MLK: A Brief Tribute

Sometimes I think I’ve already done something when I haven’t. I was reasonably sure that I’d written about Martin Luther King Jr. before. Apparently not. While I did write about Juneteenth last year, he wasn’t mentioned. Another post written for today has been discarded in the interest of peace. In this brief tribute, three pieces of information I hadn’t known are shared, also in the pursuit of peace.

First, when he was born, his father named him Michael, and still a junior, as that was his father’s name, but both were changed in 1934. A visit to Germany inspired his father to reflect Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. The young King was something of a prodigy. He skipped the 9th and 12th grades of high school, entered college at 15, graduated at 19, and after wrestling with his heritage as the fourth in line in his family to become a pastor, entered seminary and became a Baptist preacher. For his work in human rights, he became the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, he was a Star Trek fan. That may sound trivial, but as someone who grew up with the idealism of that original show, I assure you it’s not. This incident recounts his encounter with Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, when she was planning to leave after the first season: “…a very influential Trekkie named Martin Luther King urged her to stay on the show. ‘He told me that Star Trek was one of the only shows that he and his wife Coretta would allow their little children to watch. And I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face. And he said, don’t you understand for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.’” It’s one of those amazing bits of trivia I would have never guessed.

Third, the “I Have a Dream Speech” could have ended much differently. Dr. King had written it carefully beforehand, but he was ending when the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” A more formal adviser had told him to leave that part out: King had used it before, and Wyatt Walker told him it was cliché. When you watch, the dream passage starts at 12:22. King looks up from his prepared notes and begins to preach from his heart. This speech has been called the most important of the 20th century. It’s worth your time. Mahalia Jackson would sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at King’s funeral. You can hear her here.

We each change every day. A friend last week told me about this gospel song, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” There are many versions, but I like this one. Riveting. While none of us is likely to change the world as did MLK, we can change ourselves. These three bits of knowledge will add to understanding, but we can honor another human today by not inciting the negative. I did by not publishing a lesser piece today. It was only clever, not worthwhile.

 

Owning the Sloth

Owning the sloth is my new phrase, made in defiance of an old label. It isn’t quite accurate because the only sloth I intend to own in reality is a toy from my local thrift. I took its finding as a sign, of course, as the actual memory of being called a sloth is painful, as would be the taking of a sloth from the wild. I don’t need any more pets. On the other hand, I do love the sloth in Zootopia.

Back to the labeling problem. I won’t disclose who said it or when the sloth shaming happened, but someone who loved me was responsible. For a long time, I never repeated the moniker because, in fact, I rather believed it. With a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, however, the landscape changed a bit. The go-to book is You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?! The title seems adequate, so I haven’t actually read the thing, which, I don’t know, is lazy? Anyway, it has come to me that the entire problem of not finishing projects (my principal symptom of ADD) has nothing to do with being lazy. It is something else. In fact, I am rather busy most of the time with an overabundance of ideas and unfinished projects, plus sweeping and caring for people as best as I can.

An interesting word appeared this week, twice, which again I took as a sign: palimpsest, “writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased.” Not dealing so much with parchment these days, we might think of a blackboard not completely erased with the next formula written over it. This is a great metaphor for our lives, perhaps. We are not yet finished, and yesterdays never really disappear. Today is an overwriting of yesterday, no matter how much it seems the same.

I was going to write about another painfully received remark but have decided against it. From someone not so dear, I was nonetheless wounded to my core, and for little cause. It might be true, and I have tried to guard against its truth, so I won’t repeat it. The main lesson remaining is to be careful what you say to people.

One last sign: Today is the birthday of my writing mentor, Raymond Carver. It’s been two years since he died, and as FaceBook doesn’t remove his data, I was reminded. He had the ability to love and show it better than almost anyone else I knew. When I say writing mentor, he was that too, and he had no problem telling me if something I’d done was bad, or at least not good. He was a miner, in a way, and could bring out the gold. What a gift. I miss him, his calls to see if I was fine, to tell me he was until he wasn’t. I hope to finish something so good someday that I can give him credit. Until then, I just wish him thanks.

Star Wars Images: Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, and Elisha

I can hear it now: “Can’t we just enjoy Star Wars as entertainment and not muddle it up?” Of course, if somebody could have kept hands off the original three episodes. We had a lovely conclusion of the story arc with redemption for Darth Vader, victory celebrations, and Luke Skywalker’s vision of (essentially) the spirit world peopled by Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. But no. Whatever propels decisions made prequels, sequels, and add-ons galore. And I saw them all. Twice.

Two viewings of the last (and supposedly final-forever-but-I-wonder) film, I am moved to say a bit more. While it was easy to be content with the idea throughout of Good vs. Evil as the theme, much of the muddlement (new word) comes from the fact that it is often not so much that pairing as Might vs. Right. I was particularly disturbed, for example, when audiences were asked before of the sequels if they would be choosing the Dark Side. In my mind, that is not appropriate. Not a strong enough word. We can always choose to be bad, but why put it so blandly, as if there were no moral difference? George Lucas said this in 1983: “But for better or worse, the influence of the church, which used to be all-powerful, has been usurped by film. I wanted to make a kid’s film that would strengthen contemporary mythology and introduce a basic morality.”

Religion is more than mythology or morality, however. While a story arc exists in the gospel, it is not the point of the gospel. The trouble with multiple directors and writers, obviously, is the resulting confusion of plot lines, the development (or its lack) of characters, and the harmony of the outcome. Using the language of religion doesn’t work either. Looking for the Chosen One without a connection to the Divine lacks the impetus of something beyond human experience. (The Matrix’s Neo a case in point.) Anakin’s mother Schmi reports that he had no father, but nothing is made of that point when in fact that point is central to Christianity.

