Christmas at Mission City Coffee

I’m writing a book! Or actually, I’ve compiled and refined some of my favorite HOLIDAILIES posts from the ten years I’ve been participating, and created a book from them. Look for The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the (Holiday) Tub for Kindle and Paperback sometime in the next ten days. Meanwhile, today’s piece was written just for the book (and for Holidailies, of course).

There is a cold rain trying its best to soak us as my mother and I dash from the car to the back door of our favorite café, the Mission City Coffee Roasting Company. It is the week before Christmas and we are having a late lunch while we wrap up the last few loans scheduled to fund before the new year.

Boston, the owner’s son, is working the bar and he waves to us as we step inside. Mom heads off to use the restroom, and I go to order our food – artichoke penne, maybe or the vegetarian lasagna that is so deliciously spicy – and coffee, before I take a seat at my favorite table, the one in the window.

We were among the very first customers when the café had opened, and we remained loyal over the years, getting to know the baristas – the regulars who often hung their art on the brick walls, and the rotating collection of students from nearby Santa Clara University.

Because we both lived and worked in the neighborhood, we got to know a lot of the regular customers, as well, like the frail old man with the bushy white beard and the quiet, solid presence. He was a Quaker, my mother told me, and a deserter from World War II. He was strongly anti-war, and when Women Opposed to War held demonstrations, he would always be there, supporting the cause.

That old man always struck me as possessing both great wisdom and great sadness, but I never really knew him well enough to learn the truth.

It seems fitting that he should be there, spending the rainy December day surrounded by the familiar faces of people he recognizes doesn’t really know.

Imagine the scene: the café in its afternoon lull; most of the staff is finishing the cleanup from the lunch rush. Cold rain outside meeting the warm coffee and pastry-infused air inside has fogged all the windows, and in one corner, a young woman, one of that year’s crop of students, is singing to herself as she wipes down tables.

“You’re really good,” someone tells her. “Sing more?”

She glances to Boston, a combination of fear and delight on her face. He nods permission, and she opens her mouth, singing an a capella version of “O Holy Night” that has all of us moved nearly to tears.

“Sing more,” one of the other customers says, bringing his latte with him to the piano. “I can play for you, if you want.”

There is a murmur of encouragement from all of us. “Oh, yes, please do. Your voice is so lovely.”

He’s in a button-down shirt and khaki pants – the winter version of the Silicon Valley dress code.

She is wearing jeans and a t-shirt under her café-issued apron. She has blue eyes, strawberry-blonde hair in a choppy version of a pixie cut, and the round cheeks of a person who is both a singer, and not yet out of their late teens.

Boston slings his apron over the counter, then rests his elbows on top of it. “Go ahead,” he says. “It’s not busy.”

And so we are treated to an impromptu concert of holiday music, unrehearsed, but somehow perfect in its imperfection.

The piano playing is a bit uneven, but her voice compensates, soaring above the plunked keys in a pure, operatic soprano that fills the room.

Later we learn that she’s a music major, studying to be an opera singer. She sings pop and folk, as well, and she’ll be one of the acts at the next open mic night.
The piano player’s coffee and pastry are comped.

We all leave big tips in the jar, knowing that Boston will ensure that the singer gets the extra.

Mom and I finish lunch, and leave the café, facing the cold rain, and the busy streets, the drivers who can never seem to use turn signals, the clients who haven’t followed instructions, and the lenders who take forever to make decisions.

But somehow nothing seems quite as dire or urgent as it did before.
Somehow, despite the unrelenting rain, we leave the café with bubbles of sunlight in our hearts.

Holidailies 2015

O Holy Night

O Holy Night

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

~ O Holy Night

2:40 on Christmas morning, but since we haven’t been to bed yet, for us it’s still Christmas Eve. This post, then, is short because between the hour and the amount of sugar and cognac in my veins, short is all I can do.

Tonight at mass, a young woman gave us the gift of her music: O Holy Night as a trumpet solo.

It was lovely and haunting, and even if a couple of her notes were wobbly, Christmas magic made her horn sound angelic.

It reminded me of another rendition of this carol, a carol I could never wrap my head around, until suddenly I could.


Link (for iOS users):
O Holy Night – Studio 60

Mulled Wine, Magic, and Dylan Thomas

Ornament and Cinnamon

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
~ Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Has anyone ever been more descriptive than Dylan Thomas? I just introduced a friend to Thomas’s brilliant book-length poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales and as I was reading it aloud, I found myself falling in love with the language all over again.

