Friday, December 27, 2013

If You Just Believe

“Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world – stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death – and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas.” Henry Van Dyke

The Christmas season came and went this year without too much of a peep. The kids and I picked out the biggest tree we could find: Ten feet tall and five feet wide. I prepared the usual pomp and circumstance of the season by decking my house from the inside out with lights and garland, wreaths and sparkling presents. Decorations were dazzling halls, cookies were baked and eaten, stockings hung on the chimney with great cheer, holiday parties happened, and carols were sung all over town.

My children were nestled all snug in their beds with the hopes that St. Nick would soon be near. Here in North Carolina not a single snowflake fell, and many a December day felt more like a warm summer’s eve than a scene from a Norman Rockwell holiday card. Still I’m sure the spirit was alive, I just didn’t feel it as much as usual. I am not really sure why.

Perhaps because Thanksgiving was a week later this year and everything Christmas had to be crammed into a shorter period of time? In an effort to put on the holiday show was there less time to savor and immerse oneself in the season? I noticed more people wishing “Merry Christmas” with pride and exuberance versus the hesitant “Happy uh, um Holidays?” so surely the spirit was alive more than ever.

I remembered the reason of the season and reminded the kids we were celebrating Jesus’s birthday. We went to church and prayed for peace and happiness throughout the land, filled shoe boxes to send to children in need, adopted an angel from a tree, listened to bells toll, and told stories from the past. All signs of good tidings were evident and we came all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.

My kids counted down the days to see if Santa thought they were naughty or nice. Would he bring them everything their hearts desired? Did they remember to tell him about the Furby, or that giant Nerf gun, or that last minute wish for that special Harry Potter wand? We were all very merry with yuletide trimmings shouting “Noel!”

Every morning my sweet five year old would come barreling into my room and tell me how many more days until Santa arrives. He would hold out his hand and count his fingers with such authority and assertiveness, and then smile with giant excitement in his eyes, giggling like a bowl full of jelly.

My eleven year old, bless his heart, still believes. He tried to talk himself out of the magic a year ago, but I talked him right back into it telling him that he’ll have everything he needs if he just believes.

My darling nine year old daughter was humble with her requests. She really did lose her two front teeth, plucked from her mouth by the dentist. Yet she could still whistle Merry Christmas.

All signs of everything Christmas were in full force, and I know the spirit was too, I just didn’t feel it like I usually do. Then it happened, just when I thought all hope of having my heart brimming with the enchanting aura of the holy time would escape me, I felt it.

Christmas Eve we made our annual hop, skip and jump to my aunt’s home for the traditional carving of the Roast Beast dinner. The table set with fine china and family heirlooms, with place cards thoughtfully arranged, we enjoyed the company of our family and friends. We ended the evening with a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” recited by my younger cousin. The reading was a tribute to my most respected and missed uncle who passed too soon and not that long ago. The moment was bitter sweet.

Christmas morning arrived. I knew long before the kids that Santa had not forgotten our home. She was up until 3:30 am wrapping presents and filling stockings with “The Christmas Story” marathon playing in the background. Nonetheless three innocent pairs of gingery footsteps trounced into my room to wake me, anxious to see if Santa came.

Just as they were about to race down the stairs I halted them, “Stop, let me check to see if he came!” but it was too late, their excitement could no longer be contained. In a peaceful truce with a cordial friendship in the works, their dad appeared shortly thereafter to share in the festive frenzy.

In a sea of paper and presents, the room was covered from tree to chimney. Not a single regret or complaint of disappointment was uttered, and smiles and happiness exploded amidst the mass of mess. All five of us, mom, dad, and three children, sat down to a lovely breakfast served in the dining room with Christmas carols enhancing the scene. We shared some laughs and stories, recounted our packages and showed thanks. But that was not when I was struck with the spirit.

My three children gathered their belongings and were off for the next week to spend some quality time with their dad. I spent the day in a quiet, reminiscent silence. Though I was not alone and my euphoric state had me flying.

