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I am not a professional musician. Oh, one time I pretended I was. I was flying from California to Pennsylvania to perform in a one time concert, for which I was paid $300.  As I picked up my guitar from the luggage turnstile a stranger asked me if I was a pro.

"Yeah," I said after a pause while I reviewed the precise definition of the word. "I am." 

My self worth went up a notch but it was one of a scant half a dozen times I have been compensated for singing, other than leading regular church services. Those are less about talent and more about steering the congregation out of a droning ditch. I think the meaning of the stranger was more along the lines of "Can I find you on iTunes?"

I did have a run of teaching guitar to children whose parents had hopes of greatness after a session of eight lessons. The prepubescent kids plunked out "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" at the final concert, and promptly parked their instruments in the closet.  If longevity of student playing is the barometer, I was a pathetic teacher. 

One of the things I notice about stage musicians is that they wear earphones. I wondered about this until John explained that they want to hear the vocalists and bass players, lest they spin off in their own orbit of musical frenzy.

"The other people are only a keyboard away. How could they lose track of each other?"

"You'd be surprised."

John and I live in the same house. We eat at the same table and shower in the same stall. We can't each get to our own dressers from the bathroom without a strategy to squeeze by the bed. You would think we would operate in sync without much effort. But it is embarrassing how often we lose track of each other's tempo.

I need to find ways to keep listening to him, lest I spin off into my own orbit. 


Rent a Teenager

When the twins were born we had a summer with six renters in the attic. They were college women, and the over arching effect on our family was that we behaved better with witnesses. 
Recently Zack and his girlfriend have been spending more time at our house. Nothing epic, just doing homework and cooking omelettes. But I am noticing their effect on me.
They have been dating for two years, and the cozy factor is still fresh. When he fries up some eggs, she parks herself on a stool near him to chat. If they watch a movie they do it on the same couch. If they are pounding out papers for English they keep the space between their laptops narrow.
I notice that John and I have drifted away from this practice. His favorite spot to plug in his Mac is at his desk, while I snuggle up under a quilt in the living room. When he makes dinner I gratefully stay out of the kitchen. 
The other day when the four of us were all whipping up food at the same time the friendliness became contagious. I hugged John while he stirred the pasta. He liked that. Even Zack noticed this break from routine and smiled.  
I have often touted the benefits of younger couples learning from older ones. But I am starting to appreciate the things I can learn from newbies.

"A" Spaces

Cleaning time is finding time.

That's the cheery pep talk my mother gave while I was growing up. It's true, too. For the past month I have been systematically organizing the neglected corners of my home. This weekend I did both John's and my desks, which had become buried in paper and paraphernalia. One of the goodies I unearthed was the Sunday School materials I had been searching for these past five weeks. But alas, that series is over. Too late.
One of my goals has been to get priority C possessions out of A spaces. For instance there were snow pants at the ready by the back door.  My twins could have nabbed them before the first flakes hit the driveway, should an unpredicted flurry swoop in. It snowed precisely once last year. I dethroned the winter garb to a more remote shelf in the basement where it would take a whopping eighty seconds to fetch them rather than three. Today I have a face off with the counter in the entry way. It is the initial surface to accost our eyes when we walk in, and I dare say has been less than a calming energy for guests. 
I am drawn to the idea that the opening contact to our living space will be pleasing. I have visited houses where a vase of lavender irises graced the foyer, or a watercolor of an autumn forest. I can almost recreate the tiny leap in my throat as I was invited in. It felt safe, and beautiful. Walking in our back door last week was more likely to invoke feelings of overwhelm, or actual peril from the precarious piles looming over your head. No more.
There are things I need to say to John. But sometimes I clobber him with priority C messages as he is barely crossing the threshold. He hasn't even taken his coat off yet and I load on the clutter. 
"The dryer isn't working right. Not quite broken but the towels took two hours to dry."
"Have you called your mother back yet? She wants to know if we are coming and I really think it should be you who explains about the schedule."
"Zack needs a ride to the train on Friday and I will be at Ben's endocrinologist so can you take him? He could walk I suppose but it would be a chance for you to talk to him about you-know-what."
"Spaghetti for dinner. I know you don't like it but it was all I could think of. You can warm up some canned soup."
There are other messages that should take precedence. "A" messages, if you will. 
"I am happy to see you!"
"Thank you for working hard today."
"I love you."
"Your smile is amazing."
Yet too often those are the words that are stuffed in the hall closet of my mind, under the sleeping bags.
I don't want to wait to tell him how precious he is to me. I may turn around and it will be too late. 



New and Known

My twins and I hauled up nine tins of ornaments from the basement, while my six foot son and his father let loose with a chain saw on the trunk of a tree. The grinding pain of a severed log blasted over the lilting soprano of the Hallelujah Chorus. Together the girls and I hung glass angels and woolly lambs, most of which are older than they are. There's the flannel snowmen we made in Brownies, and the pewter JOY from a friend in Boy Scouts, whose remembrance emerges every year when I hang the three letters in sequence. When they get separated it is hard to read their message.
On a high branch is a delicate star made of slender wood shavings woven into a Celtic knot, from the elementary school principal three reigns back. I marvel that it is still perfect, considering how fragile it looks. I lift it out of paper carefully and give it a throne on a lofty branch. The scent of the beeswax nutcracker fills my senses, a miracle I savor since the ceramic mold I made it from cracked ages ago and it cannot be recast. There's the foundation pieced trees with Charlie Brown fabric I sewed last year, perched next to paper angels whose rosy cheeks remind me of my own grown daughters when they were still dancing in clothes hanger wings. The twins graduated from shepherds to angels in the Christmas tableaux, and an evening of protecting a drowsy newborn in a manger left a rouge on their cheeks too.
There hang two wooden crosses from a Guatemalan friend in New Mexico. Those were from the most spartan era of our marriage, living on food stamps and an income of ten grand. Our neighbor, Edna, lived above us in a cockroach infested building. Her simple gift of Catholic crosses painted in tangy oranges and cerulean blues reassures me that we have weathered lean times and lived to splurge again.

