes – and American cigarettes at that. Note to all half-remembered old men: if you want your descendants to have fond memories of you, and you can’t deal with a good pipe, at least choose a clove cigarette, or, failing that, smoke Gauloises. They still reek, but at least they have a literary cachet. Orwell and Fleming smoked them, and I think Fleming gave his own habit to that character he created…you might have heard of him…Bond, James Bond.

But anyway, I have this picture, scanned by my auntie, digitized and data-sampled and all that, and I love it, not because I have any close association with my great-grandfather (though, I see now that there’s a definite THERE there in his eyes…) but because it seems so iconic…the ultimate little old Italian-American man picture.

And it tells a story, but I haven’t yet figured out what the story is.

But I think it begins with, “We called him ‘Little Grandpop’ when we talked about him.”

Thursday 13: RED

I’m in a thematic mood today, and the color red is speaking to me, so for my last Thursday 13 of 2010, and my first in months, I’m celebrating that color.

  1. The cloth cover, long since unprotected by any dust jacket, of my copy of Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne. I’ve had it since forever.
  2. The pair of Keds sneakers I had when I was five or six, and ran around the yard twirling and singing the theme song from ZOOM.
  3. The tea kettle that sits on my stove, and whistles at me. It’s overall shape is reminiscent of the FTD logo, but that’s okay, because I love flowers.
  4. My crock pot that I typically use for heating cider or making chicken soup. Pot roasts, on the other hand, I make in the oven.
  5. My favorite cardigan sweater, especially when worn over a red, black, grey, and white striped shirt.
  6. My much-mourned-for favorite bra: demi-cups, rhinestones tracing the contour, and it gave me the perfect ‘lift.’ I had to toss it after the plastic tube it had instead of under-wire snapped in two.
  7. Cranberry juice, my juice of choice, because I love the sweet-tart taste as much as I love the color.
  8. The holiday cups at Starbucks. Once they appear, you know the magic months have begun.
  9. Maximus’s collar and EZ-Walk harness. He’s a black and white (really a blue merle) Pointer/Boxer mix, and he looks so handsome when decked for walkies.
  10. The ink in one of my favorite Sarasi pens, given to me by a friend who said that if I used it to write, my writing would be better and more authentic. Also, it just makes me happy.
  11. Classic Coca-Cola cans: who says you can’t bottle joy?
  12. My Dell Studio laptop and my Dell Studio Hybrid desktop. I compose at the keyboard. Using red computers is almost as potent as using red ink, right?
  13. Bonny Doon Syrah, my favorite every-day wine. It’s difficult to find in Texas, but you can order it from their website.

The irony? As I write this, I’m dressed in black and Slytherin green.

Like this meme? Play along at the Thursday 13 website.

My Favorite Things

While today was a work-day for me, the gentle rain outside was lovely company, and since – for a change – the precipitation did not come with a side of migraine, I was able to reunite with my old love. Until about two years ago, stormy weather was MY weather. I lived for the sound of raindrops on roses…or rooftops, or decks, or sidewalks, or car hoods, or, or or… While I’m fairly certain I’ll have more storm-related headaches in the future, I’m glad that the lack of one this week meant that this unseasonably warm, wonderfully wet Wednesday was a red-letter day for me.

Actually red-letter isn’t entirely accurate. Read-letter is, maybe, because I received a Christmas parcel from my auntie in Connecticut that made me teary, wistful, and happy, all at once. She and I have a shared love of Winnie-the-Pooh, you see. I mean classic Pooh. Pooh from before Disney turned him into a cartoon. Pooh from A. A. Milne’s books, which I still have upstairs in the Word Lounge. In hard cover. (Though the dust jackets disappeared eons ago.)

Anyway, she sent me a Christmas card, Pooh-themed that said something cute like “Christmas is a togethery time of year,” and a small book with a lovely Christmas story in it, and a newspaper clipping about a journalist who used to work as a publisher for the American publishing house that managed Milne’s works, and how that publisher owned the ACTUAL stuffed animals that had inspired the story, and how on her last day the caretaker of the Milne-agerie (my term) had let her HUG Winnie-the-Pooh, and she thought they’d reverted to private ownership decades ago, but a year ago she learned that they’d been donated as a permanent display to the New York Public Library, where they remain today.