My first introduction to it was most likely via a reading on KPFA or some NPR station, but the first encounter I remember is when I was eighteen or nineteen. A friend had gifted me with tickets to the Christmas Show at a winery in Los Gatos, so my mother and I went.

The room was freezing, the crowd dressed elegantly beneath their coats and hats. Gloved hands clutched cardboard cups of coffee, cocoa, mulled wine.

We sat on chairs arranged on risers, and watched the show – a combination of the Thomas piece, “The Little Match Girl,” excerpts from “Anne of Green Gables” and the “Little House…” books, and some original transitional bits – that should not have worked as a single coherent story, but somehow did.

At the time, Dylan Thomas’s Christmas contribution was the only part that I wasn’t already fond of, didn’t already have a connection with.

But how could I not be?

Has another poet captured December any more vividly – especially December in a small coastal town? I think not. Sure, Robert Frost wrote eloquently about snowy woods, and Lucy (Maud Montgomery) and Laura (Ingalls Wilder) both touched upon the winter holidays in their books, but for the most part, their language was plain, simple, matter-of-fact.

Thomas captures our imagination. Thomas’s December, Thomas’s Christmas is made of imagination, memory, and mulled wine. It’s cinnamon and chocolate, cigar smoke and scary perfume.

When Thomas writes, you can feel the chill wind, and hear the crunch of snow under your feet, even if you’re reading him in a cozy, warm, well-lit kitchen in suburban Texas.

It’s been an ordinary day, with a few special moments – cuddling dogs, sharing brownies and coffee with friends, making homemade chicken soup because all of us have the traces of a cold.

But the fifteen minutes I spent reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales were made of magic.

I hope this sort of magic never leaves me.

* * * * *

Image credit: nilswey / 123RF Stock Photo

Pay No Attention to the Chipped Nail Polish

coffee cup ring Pay no attention to the chipped nail polish evident on my pinky. Instead, pay attention to the ring. My ring. My wonderful, silver, steaming-coffee ring.

I’d seen it on Facebook months ago, as had my mother, but had no idea where to get one. Imagine my surprise when my mother, grinning in that gushy way that only mothers can, presented me with a wrapped box on Christmas morning. “What does the card say?” she prompted, unbridled glee evident on her face.

“‘To my favorite coffee companion,'” I read aloud. Coffee has been a ‘thing’ for my mother and me ever since she would spoon a couple of teaspoons of her coffee into my milk on special mornings. These days our coffee dates are mostly virtual, because of geographical limitations, but no less special.

I opened the box, as I always do, with efficient ripping of paper. I will never be one of those people who saves every precious piece of tissue. (Except, well, this year I did make people return their tissue, since I had to throw away all the old tissue I’d used to wrap my ornaments after the horrifying mildew incident.) I believe wrapping paper is meant to be ripped. It’s even better when you get to hear that satisfying tearing of the paper – tissue doesn’t make that sound half as well as sturdier paper.

Inside a bag, inside the box, was this ring. A ring I’ve secretly coveted for months. A ring I never expected to find on Christmas morning.

“I love it,” I told my mother. “Where did you find it?”

“I saw it on Facebook,” she said. “And a friend knew a jewelry maker, who made copies.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” I asked, not that I had any intention of returning the ring.

“Actually,” my mother said, “it’s not. You can’t copyright design.”

So, pay no attention to my hands that were badly in need of moisturizer and a warm mug to hold, and look instead at the awesome gift I got, one among several awesome, special gifts, of which the greatest was sharing the holiday with family.

Pay no attention to the chipped nail polish either (I haven’t had TIME to get a mani-pedi in forever.)

Instead, pour a mug of something warm and tasty, and join me in toasting the people you love.

Human Moments and High Percentage Choices

Blue Christmas

Sometimes leaving all of your visiting family at home and heading out to midnight mass is a high percentage choice.

2:00 AM. Christmas Morning.
We arrived home from the late service at St. Alban’s at the Theatre just as the rain was beginning to fall, and the thunder and lightning hailed our arrival even before the dogs started barking their greeting. (The last three words are unofficial, and I add them here simply because, to me, the fact that this church meets in a theater is somehow appropriate. Theater celebrates words, and church the Word made flesh, and yes, my metaphor needs work, but really, how lucid are YOU at this hour? And besides who’s to say a theater is any less sacred a space than the Of-the-Meadow or In-the-Woods spaces we’re accustomed to seeing?)

