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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just call me Scrooge

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. Christmas is the best time of the year. I love the meaning behind it and all the traditions. I love everything about it – except one thing.

What is there not to love about Christmas? Just this. It gets over. Waking up the morning of December 26 gives me the worst feeling ever. Call it anti-climax, I guess, but after a month of anticipating, planning, wrapping, baking, mailing and even stressing a little, having it suddenly end is a sinking, depressing sort of feeling I’d rather not go through every year.

I’m not proud of this. In fact, I struggle to even admit it, but the evidence is clear. Yes, I tend to downplay the excitement of celebrating Christmas so that the fall from the mountaintop doesn’t make for such a hard landing. Without meaning to or even realizing it was happening, I’ve fallen into this trap of minimizing the effort and therefore the joy of the most Holy Day of the year just to avoid the deflation that comes when its over.

This shameful attitude is most apparent in my house. When my children were little, I spent days decorating for Christmas. Downstairs, upstairs, hallways, their bedrooms, even bathrooms were all adorned with lights, candles and tinsel. It took several minutes just to turn out all the lights every night, hoping I didn’t forget some obscure window somewhere that was glowing with Christmas cheer. Oh, it was such fun to get out all my special Christmas things and place them artistically and creatively around the house. I would have new things every year to add to the festive atmosphere, bags of bargains from last year’s after-Christmas sales, things I received as gifts the year before, even new things I would purchase in preparation for the holiday, not to mention the new tree ornament everyone in the family received each year. My poor son #3, unfortunate enough to have been born in mid November, would usually receive some sort of special Christmas item as a birthday gift. My oldest son ha(s)d a nutcracker collection that multiplied itself exponentially every year and eventually required nearly our whole living room to display. Oh, indeed it was breathtaking to behold!

And so, little did I know, all this Christmas spirit and holiday fervor would become the cause of my current difficulty. As you might imagine, the task of packing away all this paraphernalia required astronomical amounts of time and effort, not to mention cardboard boxes, tissue paper and storage space. Add this to the misery of the “down-in-the-dumps” attitude I experienced at the sudden crash of my heightened anticipation of the big event and I had major emotional repercussions to dig my way out of. (btw, I’m not real good at that sort of thing.)

There were a few years I actually took vacation days from my job at the bank for no purpose other than to put away Christmas. They were horrible, long, teary days that gave me no sense of satisfaction at the work accomplished. I’d keep telling myself, just 11 more months and then I can get it back out again. Wow! Talk about counting down the days to Christmas – I was the champion. One year, I actually paid one of my sons (he shall remain nameless but he knows who he is) to accomplish this daunting task for me. Actually, he did pretty well. I remember coming home from work, being fairly impressed that almost everything Christmas was now out of sight and out of mind. For the meager wages I paid, it seemed like a pretty good deal – that is until I went to get the things back out the next year. We won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say there wasn’t much effort put into the packing and the mess that greeted me when I opened those boxes was no cause for rejoicing. Lesson learned. You get what you pay for.

So, now here I am, present day, kids grown, no longer enamored by such mundane things as cardboard Santa Claus cutouts, talking Christmas trees named Douglas or even nutcrackers. My motivation and ambition is gone. By now you know where this is going so I’ll just be blunt about it. I don’t decorate anymore. There. I said it. I’m a grinch. I’m a burger-meister-meister-burger. Let’s face it. I’m a scrooge.

All I can think of when the Christmas things (the absolute bare minimum, mind you) come out each November is how awful it will be when I have to perform the annual drudgery of putting them away again. Most of my boxes of those things I used to enjoy so much, remain sealed up tight, hidden away in buried alcoves of our garage-slash-fireworks stand, where I probably couldn’t get to them anymore even if I wanted to. And the most humiliating admission of them all – oh, I hate to even say it – I have tried to talk my family into a fake Christmas tree so all I have to do every year is put it back in a box. No – they haven’t agreed and I still have to un-ornament, un-light, de-tinsel and sweep up all the dry needles every year. Still, I keep trying. Maybe a pretty little purple tree that would sit on the coffee table would be nice.