Some of the most quaint ornaments are the ones I made when we were first married. There was a rude awakening when I realized that the burden of creating Christmas lay in my empty lap. My mother had always woven her magic with hand dipped candles and poofy paper bells. My first December as a newlywed was bleak, as I tried to figure out where the beauty comes from.  I fumbled with the effort, making tiny pinwheels and stuffed angels to adorn our sparse tree. They were pretty to me then, and I keep them in part to have a placeholder of what was lovely to me in 1980. Now I find them prosaic next to the four inch double Irish chains and elves with striped stockings. 
This scenario has shown up annually, with variations in casting. It makes for a yin yang combo, the familiar and the novel yoked together. There were Advent seasons when I was an easy target for craft sales peddling ornaments. I wanted brandy new ones to add to the ever more crowded limbs. But now I feel more of a tug for the ones heavy with history, the lopsided starfish from our vacation at the beach who lost a limb to a crabby crab, and the beaded stars my daughter-in-law brought back from Maasai traders in Kenya.
What would life be like if everything was new? If each taste on your palate was an untried flavor, every song on your IPod was unheard of, all the faces to walk through the door were strange? 
It sounds exhilarating. And exhausting. 
Conversely what would it be like if absolutely everything was predictable? I get a glimpse of it in the movie Groundhog Day. Same conversations, repeat interactions. Yawn. 
It is in the intersection of these two extremes that I feel alive.... neither am I completely without bearings nor can I close my eyes and walk without tripping.
Sometimes, when the laundry is folded and soup is on the stove, I ponder how the ratio works for God. Does omniscience mean He is never surprised? Is every detail in creation familiar? Is He ever bored by the predictability of it all?
Behold, I make all things new. Revelation 21
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Jeremiah 1
New and Knew. Fresh and familiar. Expected and unexplored.
Christmas is the matrix. God Incarnate was formed in the womb, bringing virgin life to a dark world. When Jesus became flesh there was birthed a marriage between Divinity and Humanity. Uncontainable eternity kissed common mortality.
With one leg I am pulled toward the angels who hang like spun glass above my head, proclaiming the unbelievable, the unprecedented. With the other I step inside an ordinary stable matted with straw and warmed by the heat of bleating, wool wrapped sheep. 
There is something about my No Vacancies tree that I haven't mentioned. The back faces the wall. I cannot see it, much less decorate it. There is part of this story called Glory to God in the Highest that is not yet visible to me. Seen and unseen meet at the core. 
I suppose I cannot yet observe the whole message of JOY. It is fractured by grinding pain and cracked patterns that used to hold me. It is lost in a knot of circumstances that confuse me because the lines reach into tomorrow and my feet are mired in today. The circumference of eternity does not fit in a viewfinder, or a let-me-tell-you-what-happened-today conversation. Yet those fragments are part of my history, the one that embraces poverty and the loss of limbs I thought I couldn't survive without. My life is brighter for the stars carried back to me by daughters who have traipsed on roads I will never travel.
In a few weeks when the presents are all unwrapped and tucked in drawers it will be time to lift each ornament by the hook and set it back into the empty tins. The twins will probably help me, and together we will nestle them in the paper that protects each fragile ball from jostling on the way to the basement. There each snowman and nutcracker will rest with their blank eyes open, waiting in the darkness of a long year. 
Then one day next December we will go hunting for them, and they will squirm to be refound. The striped elves and paper angels will seem familiar, like the Messiah playing and the smell of beeswax.
But corners of me and mine will be entirely new.



Roving Torpedo

I was ornery without a cause. It was a day packed with errands and children and ticking pre Christmas deadlines. But within each moment I was doing things I freely chose to do.

  • learning a song for the Christmas program
  • buying yummy food
  • hanging ornaments with the twins
  • holding hands with John as we practiced our entrance
  • rescuing my granite counter from the dish pyramids
  • opening Christmas cards
There is a movie I saw long ago called Hunt for the Red October that comes to mind on days like today. Somewhere near the thrumming climax there is a torpedo launched by the enemy sub. It is a brainless bomb, only capable of pursuing the nearest target whomever that might be. While the torpedo follows the Americans through the dark water at frightening speed, the captain orders the pilot to navigate directly toward the Russian sub... and at the last second to veer sharply. The torpedo is doggedly following close behind them and when the submarine turns, it barrels forward too hastily to stop and eagerly latches to a new target. Its own mother ship. Kababablooom.
Whether or not my recollection of the movie is accurate the image nails how I felt today. Whomever I was near was my target. The car ahead of me is too slow. The child laughing in the living room is not clearing her plate. The other singers are better than me, or worse. John is ambling too fast or too slow.  The cards are pretty but can't those overachievers even pretend to be swamped and mail them after December 1st?
Self awareness is a baby step toward turning off the internal tracking device. Not everyone in my path is the enemy. 
And in my foolish pursuit of someone to blame I come screechingly close to blowing up John, whose love will ever be my mother ship.