Later that evening I was invited to the home of my dear neighbors and friends Dave and Debbie for Christmas dinner. Joined by their daughter Kristen, and Dave’s mom visiting from Ohio, we enjoyed a most delicious feast of a special secret family recipe called Shrimp Mangino, served with roasted brussel sprouts and Caesar’s salad. Dave, the ultimate wine connoisseur, selected the most delectable wine to pair with the meal.

Two years prior I had the honor of joining them on this very sacred night. We sat at the same table and enjoyed the same meal with the same company. Dave’s mom remembered our meeting and both of us were happy to be reunited. She is a pip of a hoot and a lady with a pep in her step and a sass in her humor. She said to me, “The last time I saw you, you looked older. You look younger now.”

Two years ago I spent my first Christmas dinner without my family. Although that seemed like eons ago, I recall the time not being one of my happier days. I may have had a smile on my face, but my sadness hung heavy and she remembered. She could tell that evening how sincerely time had healed me and I confided a little secret to her. She was beaming.

Amazing how much time truly heals. I spent a wonderful evening with my best friends and though my children were not with me, I was living in the moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. We gathered around the piano and their daughter Kristen played a most gorgeous Christmas ensemble that brought tears to my eyes. I asked her to play it again and she did. Then Debbie and Kristen sang a Silent Night duet. That was the moment. Music, the gift from heaven, the voice of God, brought the magic and spirit of the season to my heart. What a beautiful life.

Christmas came and went this year without a peep. I neglected to get out my Christmas cards, there were people I wished I had showed my thoughts with actions, I didn’t bake nearly the cookies I wanted to bake, didn’t spend nearly the time I wanted to spend with my children. Our gingerbread houses collapsed and we never made it to our traditional showing of the Nutcracker. I confess, we never filled those shoeboxes. Somehow our annual viewing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” escaped us, while our traditional readings of such sentimental works as The Polar Express or Santa Mouse sat on the shelf too often.

As for that Elf on the Shelf, screw him, he’s creepy and was never invited to our house anyway. I ran out of steam when decorating, so much that the last few strings of lights I just threw on a bush and called it a day. My gorgeous tree hatched a rather large family of spiders that brought new babies on the twelve days of Christmas. I didn’t walk around stores with that effervescent spirit of good will towards men. I spent more money than my budget allowed.

But on the final hour of this season, the spirit rained down upon me. And the day after all is calm, all is quiet. And I’m in love. Everything I asked for and more is under my tree. I can’t wait for next Christmas season.

Merry Christmas!!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Red Haired Red Neck

I dedicate this posting to a new friend whom inspired me to let my inner red neck out...that and too much Duck Dynasty as of late.

“Ain’t no point in beatin’ a dead horse….’course, can’t hurt none either.” Author Unknown

I am Master of my domain, Queen of my castle, Lady of my manor, Countess of the county! Prior to my single status, I was exempt from certain responsibilities. Now certain challenges have fallen upon me and I have tackled them with hesitancy and reservation. Once accomplished though I have become empowered. I am woman, hear me roar! I speak of yard work.

While I have alluded, alright admitted, to my princess status in a previous blog or two, I am not afraid to work hard and get my hands dirty. When it comes to yard work, I don’t really have a choice. Since my current budget does not allow the luxuries of a gardener, though that would be fun, I must dive in and do it myself. My yard, while fit for a castle, is a beast of a yard. It rests on an acre and a half on a rather steep hill, surrounded by a moat of trees. To maintain such an estate requires use of several pieces of mechanical equipment.

To entertain use of such equipment, I fashion my work shoes, some raggedy pants, and a beat up t-shirt. With my hair up, visor on, and $5 shades from Wal-Mart, I am quite the picture of ruggedness ready to tackle a manly job. Each item has had its own nuances, requiring the right amount of that special touch to get ‘em going: the leaf blower, the weed whacker, the hedge trimmer, the lawn mower, and alas my coveted John Deere tractor.

The leaf blower is really fun to use. Of course, taking care of leaves with some good old fashioned raking is better exercise but, considering the size of my lot, I have a lot of ground to cover and blowing is more efficient. Besides perusing the yard with a motor on my back is enough work for one gal. I am an expert blower now but back when I was a virgin I had the darnedest time trying to get that thing started. I would pump the gas into the fuel line, pull the string thing, fluctuate the gear settings, get a little motor action and then nothing. I spent hours doing this, cursing, sweating, shouting, and eventually kicking the thing where the sun don't shine. Then one day my neighbor and I were talking. I told him I couldn’t get my leaf blower to work. He pointed out to me that the off switch was on. You know what? I flicked the switch to “on” and that baby started right up. I am now really good at blowing.

