Wonders, Part I

There’s something about Christmas and cold temperatures and oversized sweatshirts that makes me contemplative. All three criteria are met at the moment: we are under 2 weeks from Christmas, there’s a chill in the air, and I am wearing the incredibly soft and cuddly hooded shirt that my Aunt Lisa gave me Saturday. It seems like a good time to write.

I’ve been mulling over a few wonders lately. Here’s one; I’ll share the others over the next few days.

Major Wonder #1: The baby Jesus attracted shepherds AND wise men. I am no Biblical scholar, but I think we can assume that the shepherds were a dirty lot. Tending and herding animals must have been labor intensive and messy and probably stinky. At the very least, they were outside day and night, sleeping on the ground and what not. And yet these were the men (or boys) to whom the angel of the Lord appeared with news of a Savior. These guys did what we might call realistic work; they dealt not with signs and symbols but tangible entities. Sheep they understood; celestial beings, not so much. And as the Bible says, when an angel appeared, “they were terrified.” So I think it’s beautiful that the angel immediately tries to calm them down—“Do not be afraid!”—and then gives them a direct message about the Savior and what they are to do about it. It’s very simple: The Savior is born, and this is where you’ll find him. I guess the angel could have been a little more specific; “you’ll find a baby in a manger” isn’t quite as helpful as “second inn on the left, in the stable out back.” But God was sure of their faithfulness and knew they would take what they saw in Bethlehem and spread the word. The lowly shepherds had the privilege of sharing the good news first. I think that’s marvelous.

The wise men just had prophecy and a star to guide them; it may seem a little less beneficial, but this was a language that they could understand. The shepherds may have needed a direct message, but the wise men were comfortable with symbols and in fact required them as confirmation of truth. God knew what they needed to feel assured that the Savior had come. But out of the two groups, God chose the shepherds to find out directly and immediately. God’s voice spoke straight to them through the angel. Isn’t that crazy? So typical of what we learn about Jesus as he grows: that he came for those who were low of station just as he came for kings.

I’m still really wrestling over Christianity; I have been for a while now. But I’m telling you, I love that the shepherds get the big announcement, that they are so overwhelmed with what they see and hear that they can’t help but spread the word. What a beautiful way to usher Jesus into the world. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this wonder to start percolating in my brain. Maybe it’s because we tend to lump the shepherds and wise men together as figures in a nativity scene. Yet we do this story a great disservice if we disregard their differences. These were two groups of men who would never mix in daily life. (And of course, they don’t actually mix in this story; their visits to Jesus don’t occur at the same time.) But despite these differences, the baby Jesus attracted both groups to him as Savior. Wowee wow wow!

I hope you too are having a contemplative Christmas season. I’ll write more soon!

Elf on the Shelf

 

Image:
(AP Photo/CCA&B, LLC)

It occurred to me today that Scrooge ought to have a conversion name. If Peter became Paul for recognizing Jesus as the Savior, Scrooge should get renamed for his rebirth too. Sage, maybe? Or something really lofty like Loveplenty. I know it’s too late to change it, but sometimes I like to revise literature in my head.

Scrooge is on my mind because there’s a little something about our contemporary American Christmas that makes me feel particularly grumpy: the relatively new phenomenon known as Elf on the Shelf. Elf on the Shelf (or Mensch on the Bench if you’re Jewish) created one of many modern parental expectations that serve as birth control for me. As if getting ready for Christmas morning isn’t stressful enough, now EVERY DAY FROM THANKSGIVING TO CHRISTMAS requires a surprising, staged message from the Elf to your child. It stresses me out, and I’m basically childless except for Walter, who makes scented surprises for me all the time, no holiday needed.

I’m veering dangerously into “back in my day” territory here, but bear with me. I have nothing but the fondest childhood memories of Christmas. My parents always made Christmas morning feel magical, and I count my blessings that they were able to afford to buy us gifts. What I remember most about the Christmas season as a child is going to the tree farm, pulling out ornaments, the warmth of Christmas Eve, the excitement of Christmas morning, and our delicious breakfast and fried chicken dinner afterwards. I feel so fortunate for those memories.