If I had to pick one word to describe my feeling at the end of this “midnight” mass, it would be the one I used with Mother Melanie: satisfying. Just as a really good meal leaves you neither still hungry nor over-stuffed, so, too, does a really good church service. And tonight’s service, while a little unconventional, was really good. Really…satisfying.

I think what I responded to the most were the human moments. Tonight’s service was mostly a cappella, and before the actual mass, there was a time of carol singing, led by the clergy sitting at the foot of the stage, asking for the congregation to choose the songs to be sung. (My favorites are not easily sung unless you know them – “Once in Royal David’s City,” for example – so I didn’t make suggestions – but I was silently thanking previous choir directors (Clyde Putman, Glorian Mulligan Stratton) for their attention to sight-singing and a cappella work, because while I “know” most all the songs we did tonight in the caroling and during the Eucharist, some I’d only ever sung alto on, and one was completely unfamiliar.)

But in addition to the singing, there were other human moments, like watching three young men (young enough to retain traces of childhood in their faces) singing “O Come All Ye FaithFul,” or listening to a guitar duet of “Silent Night,” or a delightful Oboe solo. Or even the moment when a phone went off and it turned out to be Mother Melanie’s own. After watching UUCOC move from a church full of such moments to one where even applause was discouraged, and people were required to “applaud” in ASL, it is these moments – spontaneous applause, appreciative chuckling, reverent irreverence – that really make a church feel comfortable to me. I like the ritual of high church, but I like the ease that comes from accepting that we are all human, all flawed.

I guess these moments sort of make me feel like God is the Ultimate Improvisor, and that when we allow ourselves to simply BE we are playing along in the grand game of “Yes, And.” (Lately, everything has come back to improv for me, which is weird, because I haven’t actually DONE any formal performances in well over a year.)

So, yes, I like this St. Alban’s-at-the-Theatre immensely. AND I got to do one of the readings tonight, which was almost like a Christmas present because I’ve always wanted to do that. AND I got to sing with Fuzzy in church tonight, which is another thing that always makes me feel grounded and centered. AND the people in this congregation are so warm, smart, funny and engaging that we hung out til one AM chatting even though we meant to linger for only a few minutes (AND they sent me home with leftover wine). AND I want to go back.

I’m never sure if God has a specific plan for me, or not. (See that bit about improv, again.) I’m still learning how to discern that still, small voice inside myself and, even more, to actually listen to it.

But as we drove home, I realized I felt completely at peace and connected with the world. True, a good part of that feeling was Christmas magic, but an equal measure was the result of feeling like I was answering a quiet call.

Whether it’s playing a specific character on stage, or feeling the click of satisfaction after mass, going with your gut instinct is usually a high percentage choice. And those human moments? They’re just another kind of Truth, and the best comedy – the best ART – always comes from a place of Truth.

O Christmas Tree

I don’t normally decorate for Christmas until after December first, although I had Christmas lights on the outside of my house the day before Thanksgiving this year, mainly because my lawn guy puts them up, and it was 82 degrees and windy that day, and since then the highs have been in the low sixties. I did not turn them on until dusk on Thanksgiving Day, however. Anything earlier than that would be gauche.

I’d planned to put up the tree this weekend, or at least unbox it, and let it rest in the house. Even plastic trees, I’ve found, look better if you let them stand there naked for a few days. Well, nearly naked. I’m a long-time convert to using pre-lit trees.

Unfortunately, the 7.5-foot faux Niagra pine tree we’ve used for the past several years had a light malfunction last year, and while Fuzzy managed to fix it by doing essentially nothing (I mean, he touched every unlit bulb, but that’s all), this year, more of the tree refused to function, and we were tired of worrying about the heat from the lights, and fighting with pulling little bulbs out of tiny plastic sockets, so we put the brakes on trying to make it work.

And so, even though the only businesses I typically visit during Thanksgiving weekend are Starbucks and movie theaters, we went to Target this afternoon (it was mostly empty) to look at trees, found one in the price range I’d dictated, and then discovered that our local Target was out, but two semi-local stores might have it in stock. Our purchased there were decidedly un-holidayish: dog treats and a new filter for the vacuum. Then we went to Home Depot to see what they had.

