Season of believing…

santaphotoI am not “ready” for Christmas. On my commute this week, I imagined what it would be like to arrive at Christmas Day with no gifts. My feet lifted off the ground and for a moment I was suspended above the great Mississippi River bluffs. Woozily, my senses grabbed hold of my boots just in time and I settled back into planning who will get what.

My kids, well beyond the years when many give up the dream, wholeheartedly believe in Santa Claus. So we welcome him into our home for the entire month of December.

And that man has some serious baggage.

My husband and I both have great childhood memories of cutting out pictures of toys from the JCPenny catalogue and dropping thick, pasty letters into the red mailbox at the mall. My brother and I would endure sitting on Santa’s “helper’s” lap to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, despite his cigarette breath.

Our kids are much more choosy about lapping men in red suits. They have a list of Santas they suspect are “real,” including the one we saw hopping on the Amtrak at the historic train station in Red Wing, the one that helped us strap our Christmas tree to our car, or the guy with the white beard walking down our street in suspenders THE DAY of the first snow – they were suspiciously magical beings. The ones that invite them to their laps – nope/never/no way/utterly destructive to the reputation of Mr. AwesomeClaus. I am glad they are choosy.IMG_9038

As new parents, we started simply – a tree, cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and one present. By two kids, we wrote letters to the North Pole and allowed one request of Santa. By three kids, we had engaged the myth he was watching them for good behavior. And suddenly this year, all our halls are decked, the elf makes daily appearances, an advent calendar marks the days, the Polar Express is real (and costs $80) and St. Nick has to find a way to live up to the puppy he left in my kid’s boot last year.

And there is no going back.

My youngest son, being new (in his limited memory) to advent calendars, found the thing stuffed with exceptionally difficult to find itty-bitty toys and candies and little tiny notes from mom and dad, and must have thought this was the craziest, coolest THING upon which he had ever stumbled. Being the 3rd, I realized in retrospect that he never got the one-per-day and oooooaaaaaahhh this is such a cool thing it should be respected talk (as if that would have helped—whom am I kidding?) Poor thing gave into his urges, ate every bit of candy, lost, destroyed or claimed every toy, and for some reason (omg) sunk every little note in his cup of milk. It’s done for the season. His big brothers were so horrified they weren’t even mad I basemented it instead of refilling it. Its like we decided collectively we couldn’t go through that again.

Now let’s talk about the Elf. My kids received Elf on the Shelf as a gift. I think the gifters might even find it funny how undone we’ve been by him. If you don’t know this homely creature’s story, the rules are 1) he moves DAILY, 2) he must never be touched (his magical powers at stake) and 3) he sends messages to Santa about the kids in the house (I lobbied for husbands too but the husband didn’t buy it). You might think one could bend the rules, but no, he comes with a storybook, which amounts to a contract for all parents who have naively welcomed elves into their homes.

This is a lot of work for parents: manic morning elfscapades, midnight fights over elf-relocation, the transcription of children’s letters-of-complaint to Santa (like when he is “lazy” and does not move). I fully planned to ditch the elf this year. Then mom upon mom recounted their kids’ sweet morning discoveries, my children started asking about Marlog (our elf), and I caved. His first morning was magical – there he appeared, riding the Swedish reindeer decoration. By morning two, I had forgotten, the kids were disappointed, and I stepped into my familiar role of writing new rules (excuses) for Marlog’s poor behavior. “Oh he only moves after all the kids in the house have seen him and since your brother had a sleepover last night, he’s stuck there awhile.”

Hook. Line. Sinker. My neighbor’s kid had his doubts about the gluey-eared “elf” who gave him a legit PRESENT at a Christmas party. But the Elf on the Shelf seems to beg no uncertainty, which is even wilder if you’ve seen the thing.

Melfphotoarlog has skinny legs, a cherubic face, a jester’s collar and no feet. He had hands but the puppy from St. Nick chewed them off. One evening last year we were eating dinner and our “cute” elf was catapulted to the salad from his spot in the light fixture above. I went to pick him up and my oldest yelled, “No – you can’t touch him – he will lose his magic!” My kindergartner wailed, “Marlog is dead!” Time stood still long enough for me to imagine the merits of this option: an elf funeral could put an end to this nonsense.

But I couldn’t do it. I picked up Marlog and put him in the crèche scene with the angels and the wise men. My children bemoaned me until I explained, “Spending a little time here will bring back any special powers I stole by touching him.”

