Boxing Day

Today is not Boxing Day—that’s on December 26. Today will be about boxes, however, so it seemed a good place to start. Have you notice that we tend to assign meaning to words we don’t understand only to learn later that we’re wrong? For years, I and probably many Americans have assumed that Boxing Day is the time when the British set out their empty containers from Christmas gifts. Not so. This year, in a fit of looking things up, I learned the actual definition which unsurprisingly has nothing to do with the trash. A detailed description here can be summarized as a second Christmas, another giving of gifts to people who give us service. One might think of the mail deliverers, for example, although technically federal employees are not good examples because of the rules governing gifts for them. Read here if you aren’t offended by the term “mailman.” Nothing over $20 in value, no cash, gifts cards that cannot be redeemed for cash. Goodness. Anyway, originally the box was left with a potential gift giver in hopes of receiving money in it after that day’s work. Now it’s a day off in many places. The Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” is set on St Stephen’s Day, December 26, and this version features Jane Seymour explaining the feast. So you have heard of it before…

The phrase “Think outside the box” has obscure origins but probably wasn’t heard before the 1960s. Before that, people spoke of Columbus’ egg. (I know. Far afield.) An apocryphal story had a group of critics telling the explorer that discovery of new lands was inevitable and no great accomplishment. Columbus challenged them to stand an egg on its end, which seemed impossible. He then tapped the egg, and it stood. This monument is based on that story. Further exploration yields Tesla’s Egg of Columbus, a version in which electromagnetism was used to stand a copper egg on its end. The movie The Current War has nothing to do with eggs and everything to do with electricity; at least some of the struggle between Edison and Westinghouse is true. I do recommend it. Two words: Benedict Cumberbatch. Really off to the races with that one.

Finally, we talk about putting people in boxes. As a young singer who goes by Daya (Sanskrit word for compassion, kindness) suggests, “Believe in yourself, go after your dreams, and don’t let anyone put you in a box.” My thinking, however, is that these days lots of people, in fact, want to be identified as being in a certain box. It’s not the same as expectations. Recently, I met a woman from Oak Cliff. That is, geographically, a “box” into which people fit in Dallas. As it turned out, she graduated from Radcliffe College and had a master’s degree from Columbia. Impressive by any measure. Another woman I know leads with her school and accomplishments, later explaining she feels the need to do so. We are all in boxes, metaphorically. Being in and being are not the same thing, however. I am not the box. It just holds me. Molds me, if I let it. My preference is not to be what someone makes me. Taking Christmas boxes down from the attic, I discovered a badly tarnished necklace. Sterling, of course! I polished it and wore it all month. Shine on, whatever box you’re in!

Of Melamine and Mellorine: Gifts from My Mother

We had an odd childhood, my siblings and I. Our parents were a generation apart in their ages: my father would turn 113 today. They met after World War II. Men of marriageable age were few and far between after my mother graduated college in 1943. My father never got into high school, much less college. He was smart and wrote well, but education of the sort he lacked was required even in those days.

When I hear wonderful stories of Christmas memories, I don’t have much to add. We were poor people. Our stockings were two pair of my father’s socks, filled on Christmas morning with an orange and some walnuts. While my grandparents were alive, we went to their home for dinner. They were rich people, but still no stockings. It must have been a delicate balance: What to give us, what to withhold. I’m glad I didn’t know what went on. If the adults needed to talk, I was given a salt shaker and sent to hunt for a redbird. They explained I could catch him if I was able to sprinkle salt on his tail. But that’s a tale I’ve told before.

At home we ate on melamine plates. I remember when they were new, with a bit of orange and brown. They quickly faded and scratched. Here I learned a good bit about melamine’s chemical composition, history, and etymology. Interesting, but my word for our dinnerware? Tacky. At my grandmother’s we ate holiday dinners on Wedgwood (her pattern here), with the sterling and crystal, and always, always on a tablecloth. Everyday ware was Franciscan Desert Rose. I am rather fanatic about pink roses, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized why. They are my childhood.

A note about mellorine: I hope you’ve never had it. Here I learned more about this cheap substitute for ice cream. The replacement fat? Cottonseed oil. Who knew? It was a real treat when we upgraded to ice milk; this recipe includes only milk, sugar, and vanilla. Our versions surely had some preservatives.

So. Mellorine in melamine. Nothing but alliteration. I read recently that podcasts and blogs tend to be self-indulgent displays. I don’t want to do that but fear I have. Let me now share some magic.