Yes, we talked about Santa when we made our Christmas lists, and we’d wonder what Santa would bring us. But the season really wasn’t all about Santa or presents. It was about family and Jesus and Nat King Cole and cookies. It was about Mom’s total love for Hallmark ornaments and my parents’ insistence that we spend Christmas in our own house, with our little family and with Mom’s tree. It was about Advent, about seeing my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and drinking Russian tea, which made me feel quite grown up.

My point is that I didn’t spend the whole season shitting bricks about what Santa thought of my behavior. Santa used to be the guy who was kind of paying attention to what you did, but you knew he’d come anyway. Now Santa sends out a legion of 10-inch spies to check up on children on the day after Thanksgiving. His Elves on Shelves wreak havoc and reward behavior with treats.

Did your son take out the trash without asking? Sprinkles the Elf should leave him a new set of Christmas pajamas! Did your daughter hit another little girl on the playground? Crinkles should write a note in his non-dominant hand saying that Santa’s watching. Was it a slow day in the behavior management realm? Tinkles should take all the toilet paper off the roll and pull a Toomer’s Corner all around the house.

Realistically, parents are probably “elfing” some time after 9:00 at night, after a long day of work, watching children, cooking, cleaning, homework, baths and bedtime stories. Instead of sitting down with some wine, you’ve got to create a trail of marshmallows between the 1st and 2nd floors or draw a toothpaste smile on the bathroom mirror that you’ll eventually have to clean up because the kids will just smear it around.

Aren’t you exhausted? I’ve never seen a child reacting to an Elf’s antics, so I honestly can’t say if the extra work is worth it or not. If I were a single parent coming off a long shift, I can tell you that it would take Academy Award-winning morning reactions to get that Elf moving every night. Personally, I would have the most minimalistic, lazy ass Elf on the block. I’d make my kids let me name her Saggy.

And doesn’t Elf on the Shelf make your children laser-focused on presents? Doesn’t it make Santa a bit of a shady, backroom director of central intelligence? In my mind, whether you believe Jesus is the reason for the season or think Christmas is about family, Elf on the Shelf meets none of those criteria. Sure, kids have long been bombarded with the message that Christmas IS all about the presents, but should the weeks leading up to The Big Night be tied so explicitly and consistently to reward?

This last objection might sound a little crass, but do children really need one more magical tradition for Christmas? They pick out trees and watch their parents string them with twinkly lights inside their homes—magic! They drink hot cocoa and have school Christmas parties and make macaroni necklaces for Mom’s present—magic! Then there’s good old, pre-espionage Santa—who could be more magical than that? Do they need more joy and wonder than a sanctuary full of candlelight on Christmas Eve, more excitement than that walk down the stairs on Christmas morning? I’m not sure it gets any better than that.

Maybe some of you parents really like Elf on the Shelf. Far be it from me to declare it categorically wrong for everyone. Maybe it’s worth it to have your kids behave for a month when you’ve got lumpty umpteen things to do. Maybe it truly is a joyful tradition that makes your family’s Christmas season precious and eventful. If so, go forth with Twinkie and Buttons and Dora the Explorer on a Shelf! Draw messages in spilled flour! Hide secret notes in the kitchen cabinets! Take videos of your child shrieking with joy when she finds Dunky upside down in the Jello pudding!

Maybe you just can’t get out of having an Elf. When Brick and Gryffin and Persimmon and Maddy Cate all have Elves, it’s hard to deny your own child, I’m sure. For you, I cry genuine tears.

So if you need a break from all that, Walter and I will just be hanging out over here with Baby Jesus and Santa. That’s about all we can handle. I have a hard enough time processing my role in the season without Saggy tapping me on the shoulder wanting to come out and play.

Oh, and if I have a Christmas conversion experience, please refer to me henceforth as Gingersnap Tinysmall. I just like the sound of it.

Paths

Our culture glorifies the road not taken, the uncharted terrain. We are all about the new, the unexplored, the innovative, as if by taking such paths, we will prove our individuality. But for a few moments, I want to glorify the road well-travelled. I believe that’s where we make meaning.