Speaking of the manger, this season I’ve heard some colorful commentary on this old story. For instance, Nadia Boltz Weber, an amazing minister, author and as it applies, veteran of childbirth, wondered if the little drummer boy was really a “gift” to Mary? Did Mary honestly give a dam that the 9-year-old banging his drum throughout her barnyard labor with a bunch of strange men and stock animals was “playing his best for her?”

And one of our favorite local musicians, John Munson, recently reflected on Joseph. Imagine the love and trust it took for Joseph to look at his beautiful, young, virgin wife and say, “An angel said, WHA?” and believe her.

Christmas is entirely about believing. First Jesus, angels on high, then Santa, also St. Nick, the Christmas Spider, the Polar Express, Rudolf, the peppermint pig, talking snowmen and now, ubiquitously, Elves on Shelves. Unfortunately, children’s wonderment is particularly marketable. We’ve put incredible pressure on families to buy dreams-come-true for their kids. But Amazon and Walmart and Macy’s don’t make decisions for us. They offer stuff (too much stuff). We are still in charge of the limits and the magic.

The stuff in Santa’s baggage can’t hold a candle to the magic–we can’t get enough of it! Take it from someone who sustains elfscapading against her better judgment, who once stayed up until 4am to guard a discontinued electric train on Ebay auction, and who rigged a system for placing Christmas presents under the tree invisibly in order to evade her son’s video surveillance system. I know someday Santa’s fairytale will crumble and we are bound for a little disappointment. But so far, there seems to be very little harm, and a good deal of humor, in believing.

My friends call me Ellen…

maryshadowI cried off and on for 24 hours after I saw Saving Mr. Banks; a mix of happy and sad tears.  From the movie, Pamela Lyndon Travers appeared to rectify the ugliest parts of her childhood by crafting Mary Poppins and releasing her to Walt Disney. We saw her catharsis at the premiere. She wept. She smiled. She changed.

Its not a true story. She loathed the film; that’s why she cried. In 1995 she released the rights to Broadway only after they conceded to portray the darker stories written in her books. The darker stories were about her former self, Helen Lyndon Goff, who she left behind in Australia when she became an author and actress named P.L. Travers in her 20’s. In her books, a magical governess saves Mr. and Mrs. Banks  from their misery. Though you won’t find this in the film nor book, the truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Travers Goff (Pamela’s parents) needed saving from stress, addiction, suicide, and influenza.

In her story the children did not need to be saved. They were fine. Always fine. Tough. Impermeable. The children did not start out that way. They were fun-loving and enjoyed the story-telling and indulgent illusions of their father. But after his tragic death by alcoholism and influenza and their humiliated mother’s suicide attempt, they no longer relaxed into fantasies like frivolous love, dancing penguins or spun stories. Mary Poppin’s role was to prepare them for a harsh world where they would always be safe, sober and under control.

Ellen is my very own Pamela Travers; as tightly wound as Pam’s pin curls. Ellen has her other defenses too; self-deprication, perfectionism, fear, care-taking–all drives to distract from the toughest parts of my childhood. Ellen is a joke among my friends, as she should be. Our defenses aren’t who we are and I am all for poking fun at them, needling them, forcing them to dance with animated penguins. When my friends call me “Ellen,” its a reminder that the better parts of me deserve their fair shine. It doesn’t really matter they don’t know where Ellen came from; they know the real me. Ellen is at war with humor, softness, emotionality, spontaneity and lightness. Like Pamela, she wants to go to the bar and have friends. But if her guard goes down, the pain surfaces, and Pamela mustn’t allow that. I wish not to become Ellen the way Helen Lyndon transformed herself into Pamela. She left behind the little girl behind who laid eggs on the steps and road horses like the wind.

But that also successfully stamped out Mr. Banks, the alcoholic, and Mrs. Banks, his distraught wife. After the movie, I  thought perhaps crafting an adorable children’s story to repaint the harder years of my childhood would be therapeutic for me too. But here, again, is the truth of her story; Pamela was never super happy. Helen Lyndon surfaced enough for her to author whimsical children’s stories, study Zen Buddhism, fall in love with her flatmate, and live for a year with a Hopi tribe. But sadly, Pamela won. According to Emma Thompson and the New York Times, her grandchildren claim she died “loving no one and with no one loving her.”