Ugh, the dreaded weed whacker; my most despised piece of yard equipment. If I were smarter and of the more technical mind, I would invent a better weed whacker. One that doesn’t quit so quickly, doesn’t break its string every five seconds, one that automatically reloads and doesn’t require pounding on pavement, one that is more user friendly, careful not to have such a quick trigger, shooting debris into shins and eyes. There is just so much I would do to improve on this mechanical tool. I have yet to master the weed whacker and I have about given up trying. In fact, it currently sits in my garage, dissected into three pieces. To rectify the edging and weed creeping into garden beds, I have caved and resorted to using Round Up to edge my beds. I hate doing because I try to be environmentally friendly, but it gets the job done without all the mess and hassle. (I know I will be hearing from my EPA cousin on this one.).

The hedge trimmer is a beautiful creation of electronic yard equipment I just recently discovered. A well groomed yard goes a long way in keeping in good with the neighbors. Those shrubs grow fast. I found that a good bush whacking cleans things up nicely and the hedge trimmer is the piece to get the job done. There are some precautions to consider. First, while it works really well on shrubs and hedges, it also works really well on jeans and extension cords. I have learned that whatever is in its way, it will trim. I am lucky to have my leg and my life. Cutting live wires is a risky proposition.

Ah the lawn mower, my little hummer. This has had very little to learn surprisingly. I can start it up just fine but every now and then it needs gas. “Hmmm, which hole for the gas? Not the one for the oil. Oops!! Oh and what this random cap I found on the garage floor? I don’t know, don’t think I need it so I’ll just throw it out. Oops! Gas tank lid for mower. That’s alright, nothing a little Saran Wrap, aluminum foil and a hair band can’t cure.” Thanks to some creative ingenuity, my little hummer is leak free and happy.

The tractor; I am queen of the hill on my coveted John Deere; master of my domain. I rule the tractor. There is just something about the power of the motor under your body. With all the quirks in the topography of the yard I sometimes feel like I an expert downhill skier maneuvering moguls on an icy slope. Focus and strategy are key. You do not want the mower to tip. That would be bad. Too steep in one area and the grass clippings and I will become one. Patience is key. Sometimes Johnny can be sensitive. He is limited in his capabilities as he strictly cuts grass, but he does it so well. Sometimes I tempt him by running over pine cones, rocks, tennis and whiffle balls, but he lets me know such adventures are too much and he responds by growling as he viciously spits out the debris torn in shreds. Some days Johnny just doesn’t feel like starting. When this is the case, I give my ole Deere a rest and try to rev him up later.

Recently, with fall in full force, and the moat of trees around my house, I had to contend with a real leaf project. Several weeks had passed since Johnny and I had ridden. I went to start him up and he just wouldn’t turn over. I gave some lubrication to the motor, caressed the engine a little and still I couldn’t get Johnny up and running. I was really in the mood to ride him. I had leaves to run over and he was just the piece for the job. I was forced to resort to my trusty leaf blower. I spent hours blowing until the sun set and darkness prevailed. I still hadn’t forgotten about Johnny. I was curious if perhaps the mood suited him now that he had some time to think about working for me? So I moseyed on over to my Deere, jumped right on, turned him on, and low and behold he was ready to ride.

The yard was pitch dark but my Johnny has some pretty strong headlights. He’s manufactured for such situations. I rode my hot rod all over the yard, seeing nothing but the couple of feet he lit for me. Up and down, back and forth, together we worked to make a beautiful landscape.

Apparently we were really loud. My neighbors Debbie and Dave happened to be outside checking out their Christmas lights. They heard a mower in the distance. They turned to each other and said, “Is someone mowing their lawn at night?” Dave turned to Debbie and said, “I bet it’s MB.”

The next morning Debbie called to inquire what the racket was on my property. She inquisitively inquired, “Were you cutting your lawn in the dark last night?”