It was such a sweet little essay/memoir/thing, and so full of the innocence of youth and the unabashed love for our favorite childhood things that never really leaves us, and I was moved by it (and it’s also THAT time of the month, so I’m emotional ANYWAY) and I left her a weepy voicemail thanking her.


But it’s also a Written-Letter day in MissMelissa-Land, because in addition to this blog post, I wrote twelve articles for work and a 1600-word (give or take) chapter of this TNG fanfic piece I’m writing over at FanFiction.net, and which I just clicked “publish” on about twenty minutes ago. And yes, it would have been better if I’d spent that time working on one of the Original Projects I’ve got simmering away, but it’s been weeks since I’ve written anything NOT for work, and sometimes playing in someone else’s sandbox is the best use of an hour.

And now? Now I’m going to let cool, damp air waft in through the open windows, and I am going to lie in the lovely valley between the sleeping breaths of my husband and my biggest dog, and I am going to dream amazing things, and smile in my sleep because today was a rainy day, and there was tea and literature and a conversation with a friend, and another conversation with another friend, and so many words and so many ideas, and I found a new muse living in the back of my brain, and he whispers plots to me in a Scottish accent.

And among my favorite things are days like today…when nothing happens of any real import, and yet the whole day feels full of wonder.

365 Days (A Tale of Three Sermons)

I haven’t written here in days, mainly because I’ve either been too busy or too tired, or both. So, indulge me, if you will, in a Christmas wrap-up.

Christmas Eve found Fuzzy and me driving to church a lot. First, we went to our own UU church for a vesper service. We’re both in the choir, when time permits, and while our numbers were small that night, visiting friends helped improve our sound, and the evening was both cozy and contemplative. The minister at Oak Cliff UU often begins his welcome speeches with the acknowledgment that there is often fear and trepidation in visiting a new church, and especially in casting off the trappings of other religious styles in favor of a new one. Whether you’re coming from high church to a more congregational version, or going the other way, I think that’s equally valid.

We lingered for a while, eating far too much sugar, after the service was over, and then several of us began a trek across town – across two or three towns, really, to attend a carol service and midnight mass at one of the local Episcopal churches.

On the way, even though we were in different cars, several of us were listening to a Christmas eve service broadcast on the radio from some Presbyterian church. While I felt that that minister was in strong need of an editor, something that he said struck me and hasn’t left me since. He mentioned that there were 365 separate instances in the Bible of people being told “Don’t be afraid.” It’s not always phrased the same way, but the sentiment repeats, “once for each day of the year.”

Somehow that flowed into the homily at the Episcopal church. The rector there is a woman with a delicate voice that belies her strong convictions, and I thought it was interesting hearing the birth of Jesus story from a mother’s perspective. She reminded us that while the stories we hear are generally sanitized, childbirth is messy, especially if you’re doing it in a barn.

All three homilies we heard that night were vastly different, and yet, all had something more in common than the celebration of Christmas. All encouraged us to acknowledge fear, to work through it, to move forward, and to go out into the world with light and love.

As for me, when I hear or read the the words “Be not afraid,” or “fear not” I don’t take it as a literal warning to quell fear, but to accept that fear is a valid response as long as we don’t let it cripple us.

My friend Deb wrote about the way fear cripples her as a writer, at times, and I know it sometimes does the same to me, so on this night, I’m making a pact with myself, and with Deb, to write something for myself every day.

Even if it’s scary.

Ave Maria

As I write this it’s roughly 1:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve, which rather reminds me of those fables and proverbs built around riddles, like the lovers who can only have permission to marry when there are two Sundays in a week. I wanted to do a musical post, because I spent the evening singing and laughing with friends. First, practice for the song I’m singing for “special music” on Sunday (“Babe in the Straw” – the version Leigh Nash of Sixpense None the Richer recorded), then full choir practice immediately following. I was so cold during the first part that I was breathy and pitchy. If I look at the music, I mess up. Good thing I know all the words.