Just this morning, I overheard my co-workers talking about their morning commutes. One said, “You know, I’ve started trying to take new routes to work. But every time I go a different way, I get all turned around.” I’m sure she’s using Waze or some other maddening traffic app, technology that sends you in a direction that other people won’t think to go. I know that for myself, every time I try a work route that’s different from my go-to path, my brain rejects it. It doesn’t fit into my “this is the way to work” schema.

We all have path schemas: this is the way to school, to church, to Little League practice. I think they give us comfort and help us make sense of the world. We can hang substance and memories on the structure they provide.

Sometimes our quotidian paths are the most nostalgic. Because my elementary, middle, and high schools were right next to one another, I took the same route to school for thirteen years. I remember riding in my Dad’s cold, white truck as a kindergartener, scared he was going to spill his coffee without a lid; cruising to and from school listening to the oldies on Fox 97 with my mom; being embarrassed in high school that I couldn’t yet drive myself but appreciating the extra time to take the curlers out of my hair. Year after year, I grew up on that route, riding past the gas station with the good biscuits and my friend Christie’s subdivision.

I shared my school path with an ex-boyfriend once. I was in my mid-twenties; we were on his motorcycle. He seemed less than impressed. I learned then that some paths are sacred, and I should take care when sharing them.

My favorite well-travelled paths are all about who’s waiting for me at the end. To this day, I get a thrill when my family pulls into the town of Oneonta, Alabama. As a kid, turning right at the light meant cousin time at my Aunt Jean and Uncle Mike’s house; turning left meant we were on our way to Granny T’s house—both equally exciting destinations. At Granny T’s funeral, my Uncle George reminded us of how painful it is when you’ve lost the person at the end of your path. As he drove to his hometown the day after her death, it was the first time his mama wasn’t waiting for him. That broke my heart.

Have you ever heard the song “Highway 20 Ride” by Zac Brown? What an agonizing message about paths. Zac Brown sings about sharing custody of his son and the trips he takes picking him up and dropping him off every other Friday: So I’ll drive/And I think about my life/And wonder why/That I slowly die inside/Every time I turn that truck around right at the Georgia line/And I count the days and the miles back home to you on that Highway 20 ride. My whole world, he sings, begins and ends with you. His path, driven with and without his son, symbolizes joy and grief, love and loss. Have a listen to the song; it’s gorgeous.

I’ve got my own Highway 20 ride now. Almost seven years ago, my parents moved from our hometown of Canton, Georgia, to Talladega, Alabama, about a two hour drive going 20 West. At first I was mad at them for moving; I didn’t like the change, and I selfishly felt like they were being disloyal to my understanding of home. Every time I hit the stretch of road under construction at the Alabama line, bumpy as all get out, I cursed their decision. Now I’ve grown to accept that 20 will always be under construction, and I love where they live. I still don’t refer to my drive as “going home,” just “going to Mom and Dad’s house.” I’m giving myself permission to take baby steps.

I have such fond memories of my paths at my Canton home. I think of pattering down the carpeted hallway as a girl to my brother’s room, to look at his books and invade his space; creeping down the front stairs to see what Santa brought; walking almost tiptoe down our steep driveway in summer’s dappled sunshine, scared to death I’d see a snake. Now as an adult, I find that one of my favorite home paths is the trip from the bed to the Keurig. Charm gives way to caffeine addiction, I guess.

As I get older (and act older), I appreciate these well-beaten paths even more. I’ve started to favor the safe and familiar when given a choice. My well-travelled roads have made the most difference in my life, and it’s painful when I no longer make my way down them.

I wonder what paths you take most. They say so much about you. Whether you move down the hall to a sleeping child or down the highway to a distant loved one, may the road rise to meet you.

My Granny T

Last night I lost my Granny T.

I wish you could have known her. She was an absolute delight. The phrase “tell it like it is” may have been made for her. If you got her alone, you could get a wise and wonderful earful. Yet her frankness coexisted with propriety; there was still a way to do things, a way to look, a way to be. She was still very much a Southern woman of her timeshe just had a mouth on her.

When you told Granny something that sounded impressive, she would lean back and say, “Wellll, lotty potty!” in this very musical tone. (Rough translation: “Look at you!”) Last night that’s all I wanted to hear again, one more time.