To which I excitedly replied, “Yes, yes, yes!! It was exhilarating, empowering, so much fun using those headlights. I always wanted to ride in the dark. Debbie, there is nothing like cutting the grass at night.”

To which she replied…

“You may be a red neck when you mow your lawn in the dark.”

Don’t that just crack yer yaller. I was grinning like a opossum shitting peach seeds. Can’t argue with that one. I done did that. Not worth a hoot and a holler. If ifs and buts were candied nuts oh what a Christmas it would be. That’s all I gots to say.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

DWTS Close Encounter of the Third Kind

"To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak." Hopi Indian Saying

After having arrived in Pennsylvania two days prior, Thanksgiving morning my brother, sister-in-law, two nephews, three kids, and myself piled into the car and made an hour and half drive due east to Central Jersey, venue of Turkey Day, home to Dad (aka Cranky) and Nona (aka Mrs. Cranky). They have a lovely home and Thanksgivings with them are always filled with warmth and good food. Mrs. Cranky’s family always joins the grateful gathering and I thoroughly enjoy their company. I expected to spend the day with the usual crowd.

So imagine my surprise when I enter the foyer, and lo and behold, beaming at the other side of the room, is a tall and handsome, OK gorgeously, beautiful man. Was it Christmas already? Had my gift come early? He spoke. My sister-in-law and I had to hold each other up as we were weak in the knees and fixed in a trance. With a deep and soft Russian accent this beautiful specimen spoke, “Hello, very nice to meet you. I am Andre.”

“Andre so nice to meet you. Do you want to marry me?” Well I didn’t actually say this. I did just meet the man.

“This is my wife Lena and my little boy Sergei.” Lucky for Andre he was married.

“Oh, so nice to meet all of you.” I say a little caught off guard, but not because he was married. Over the years I have met many unfamiliar faces at Mrs. Cranky’s, though they are usually named Uncle Paulie, Uncle Louie, Uncle Mikey, or Uncle Sal just to name a few. Mrs. Cranky has a large family of Italian heritage. I have never met an Uncle Andre with a beautiful Russian accent. Curious of their connection to Nona I ask, “So Andre and Lena, how do you know Mrs. Cranky?”

“From dance studio, “replies Lena. Nona works as the office manager at a ball room studio. I start to put the connection together. Lena continues, “Vee are dancers. Zough I don’t dance anymore after bebe born.”

“Oh, dancers!” I am instantly in awe.

Nona yells from the kitchen, “It’s his studio. He’s my boss so be nice.”

“Oh!” I am still in awe. “Oh, nice. Wow, ball room dancers. Are you familiar with Dancing with the Stars?” Stupid question.

“Ov course vee are.” replies Lena.

“Have you ever competed against any of the dancers?”

“Oh yes, dancing community very small. We know zem all.”

“Have you ever met Maks Smirsmirninoff?” I love Maks. He is one fine bad boy and who doesn’t love a bad boy?

“You mean Maks Chmerkovskiy?”

“Oh yes, sorry my Russian pronunciation is not very good.”

“Yes, ve know Maks. He wants to be an actor now.” She rolls her eyes.

“Do you know any of the other dancers?”

“Yes vee know all ov zem. Mark Balas and Tony Dovolani, zey plays in band together. Yes, vee know zem all. We pearformed vis dem. Dancing community very small.”

“You danced viz them, I mean with them?”

“Oh yes. Andre danced on first show season. Vee too busy to be on show. Andre vaz asked but vee no time. Too busy viz studio, students and now bebe.”

“Andre was on the show?!”

From the background my stepmom, aka Mrs. Cranky, hollers at me, “What are you, a celebrity whore?”

I respond with quite shameful pride, “Yes, I am. I am surrounded by greatness right now.” I mean, what are the chances? Here I am traveling to dumpy Central Jersey, and it is a little dumpy. I grew up there, I can say that. And here I am having a celebrity encounter of the third kind. Yes, I am a celebrity whore. I know it’s wrong but it feels so good. I can’t help but ogle and obsess with fascination. After my great interrogation of these poor, innocent guests I retreated a little and mingled with my family, but my eyes were on the dancers. Andre’s posture alone looked as if he were dancing standing in place.