And here is my truth: I value love and happiness.  My dad, who fought depression for decades of my life, is absolutely heroic for surviving and for helping others who hurt like him. My mother, who remains at his side, is absolutely My Hero.  Fiction couldn’t paint a better story. Given the tools they had, their dedication to parenting, their commitment to joy, and the effort it takes to parent at all, I am blown away by their ability to raise two happy, stable, thriving teenagers who felt loved and supported by their parents. My dad carried that burden, and as a psychiatrist he fervently and brilliantly served the needs of thousands of depressed and anxious people, and still managed to love his wife and his kids to pieces.

I am happy to say that Ellen is not always present in my life, especially when things are smooth, and definitely when things get busy. I love busy. I love exciting. I love stress. We all do, us adult-children-of-parents-with-miscellaneous-battles. When my guard falters; when I have pain, grief, disappointment or limbo, I am surprised by my resilience, but I am also surprised by my anxiety. I am surprised by Ellen’s attempts at toughness, control and safety. She fears friends knowing she has weaknesses. She’d rather appear angry than sad. She craves stability. She wants to throw a pillow over her head and unhear the arguments at night that plagued some yucky years of her life. She wants to run away. Ellen actually believes people are angry with her when she feels down and exposes wounds. Some of them might be, especially the ones with a little inner Pamela, but we all have our better sides.

So please, call me Ellen. I want to remember she is there. I want to remember to subdue her; to remind her that I am fine. I don’t need her help anymore. I want her to hear my friends laugh at her; the ones that call her out, and love the real me.

I am amazed by my mother’s levity during the hard times. Her sense of humor, overarching love, and willingness to talk made everything ok. I see everything that is wonderful in my dad, without hesitation, and find inspiration in his tenacity.  I hope they feel incredibly proud of the adversity they overcame and the life and love they gave me. I am delighted to say that I am not really Ellen or Pamela, though I cried buckets for them both. In the end of my story, I choose happiness and love. And on the very hardest of days, I sneak a spoonful of sugar or two. See my list.

Spoonfuls of Sugar:wtie
1) Hugs
2) Sunsets/sunrises/sun on snow/warm sun/all things sunshine
3) Snowfall in trees
4) Kids in ties at inappropriate times
5) Handfuls of 
chocolate chips
6) Kids outside with rosy cheekssunsetmpls
7) All songs, Paul Simon
8) Inexplicable things in nature
9) Poems by Mary Oliver
10) Puppies and babies
11) Brightly colored fabric
IMG_0001_312) Hats, all types
13) Singing
14) Swimming in lakes
15) Snow days that force people to help each other
16) YMCA camps
17) Young people listening to old people
18) The things kids say, e.g., “do you think I could be the next Michael Jackson?”
19) The OlympicsKidsbooks
20) Tea
21) NeighborlinessIMG_4126
22) Falling into deep snow
23) Whiskey with honey
24) Down comforters
25) Friends
26) Family
27) Reading 
28) Theater
29) Evergreens
30) Mary Poppins

What are your spoonfuls of sugar?  Please comment.

I am on the naughty list…

IMG_1737 IMG_1559 IMG_0001_3 IMG_9038 IMG_5603 IMG_2616 IMG_2202 Yesterday I was taking our food processor down from a high shelf when the blades careened to the ground on which my kids stood. I yelled “crap.” My five-year-old and nine-year-old looked up at me with cheeky grins and Tennyson responded, “now you’re on the naughty list.” So, I replied, “shit.” They covered their mouths and brightened their eyes and threw their heads back, shocked. We laughed our heads off, together. It was worth it.

I miss my dog. My mom is back in the hospital. And, miscellaneous. Arguments, let downs, fears. We’ve all had those weeks. Months. Years? Some weeks just kick us in the ass, right? I can write that because I’m already on the naughty list. I have learned an invaluable lesson in the worst of times; we don’t know each others’ pain. We care. We show up. But we can’t know the specific hues of what others go through, even if we love them. Understanding this gives us a greater capacity for community. I’m constantly mind-boggled by human endurance. With all the LIFE that keeps happening, how is it people smile again, laugh? When my son was crying for his dog the other night he asked me in his 9-year-old words, how do we do this? I told him the only way to get to the other side of pain is to go through, and we go through it together.

For those of you who are friends and family, I’m there. I will bring baked goods and hot dish and I will listen. I have amazing friends, family and neighbors, so I try to pass it on. For those of you who I don’t know, I will be here. I will never claim to truly understand your journey and tenacity. But I will put my heart out here as something you can cling to, attempting to find the 2 percent of life that might make you laugh, weep, ignite, and continue.