The Martha Stewart trees were lovely and reasonably priced, but they all use old-style mini-lights. There was a 7.5 foot faux tree with white C3 LEDs and the classic teardrop frosted bulbs around them, in a warm (yellowish) white or in multi-colors. I chose the white, because I think it looks more magical. It was less expensive than the Target tree, and it’s now in the dining room, in front of the arched window that faces the street. Or, behind it, I guess, if you’re looking in from outside.

I didn’t watch Fuzzy set it up, but it seems to have been a remarkably quick process. Tomorrow we will shape it, and let it rest a bit more (probably) because even though I’m itching to decorate, I’m also unusually tired and have been all weekend. In fact, as much as I miss church (it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been), I might skip it tomorrow and just rest. I’ve been really tired all day, and I went to bed early last night AND slept til nearly noon. I think I might be fighting a cold, actually,

In any case, we have a new tree, and Thanksgiving was lovely, and I’m looking forward to all of the fun of the December holidays.


A 2008 Best of Holidailies Selection. Thanks, Holidailies Reviewers!

Just as plastic trees become objects of wonder just as they’re bedecked with fairy lights and ornaments, Christmas decorations, in general, become unmagical as soon as the Christmas season is over.

For some, this change happens around the 6th of January – Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas. For others – me included – it happens between 11:59 PM on New Year’s Eve, and the first light of New Year’s Day.

Like a tired party girl dragging herself home after a late night, make-up smeared, stockings in runs, shoes with impossibly high heels carried in one hand rather than being worn, decorations left up on New Year’s Day seem somehow cheap and tawdry.

Oh, the silver and gold are just as shiny as ever, but once the season passes, the shine becomes tacky, rather than tasteful. The bright reds and greens seem overdone, somehow, and the scent of pine and gingerbread becomes cloying.

While I’ve been ready to move beyond Christmas for several days now – despite my love of the season – I’ve resisted, because I know all too well how little time we get to enjoy the Yuletide magic every year. I will miss red and green candles, but I’m looking forward to the freshness of cream and pale gold tones. In my head, I catch whiffs of pear and vanilla, two of the “clean” scents that mean the new year to me.

Tonight, I will put on party clothes and drink to health and prosperity; tomorrow, I will box away my Christmas treasures for another year, in clean white tissue. When I am done, the house will feel too big for a few days, but then things will settle, and I will enjoy brisk mornings with oatmeal and coffee, and chilly evenings with stews and rented DVDs – the pleasures of winter without the stress of the holidays are so restful.

To those of you who are going out tonight, please be careful. Have fun, just be judicious about it. To those of you staying in, enjoy the comfort of home. To everyone reading this: May you have a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Christmas Eve (Part I): Always Room at Darmok’s Inn

One in the morning, and I’m sitting in the dark blogging, even though I have to be awake at 4:30. We have friends sleeping in the guest room. A packing glitch in San Jose stranded them in DFW for the night, and it would be wrong to make anyone stay in an airport hotel at Christmas, or Hanukkah, or, for that matter, any other day, when we have the time and space to let them stay here. I told my mother about it, when she called to tell me the box I sent for Christmas would be available for pickup tomorrow morning (mailing anything to her part of Baja is a bit of an adventure). She told me it was a lovely gesture at Christmas time, and said, “Always room at the inn, right?”

So we drove to the airport, and found our wayward travelers. I’d made a pot of chili, so there was hot food waiting, and we had a nice chat over dinner before toddling off to our respective beds. It doesn’t matter that these are friends we’d never met face-to-face before – we read each others blogs, know intimate details of each others lives, and now, have faces to go with names and usernames. Anyone who thinks net friends somehow don’t count has clearly never been stranded at an airport in December, with no one to call, but a healthy contact list of emailable friends.

Not that they called – I offered. I know if our positions were reversed, and they had the space, they’d do the same. I know most of the folks I know online would, as well. Whether we share the same political, social, religious beliefs, or not, we share the common language of geekiness.