Brunch was ready and it was time to sit down for round one of the feast filled day. Mrs. Cranky had a beautiful dining room table set and decorated. My dad and brothers sat at one end of the table and Mrs. Cranky’s family at the other. Since I was so caught up ogling and obsessing, all the seats at the big table became taken. There wasn’t a spot left. I was stuck sitting at the fold out table attached via “T” style, parked in the foyer, next to the front door. Being the princess that I am, I was slightly miffed. After all, I just drove north with three kids and a dog, eleven hours in horrendous traffic, and then hopped in the car again. I spent a lot of time traveling to spend time visiting my family and I get stuck at the kiddie table?! Really? This is how her majesty is treated?! “Oh well, no biggie,” I thought and quickly got off my thrown.

I took my place at the head of the fold out table and started to eat my bacon while five kids ages three through eleven reached and grabbed, were active and loud. Ready to pull out my hair, Andre and Lena joined me in the chaos. Suddenly the fold out table by the front door felt like the head table at the royal ball. I felt like I got the big end of the wishbone and my wish came true.

My daughter, mom and I watch the show “Dancing with the Stars” religiously. In fact, we just finished immersing ourselves in Season 17. We love the show and the dancers. We have gained such a keen eye we are able to accurately predict the judges’ scores and comments. The glitz and glamour is magnificently eye catching, and the dancers, those dancers, they are so talented. They are artists and athletes wrapped in a pretty, perfect packaged. They perform flawlessly to any dance style, have multiple routines seamlessly memorized like a pianist memorizes a ten page classical piece. But my fascination with ball room dancing goes even beyond the show.

Andre, Lena, and I conversed very nicely. They are super down to earth and very Americanized for two people who seem so foreign to me. As new parents, they were so cute and doting, and I loved observing their family interaction. We traded parenting stories, laughing all the while. But I felt compelled to tell them a story.

“Andre and Lena, let me tell you a story. A couple of years ago I was at your studio when Mr. and Mrs. Cranky had their apr├Ęs wedding celebration. Remember?”

“Yes, I do.” Andre responds.

“Well Andre, I was at a very low point in my life when I attended the party. I was going through something extremely traumatic and stressful.”

Lena said, “Traumatic and stressful? Try having to stand in line for a roll of toilet paper.” Well she didn’t really say this but I imagine she was probably thinking it.

“I was going through a difficult period. I felt very sad and my heart was very heavy. A dark cloud hung over my head.”

“I see,” said Andre.

“Well you see Andre, that night was magical. One of your dancers from the studio went around asking guests to dance. I was one of the chosen ones. This dancer asked me to dance the waltz with him. Why I had never danced the waltz before? Playing in the background was this beautiful piece. This dancer gently reached for my hand and told me he would teach me. He instructed me to dance one, two, three, four, in a square pattern. We glided around the entire ballroom as if we were floating on a white, fluffy cloud. I felt transported to a place of beauty. I felt stunning. We glided around and around. I felt elated. This dancer ignited a spark inside of me that was dead. I felt alive, I felt so alive. I felt happy, I felt so happy. I was glowing. That gift of dance reminded me what happiness was and gave me hope. Andre, after the song ended, I gave the dancer a hug and thanked him so much for giving such a gift. To this day I remember the feeling of gliding along the dance floor and how high I felt. Something as simple as music and a dance awakened my soul. I will never forget that experience.”

Andre listened so intently to my diatribe and replied, “Zat is za feeling I get every time I dance. Dancing is like a drug.” When he told me this he was glowing and beaming, truly loving and grateful for his talent and fortune to be able to have dancing in his life. Lena too, shook her head in agreement.  I felt as if as if I understood their world, speaking the same language, albeit a brief and passing moment.

Then Andre gently reached for my hand, held it lightly, and said, “My dear, I vaz za vone zat taught you the valtz. I am glad you enjoyed za dance.”

Lena, Andre and Sergei said their goodbyes as it was time for their son’s nap. They would not join us for dinner. My encounter with them was short but out of this world. I had been transported to another planet. I was grateful for so many things that Thanksgiving day. To be able to gather with family in a warm home with good food and good company is a blessing. Being able to revisit a special moment and catch a glimpse into a world of such talented individuals was the whipped cream on my pumpkin pie.