Our Christmas Eve service will be both more formal and more relaxed this year – yes, it can be both – we’re trying a new flow to things, and while I suspect some may find it a little discomfited by the whole thing – including language like “vespers” and “vigil,” I’m certain that, ultimately, it will be a lovely evening, and I’m looking forward to singing with everyone, and then racing across town to attend the “midnight” mass at one of the Episcopal churches. (It starts at 10:30)

A few nights ago, I sat on the back deck with Fuzzy and we celebrated the winter solstice by watching the eclipse and necking. More of the latter than of the former, really, but we saw enough of the show in the sky to appreciate the event. People say that the veil between the living and departed is thinnest around Halloween, but my grandmother is most definitely pressing against the sheer fabric of time in these days that lead from Solstice to Christmas. I walk into rooms – rooms she never lived to see – and catch the faintest whiff of her perfume; I wake in the middle of the night and feel the soothing touch of her cool, soft hand on my sweaty brow.

She always used to sing around the house. To herself, to her violets, to my grandfather, to me. She never knew the words, but she knew the music, unless you put it in front of her. She could play chords by ear, but couldn’t read actual musical notation.

My mother associates the song “Hello Dolly” with her, and that’s not inappropriate – she loved the song – but when I think of her, it’s “Ave Maria” that plays in my head. The version I prefer is Schubert’s, possibly because I grew up with it, but the version playing on my computer tonight, and in my heart, is the Bach prelude that plays under Gounod’s lyrics. The first is bold and passionate, the second, gentler, more contemplative.

One Blue Shoe

It’s weird the things we hold onto, both physically and mentally. On and off today, I’ve been haunted by the image of one blue shoe.

Many years ago, when I was moving from my parents’ house to my first solo apartment, a studio with an amazing wood stove that dominated the room, I ran out of space to hold my as-yet-unpacked boxes. I’d informed my stepfather that the last box would have to wait, but he didn’t listen, and donated the box to charity.

Whatever charity he picked ended up with several dresses, a few pairs of jeans, a really old pair of ice skates (so very useful in San Jose, CA), some books designed to teach adults how to draw, and half a pair of lovely navy pumps with French heels.

Me? I was left holding one blue shoe, and more than a little frustration.

“You told me you didn’t have any more room,” he said in an attempt to defend himself.

“I said I didn’t have room last night. I didn’t tell you to get rid of my stuff.”

“Do you want me to get it back?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, knowing such a request was absurd.

At some point we both laughed, but the really funny part is that it took me years to finally accept the fact that the other half of my pair of shoes was lost forever, and I’d never be able to wear them. Instead, I carried that single shoe with me into the first days of my marriage, into our first rental house, and into the first home that we owned.

It wasn’t until we moved from our condo to our first “real” house, seven years ago, that I finally pitched that shoe. I’m not sure why I kept it, and while it would be fitting to ascribe the act of throwing it away as the final goodbye to childhood, the reality is that I got tired of having a stray shoe among all the matched pairs.

Today, that single shoe has been clopping around my brain, pausing daintily on all sorts of shoe-related miscellany. I suspect it’s there because I was watching a sappy Christmas movie called, “The Christmas Shoes,” last night while lounging in bed. I suspect it will trot away to wherever half-pairs of shoes end up, in a day or so.

In the meanwhile, I’m thinking about how much my life has changed, mostly for the better, since I moved into that tiny apartment. At the time, I was crushing on a guy named Julian, and had just purchased my first computer. A year and a half later, I was living in South Dakota, married to Fuzzy.

Like that year, this year has been full of changes. My main writing gig ends for good at the end of the month, and while I know that will make our finances a bit tight, and finances for others even worse, there’s a part of me that feels oddly free. It’s time for the next phase of my life, and while I have no idea what it will bring I know that if I have to, I can hammer things together with the heel of one blue shoe.

Light One Candle

At choir practice tonight, we spent so much time on Christmas music, and on a special song we’re doing on the 20th for the first annual child dedication, that our director actually dismissed us early – or rather, she tried. She called us back almost immediately, because we’d forgotten to rehearse for this Sunday, when we’re actually doing a Hanukkah songs.

One of the songs we’re doing is a special favorite of mine: “Light One Candle.” It’s a Peter, Paul & Mary song, written by Peter himself, and it combines generic Hanukkah themes with social justice themes, thereby making it a perfect pick for a UU choir. I don’t even mind that we’re singing it “straight” instead of like the kicky folk song it really is, because I like the song so much.