So now, come to my house and you will see our huge Christmas tree, decorated now with all the ornaments from the past, at least the ones that belong to two of my kids. I gave son #1 all of his ornaments last year since he had just gotten married and they had none. Alas, he won’t take the nutcracker collection. Go figure.

Move past the big Christmas tree with all of son #2’s ornaments hanging in one very weighted down spot he happened to find convenient, and you will see our crocheted Christmas stockings and all my beautiful angel figurines my husband and kids have given me. It makes a beautiful table. Then…… nothing. No other decorations anywhere save my Christmas carol clock in the kitchen, which I love to hear chime the hour with a holiday tune. My sweet husband, ever eager to please, has put up the string of lights outside the house that makes us appear a little more festive than I actually am, but then he’s the one that has to take those down.

So, on December 26, or whenever I put it off to before the tree dries up and sheds so many needles I’ll still be picking them up next Christmas, all I have to do is get the tree un-beautiful, throw everything else in a big plastic trash bag and carry it to the basement until next year. It still takes an hour or two, but then its done and I can concentrate on getting over my sour-Cindy attitude, secretly feeling highly superior to all the people that celebrated so much they’re still taking down decorations in mid-January. Ha! I really outsmarted all of them – right?

So, here’s the point I’m trying to make with all this confession. Don’t miss the blessings of today by worrying over tomorrow. Enjoy the gifts of this life as they come your way and revel in the moments at hand. If you let worry and fear of tomorrow cloud the happiness of the right-now, your gifts remain unopened and unappreciated. Unwrap each one, save the paper and bows if you want, cherish them, treasure them, and savor the joy. You’ll be glad you did, because when tomorrow (or December 26 as the case may be) rolls around, even if they’re all packed away in tissue paper and cardboard, the memories are yours to hold in your heart forever – and no grinch can ever take that from you.

Merry Christmas and please - decorate to your heart’s content!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Thanksgiving Story