I’ve also never wanted Hawaii mentioned quite so badly. Granny never pronounced “Hawaii” as “Hawaii.” She called it “Hi-war-yuh.” Lots of secret smiles over that one. “Devastated” became, after time, “de-VAST-ed.” Potassium turned into “potashum.” Make no mistake, Granny was extremely bright. She just got a little linguistically creative toward the end.

Words were our favorite way to bond. Before she started to slip a bit, we’d talk for hours about everything under the sun: politics, religion, the state of the world, pop culture, family, community. We left no stone unturned. (And as she got into her eighties, sometimes we turned those stones over and over.)

But we loved to sit in silence too. Granny was an avid reader when she was in better health, and she nurtured and encouraged my own love of reading as a child. She would take me on special trips to Books-A-Million, where I’d usually pick out two books. We’d come home and just read, read, read. By the end of the day, I’d have finished one of my books, and we’d look at each other like we were members of a secret, wonderful society. She never praised me for being smart; instead, she celebrated my curiosity.

Granny would call you on your B.S. Once when I was in college, my best friend, my parents, and Granny all came to visit me in Evansville, Indiana (a long trip for Granny, whose body was already starting to give her fits). I happened to be much too busy leading my new, glamorous, Midwestern lifestyle to have much time at all for my visitors. And though she spared me the criticism, Granny let loose on my friend and parents about just what she thought of my behavior. I needed a knot jerked in my tail, or worse, and she was exactly right. I was in fact being “a little shit.”

But I was her little shit. We loved each other so much. The last thing she said to me was, “I love you too, baby.” I’ve decided I’m just going to keep being her baby forever.

Just three years ago I lost my Papa Cuzzort, then Granny Sue soon after. Papa Talley died shortly after I was born. Even though I never knew Papa Talley, I miss him through the stories I’ve been told. It’s hard to believe that all my grandparents have passed on. But I am grateful that Papa and Granny Sue are back together, and that Papa Talley and Granny T are making eyes at each other again. I don’t know what form our souls take after we leave this earth, but I feel certain that they move toward unity with loved ones who’ve passed and that they remain connected to those of us still here.

Granny T won’t get to meet her newest great-grandbaby, due in a month. She won’t be able to send my cousin off to college with best wishes and a check to “get something that YOU want.” Heck, she may even miss my getting married (which requires a boyfriend, which requires dating, which requires shaving.) But I am SO THANKFUL that she is not in pain anymore. I know that phrase can sound trite, but her body really was broken. It had been broken for a long time. She needed to be restored and reunited with her love and with her best friends. I can feel a lightness in my spirit which I believe to be a message from hers: “I’m here. I’m resting. I’m whole again.”

Granny T was unlike anyone else. I’m grateful to have known her and to be loved by her. 

I love you, Granny T.

In Loving Memory of Betty Lou Talley 

Keeping Score

“It’s a unique thing. It’s like playing against your brother. I don’t think anybody who plays in that game can ever forget it. It just doesn’t matter much where it’s played or what somebody’s record is. It’s so intense and tough, but at the same time, it’s family.” – Pat Dye, UGA ’60 – Auburn head coach, 1981–92

the-catch
Nov 16, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers wide receiver Ricardo Louis (5) scores the game-winning touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium. The Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 43-38. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The poetic Abraham Lincoln once said of his nation, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Several years ago, collegiate apparel and gift companies got cute and started creating items that feature two rivals and the words “A House Divided,” for families that cheer for opposing teams. It’s a stretch to equate a warring country with collegiate rivalry, but it’s a fitting phrase. And in my experience, a house divided against itself had better find the load-bearing walls.

I grew up as a little girl sporting orange and blue. My grandparents went to Auburn University, and my parents did too. I wore little Auburn cheerleading uniforms to the games and hid in my room when my parents watched them at home. (There was so much yelling. All I knew was that touchdowns were good, and I didn’t understand what all the anguished screams were for. It was a lot to handle for little, sensitive me.) I loved the pageantry of the band marching down the field before games, watching the eagle circle the stadium, yelling “Warrrrrrrrrrr Eagle! Hey!” at kickoff. I was an Auburn girl through and through.