One of my friends here in Texas uses a Star Trek: the Next Generation reference to explain it. She says, “we share the same Darmok,” or “we get each other’s Darmok,” and the thing is, we all do. We may not all have the same list of fandoms, games, favorite iPhone apps, or outlooks on life, but we all have a similar generosity of spirit, one that completely transcends time and space, and allows us to send flowers or text a hug, offer a spare bed, clean up the audio for a podcast, share a video, edit a resume, or just send a supportive email message, with the same ease of any friends who interact solely offline, and in some cases, because interacting through written communication lets us be more candid, the friendships we have grow deeper, ultimately, and we are richer for it.

It’s just after one AM on Christmas Eve. It’s the middle of Hanukkah. It’s a couple of days after Solstice, and it’s the heart of Yuletide. It’s a time to give and receive the gifts of our hearts, hands, and minds. It is a time to spread love and joy. It is a time to welcome strangers as friends, and be open to new possibilities and fresh hopes.

It’s a time to remember that whatever may or may not have happened 2000-ish years ago in Bethlehem, today, tonight, this year, this century, there is always room in Darmok’s Inn.

Indistinguishable From Magic

A 2008 Best of Holidailies Selection. Thanks, Holidailies Reviewers!

That’s the thing with magic. You’ve got to know it’s still here, all around us, or it just stays invisible for you.
~Charles DeLint

The Cafe Writing Holiday Project asks us to write about seven magical things in our world…

  1. Plastic Christmas Trees: Fresh from the box, they look every inch a fake tree, but once they’re decked in lights and ornaments, positioned in the window in just the right way, wrapped in a skirt, and playing host to presents, they become as real as the trees that grow from the earth. As they age, plastic trees even drop needles.
  2. Crayons: The texture of the paper wrapping, the scent of the wax, the colored strokes across paper, rough or smooth – there’s something so innocent about it all, and so amazing as well, in the possibilities they represent.
  3. New Nightgowns: Whether plain or lacy, cotton or satin, or not a nightgown at all, but brand new flannel pajamas, new nightwear makes you feel sexy or sweet, cozy or carefree, depending on the weather and the style. A new nightgown at Christmas has long been a family tradition. (This year, mine is red and strappy.)
  4. Cookie Dough: Sugar, flour, vanilla, spices, love and magic. Mix it up, roll it into balls, eat half of it raw, and then bake the rest.
  5. Hot Chocolate: There are coffee moments and tea moments, but once the weather turns chilly and the skies turn gray there is nothing more magical than a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Garnish with whipped cream or marshmallows, stir with a candy cane or a chocolate coated spoon. Sip alone while curled up by the fire, or around a table full of conversing friends. It warms your heart as much as your belly.
  6. Fog: This is nature’s soft-focus lens, and it makes everything seem a little less harsh, blurring edges and softening lines. Lights twinkle more in fog, whether they’re traffic lights or holiday lights, and fires seem to crackle more. Fog is a soft cotton blanket, one more layer between yourself and cruel reality.
  7. Laughter: It turns a shy child into a witty conversationalist, a wallflower into a star, and a dull day into an amusing interlude. Best shared with others.

Christmas Cheer

Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than cheesy Christmas movies. They’re a guilty pleasure for me, for my friend Ms. J., and even for my mother, who usually has nothing to do with commercial television. What I really want right now, is to be curled up in bed with the dogs, and a mug of tea, writing Christmas cards and watching a string of them.

Peppermint tea is my Christmas movie tea of choice, though I sometimes drink Gingerbread or Cinnamon tea. Peppermint, though, is best, especially with sugar stirred into it, so it tastes like a liquid candy cane. Sometimes, after a mug of peppermint, I’ll use the last dregs to make hot chocolate, which is it’s own special pleasure.

Earlier this afternoon, I did watch Snowglobe which my DVR grabbed for me while we were at church this morning, but it was nearly eighty degrees, which just isn’t conducive to getting lost in Christmassy goodness. It’s supposed to be cold tomorrow and Tuesday, however, and I’ve got other Christmas movies on the DVR, as well as the array available on cable all week.

Tonight, instead of Christmas movies, we watched TransSiberian, which was at least in a snowy setting. It’s a pretty grim movie, meant to be a thriller, but I found myself cursing at the idiocy of the main character more often than not. Ben Kingsley was great in it (is he ever not?) though, and I was surprised to find that Woody Harrelson’s performance was quite watchable.

Still, I’d much prefer to be watching an endless stream of happy, cheesy movies where Beckie saves Christmas, marries the dashing man about to take over as Santa, redefines life at the North Pole, and lives happily ever after.