A THANKSGIVING STORY

The car bounced and rattled over the gravel roads as we neared Grandma’s house   My two kids jumped up and down with excitement despite my admonitions for quiet and I couldn’t really blame them.  Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays and going to the house where I grew up to celebrate with my mom and dad made the holiday special.
            Jeremy had been talking about his pumpkin pie for the entire last week.  Grandma always made him a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving because she knew it was his favorite.  Grandma made the best pumpkin pie in the world according to my 9-year-old son and I was inclined to agree. 
“Grandma’s making turkey and potatoes and rolls too, and red Jello salad with cranberries,” 7-year-old Jessica piped in.  “But I’m saving room for the pumpkin pie.”
Russ laughed.  “Me too, Jess,” my husband agreed.  “Your Grandma’s the best cook ever. Next to your Mama, of course,” he added just in time with a grin in my direction. 
We turned down the rock covered lane, a dusting of snow over the brown lawn looking as if someone had used a giant salt shaker to decorate with little swirls and curlicues through the big front yard.  In spring it was colorful with grass and flowers, but winter cold had changed it to drab brown and gray.  The sky was overcast, dark low-hanging clouds contrasting with the lighter colored ones above. In spite of the cold, Dad came out onto the old front porch and waved at us and we pulled into the driveway. 
“Grandpa!  Grandpa!” Jeremy and Jessica jumped out of the car before I could remind them to put their coats on first, and ran to him.  He enveloped them in a huge hug, then one child under each arm, he beckoned to Russ and me as we got out of the car a little more sedately than our children.
“Hi, Dad!” I called.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Russ shouted, loud enough for mom to hear inside the house.  “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Sure is,” Dad nodded in agreement and I laughed aloud at them.  In spite of the gloom and cold, I knew they both really meant what they said.  Being together made it a beautiful day.  My sister and her family would be at her in-laws this year so it was just us, but still, anytime my kids could be with their grandparents was special.
Mom hugged us all in turn as we entered the warm, aromatic kitchen.  The table was set for six and the smell of fresh rolls in the oven made my stomach rumble.  I set the spice cake I brought on the counter top where a pecan pie and a plate of oatmeal cookies waited.  “What can I do to help, Mom?”
“Not a thing.  Dinner’s almost ready.  I just need to take the rolls out of the oven.  Oh, maybe you could find that carving knife your dad likes to use for the turkey.” 
I stared at her for a minute.  Her tone sounded worried.  But, she said nothing further as she thrust her hand into potholders and pulled the pan of golden brown rolls from the oven.
I rummaged through the utensil drawer and quickly found the carving knife.  “Anything wrong, Mom?”  I tried to keep my tone casual.
“No,” then quickly, “not really.  I was just wondering if you think Jeremy will be disappointed.  You see….”
At that moment Jeremy and Jessica bounded into the room.  “Is it time to eat yet, Grandma?”
“Yeah, I’m starving and it smells real good in here…”
I followed Jeremy’s gaze to the counter top where the desserts waited.  “Hey where’s my pumpkin pie?”
Yes, where was the pumpkin pie?  I knew Mom wouldn’t forget Jeremy or his pumpkin pie.  Maybe it was in the refrigerator.  I threw her a glance.  Worry creased her forehead.  Uh oh.  Maybe she burned the pie and had to throw it out?  No, Mom never burned anything.  What was I thinking?
“Jeremy, honey, come here a minute.  I have something to talk to you about.”  Mom held out her arm to him and I watched as he hesitantly edged to her side and let her draw him against her.  “Let’s go sit down.”
I could tell he was suspicious.  How would he react if Mom said she burnt his pie?  Would he be grown up enough to handle it or were we in for a temper tantrum? I started toward them but Mom motioned me back.  Dad and Russ now stood in the kitchen doorway as well.  I had a feeling they knew what she was about to say.
“Jeremy, sweetie,” Mom’s voice still sounded worried as she pulled out two chairs and they sat down facing each other.  “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
His eyes narrowed and his lips formed a pout.  “What?”  I could tell he knew the bad news involved his pumpkin pie and he wasn’t happy about it.
This morning I was taking the pumpkin pie out of the oven.  It was beautiful and smelled so good.  But I heard a knock on the kitchen door.  I set the pie on the stove and went to see who was there.  It was the boy from the house down the road.  His family goes to our church in town and I think he’s about your age.  His name is Eric.”
“What did he want?”  Jeremy’s voice had grown even more suspicious. 
“Eric’s mother is in the hospital.  She’s been there for a couple weeks now.  The doctors say she’s going to get better, but it will take awhile longer.  People in our church have been helping out, bringing them meals, taking turns staying with Eric and his brother and sisters while his daddy goes to work, but it’s been really hard on their family to not have their mommy at home.”
Jeremy’s expression did not soften in the slightest.  “Where’s my pie, Grandma?”
“Jeremy….” I began, but Mom shook her head slightly at me and I didn’t finish my reprimand. 