And then came college. After I realized that the first school I attended wasn’t quite right for me, I had a choice to make. I seriously considered Auburn. But the Hope Scholarship lured me in. It didn’t make sense to go to school out of state when I could go to school for free in Georgia. I knew I wanted an SEC school with a large student body and lots of opportunities. The University of Georgia was the obvious choice.

So I moved into enemy territory: Athens, Georgia, home of the Bulldog Nation and its legion of whiny fans. The Bulldogs were a sworn enemy of my Tigers, our opponent in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. I swore up and down that I would continue to cheer for Auburn. And dadgummit, I did. My brother, who came in as a freshman when I transferred, swore he’d never switch either. But by the middle of his first year, he was a proud Bulldog.

I never wavered. Sure, I went to a few UGA games while I was there, and I halfheartedly cheered for Georgia. But I was merely a spectator—I didn’t have a dawg in the fight, so to speak. (Sorry.) When Auburn played Georgia, you better believe that I cheered for Auburn, just like I had done my whole life. But I loved UGA. I loved my classes, loved my friends, loved Athens, even if I never really felt a part of it. Maybe if I’d given myself over to the Bulldogs, I would have belonged.

Fast forward to 2016: our house has now been divided for 14 years. On one side we have my brother and his beautiful wife, both UGA grads. She is too kind to say anything to me about the fact that I am an alumna of UGA and cheer for Auburn. My brother, on the other hand, has plenty to say about it. It unnerves him—and some of his buddies—that I could graduate from a school which I loved and not cheer for the team. Mom and Dad, in the other camp, are glad I’ve stayed true but empathize with him. They are gracious enough to root for Georgia when Georgia plays anyone but Auburn. I, admittedly, am not so gracious.

And understandably, this drives my brother crazy. But in my heart, Georgia will always be a rival. That’s how I was raised. And to me, loyalty counts for something—not loyalty to the school I attended for two years, but loyalty to the school I was taught to love, since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I was an Auburn fan for twenty years before I set foot in Athens, and there wasn’t a chance that I would turn, even though red and black do look better on me than orange and blue.

Last night, of course, was the Auburn/Georgia game. After a first half in which our running game was decent, our offensive coordinator decided to call only passing plays, for our quarterback to execute with an injured shoulder and a week of no throwing at practice. Lord help. We had no offense in the second half. I knew Georgia would come out fighting, and they did. Despite our solid defense, they simply played better than we did. It was a tough loss for us, and I guess it would be easy to be bitter.

But it just so happens that there are two UGA fans who I love to pieces. And one of those is a little brother whom I can spar with over a few spirited texts and then let it go. He may never understand my position. I understand his but will never agree. So here we’ll stay, between a rock and a soft place, loving each other despite the score. And that’s fine by us.

Perspective

(I’d like to preface this piece with the assertion that in referring to Trump voters here, I am writing specifically about those who elected Trump based on prejudice and hate for “The Other.”)

On Wednesday morning, dazed and feeling heartbroken, I realized something. These past two years of a preposterous election felt like an extended, horrible pregnancy. And now that we finally knew who our next President would be, now that our nation pushed through a bitterly painful labor, we discovered that we had birthed Rosemary’s baby.

This made sense to me at the time. Never mind the question of who Rosemary was and who played her Satanic baby daddy (although it’s not hard to guess.) I just felt convinced that something evil was born the night before.

And the more I read, the more I acknowledge about myself, it makes sense that I put the matter in such stark terms. I know that I tend to be someone who sees things in terms of right and wrong. And for months now, everything about Trump screamed WRONG to me. Every time something new and horrible came to light, every time he said something outrageous or tweeted a ridiculous and divisive message, I inwardly writhed. I couldn’t believe that people I knew supported this man. To be clear, I still feel this way.

Moreover, I think both sides of the aisle, perhaps particularly in this election, saw the issues at hand as black and white. I read a great article in The Week about how very convinced liberals are at believing that ours is the moral high ground, how we feel certain that ultimately our agenda will triumph because it stands for justice and what is right. I recognized myself in those words and could admit that I felt that evil had triumphed over good.

So I took a step back and tried to get some perspective. I reminded myself of my Republican friends who voted based on their beliefs in constitutional protection or abortion. I tried to remember that they had a right to their beliefs, which I should respect. I attempted to get a little space, take a breath, open my eyes.