Three images will serve to support my point. First, the Pieta. Second, the Tudor rose. Third, an axe and the angels on the mountain with Elisha.

Michaelangelo’s Pietà shows Mary holding the crucified Jesus before his burial. I saw this not in Rome but in New York when I was twelve. Through the centuries people had kissed the Savior’s foot so many times that the marble had worn away. When we see Rey dead after killing Palpatine, Kylo Ren holds her in just that pose. (Ren has been assumed dead so many times before that as he slogs up one more time, we’re not particularly surprised. When he does die, he must actually and mystically disappear as his mother Leia had done minutes before for us to be convinced.) So in case we hadn’t realized it before, Rey is the Chosen One. Her name, remember, means “king.”

Shakespeare’s history plays, the eight beginning with Richard II and ending with Richard III, give an account of not only the reigns of five kings but also the conflict known much later as the War of the Roses. Two families battle for control of the crown, the Lancasters (red rose) and the Yorks (white rose). To say it’s complicated would be understatement. But the conclusion results in the uniting of the two houses when Henry VII marries Elizabeth of York. (Their son is Henry VIII, of whom you’ve heard at least through the song.) That one is not a better choice than the other reflects the might vs. right argument above. The Tudor rose signifies, however, that the House of Lancaster is superior even in the uniting. Henry VII was a Tudor supported by the Lancastrians, technically, so that explains that.

Finally, in 2 Kings 6, we have two stories from which imagery for scenes in Star Wars seems plucked. First, men are cutting down trees in order to cross a stream. One of them drops an axe head into the water and exclaims that it was borrowed. The text notes that “the iron did swim.” Not one but two bits of iron are raised from the water in the movies when Yoda and then Luke raise (borrowed!) X-wing fighters. (Personal motto: Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try. Thank you, Yoda.) A few verses later, Elisha prays for an opening of the eyes of the young man afraid before a battle in which his forces seem overpowered. Elisha says, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Then there are suddenly angels and chariots of fire (!) all around. Just like Poe cannot see until they are there the amassed ships who have responded to his call to help.

Obviously, this could be a book. I suppose someone else will write it. There is The Gospel According to Star Wars. It’s available through Google Scholar. Very, very scholarly. Needs updating, of course. And if it is as I have foreseen, another movie after the last final finished one comes out, that will add to the mix as well. It is, perhaps, like a dish prepared using ingredient we know but no recipe. The danger of something unpalatable remains likely, but yes, we will watch because we are all still sitting around an ancient campfire listening to stories. That Star Wars is not, in fact, the Gospel is of only secondary importance.

 

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.

 

Saving Your Thanksgiving

It’s November: The pumpkins are out, along with their various spiced lattes, cream cheeses, and sausages. Christmas trees made a showing before September ended in some stores. Yes, it’s that time again. The holidays. After Halloween, it’s all over but the shouting.

Help is here! Four words to improve your season: Boundaries, expectations, change, and change.

We call boundaries many things. Manners and good sense make the list. Simply put, you don’t do or say things that you shouldn’t. If it were that easy, of course, Thanksgivings with family would go a lot easier. Children would spring forth fully operational, Minerva-like. Love really would mean never having to say you’re sorry. Oh, and no more wars. If the human race were good at boundaries, though, we wouldn’t need police, or parents. In a word, set some, for yourself anyway.

Now we get more personal.  Expectations have ruined many a holiday. Set too high, the right events, the perfect gift, the happiness, the thrills are not enough. Too low, and the time goes by with drudgery and boredom. Expectations are not reserved for parties and pleasantries. You wanted a pumpkin pie made from a real pumpkin with hand-grated nutmeg? Mom bought one at Costco this year. Expecting the reverse works as well. The holidays offer a swell opportunity to monitor your expectations. See the section on boundaries if you need help being quiet. The exception? Do more good than you expect to get.

Even closer to home. Change, twice, is not a mistake. First, you can’t change other people. Lots of clichés help with this—Horses to water comes to mind. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still” has more detailed instructions and could avert many a political rampage. Yet many of us would so like to improve our fellows that the idea blinds us to the impossibility. It’s a boundary issue, yes, but a field so rife with abuse that it needs its own category.

Second, you can change yourself. Hurray! Gyms memberships will explode in January. Self-help books do a booming business. AA works. Negative cycles are broken every day. But it’s not easy. Try this exercise: Clasp your hands so your thumbs cross. Then draw your fingers up and cross your thumbs the other way when you clasp. It feels most uncomfortable. Really, most of the time, we’d just rather not. Perhaps it’s no accident that the last gasp of the holidays is that wondrously impossible list, New Year’s resolutions, some of which actually get done.

If you’ve been paying attention here, you may have realized that this piece violates all its own precepts. It gives unsolicited advice and asks you to expect something positive for your trouble by changing. An intrusion, no? How, then, is it possible to instill some sense of “I-know-this-is-right-so-please-listen”?

I’ve struggled with boundaries. For years, I had an account with a florist for the times I made too big a misstep for a simple “I’m sorry” to make me feel better. A Thanksgiving without a sibling in tears, well, being the oldest never gets easier. As for expectations, one more year is here when I’ve not planned and saved for cruises for all my kids. (Sorry, guys.) Change? I feel pretty good about this one. I’ve asked any random relative to remind me to stop if I begin a sentence with “Have you thought about…?” The world is tough. At home, let’s be safe, even if it’s from each other this year. I wish us all a happy and a merry.