A couple winters ago I lost my favorite left mitten and kept its right counterpart. A few days ago I found the left, pink stain and all, laying on the ground beside the path where I walk most days. A little voice said, “be open to the gifts of this year.” Sometimes you need a little magic to feel brave enough to keep going.

I used to lead backpack trips, One of my 17-year-old campers once said to me at the end of a grueling 13-mile hike up and down cliffs, over waterfalls and across rivers, “I must store a tiny reserve of energy in the smallest part of my baby toe.” All life contains 2 percent magic. What’s your magic?

Does God Send Saints?

gebotrunk 20131202-000541.jpg Jason and I spent the morning in sleeping bags, lying with Gebo in the yard. Our friend and doula, our life-cycle specialist, visited with flowers just before the vet arrived. Gebo gave her an enthusiastic greeting and kiss (he rarely kissed), but he could not stand. She spooned us spooning him. We cried in great heaving sobs. She met the vet at the door. I’m not sure we otherwise would have responded to the nauseating knock. But with Gebo’s comfort and dignity in our hands, we banked on there being a better place for our very old, very wise, very loved pet. We agreed it would never feel right, maybe because his mind and his eyes were the same as always, or maybe because he couldn’t give us express permission. His body was entirely used up. Gebo relaxed his head on my lap. We cried and held him. Jason choked out, “I have needed to cry like this for thirty years,” and thanked him for that departing gift. Gebo gently wagged his tail. The sedatives kicked in and the vet took the last step. His tail wagged euphorically and we whispered, “race on, Gebo,” through our tears. I felt a surge of tangible peace. “His heart has stopped.” I looked up at the sky for an eagle or rainbow, laughing at my ridiculousness. I chose the surge of peace as my sign. His quiet body rested in the sun. I curled him up. More sobs, last warmth, last goodbye.

In his final month, Gebo mentored me on my quest to meditate outside for fifteen minutes everyday. Within the first week we learned he was dying. Like Jason, Gebo gave me a departing gift; a few weeks of excused absences. We cocooned together. I stayed home, I said “no,” I turned off my phone and neglected email. I took time for myself. I hurt, I cried, I smiled, I listened. I woke up. I contemplated God. On day twenty-four I realized that preparing for the future demise of a very-much-present being is not, in fact, being present. Sitting in the woods, listening to the creek, sniffing leaves, tasting fall air, appreciating the universe, and watching Gebo watch squirrels; that is presence. He gave me an excuse to take long-overdue time to be quiet and observe. Now I can’t imagine facing this loss and losses yet to come without the weakness and strength I found in me my last month with Gebo.

photo-1Gebo’s gifts to my kids are countless. Most recently, he gave them grief lessons. This month we cried together, told stories, created Gebo-art, planned a memorial, discussed God/universe/magic and talked about Heaven/hereafter/souls. My children have excelled at this, teaching Jason and I in turn. We have prayed together, which is new. I nudged the kids to give Gebo a good solid goodbye before leaving for school the morning he could no longer stand, and they were not shy with hugs, kisses, I love you’s and gratitude. When we met them at the bus and told them Gebo was gone, they leapt into our arms. We walked home and looked through photos, drew pictures, made a flip-book of Gebo rolling in leaves, lit candles. Tenny soothingly finger-knitted us bracelets. Wilder shared, “this candle is glowing brighter than other candles because his spirit is here. Oh, there goes a spark–that must be him taking my prayer up.” Tenny said to me, “mom, don’t hold back your tears.” Even our two-year old informed us, “Gebo went to Heaven’s house,” and was a little mad that HE didn’t get a playdate with this Heaven character. Wilder explained that God greeted Gebo upon his arrival and swiftly helped him find his old friends. How could they be so good at this? They have found what consoles them.

The next day, I stood where he died in our yard. All is not blissful in nostalgia, even in a well-earned, timely and poetic death. Death sucks. I ache. I miss my dear friend. Wow—people endure much, much worse. We will endure worse. It’s no wonder at all that God has to exist in order to ease our suffering.

In the spring we will make a gravestone, bury his ashes, and plant a tree. We will see him in the sunshine. He will force us to believe that souls endure. I still anticipate his greetings when I come home. I long for him. Today I heard his long exhales around the house. My inner cynic chastised me for thinking the furnace noises were Gebo all these years. The believer fought back with doggie angel visions. The buoyant me, the one that learned a thing or two from that dog, just smiled and said “Gebo” without questioning.

gebocup