Our mother wasn’t a great cook. She once went on a spree of giving us thinned Jell-O instead of sweetened Kool-Aid. The water in our town was seriously undrinkable, so we had a very lot of the latter. I can imagine some women’s magazine touting the substitution. It’s hard to imagine why: sugar is sugar. We had lots of hamburger meat because it was inexpensive. There was a time when we could buy 5 hamburgers for $1 at the neighborhood What-a-Burger. That was a problem since there were 6 of us. But I digress. Back to the magic: She would make us Snow Ice Cream when it snowed. It’s a real thing! Made with or without milk, it is delicious. And rare. It snowed rarely where we lived, but that made it all the more special.

Traditional banana pudding was her other success. This recipe takes it so personally: “Add your flour,” she says. We don’t do that in my family. It’s simply the flour.

Our mother also understood the value of art, not as product but as process. When I took up needlework, she expressed concern that I was using kits. “Be creative instead,” she urged, which meant, “Paint!” I couldn’t. I didn’t have talent. But she firmly believed that trying to make something new was more important than simply copying someone else’s efforts. My product was good, but it wasn’t really mine. I became instead a musician. Recently I heard Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite. The Farandole includes a long and prominent flute solo. I played that in high school, perfectly, as I recall. My uncle and future husband said so. It seems so long ago, of course.

So I thank her for having me. She loved me. I miss her. She passed away December 22, twenty-two years ago. It seems a long time too.

Last year the Tabernacle Choir featured Hugh Bonneville telling the story of the Spafford family. I thought I knew it: The mother sailing to France with her four little daughters is the only family surviving when their ship sinks. She sent a telegraph to her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do…” But there is so much more to the story than I knew. Listen here. You can cry during some, but you will likely be amazed. The Spaffords had three more children, losing one to scarlet fever as a toddler. Their daughter Bertha continued their work in Jerusalem, with an orphanage and later a children’s hospital. It is a heritage that even exceeds the beauty of the hymn.

From melamine to a ship sinking, from snow ice cream to our real work of the earth: to make someone else’s life better. I hope but can’t promise this is self-indulgent. Think kindly of those still with you this Christmas. You never know what they are remembering.

Christmas Hay

Two things to love about Christmas: the lights and the Light. Last night I attended a choir concert in a lovely old church in east Dallas. Candles were everywhere—artificial, of course, for safety and insurance purposes. Wreathes hung around the balcony twinkled. I wondered why we confine that specialness to so few weeks a year. Probably the beauty would grow dull in our little hearts, which is where we need to keep the Light anyway.

My church has a new video out. Each year I’ve posted an old favorite, the story of three brothers trying to get home for the reading of the Christmas story with “What Shall We Give?” as the music. Years ago, the daughter of a friend had just completed her master’s in performance at the University of Texas, on oboe. We were playing together on the Christmas program. I have no idea what I did, but I’ll never forget her rendition of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” unaccompanied. There was a visceral element because I could only see her back, and as she breathed the phrases, I could feel what she was instilling of her life into the music. Here is a version by The Piano Guys, with video about the life of the Light.

This year, back to the new video called The Christ Child, a completely different approach immerses us in the experience of Luke 2. It’s historically accurate in unexpected ways. My definition of art (“An activity or productivity in which an artist, using critical means, shares with percipients what it means to be human”) comes into play with the choices made here. The language is not King James English but Aramaic. More importantly, there is no translation, no subtitles to distract. It doesn’t matter. You’ll understand everything that happens. It’s that good.

One thing did puzzle me: Mariam (the only word other than Yosef that you’ll understand) sings a spontaneous lullaby to her newborn Light. The text is in Hebrew, the first verse of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” A deeper explanation and the Hebrew transliterated is here.

Below is another poem waiting to be a song (8 6 8 6). Why hay after so much light? In the video, Joseph prepares the manger, and you can tell what he’s thinking as he arranges that hay for the Infant in those rough conditions. Humbling indeed, to lay the Son of God in such a place, but Joseph does it with tenderness. Softening the stone is kind. And the song? The melody will have to be more beautiful than the words, but perhaps you can do it. Regardless, you can have the Light to guide you in other ways.

Christmas Hay

The manger lay all bare that night

So hard and rough and cold.

Oh, who would tend His bed that night?

Yes, who could be so bold?

 

The manger needed straw that night

For there a sweet child lay.

Oh, who would tend His bed that night?

And who would bring soft hay?

 

All angels sang of joy that night,

For there the Christ was born.

But who would tend His bed that night?

Can you his crib adorn?

Love Is a Lullaby

This week, two Syrups. One has a certain unpleasantness, and since it’s December, I don’t want you to have to choose that. Below is a Christmas lyric that I wrote some years ago and dedicated to a family who had recently suffered a profound loss. My daughter-in-law and I sang it for them, but that melody is lost. That is a gift I wish I had: Melodies are among the best to have.