“Eric came here this morning on his bicycle.  He only had a light jacket on so I invited him inside.  He stared at the pie I had just taken out of the oven and told me how good it smelled.  He said his mama always baked a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, but this year she couldn’t because she was in the hospital.”
She paused and suddenly I knew where this conversation was going.  Oh no.  Please, Jeremy, try to understand, I begged silently.  My nine-year-old son, focused only on his own wants and wishes, did not comprehend that his reaction to what was coming might very well break his grandma’s heart and ruin the holiday for everyone.
My mother continued.  “Eric said his daddy sent him over here to see if I had any catsup they could borrow.  He said his daddy was cooking hotdogs and they had run out of catsup.”
Here, Jessica who stood in the doorway by her father interrupted.  “Hotdogs on Thanksgiving?  What about the turkey?”
Grandma smiled slightly.  “That was my thought too, but I didn’t say anything.  I just went to the refrigerator and got the bottle of catsup for him.  But then poor Eric got tears in his eyes and said his daddy didn’t know much about cooking so he couldn’t make a turkey.  He said some of the church people have been bringing them casseroles and things but nobody brought a turkey and all his dad knew how to make was hot dogs.  He kept looking at the pie and finally I…I asked him if he wanted to take it home to his family.”
I looked hard at Jeremy, but he didn’t look at me or speak.  He just sat there staring at his grandmother, an array of emotion flitting through his big brown eyes. I wanted to cry.  Not for lack of a pumpkin pie, but for Eric, his family and the pain it brought my mother to relay this news to her grandson.   
Finally she went on.  “Eric’s eyes got big and round.  He could hardly speak.  He just whispered ‘thank you,’ picked up the pie and left, driving his bike one handed so he could hold the pie and headed for home.  He didn’t even remember to take the catsup bottle with him, but I suppose they won’t miss it too much.  I’m so sorry, Sweetie.  I know how you love pumpkin pie.  I promise I’ll bake you another one for Christmas.”
She looked hopefully at him, but still Jeremy didn’t move or speak.  We all watched him; even Jessica watched her brother as the news sank in and hugged her daddy’s leg as if uncomfortable with what might happen.
Finally, Jeremy met Grandma’s eyes with his, a frown forming on his lips.  I waited, not realizing I was holding my breath until I was forced to gasp for air.  But all my son said was, “Eric’s family don’t have a turkey?”
I resisted the impulse to correct his grammar.  What was he thinking?
Grandma shook her head.  “I guess no one in the church thought to invite them to Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Can we invite them?”
My mouth fell open in shock.  Was this Jeremy’s way of getting the pie back, or did his question run a little deeper?
Mom looked sad.  “I thought of that, but there are seven of them and I’m not sure there would be enough for all of us.  I didn’t make a lot of food since it was just going to be us and your Grandpa can’t eat up all those leftovers after you go home.  I was afraid we’d run short.”
“Well, maybe we could take our dinner to them, then.  Ya got any peanut butter?  I like PB&Js.”
His grandmother gasped in surprise.  In fact, all of us looked shocked.  Was this coming from my son?
“I don’t know, Sweetheart.  We’d have to pack up everything and drive it over there and maybe they’ve already eaten hotdogs and aren’t hungry anymore.  It’s nice of you to think of it, but I’m not sure it’s very practical.”
“I’ll help you,” he offered quietly.  “Please Grandma?”
Tear filled her eyes.  To be honest, tears filled my eyes too, and Russ’s as we stared at each other across the room.  Jess was practically sobbing as she joined in her plea.  “Me too, Grandma.  I’ll help.  I want Eric to have a turkey.  Puh-leeeeese?” she begged.
Suddenly, Grandpa’s laughter boomed through the room.  “That’s my grandkids!  All right, everyone, let’s find some boxes and get this Thanksgiving dinner on its way!”
Everyone sprung into action then, finding cardboard boxes, transferring dishes of potatoes, stuffing, green beans, even succulent light brown turkey gravy into an array of Tupperware containers for the trip to Eric’s house.  In a matter of minutes the feast was loaded into the car and my dad let Jeremy and Jessica go with him for the delivery. 
By the time they returned Mom and I had the makings for PB&Js on the table but the children hardly noticed.  Eyes shining as bright as Christmas morning, they told us about the expressions on the faces of Eric’s brothers and sisters as they unloaded the food and placed it on their table.  Eric’s father unashamedly shed tears of joy and gratefulness as the children crowded around the table staring at the delicious Thanksgiving dinner with eyes that betrayed both their delight and anticipation at the surprise holiday feast.  Dad was in tears himself as he added to the children’s descriptions of the surprised and happy family.
            I hadn’t given my son enough credit.  I was afraid he would have a temper tantrum and make it a difficult holiday for everyone.  Instead, he had blessed us all more than we could have dreamed possible with his generosity and love for people he didn’t even know. 
“I love you, Jeremy,” I whispered to him as I passed him the jar of grape jelly.  He pretended like he didn’t hear, but I know he understood how proud I was of him. 
I took a bite of the food in front of me.  Honestly, this has to the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I have ever eaten in my life.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The End