The actual lyrics aside, I’m a fan of the song because it mentions candles, and I’m a big fan of the wick and the wax. I like the way candlelight softens the lines of any room so lit, and the lines of any face gazing into the flames. I like the way a single candle in a window can be a beacon of hope, or a sign of welcome.

Candles can be romantic, decorative, or simply functional. They illuminate dining tables, fireplace mantles and sumptuous baths. They can be scented, or smell simply of wax and smoke.

In all cases, however, candles make the mundane a bit more magical.

Take a moment sometime in the next few days, to put the holiday chaos aside. Light a candle, brew some tea, curl up in a comfortable chair near a crackling fire, and just let the flickering flame warm you, heart, soul, and mind.

Chosen Families

Most of us are familiar with the standard definition of “family,” that of parents and children living together. There is, however, an alternate definition of family: a group of people who are generally not blood relations but who share common attitudes, interests, or goals and, frequently, live together

In my life, I am privileged, even blessed, to have two families.

The first is my biological one. At its nucleus is the duo formed by my mother and myself – we who had a Gilmore Girls-esque relationship long before the Gilmore girls were created. It extends from there: my stepfather, and his son, my aunts, and their spouses and children, my cousins who less directly related. We don’t always like each other as much as we ought, but always, we love each other, and when we’re together there is conversation, reminiscence, laughter, and copious amounts of coffee.

My second family is my chosen family, and it’s gone through various stages. I had such a family of close friends in California, but even though they were – indeed are wonderful, talented, smart people, I never really fit in. When we moved to Texas, five years ago, I drifted for a while – made some friends, let them slip away – as one does in a new place. We tried to find a chosen family at a local Episcopal church, and while those people were warm and welcoming, again, I didn’t really blend.

A bit over a year ago, while Fuzzy was in Hong Kong, I found the second family I always wanted. They, too, were centered in a church community, but this time the church was Unitarian Universalist, the politics liberal, the minds brilliant, and, like my biological family, copious amounts of coffee are a crucial part of their being. It took me a few months to be completely at ease, but from the first moment I met them, I knew I’d come home.

My first family is my blood family, though they are all in my heart. My second family is one strictly of the heart, and while the two groups mix at times, I’m fine with them being largely separate, because it means I’m surrounded by a depth of caring and kinship that most people never get to experience.

I may never be rich, and I may never be famous, but that’s okay, because I have two families, and that’s a double blessing that can never be matched.

Surprising Beauty

The lamp is burning low upon my table top.
The snow is softly falling.
The air is still within the silence of my room.
I hear your voice softly calling.
If I could only have you near to breathe a sigh or two,
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love on this winter night with you.

A couple of weeks ago in church, I was struck by the beauty of one of our elders. She is not a conventional beauty. Her curly hair is graying, her face a tangle of fine lines and wrinkles, and her hands showing her age in similar fashion, but her eyes are bright, her mind as alert as ever. In the moment, however, she was as beautiful to me, with her fierce love of this church community mixed with a kind of innate graciousness that cannot be taught, but that some women are apparently born with, as any Hollywood starlet ever could be.

The faint tones of an east coast youth color this woman’s voice, and even though she is nothing like my grandmother in appearance, I felt my grandmother hovering softly by me as she spoke, and had to close my eyes and accept the feeling of being watched over before I could return to being completely present in the moment.

I cannot capture with mere words the apparent softness of her cheek, or the way her hand gripped the microphone with such surety. My grandmother’s hands, though gnarled at the end, were just as sure every time she brushed away my tears, wrapped my hand in hers, or gripped her own communication device: a wooden spoon.

This moment was just another assurance from the universe that I’m where I’m supposed to be right now, and it came when I wasn’t looking for it, in a splash of surprising beauty followed by the still, cool pool of inner peace, and while it faded rapidly, as such moments tend to do, I treasure its resonance and carry it in my heart.

The fire is dying now. My lamp is growing dim.
The shades of night are lifting.
The morning light steals across my windowpane,
where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near to breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love, and to be once again with with you.

*Lyrics taken from “Song for a Winter’s Night” by Sarah McLachlan.

holidailies 2009