But here was the problem: With Trump’s rhetoric, with his choice to fan the flames of bigotry from the very start of his campaign (and years earlier with the birther movement), he opened the doors wider to malevolence. With his insinuations and blanket statements, he gave carte blanche to venomous, hateful speech and actions that strike down and endanger the marginalized among us. He gave a voice to certain Americans who have wanted for years to build a wall, a wall that would keep out The Other, that would send a clear message that “your kind’s not wanted here.” With his words, Trump inspired confidence that in him, they had a leader, someone who would give power to White Power, restore America as a “Christian nation,” strike down the f*gs, keep out the t*welheads, and send the sp*cs back home.

We knew from his rallies what to expect with his election. And now we look around and see evil all around us: on campuses, in elementary schools, in graffiti and marked cars and torn hijabs. Some fear deportation. Some fear for their marriages. Many fear for their lives.

And it is out of the fear, fear for ourselves and for our neighbors, that so many Americans are still in shock, still mourning, as we grapple with the reality of a Trump presidency. We aren’t whining. We aren’t just “sore losers.” WE ARE AFRAID. We look around and see the result of hatred’s encouragement, and it scares the hell out of us. We’re unsure what to do with calls to “unify” and “stand behind the President,” when Trump ran such a divisive campaign and has done nothing since his election to decry the acts we’re witnessing, besides claiming that he will be a President “for all Americans.”

President-elect Trump may not be responsible for individual acts of hatred and intolerance, but he is responsible for now speaking out against the evil around us, evil which he fomented. I doubt that he planted the seeds of hatred in some of his followers—cultural attitudes and insular towns and parents did that. But he held up a mirror. I don’t think he is evil, but he is an opportunist. He took advantage of hate and rode its coattails into the highest office in the land. And for that, he should be held accountable.

That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

My Christmas season is not complete without an annual viewing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” As a little girl, I didn’t understand the philosophical, psychological, and cultural references loaded throughout: I saw the shiny metal trees but couldn’t label it as commercialism; I knew Charlie Brown was sad but had never heard of clinical depression; I laughed when Sally proclaimed that “All I want is what’s coming to me! All I want is my fair share!”, because it didn’t sound very fair, but I didn’t really get what made it so brilliant. I still knew I loved the show, though.

I realize now, of course, that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the best kind of animated movie, the kind that makes room for a child’s understanding of the world as well as a grownup’s. It will never stop entertaining me or teaching me. Charles Schultz really left us with a gift.

My favorite scene has always been Linus’s monologue on stage. He recites the Christmas story from Luke so beautifully, with such comfort and reverence. He needs his blanket at first, and then he drops it, caught up in the story.

And once he paints a picture of the heavenly host in our minds, “singing glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” he steps out of the spotlight, grabbing his blanket and walking back toward his friend.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” he says.

Watching Linus share the Christmas story is the most holy moment of the Christmas season for me. Linus has always appealed to me as a truthteller: eloquent, genuine, and modest. He’s not in it for the compliments, like Lucy, and he’s not self-absorbed like Charlie. He breaks through the herd mentality of all the other Peanuts kids and tells it like it is. It’s beautiful.

Don’t you wish everything was so simple? Could we make a new series of Peanuts films that culminate in the explanation of complex issues of the day? Maybe starring Bernie Sanders as Linus: “That’s what the Democratic platform for tax reform is all about, Charlie Brown.” Then a follow-up with an estate lawyer picking up the trusty blanket: “That’s why inheritance tax punishes the deceased and their families, Charlie Brown.”

Not sure we could find a producer for those. Doesn’t have quite the same warm-cocoa-mixed-with-chill-bumps effect, does it?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” If Christmas is your jam—or even if it isn’t, ‘cause the movie’s so darn clever—I hope you’ll watch it with a loved one. It has much to teach us about the meaning of the season and about ourselves.

I’m afraid I’ve always been more of a Charlie/Lucy hybrid—and sometimes, a Pigpen—but I really do strive to be a Linus. Let’s all look out for the truthtellers in the New Year. And let’s be each other’s trusty blankets.

Merry Christmas!