When you get done reading this, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page and take a look at my ACFW badge.  Yes, as a member of ACFW, I earn this badge to display on my blog or website when I complete a manuscript of at least 50,000 words(mine was 103,000 before edits - huh, maybe I should of divided it into two books and got two of these cool badges).  To most people it looks like a jpeg image of an ink well.  To me it signifies countless hours of thinking, planning, writing and writing some more (that's how I earned my NovelTrack badge over to the right:).  But, lest you begin to feel too sorry for me, I must confess what delightful, fun, intriguing, well spent hours those are!  Ooooooh - I love it! (writing - not the badge so much) I would rather write than clean my house (perfectly obvious).  I would rather write than go out to eat. (don't believe me ask my husband). I would rather write than go on vacation  (go ahead - ask me what I did on my week of vacation last summer - NOT the firework stand week!!, the other one.)  I would rather write than go to work (no such luck - I have to earn those two weeks of vacation).
Back to the story. When I finally reached the end of that book I experienced an odd thought.  To a writer, 'The End' is not the end.  It is only the beginning.  Once that whole plot, theme and characterization thing is there on the screen in black and write, my work has only started.  First come the read through edits, correcting miles upon miles of typos, misspellings, forgotten quote marks, maybe even adding a comma or two.  Usually takes at least two of those read throughs to catch most things.  Then, during the read through edits, I begin to get weird ideas like "Is that what I wrote? I thought it would sound different." or, "Hmmm. Wouldn't this read better if I did it this way instead of that way?" Maybe even, "What is Chapter Two doing there after Chapter One?  That should be back at Chapter 23!"
And so begins the 'real work'.  Countless hours of editing, polishing, re-editing, changing, undoing, redoing. reading, and rereading.  And let's don't forget those pesky writer's rules I didn't even know existed until after I'd already written several books.  No passives, show-not-tell, no info dumps, no buried dialogue, sparing use of lys,and the list goes on and on.  Oh well - rules were pretty much made to be broken, I figure.
And my least favorite of all the after-the-end-tasks, the dreaded cutting.  I mentioned this book had over 103,000 words (Notice my no-no use of the passive "had")  To put this in perspective, my first book was 57,000 words.  I added to it to get up to about 75,000 which is a much more acceptable length by industry standards.  A book you buy in the bookstore must be long enough that the reader doesn't feel cheated, yet short enough that the paper, ink, time, etc that goes into the production of said book does not cross the lines between profit and no-profit for a publishing house.   If you think adding to a book sounds difficult, you have no idea what difficult is until you start to talk about cutting.  Cutting? What's that?  No way!  This is my baby!  Every word of those 103,000 is a total gem and I couldn't possibly cut anything.  Oh, ouch!  No! not THAT scene!  It's pivotal to the whole book - but so is that one and that one too.  I hate cutting.  I'm not good at it.  It's painful.  I have a file on my computer where I actually store my cuts because they are so brilliantly done I could never come up with something like that again.  "Delete" is much too strong a word for my precious cuts.
Well, Ok, this isn't really the point of this blog (which I don't plan to cut - sorry).  The actual point I wanted to make is this.  How often in our daily lives do we think we've written 'The End' and just nonchalantly go on to the next thing?  Do you ever sit in church and wish the pastor would get done so church would be over? (I've NEVER done that, Todd!)  Do you read your scriptures in the morning, consider that done and close the Bible for the rest of the day? Do you throw a quarter in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas and figure you've 'fed the hungry' for another year?  Well, let me burst your bubble.  Our work is never done.  When we leave the church building on Sunday morning, that is only the beginning of our work in the lives of others we will encounter that week.  When you close the covers of your Bible, that scripture you read should be available for the rest of the world to read in your life and in your heart.  When you feed a hungry person for a day, they are hungry again the next day.  Just small examples, but you get what I mean.  Don't ever settle for writing 'The End' on the work God gives you to do then go on about your life. Keep your heart open to whatever He asks you to do, whenever He asks you to do it.  Remember, He's still editing on you!