I invite you to consider composing one. It’s regular-ish. 6 4 6 4, if you know about those things. I believe all lyrics have within themselves their own melodies, at least one. All you (and not me so much) have to do is listen and transcribe. Not even at the level of Mozart, who began writing symphonies practically at birth. So, an invitation. The world can always use another good Christmas carol.

Love is a lullaby

Sung quietly—

Love does so many things.

Love comforts me.

 

Kind acts of service done

When no one sees—

Good works enlarge our lives;

Love brings us peace.

 

Fears dwell in this old world,

Darker than night.

Fear not, my precious child—

Love brings the light.

 

Love came one Christmas Eve,

Sent from above.

Born as a little child—

Love came for me.

 

Love is a lullaby

Sung quietly.

Love came one Christmas Eve;

Love came for me.

Sweet Dreams: A Fake Ponytail and the FBI

Sweet dreams. So or grandmother wished for us when she tucked us in. The bed was soft, the pillow softer. It bliss, and we knew it.

Last night four people went to bed, settled in, tried to sleep. What I wonder about is their frame of mind:  smug or scared, victorious or defeated, regretful or resolved.

When this (mis)adventure began is hard to explain. The plane loaded on time, more or less. Departure was to be at 5:08, actually occurred at 5:20. The pilot wasn’t worried and announced 1:57 to Dallas, putting us there before scheduled arrival.

The view out the port side was beautiful. A deep red sunset lingered below a cerulean sky. Venus was mid-sky, Jupiter higher. Mars sat off to the left.  Clear and perfect. I watched the fading away of the light, slowed perhaps by the western flight.

The ugliness began as we landed. The plan had only three seats across—A, plus B and C. The man behind me in seat B caught my attention and said, “You know, the guy behind you has been playing with your hair the entire time. It was disgusting!” The contorted, knitted-brow look on his face reflected the seriousness of the charge; you just can’t say disgusting without a grimace. The man behind me, also in A, offered, “It was unintentional.” Man in B didn’t accept this, but I’m not sure exactly what he said. My only response was weak: “I didn’t feel anything. Most of the ponytail is fake.” Man B on my row confirmed that yes, this had happened. Ugh.

I couldn’t bring myself to look at the perpetrator of this invasion of privacy, this mild assault on my person. Exiting, I alerted the lone flight attendant and walked off just in time to stand in line for my door-checked bag. Bad Man would have had to walk by me, but since I didn’t really look him, I didn’t know when. Apparently, I’d made Tattling Man feel guilty, and he apologized as he left. Airline staff pulled me aside and asked for details, which I repeated to several people. Did I want to file a police report? Well…”want” is a strong word, but one tries to do the right thing. I did make a report, only to learn that the skies are the FBI’s.

To date, no one has reached out to me. (For the record, I dislike that phrase. Excuse me for using it.) The key, perhaps, is in the first policeman’s last question: “But did he touch your neck?” No. Just the hair, and half of that wasn’t mine.

So, lessons learned? Of course.

  1. Ignorance is only bliss until it’s gone. Then it can range from horror to outrage to embarrassment. A hint of victim guilt even. Would you (or I) have said something? One can hope.
  2. Visceral responses are unexpected. Why couldn’t I look at the man behind me? For those of us who sometimes honk, who sometimes stare down the driver afterward, it was odd.
  3. Time yields alternate responses. Perhaps (and most likely) he was just creepy, fetish-wise. But maybe not. Did I remind him of his long-lost granny? Or a furry pet he missed stroking? Did he “reach out” out of fear, or need? Sorry again. An entire series of short stories came to mind. I won’t write them, but still…
  4. The need to forgive is real. No one can do it for you. I can forgive this. Yesterday, we read these sentences from Elder Dieter Uchtdorf in my women’s meeting: “True disciples of Jesus Christ love God and His children without expectation of something in return. We love those who disappoint us, who don’t like us. Even those who ridicule, abuse, and seek to hurt us. When you fill your hearts with the pure love of Christ, you leave no room for rancor, judgment, and shaming.” Of course, I still had to make the police report. That’s not the point. I am fine. Others might suffer more.
  5. If I listen and wait, gifts come. Also yesterday, I heard the lyrics to “The Next Right Thing” in my women’s meeting. I haven’t seen Frozen 2. Here is Kristen Bell singing it, with the words written out. Best lesson of all: Do the right thing.

Sweet dreams? Sure. I could sleep that night. I don’t know about the other actors in my little plane drama. Off we all went into the night. My Lyft driver was from Cameroon. We talked about French and Africa. He loves to go home every year. Me, I get to live in mine.

 

 

My Hundred-Year-Old Cousin

My mom likes me to practice my company manners. “Jack, be polite,” she says. Not long ago, our neighbors, Mrs. Gardener and Mrs. Katz ,came to visit. They are older people and sisters, Mom said, but she reminded me not to ask them how old they are. They brought some just-out-of-the-oven oatmeal cookies, so Mom went to fix some lemonade. I asked our neighbors how they were.