See for yourselves the beauty these too bring to the world. Thanks Andre and Lena!!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Decisions, Decisions....

“Travel penetrates your consciousness, but not in a rational way.” Milton Glasser

The countdown to Turkey Day is tomorrow. Well at least it was when I wrote this blog. This past Tuesday the three kids and I, and the dog, drove north to be with our family for Thanksgiving. I had hoped to beat the major holiday rush. The kids missed two days of school, but I figured it would be worth it to get a jump start on the traffic. Maybe bypass most of it?

The trip started out promising. The roads weren’t too bad until, as expected, we hit traffic right before Washington, DC. I was hopeful we would bypass this likely scenario but no such luck. I accepted this setback as I always prepare for traffic at this stage of the trip. I was still hopeful that after we passed through our nation’s capital, the trip would be smooth sailing.

The rest of the trip was horrendous is the best word I can use. We hit pocket after pocket of traffic. For four hours traffic was stop and go, at speeds of 5 and 15 mph. What should have been a seven hour trip turned into eleven hours in a Nor’easter, with rain and wind attacking the road ways.

Keeping a sharp eye on the road for eleven straight hours, and grappling with the potential for hydroplaning, takes a toll on the body and mind; lights in front and to the rear, rain reflecting in every direction; stop and go, red and white, stop and go, red and white. My three kids were angels but even they reached their limit, and then mutiny erupted.  

Dehydration set in as I did not allow myself consumption of too many liquids in an effort to deter too many potty visits. I tried passing the time with The Sundays, Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Billy Joel, Rage Against the Machine (too much to censor), and finally peace with Chopin at my son’s request. We could sail along at turtle speed with Chopin: Nocturnes, Fantasies, Polonaise, and Waltz. But then I couldn’t take them anymore!

I made a couple of phone calls of vents and complaints to my family. Some cuss words thrown in beneath my breath. Regretting my decision to make the trip, I swear to the kids that, “We will never, ever, ever make the drive north again over the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Inch by inch we finally arrive. Four hours after our initial ETA, I needed a big glass of wine. That night I didn’t sleep at all. I was so wired from the trip I had the worst case of insomnia. While awake through the night I did a lot of thinking. I did a lot of thinking about what I thought about on the eleven hour trip and what I thought about on the eleven hour trip was the same subject. The more I tried to change the subject in my head, the more it kept coming back at me. I was having a post travel break down and dwelling, alright obsessing, over past decisions.

Wednesday was a new day. Thanksgiving was a great day. Thursday night I was stricken with the same stomach bug my nephew contracted. So Friday and Saturday, not so good. The drive home, although late at night, was pleasant and fortunately I was not plagued with another episode of insomnia from a long drive. But while reflecting on the trip I wondered, was my decision to make this journey the right decision? We could have stayed in the comfort of our home, spent Thanksgiving with my aunt and cousins in North Carolina, and had plenty of chillax time; maybe gotten our Christmas tree a little early and savored decorating our house in preparation for Santa, saved some gas money too. But no, I had to revel in the thought of spending solid quality time with family members I rarely get to see. Nothing wrong with that but was it worth it? Was the pain of the journey worth the payoff?  I believe it was.

However, in questioning my decision, I flirt with a little philosophy on decision making in general. What I have concluded is that decisions are made based on the knowledge provided at the time. Choices are made for a reason. Make them and move forward. Make them with courage of conviction. Don’t turn back, because sometimes the roads are too deep for a U-turn.   

In the case of traveling during Thanksgiving week, the negatives were minor: a rather unpleasant day spent driving, a sleepless night, and the day after road lag. OK, and the stomach virus was not so good. However, the payoff of being with family was worth the minor discomforts. Other decisions have much greater consequences with pain so great that only time can heal and only time can tell where that choice will lead. Don’t look back. Was the choice a mistake? Maybe, but mistakes are part of life. We learn from them as parents always say. They leave room for growth and direction for the next trip; hopefully with no traffic to slow down the journey.