Mrs. Gardener, who has her hair in little curls all over, said, “Why, just fine, Jack. How are you?”

I was glad she asked. “I’m fine,” I said. “And I have a hundred year old cousin.”

“Oh, really?” They asked both at once. “How nice.” I could tell that they had practiced their manners, so I went on.

“Yes, it is so nice. Her name is Cora. She invited me to her birthday party, and I’ve never even met her.” I paused a minute to let that sink in.

“My, my,” said Mrs. Katz. Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses. “That is quite polite of your cousin.”

“Yes, I think so. And besides being a hundred, she’s twenty feet tall, too,” I said.

“Oh?” Mrs. Gardener and Mrs. Katz looked at each other and smiled. I thought for a minute that Mrs. Katz might laugh, but her sister nudged her.

“Twenty feet is as tall as a two story house or a medium tree. My mom told me so.” I could not see anything funny with that news. My mom walked in with the lemonade. The cookies were waiting there on a blue platter, and Mom had made ice cold lemonade just for us and put it in her best glass pitcher. On the tray with the pitcher, there were four grown-up glasses and some little square napkins with flowers on them. The ladies noticed how nice everything was, and my mom thanked them and said it was nothing.

Then, after eating her coolie and a few minutes of being both polite and quiet, Mrs. Katz said, “Jack has been telling us about his hundred year old cousin… who’s twenty feet tall.” She smiled again and her eyes crinkled.

Mom raised her eyebrows. “Well, he does have a hundred year old cousin.” I smiled very big at that.

“Really? How interesting! And she’s having a birthday party’?” asked Mrs. Gardener.

“Yes. She lives in a nursing home, and one of her granddaughters has invited the family to a special celebration. Cora is—let’s see—my mother’s father’s mother’s first cousin.” Mom spoke slowly so we could figure it out. “But,” she added “she is not twenty feet tall. Jack?”

Everyone looked at me. I was surprised that they would stare

because Mom tells me that is not polite. So I told them how I knew about the twenty feet tall part.

“Remember when you said it didn’t look like Uncle Josh would ever stop growing? And he’s fifteen and already six feet tall? Well, if cousin Cora is a hundred, and she’s been growing and growing, she ought to be about twenty feet tall by now. Isn’t she?” My voice felt about one inch tall.

Mrs. Gardener said, “You know, that reminds me of my pothos. It’s my favorite plant, a kind of ivy. It grows in my kitchen and must be about twenty feet long. It goes over the south window, under the shelf with my cookbooks, behind the bird cage, and up the side of the refrigerator. And it’s only about thirty years old.”

She was nodding and thinking when Mrs. Katz exclaimed in a very loud voice, “Kangaroos!” Everyone jumped. “Yes, kangaroos. They keep on growing their whole lives through. Of course, they never get to be twenty feet tall, but then, they never live to be a hundred, either.”

Mom was nice. She said, “I can see how you might think that now, Jack, even if you didn’t know about philodendrons or kangaroos. But people stop growing at about eighteen or so. Cora is just a regular size.”

“Well, okay, I guess.” Then I asked if I could go outside to play. My company manners were all tired out.

Later I told the same story to my friend Marcus. The twenty feet tall part sounded pretty good, so I left it in. I was pretty sure he didn’t know about plants or kangaroos, but Marcus wouldn’t believe any of it. He said, “Oh yeah?”

I said, “Yeah!”

Marcus hollered, “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah!”

It went on like that for a while. He told me I didn’t know anything because nobody was twenty feel tall, not Goliath or Michael Jordan or even Shawn Bradley who is 7 feet 6 inches tall. I went inside because I felt like crying. I looked at the floor. I looked at the ceiling. My mouth did not feel like smiling or talking.

Mom saw me. She put her arms around my shoulders and said, “Let’s go to our hundred year old cousin’s birthday. What do you think, Jack?”

“Wow, Mom! That would be cool!”

The day finally came for the party, and we packed up and drove away. We stopped and drove and drove and stopped. I asked, “Are we almost there?” only forty times. Dad knew because he counted, he said.

And guess what? My hundred year old cousin wasn’t twenty feet tall at all! Cousin Cora laughed when I told her that story. She said she had shrunk some over the years but had never been quite that tall. To tell the truth, she was not much taller than I am. We were glad to meet each other and liked each other right away. Dad took our picture in front of the cake which was covered with real pink roses and one hundred tiny, bright candles. Cora even let me help her blow them out. I think I got about 92 of them myself. It was a great day.

Now I still tell about my hundred year old cousin, but I always, always mention that she’s not twenty feet tall. Just in case someone else might think so, too.